Black Hat SEOOver the past couple of months, I’ve been speaking with a business owner who has outsourced her search engine optimization. The good news is that they earned her several number one rankings for some important keywords. The bad news is that they broke almost every rule in the book in doing so.

“So what?” you may ask. The answer is that eventually, Google will catch you. And when they do, you’ll be lucky if all they do is discount all of those links that were created on your behalf. This means that your rankings will plummet and so will your search referrals. If you’re not lucky, they will blacklist you, which means that you will not appear in their search results at all for exactly one year.

This begs two questions. Why am I bringing this up today and what can business owners do to protect themselves?

Rich Snippets Guidelines

As to why I’m bringing this up today, Google has updated their Webmaster Guidelines to cover the implementation of rich snippets. If you’re not familiar with rich snippets, they are “the few lines of text that appear under every search result—designed to give users a sense for what’s on the page and why it’s relevant to their query.”

Webmaster Guidelines

What Google announced today were quality guidelines designed to warn webmasters against trying to game the system. Specifically, they said to avoid:

  • Marking up content that is in no way visible to users.
  • Marking up irrelevant or misleading content, such as fake reviews or content unrelated to the focus of a page.

Google goes on to add, “These quality guidelines cover the most common forms of deceptive or manipulative rich snippet behavior, but Google may respond negatively to other misleading practices not listed here. It’s not safe to assume that Google approves of a specific deceptive technique just because it isn’t included on this page. We strongly advise that webmasters focus on providing a great user experience rather than on looking for loopholes.

These aren’t really any different from their overall quality guidelines for websites. Which brings me to my second point for this post…

Webmaster Guidelines

If you’re not someone who does search engine marketing for a living, you’re probably not intimately familiar with Google’s guidelines or their Panda update. Their service is only as valuable as the quality of their search results. Therefore, Google is always trying to improve. Their results have become increasingly spammy and manipulated over the years and they’re trying to fight back by modifying their algorithms to recognize low quality sites and manipulative practices.

Here are Google’s four basic quality principles:

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
  • Don’t deceive your users.
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
  • Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.

Now back to the beginning of my post and the business owner who’s SEO consultant had been breaking all of these rules. What specifically did they do? Here’s a partial list:

  • They had created pages on the website containing automatically generated content. I can’t provide too many details here because I don’t want to “out” the website or its owner, but there were pages created on the website with garbage content that didn’t have any user value whatsoever.
  • The biggest violation was their participation in link schemes. As I examined the back-links to this site, I discovered hundreds of pages of links from directories that were obviously created and managed by this company for the sole purpose of creating link farms. The listings for this person’s site were right along side some completely unrelated – and downright offensive – links to other websites.
  • They employed another link scheme tactic by adding blog comments with keywords in their signature to articles that have nothing to do with their business.

There were a few others, but you get the point. So how do you protect yourself from harm if you’re outsourcing search engine optimization? Here are some suggestions:

  • First, ask them what they will deliver. If their answer is keyword rankings, run away. If they talk about delivering organic traffic and quality metrics like time on site, you’re on the right track. Also, if they guarantee results you’re in big trouble.
  • Next, ask they how they will achieve those results. Some scary phrases that should give you pause include proprietary strategies, directory submission, link density, link buying or any overly complicated explanations. Good SEO practices include plain, old-fashioned hard work like creating content, building engaged social media audiences, earned media and organic back-linking.
  • Finally, ask when they will deliver these results. Anything shorter than a 3 to 6 month horizon means they are either misleading you or intending on using some of the “black hat” strategies that could eventually get you penalized.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And outsourcing your SEO is definitely one instance in which ignorance may be bliss, but it could cost you everything some day. Be careful out there!