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April 30, 2009

To SEO or not to SEO, that is the question.

Filed under: General,Internet Rant,Perspective — Tags: , , , , , — Bryan @ 1:12 am

Most people at some point in their lives will hear the advice “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is” or maybe “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. This is generally sound advice, and if nothing else it is good counsel to reduce the chance of becoming a victim of a confidence scam.

This leads me to today’s discussion about SEO companies. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and defines a company as one that will help your business improve how visible your website is in search results on sites like Google, Yahoo, Live Search or any of a dozen Internet search sites online. If you want the best search results for your site, you must optimize it for the search engines.

You don’t know what to do? Who can help?

There are two classifications of SEO companies. The first and best to work with are companies that will audit your website and give you valuable feedback on how to change your HTML page structure. How to present your web content on your site. How to added meta-data to your web pages that helps clue in the search engines as to what can be found on any given page. They will help you understand about all of the extra non-web page files that you can create for your web site that co-operates with the search engines to help them locate your content and best determine how to list it. They may even give you advice on ways to completely rethink exactly what content you should put on your site in order to achieve your online goals. In short an honest SEO company will be there to educate and inform you so that you can make the best decisions on how to engage the online aspect of your business and achieve a sustained level of visibility.

Additionally, they may counsel you on ways to build relationships with other sites to establish cross linking opportunities and how to go about presenting your site to the public in a clean and professional manner that helps you towards getting the traffic you want.

Some of these companies will even help you with this work for an added fee and provide full transparency with their operations, working with you much like a P.R. firm or Ad agency in helping maximize your URL and brand exposure. In fact some of them may work in tandem with your P.R. and/or Ad agency to potentially help take your brand to the next level of visibility. It’s going to be hard work and you better have good, strong content on your site. Why? Because, while you can spend a billion dollars and get a billion people to visit your site, if there isn’t anything there, they are not coming back and they are certainly not going to tell their friends about you (unless it’s to make fun of you).

Now, on the other hand, I suppose if all you want is a billion people coming to your web page and nothing more, then you can always engage with the other kind of SEO company… and unfortunately these guys are the predominant type in the industry.

This second group is the one that tells you “for X amount of dollars I can get you top ranking in Google in 30-days”. All you have to do is just kick back and watch the hit counter on your site climb. This frequently reminds me of the old “lose 30 pounds in 30 days” deal that may work, but by using it you are risking some seriously major health issues and in some rare cases… death.

That got your attention right? You’re sitting there thinking, “OK, now he’s done it, that’s over the top nobody ever died from using an SEO firm.” No… not literally. But many companies have paid a harsh penalty to their brand for some short term traffic gain. Take for instance BMW Germany’s and Ricoh’s brush with Google a couple of years ago.

So just what are these “unscrupulous cads” up to that’s so bad? Well, at their most fundamental level they are assisting your company to behave in a manor contrary to anything you or your peers might have done as a part of normal day to day business. For instance on the more bland but annoying side some of these SEO companies retain ownership of 1,000 or even 100,000 domains that literally contain nothing more than some web pages that point links to their clients in order to try and trick search engines into thinking that your site must be pretty darn popular to have 100,000 other sites linked to it.

At the other end of the spectrum, a tactic currently in use by some of these companies is to pay substandard wages to workers in third world countries to do nothing more than log into every single blog they can find on the Internet and post a comment that contains a link back to your site (be it in the comment directly or the homepage URL provided on the user profile). You’ll almost certainly have seen this on your own blog as a spam comment at some point.

In the BMW example above they were using an old trick of padding out lots of unrelated keywords in the metadata of dozens of web pages on their sites to trick search engines into thinking there was text on the pages that not only didn’t really exist but also redirected you to some other page when you actually got to their site. Effectively, this was gaming the results on words like “used cars” (in BMW’s case) so that BMW always came up on the first page of search results.

There are even companies that do this for other media types as well, such as video. In this case a company might take a video from your site and literally, litter it on every other video portal they can find and upload multiple copies of the video to each of those sites while doing nothing more than changing the length of the video, changing the title or description and having all of these bajillion copies of your video all have a reference link posted someplace that comes back to your web site. This may create the false impression that lots of video sites are linking back to your video site naturally and thus by link volume, artificially inflating the search visibility of your video content. Not only is this behavior discouraged by search engines, it is frequently a Terms of Service violation with sites like YouTube, et all. And, if caught, at best the offending up-loader’s account will get banned (that would likely be one of the dozens of accounts the SEO company has created on their service for doing this). At worst, the video site publicly denounces your use of an SEO firm to spam their portal.

Now that you have some examples of how this works what are the real risks?

Well, the first and foremost risk is for your company’s brand image. In the case referenced much earlier, both companies received a public black eye over their behavior and Google blacklisted BMW’s and Ricoh’s sites from the search index until their sites had been modified to stop their questionable behavior. Alternatively if the SEO companies botch their work badly enough you may be in for ridicule by the public at large or worse your customers. I suppose if you don’t mind the risk of your site getting delisted and having everyone get a laugh at your brands expense (the old “any press is good press” adage right?) then maybe this is just what the doctor ordered.

But don’t kid yourself. At best this second type of SEO operation is deceptive behavior and in the circles I run in, companies that perform this kind of work are considered unethical at best. Period.

Finally, back to the opening title for this post “To SEO or not to SEO, that is the question.” The answer is yes, search engine optimize your site, but mind who’s helping you do the work.

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