Recently, JCPenney was turned in to Google for the use of "Black Hat" search engine optimization schemes. These practices violate Google's Webmaster guidelines and the search engine dishes out harsh penalties for those who attempt to capitalize from these unethical SEO strategies. To avoid a similar fate, business stakeholders the world over should sit up and take note of JCPenney's search engine optimization blunders.
According to New York Times article, The Dirty Little Secrets of Search, JCPenney reps claim that the company "did not authorize, and we were not involved with or aware of, the posting of the links …" However, though the company may, in fact, have been clueless, their claim of ignorance holds no clout with Google. No matter how ethical their intentions, JCPenney is guilty of carelessly hiring the SEO firm that was likely behind the link scheme. JCPenney has since fired their SEO firm, but the damage has already been done, and JCPenney must atone by enduring buried search rankings on Google.
Had JCPenney hired an ethical search engine marketing firm to handle their SEO efforts, the company's online visibility would likely be improving instead of dropping drastically. Rather than follow JCPenney's poor lead, business owners selecting an SEO firm or those reviewing their current services should determine a firm's worth by asking the right questions. Demand to know:
- "How are you achieving search visibility?" Don't settle for vague answers. Tell your SEO firm that you want the specifics of their strategies documented in writing. Ask that they refrain from using industry jargon.
- "How can you prove your success?" Good SEO firms don't rely on smoke and mirrors. If their worth your business, they can give you credible reports with real numbers that back up their strategies.
- "Can I see examples of how you're building links?" Scan the pages on which your links appear. Check up on your agency's link building tactics to verify the quality of Web pages that link to your own. If the majority of pages that link to your site seem spammy, are not relevant to your industry, or lack quality content, be very wary of your SEO's credibility.
- Will you show me the rate at which my site is gaining online visibility?" If the firm reveals sharp spikes in online visibility, it may be an indication that your SEO firm isn't following the rules. Quality organic search visibility takes time to develop. If there is sudden leap in search visibility, you may have an SEO that practices "Black Hat."
Asking the right questions is only the first step. You must also determine whether or not the responses they give you are viable. The following responses are red flags that your SEO Agency is playing games:
- "We pay premiums to access proprietary SEO software, which guarantees top organic search engine rankings." In realty, no such software, that is effective, even exists. Often this claim means they are referencing Google AdWords or Microsoft adCenter as the proprietary software. Understand that these platforms are used for Pay Per Click advertising campaigns and are available online to everyone without a sign-up fee.
- "For a fee, other Websites allow us to display the links to your sites. It's perfectly legal." Buying text links raises search visibility quickly – and violates Google's Webmaster Guidelines. These are not buying directory listings. They are text links on a variety of Websites. They are not cheap – at least thousands of dollars each month to be effective. This is exactly the kind of "Black Hat" scheming JCPenney's SEO firm practiced. No matter how flowery an unethical SEO phrases it, buying links violates Google's Webmaster guidelines. It may work in the short-term. But you will pay a heavy penalty in the long-term.
- "Our firm has an exclusive partnership with Google, which gives our clients' links top priority." Google does not make alliances with SEO firms. If they did, their search results would not be credible and users would quickly abandon the search engine.
If you suspect your business is being scammed by an unethical firm, don't wait until Google or one of your competitors figures it out and blows the whistle - by then it will be too late. Ask the right questions and analyze the answers. In the end, it's your business, which means it's your choice. But, whichever SEO agency you select, you must be prepared to accept the consequences of their actions - whether good or bad.