'Fool me once, shame on you," the old saying goes. "But fool me twice, shame on me." It's a maxim that holds true in most walks of life, but not in the world of search engine optimization. Because when you're trying to drive traffic to your company's website, fooling today's sophisticated search engines into sending surfers is the name of the game.
Today's best SEO consultants and specialists spend their days reverse-engineering search engine listings, studying sites, examining keyword usage and density and developing new approaches to the challenge of getting companies to the top of the rankings. As the SEO specialist Joel Katona, chief executive officer of Trendmetrix Software in Toronto, says, "Every SEO is in pursuit of the perfect algorithm that actually beats the engine."
Mastering the Google algorithm has become the Holy Grail for most SEO aficionados for good reason. According to the Nielsen/NetRatings MegaView Search reporting service, Google-branded sites were used in 49.2 per cent of on-line searches by U.S. home and work Web surfers in July 2006. Yahoo came in second at 23.8 per cent with MSN a distant third at 9.6 per cent.
Given the overwhelming presence of Google and its constant policing of SEO practices, it makes the job for specialists that much more challenging. "SEO jobs become harder as Google keeps on refining algorithms and introducing criteria, which makes getting top 10 rankings harder and harder," Mr. Katona says.
As with all things in the tech world, every new algorithm also spawns new forms of abuse, says Jeff Quip, president and CEO of Search Engine People in Toronto. "Google revolutionized searches by considering other elements [besides keywords and metatags] -- such as links from other sites -- as part of its algorithm. That got abused when link farms sprung up. When it started measuring reciprocal links, that got abused as well."
There are many legitimate ways to work with algorithms rather than against them, Mr. Quip says. "Your choices [in improving your ranking] are to add content on a regular basis and/or to create tools or calculators that others can pick up and put on their site that will have a link embedded back to the client site," he says. "You want people to link to your site as naturally as possible and build links for the right reason."
And the more "natural links", the better you look in Google's eyes. The Canadian Management Centre (CMC) in Toronto, for example, installed a leadership self-assessment tool to drive interested people to their website. According to CMC director of marketing Andre Proulx, once they dealt with the "low hanging fruit" of keyword searches (which grew overall traffic to its site by 50 per cent), the next step was to go beyond just scratching the surface. "We're now putting out tools that we normally use to assess companies or individuals on other websites. When visitors use the assessment tool it drives traffic back to our site."
As far as good SEO practices go, he says, "People rely on Google to give them exactly what they want," he says. "It's silly not to play by their rules. If you can conquer Google, then you've done your job."
Mr. Quip warns that playing by the rules is only going to get tougher. "An interesting twist is that in the near future Google will [use] user behaviour as part of the algorithm by using a quality feedback loop based on what individual users click and how long they stay. The calculations will be at the speed of light, which means you have to . . . always serve up results. We're getting ready for that."
The dark side of SEO
The consequences for businesses that aren't adept at SEO can be devastating, as companies that have been banned from Google for unsavoury SEO practices can tell you.
Los Angeles-based Kinderstart.com, a search engine focused on resources for children lost 70 per cent of its traffic (18 million page views a month) in a single day when it "fell off" Google in 2005 and has remained out of the top rankings ever since. Although details are sparse, Google's response was that Kinderstart.com simply didn't meet the criteria for relevance to merit a top spot, according to its closely-guarded scoring system.
Many of these practices can easily be taking place without a business's knowledge, and getting back into a search engine's good graces can take months -- if at all.
Here are some ways to get in trouble with the search police:
Link spamming: This includes posting automated public forum signatures that link back to your site; and creating websites with pages that only provide links to your site.
Link farms: Multiple site owners join together to create a page that generates automatic links to all their sites, thereby artificially inflating the number of links.
Doorway pages and cloaking: This involves generating shortcuts to a company's website even though the landing page has no connection to the user's search parameters.
Link buying: Although aboveboard link buying is a legitimate practice, Google frowns upon link buying on a large scale to manipulate results.
Keyword spamming: The act of "stuffing" keywords in the title or body text to increase the keyword count (some keywords can be hidden in the background.)
"Don't be afraid to ask [your supplier] what they do, where they get links from and how they are optimizing your site. Ask for their previous work and rankings," Mr. Katona says.
At the end of the day, taking the low road of trying to subvert search engines is sure to be a losing battle. As Search Engine People's Jeff Quip says, "Google has more PhDs than NASA. It's not a game you can win."