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Six Sneaky SEO Techniques That Will Get Web Sites Banned

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All businesses—large and small, new and old—have one common denominator: They want to be found by customers, partners, and prospects; increase leads and brand awareness; and, ultimately, generate new business opportunities.

One of the most effective ways to do all that is search engine optimization (SEO).

There are many efficient SEO techniques to optimize your business's Web site, and then there are nefarious methods, which not only ruin your reputation and get your site banned from Google but also have legal ramifications.

There is an ongoing debate among experts as to what is considered "white hat" vs. "black hat" SEO. In my mind, the big difference is that "white hat" SEO helps the search engines deliver quality results to users by working within existing guidelines. On the other hand, "black hat" SEO involves exploiting current limitations in search engine algorithms.

Experts often disagree on what is considered a "black hat" technique and what is considered a "white hat" technique. My argument is that it doesn't matter what you call them; certain techniques are simply bad ideas and should be avoided by most (if not all) marketers.


The reasons vary, but have a common pattern: Avoid SEO practices that rely on tricking search engines and distorting search results. Here's my rule of thumb: If a given technique could be detected by a human doing a "manual review," then it's probably a bad idea.

It's safe to assume that if you try to exploit a hole in the algorithm today, your advantage is going to be temporary. More importantly, you carry a significant risk of having your Web site penalized or banned. The reward, even if there is one—and, in most cases, there isn't—is usually not worth it.

The 6 Sneaky SEO Techniques Marketers Should Avoid

1. Link Farms

There's general consensus that one of the strongest influences on search rankings is the number and quality of inbound links to a Web page. A link farm is a group of Web sites created for the primary purpose of creating a high number of links to a given Web site. These links are not "real" (in terms of signaling the quality of the site they link to), and so they are trying distort search engine results.

2. Automated Content Generation/Duplication

Search engines like content. They particularly like frequently updated content. Unfortunately, creating unique content takes time and energy. To try to trigger search engine spiders to index more pages from a Web site, and do so more frequently, some may try to auto-generate content or scrape Web content from other sites and republish it.

This technique often goes hand in hand with link farms (because if you're creating thousands of sites, you need some content to put on them in order to get the search engines to index them and for the links to matter).

Google has gotten very good at determining what is "natural" content vs. content that is computer-generated gibberish with no value. As for duplicating content on other Web sites without permission, this is often in violation of copyright laws, and it's unethical.

3. Keyword Stuffing

This involves over-populating certain portions of a Web page with repeated occurrences of a given keyword in the hopes of influencing search engine results. Search engines caught on to this trick many years ago, yet it remains popular for some reason.

4. Cloaking

This practice involves delivering different Web site content to the search engine spiders than is delivered to human users. The usual motivation for this is to send the search engine crawlers content for ranking on a certain term—but to send different content to real users.

It's pretty easy for the search engines to detect this. If you're suspected of using cloaking, it's easy for someone (like a Google employee) to simply visit your Web site as a human and check whether you're cloaking. This technique, when discovered, is one of the most reliable ways to get a site banned.

5. Hidden Text

This technique "hides" text on the Web page that search spiders will index (for ranking purposes), but is invisible to a human. The simplest example is some variation of white text on a white background.

Based on how sophisticated you want to get, it could be based on something as simple as tags in the HTML, CSS stylings or Javascript that changes the page dynamically. Regardless of how sophisticated the approach, it is still going to be detected at some point.

6. Doorway/Gateway Pages

This practice is similar to the cloaking technique. Instead of dynamically delivering different content to spiders, a doorway page involves getting a given page (the "doorway page") to rank well in the search engines, but then redirecting human users to a different page. Clearly, this is not in the interests of end-users as they don't get the content they would have expected.

It's Not Smart to Try to Outsmart Google Engineers

Just about all of these questionable tactics presume that the search engines will not detect them. They are based on exploiting current (and perhaps non-existent) limitations of search engine algorithms.

I'd argue that Google has a lot at stake and has lots of really smart engineers working on the algorithm. An Internet strategy that is predicated on outsmarting Google is not a smart strategy.

For most marketers, the time and energy spent on trying to take these shortcuts is much better invested in two things:

  1. Improving their Web site so that it deserves to be ranked highly because it has valuable, differentiated content
  2. Helping the search engines discover that content for the benefit of users

Working with search engines instead of trying to exploit them is the only approach that works in the long term.


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Dharmesh Shah is the chief software architect and cofounder of internet marketing company HubSpot (www.hubspot.com). He authors OnStartups.com, an online community and blog for entrepreneurs, and writes for HubSpot's blog (blog.hubspot.com).

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Comments

  • by Stefanie Tue Feb 26, 2008 via web

    This article is a little misleading. Not all of those techniques will get you banned. Off-site techniques aren't going to get you banned from the search engines because they're not always something you can control. At worst, Google and other search engines will simply discount the links and give them no weight.

  • by Coleman Tue Feb 26, 2008 via web

    Yes, I think the information in this article is a bit old. But perhaps, people new to SEO will find it useful.

  • by Barry Tue Feb 26, 2008 via web

    I think this is an excellent article. SEO, especially trying to trick the Search Engines, is not the way to get your site going. Good old fashioned hard work and community involvement is going to make your site more active.

  • by Bill Tue Feb 26, 2008 via web

    I have a friend that's being victimized by a link farm -- if a single character is misspelled in a search it links the inquirer to a competitor. Is there anything my friend can do?

