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Navigating the Ethics of Search Engine Optimization

By John McTigueFeb 13, 2011

I read with great interest an article in the NYT this morning titled "The Dirty Little Secrets of Search" by David Segal. In the article Mr. Segal chronicles the amazing rise of J. C. Penney to a position of prominence in the Google SERP's (Search Engine Results Pages) for a wide variety of keywords and describes how "black hat" SEO techniques were used to achieve these rankings. It's not clear who ultimately was responsible for the backlinking campaigns, and since the NYT reported its findings to Google, Google has seen fit to penalize J. C. Penney across the board.

black hat seo is a risky strategyOf particular interest to me in the article are the descriptions of the blackhatters themselves, low-profile companies who deal in a variety of link building schemes in an effort to "game" Google's search ranking algorithms. Most of these schemes involve a small monetary transaction in exchange for posting a link back to a client's site. The more backlinks you get, the higher you rise (in principle). Link requests are sent out largely automatically to a network of known "hosts" that will gladly post the links. Few of these linking sites bear any relevance at all to the linked site, but with a mountain of these links and no "flag" by Google, your site can theoretically rise in the SERP's. According to one admitted"blackhatter, "the key is to roll the campaign out slowly,...a lot of companies are in a rush. They want as many links as we can get them as fast as possible. But Google will spot that. It will flag a Web site that goes from zero links to a few hundred in a week." To the blackhatter, SEO is a game, and a lucrative game at that. There's nothing illegal about this, but the word "blackhat" is applied for a reason.

So What's the Problem? You Get What You Pay For...

It happens all the time. Clients are willing to pay blackhat SEO firms a lot of money (often many $10K's) to get the job done. The volume of sites and searches is far too large to police every single move up the SERP's, so most get away with it. As Google's reputation is at stake, you can be sure that they are working 24/7 to clean up the SEO spammers. There is a substantial risk that you may get caught by Google and they may levy a steep "manual" correction, i.e. sending you tumbling down to never-never land in the rankings. That's what happened to J. C. Penney. Then all of your SEO budget will have gone for naught, and you may be much worse off than when you started. Some "flags" that are easy to catch:

  • The vast majority of your backlinks are from sites and pages that have nothing to do with your business
  • Your search keywords aren't relevant to your published content and your web pages and blogs are simply "stuffed" with keywords rather than relevant content
  • Your SEO campaign accelerates you rapidly in the SERP's without some clear rationale, for example several pieces of viral content, new product or service launch with lots of PR, or national/global exposure via the media
  • Your links are all commercial, with little or no educational content

So, What's the White Hat Approach, and Why is it Better?

Ideally, just be yourself. Write blogs and other content that is naturally relevant to your business, and your keyword strategy is aimed at real potential customers. In principle, Google rewards this strategy, especially if you are a prolific content generator and are viewed as a "thought leader" in your industry. Yes, this strategy takes time and a lot of effort. This is what we call "inbound marketing".

Hiring a white hat SEO company is also an option and may help to accelerate your rankings. The good companies still go out and look for backlinks, but they seek (and hopefully select) relevant sites with relatively high Google "authority". These campaigns can be expensive (depending on the keywords, your current ranking and the performance of your competitors) and they can take months, even years to bear fruit. You still need to be a prolific content engine and build your reputation through blogging, social media and inbound marketing. Why? Because these efforts will win you more organic searches, traffic and leads, which ultimately boosts your online popularity and rankings.

An inbound marketing campaign integrated with SEO is the most effective way to improve your search results. Taking a piecemeal approach, especially with blackhat SEO techniques, is a risky strategy that at worst may backfire but at least may be hard to sustain over time. If you are a new or emerging company, don't fall for the "first page of Google" scams that are out there. There is no free lunch. Work hard at your content and work the channels, both online and offline. There is no longer an effective substitute for this.

Photo credit: baynado1978



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The Author

John McTigue

With over 30 years of business and marketing experience, John loves to blog about ideas and trends that challenge inbound marketers and sales and marketing executives. John has a unique way of blending truth with sarcasm and passion with wit. You can connect with John via LinkedIn, Twitter and Google Plus.
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