The holidays are upon us and the opportunity to make large-scale organic search performance changes is for the most part past. As my kids talk about Santa’s visit and who has been naughty or nice, I can’t help but apply the latter to search engine optimization.
In a practice where so many aspects edge into gray areas, some aspects of SEO are clearly black or white. In fact, ethical SEO practices that focus on long-term gain are known as “white hat” while the shadier aspects that may cause search engines to punish a site are known as “black hat.”
For your amusement — and hopefully thoughtful consideration — here are nine naughty-or-nice SEO practices. What would you add? Let me know in the comments.
The Naughty List
1. Buying links. Some think they can find a way to hide buying links for SEO benefit. There are still quite a few agencies out there that will perform this service. You may even get away with it for some period of time and see an uptick in your SEO performance — until those links are uncovered and devalued. It’s not worth a potential short-term gain to deal with the longer-term fallout. This tactic is targeted specifically by Google’s Penguin algorithm and by Bing to prevent poor quality sites from ranking.
2. Developing link farms. Some marketers think they can set up their own link rings. But building an undetectable link farm that will have enough unique content and link authority to boost the ecommerce site you actually want to rank is nearly impossible. Spend your time instead on beefing up your ecommerce site.
3. Using content from other sites. Piecing together content — whether it’s syndicated, scraped, or spun — from other sites rarely results in SEO success. Syndicated content from big publishers is typically rendered uncrawlable by the syndicator, either in the metadata or in the way it’s fed into the page template. This ensures that the publisher retains all SEO value from the unique content it has created. Either way, search engines are not able to index it or rank it.
Other sites use bots of their own to index or “scrape” content from other sites, and then feed it into their own site. Sometimes that content is “spun” into different configurations to attempt to generate content that appears new. Both of these tactics are also targeted by Google’s Panda algorithm and by Bing.
4. Chasing the algorithm. Stop trying to predict what the next algorithm update will be or react to the algorithm update that just happened. Now that the search engines rarely announce algorithm updates, and Google releases a couple of updates daily, worrying about beating the search engines at their own game just isn’t an effective use of resources.
Stop trying to predict what the next algorithm update will be or react to the algorithm update that just happened.
5. Making customers wait. Long load times increase bounce rates, lower rankings, and are frustrating to visitors. Having a slow site is not a black hat SEO tactic. It’s just foolish. Long load times are naughty in that they impact customer experience and SEO, but are regularly ignored by marketers who feel like they have no control over the issue. Stop ignoring load times and do something about them.
6. Ignoring mobile search. Ignoring mobile, while not a black hat SEO tactic, is foolishly naughty. The argument of “My customers aren’t on mobile, see how few mobile customers come to my site,” is a vicious cycle. Google in particular rewards sites with mobile-friendly experiences. It could very well be that you don’t get a lot of mobile customers because you don’t have a mobile-friendly site.
More than half of Google’s searches occur on smartphones. Searches within individual mobile apps are impossible to track publicly, but think about how many holiday gifts you purchased using the browser on your phone or an app. Do your competitors have mobile-friendly experiences? Do they have apps? It’s possible that you aren’t getting mobile traffic because they are taking it away from you.
The Nice List
7. Creating useful, unique content. This is at the top of the nice list because it’s simply the best long-term strategy to ensure that your SEO performance remains strong. Generate content that your customers want to see and share. Are you really doing this?
Pretend you don’t work for your company. Do you have enough information to buy something? Is it interesting where it needs to be interesting and informative where it needs to be informative? Would you want to buy something?
It’s hard to be truly unbiased, so also look at your competitors’ sites. Search Google for a keyword phrase you want to rank for and click on the top results. Ask the same questions, above, to determine if they have more or better content. Do they have a navigation that is easier to use or gets you closer to your purchase goal quickly? Ask someone who doesn’t work closely with your site or your competitors’ to give an honest opinion.
8. Building SEO best practices into your site. Yes, content needs to be useful and unique. But if you host it on a site that doesn’t use SEO best practices, that useful content won’t help you rank and drive customers. SEO needs to be considered in the overall strategy, user experience, and in the creative and development processes. Read more about this in my article “SEO: The Value of Deep Integration.”