  • by Mike Volpe Tue Feb 26, 2008 via web

    I think there is a big difference between having a few bad websites link to you and running your own link farm. I do think that all of the techniques in this article place you at risk of being punished by Google. All of these techniques are relatively agressive and frowned upon by search engines.

    FYI, I work with Dharmesh so of course I would agree with him.

    PS - If you are interested in a free SEO tool, check out www.WebsiteGrader.com - we built that as a free tool to check the marketing and SEO effectiveness of your website.

  • by Josh Tue Feb 26, 2008 via web

    Barry,
    It sounds like you've had a bad experience with SEOs. Unfortunately, they were not likely SEOs at all. SEO is not about tricking the search engines. It's about helping the quality of a website for the search engines. It's sad that there are a lot of crap-shoot "SEO firms" out there taking advantage of website owners in our name. I would say more, but this topic has been beaten to death.

    Site owners have a few options at this point. Let the past burn dissuade you from SEO forever (leaving less competition for myself and my clients; I say thank you), learn it yourself (which will take a lot of time, but isn't the worst idea), or probe a little deeper (you will find that myself and my SEO brethren offer a real service with real results).

    Bill,
    There's more to the story than your snippet. Feel free to contact me through www.seo-factor.com. I'll be happy to advise if I can. I don't think I can handle anymore "cleanup" clients, but I would be happy to offer some free guidance.

    Mike,
    Hit it on the head. Having sites link to you is out of your control, and Google is fully aware of this. Owning a link farm with obvious connection to a site of yours, well that's just asking for it.

    However, each of these techniques should be viewed within context. Some of these things will not only not get you banned, but depending on their use is entirely acceptable.

  • by Barry Tue Feb 26, 2008 via web

    Josh,

    You sound like you're knowledgeable in the area of SEO's, and I know I'm not. Unfortunately, I've seen far too much online where people are clearly trying to trick the SE's.

    My opinion has been that you need first to build the site that warrants being ranked in the SE's. Then you can build activity on your site through a combination of personal effort (such as your post here, which will get me to visit your site), and true Search Engine "Optimization," which should not be confused with tricks for hits.

  • by Josh Tue Feb 26, 2008 via web

    Barry,

    Unfortunately, you are correct. There are far too many poor services out there. I used to let it get to me and attempt to call them out publicly. It just doesn't seem to help. The best thing we "real" SEOs can do is turn our attention to helping the unknowing website owner. Eventually, the "common buyer" will be more savvy to such practices, and better be able to choose the correct service to meet their needs.

    As for your opinion on how to handle suite promotion, you know more of SEO than you might think. Understanding the idea of optimizing for quality, usability, etc., you have more going for you than any meta tag change can give.

    Thanks for the visit. Let me know if there is anything I can answer for you. I'm all to happy to do so.

  • by mike ashworth Wed Feb 27, 2008 via web

    What happens if your site gets 'blacklisted' by Google? Here are some stats on the issue from hitwise

    What is the impact on a website of being ‘blacklisted’ by Google? Recently the insurance comparison website GoCompare.com faced precisely this dilemma after the search engine picked up on irregular inbound links to its site, causing it to plummet down the rankings.

    http://weblogs.hitwise.com/robin-goad/2008/02/google_blacklists_gocompare.html

  • by Melissa Wed Feb 27, 2008 via web

    It seems to me that those who use the tactics mentioned in this article are the ones who haven't taken the time and effort to develop good quality content that's worth finding in the first place. They're just trying to cheat their way to the top, but in the end, they'll lose anyway because the public knows crap when they see it - regardless of what Google thinks of it.

  • by Barry Wed Feb 27, 2008 via web

    Melissa,

    That was essentially my point.

    It was pointed out, however, that SEO is a legitimate practice, but ONLY when used in conjunction with what you said - developing good, quality content.

  • by Melissa Thu Feb 28, 2008 via web

    Barry,

    Yes. I have no problem at all with legitimate SEO, and I'm quite sure you and I completely agree. I'm just venting a bit on a topic that hit a nerve.

    I guess I just get frustrated, particularly with those who get so manic about it that they will try any method - even the bad ones - to get to the top of the heap. But even the "good guys" seem to lose sight of the fact that SEO isn't something that's an isolated to-do list. Sure, it's great to be found. That's got to be a primary goal, of course. But it's not just a matter of keeping Google happy and then you're a millionaire. No matter what, there has to be good content. Why do people forget that?

    In my opinion, it all ties in with the general lack of customer service we're seeing across the board, from store clerks who can't get off their cell phones to websites that don't "get it". We have to think about the customer, their needs and expectations. Providing good content on a website is a big part of meeting those needs and perhaps even exceeding those expectations. And if we don't, we lose - big time.

    But that's just my opinion...and my mini-rant for the week. Does my passion about the topic show? (**grin**) That's part of why I come here - to share with others who understand the issues, who really "get it", or at least try to.

    Thanks Barry!

  • by Richard Tue Oct 21, 2008 via web

    Link farm example: this page popped up in a search about a WWI fighter pilot ace - who's name just happens to be in the random words jumbled together as fake content.

    http://geocities.com/giovannigillespie51/lianagedramontgomerycounty/contact-center-hong-kong.html

  • by Rohit Fri Dec 12, 2008 via web

    I think there is two basic parts of SEO and these are Onpage and Off page Optimization and both them are required. So we should avoid the spamming of off page and proper use as White hat SEO.

    Rohit,
    Widewebway.com

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