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4 ways to spot black hat SEO

Most online business owners are acutely aware of the importance of search. An engine like Google is the starting point for most searches in Australia. It’s the most vital channel between your business and its future customers.

Along with things like Twitter and web design, search is also something of an unknown quantity for many business owners. Given that Google is constantly changing the way it matches queries with results, you could be forgiven for not knowing much about the processes and the work involved in getting a business on the front page for its chosen keyword. What many don’t know that there are good and bad ways of optimising a site for search. There are ‘white hat’ techniques, which are approved by Google. There are ‘grey hat’ techniques which don’t get penalised, but walk the line of ethical use. And there are ‘black hat’ techniques, which aim to subvert the way the search engine works to get your site higher than your competitors’.

The problem with black hat is that search engines like Google don’t much like being tricked. The penalty for using these methods is removal from the engine’s index, either temporarily or permanently. Imagine if your site just disappeared from Google, one day. Not a pleasant thought.

This is why it’s important to know whether or not the internet marketer you’re using is employing questionable tactics to get you the results you want.  The following is a list of four ways to tell if the company you’re using for SEO employs black hat techniques

1. Look at their clients

When you’re considering an agency to market your business online, the first step is to look at its current clients.

“The best thing to do for people that don’t want to get burnt by black hat, is to use a reputable agency that has a well-known client base,” suggests James Norquay, senior SEO consultant at Columbus Search.

While this is by no means a comprehensive way of vetting an agency, it does give you an idea of the calibre and success rate of clients. Ask for a list of current clients. Observe how well they rank in search across a range of relevant keyword terms. Most importantly, get in contact with a couple of clients and ask about the services offered.

It’s important to learn how transparent an agency is with its processes. They should be able to clearly describe what they do and how it’s done – vagueness means ‘steer clear’. Also, each and every stage of the search optimisation process is easy to document, so make sure that the agency is able to give you reports on their processes. Don’t trust those that are reluctant to do so.

“I always recommend that people go with companies that measure all the results. So they get some kind of monthly reporting to show that their ranking’s increasing, that their amount of pages are increasing, the unique visitors are increasing, the bounce rates are coming down – all the factors that your website’s improving,” says Simon Eder, managing director at OolyBooly. “You need to be able to monitor monthly or even fortnightly. The company needs to demonstrate that they’re actually making a difference.”

2. No guarantees

By setting out to optimise a page to rank higher in search, you’re immediately going against the grain of what Google is trying to do. The search engine’s first priority is to give the searcher the most relevant result; yours is to give them the result for your business.

This is largely why companies like Google are so protective of the algorithms that drive their search engines. Very little is known about the details of how they index and rank pages. Accordingly, it’s wise to avoid agencies that promise the world, as it’s not something that either party can be sure of.

“I’d hire an SEO consultant who doesn’t offer a guarantee, who just assesses what you do, and can tell you what’s going on,” says Andrew Gloyns, an independent SEO consultant.

3. No buying links

Incoming links are one of the most important factors in search engine optimisation. If a website has lots of links coming from reputable sources, it’s much more likely to do well in search.

There are many ways of gaining links, but it’s essential not to buy them. If Google catches wind of a bought link, it will penalise your site with a temporary lockout until the problem has been addressed.

“If any SEO company is saying they’re buying backlinks, then technically, that’s a big warning sign,” says Eder.

Similarly, if an agency tells you they’re using software to automate the link building process, it’s best to steer clear. Links built by software like Xrumer or Senuke are often of a poor quality. Also, these programs can be used to increase your incoming links by hundreds of times. Any unusual jump in the number of links to your site like that is likely to result in a penalty from Google.

Unfortunately, there are a number of grey areas when it comes to defining what a paid link actually is.  For example, it’s difficult to prove that the purchase of a listing in an online directory goes against Google’s guidelines, but some directories engage in some questionable tactics to provide traffic for their clients.

“The problem is that I can also go to a directory, and pay a certain amount of money a year to be in that directory, but that’s not technically buying backlinks,” says Eder. “Google just banned a whole network of thousands and thousands of blogs. It was called Build My Rank. They were renting links, basically, and they’ve just knocked that entire network out of the index, because of what they were doing. If any SEO company is saying they’re buying backlinks, that’s a big warning sign.”

4. Independent research

One of the best ways of finding out about an SEO consultancy is to audit its backlinks yourself. Search optimisation community SEO Moz has a free tool for this called Open Site Explorer. Enter the URL of a site you’d like to research, and it will give you a list of the major links pointing to that site, along with an indication of how strong those links are.

“It tells you, from their own index, where they believe they have links, and it gives those a score out of a hundred, so you can determine the value of each link,” says Gloyns. “If it’s got a score of 60 or 70, that’s seen as quite high. If you’ve got some of those, you can go through and see what links they are.”

If the site is getting a lot of bad links – from irrelevant or unusual sources, like free directories – it’s likely that something is amiss.

“You come to notice the types of links that software builds – you’d notice paid links, you’d notice links that are from irrelevant niches,” says Norquay. “Say, for example, you’re trying to build links for car insurance. If you see a link profile with links from acne websites, you know something’s up.”

Examining the agency’s own site is a good start, but it’s also worth having a look at their clients’ link profiles, as well, to see the work that’s been done for them. Once your own site starts to build a link profile of its own, it’s also worthwhile checking to see where your links are coming from. You never know when you might become the victim of a negative SEO attack.

At the end of the day, your intuition will serve you best when choosing someone to look after your business’ SEO. If something seems strange about a particular agency, probe to find out more, and avoid any mention of automation, link building or purchased links.

The term small business marketing encompasses many strategies and ideas, however the skill lies in knowing which ones are most suitable for your small business. Generating small business sales is the ultimate goal of any business and learning the different ways in which small business marketing can assist will help increase your overall sales. NETT features compelling articles covering all angles of small business marketing from SEO and SEM to email campaigns and social media.