Recently, JCPenney.com was exposed by the New York Times for engaging in SEO tactics that are considered unethical in the industry in order to appear first in organic rankings for terms such as ‘dresses,’ ‘bedding,’ ‘area rug’ and dozens of others. Suspicion led the NYTimes to ask an online search expert to analyze what, exactly, was going on. What did they discover? JCPenney.com had thousands of links pointing to the site on hundreds of spammy sites across the web. Some of these sites had no content, just the lonely links. Tactics like this are often called ‘black hat.’ The term stems from old Western movies, where the bad guy wore the black cowboy hat. Today, it references tactics that are meant to fool the search engines to achieve higher rankings. Black hat SEO often involves using methods that do not benefit the end-user, such as keyword stuffing, hiding pages behind other pages, and link spamming. The other side of this, ‘white hat,’ refers to the good guys, who use tried and true tactics to improve online metrics.

Black hat tactics go on all the time, but it’s not often that a major retailer commits to a questionable strategy so blatantly or gets caught so red-handed. While not actually illegal, black hat methods are a big gamble: you may realize large, short-term gains, but when (and it’s when, not if) Google and the other engines figure out what you’re doing, your fall will be swift and your recovery long. Search engines frown upon black hat tactics because of their deceitful nature—these tactics rarely provide any benefit to the end-user and they result in the engines not being able to provide the most relevant results for queries.

It may be tempting to try to trick the system. You say to yourself, “there’s no way Google will catch me. I’m just one of a billion websites out there.” So you hire a firm who claims they can get you to #1 in Google’s organic results and they’ll provide you with thousands of links. But when it comes to improving your organic search rankings and engaging in link building, the best approach is a slow, steady, and measured plan that includes adding unique and relevant content to your site, improving your site’s construction (clean code, internal linking structure, URL architecture, etc.), and a link building strategy that delivers links from sites that have high PageRank and are relevant to your website and its audience.

Working with an Agency

If you decide to partner with an agency to improve your website’s online performance, be sure to team up with one that employs principled tactics. Part of Groove’s strategy with our clients is getting to know the website, the ideal audience, and the perfect customer, and then using that knowledge to tailor our organic strategy and approach to link building.

Remember, the overarching goal of SEO and other online marketing methods is to deliver long-term results that search engines and, most importantly, users, find practical and relevant and that lead to conversions (whether that is a purchase, a download, a form submission, etc). A lot of what goes on in the SEO industry is based on trust: that engines will provide relevant results, that websites will provide useful and transparent content, and that agencies will guide clients in the right direction.

Your agency should direct you toward the best possible use of your time and resources to improve your website’s performance. Anyone can look at numbers and analytics, but how do you know you’re looking at the numbers in the right context? How do you know you are succeeding if you don’t understand what you’re reading? Your agency is your strategic partner and will help you decipher all that data and point you in the direction of where you should spend your energy to improve your website.

Avoiding Black Hat Firms

If you’re a business owner with a website, it’s critical to know who you are getting advice from—there are thousands of firms out there promising the world, but your website is your brand, your business, and you’ve worked hard to build it. Don’t let an unscrupulous firm lead you down the wrong path.

How do you know if a firm engages in black hat tactics? There isn’t a foolproof answer, but you can research potential SEO firms by asking for client references (be sure you actually call them!) and reviewing the firm’s portfolio. Pay attention to what a firm is promising; here are some potential black hat phrases that may tip you off:

  • Avoid any firm that guarantees a #1 ranking in Google (or any specific numerical ranking) or that promises rankings in X amount of weeks
  • If a firm mentions buying links as part of their strategy, be sure you fully understand how they intend to do this. Purchasing links isn’t automatically bad, but you need to know more details.
  • Keyword stuffing (using targeted keywords so much on a page that the content no longer makes sense to a human)
  • Hiding text (i.e., white font on a white background) or links
  • Other tactics like doorway pages, duplicate sites, content scraping, etc. It’s highly unlikely an agency will tell you they’ve done these things! This is where your independent research and client references will come in handy.

Trust your gut—if something a firm is telling you sounds sneaky, it probably is. Find another company with which to partner.

Firms managing SEO and SEM abound these days and unfortunately, there are bad guys out there. Find the right one to take your website to the next level.

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