Tempting the Google gods is rarely a sustainable search marketing plan.
National retailer JCPenney is now paying the price after a string of questionable search engine optimization tactics recently came to light, courtesy of a sweeping story in The New York Times.
The company dominated search results during the holiday season and beyond, ranking at or near the top for scores of product searches, from “tablecloths” and “home décor” to “skinny jeans.” A search expert hired by the Times determined that the results stemmed from below-board optimization techniques that likely fit the bill as “black hat,” or illegitimate as per Google’s standards.
JCPenney officials said they didn’t authorize their SEO firm to game the system. Nonetheless, Google responded by burying the company’s search results for a range of products.
The search giant took similar action in late February against Overstock.com after discovering black hat violations.
These recent high-profile incidents should serve as a warning sign – or possibly a wake-up call – to small businesses and their search marketing strategists. Entrepreneurs who have taken a do-it-yourself approach are just as susceptible as those who farm out SEO services to outside firms.
“A lot of our clients walk in the door fresh off a negative experience – or two or three – with a search agency,” said Danny DeMichele of LSF Interactive, an Internet marketing firm founded in 1999. “From a technical standpoint, it's always the same issues we see right away – comment spam links, bad title tags and a lack of consistency across the site.”
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Here’s a look at six search engine marketing and optimization strategies that could ultimately land your business in hot water.
Forgetting to hold SEO specialists accountable
Be leery of a firm or an individual who dances around accountability and a detailed accounting of activities and results. Search engine marketing isn’t wizardry. It also isn’t a field that lends itself to legitimate “guarantees.” Make sure you know exactly what your search firm or in-house employees do and how their tactics are playing out in the marketplace. Define the parameters for success and scour the data.
Hold the line on links
Links are the currency of search marketing. But getting too many links too quickly can raise red flags with the folks at Google. In most cases, the problem is usually that business owners are building links too fast because they’re using flimsy methods like exchange networks that tend to promote a lower-quality profile.
Entrepreneurs looking to garner link love through a viral campaign or other online marketing technique shouldn’t have much to worry about. But, again, the focus should be on building quality links, especially if you’re doing it in a hurry. That also means varying anchor text to ensure diversity. Speaking of anchor text…
Lighten the anchor
Beware of the sagging, heavy anchor text. Incessantly fixating on heavy anchor text can create problems. Mix and match relevant keywords for your products and your business, but don’t get bogged down with exact match after exact match.
Instead, brand recognition is becoming increasingly important for SEO success. That means using branded anchor text that spotlights your business name and homepage. Getting your brand mentioned across the web is becoming more important by the day. And that’s often tied to creating quality content and picking up brand mentions.
Launching a slew of websites and dropping links back to your main hub is a recipe for disaster. Don’t do it, plain and simple. Similarly, purchasing an older, established website and redirecting it to your own isn’t as simple and headache free as it sounds. The "301 redirect" is the best option for SEO purposes, but plan to lose Page Rank in the process, at least at the outset.
Bloated title tags
This isn’t the place to make a wish list. Jamming a couple dozen keywords in here will do significant harm to your search engine marketing. Seize on the most relevant keywords, keep character counts lean and aim for quality.
Peppering blogs and comment fields with spammy links back to your site is a surefire way to stir up trouble. Comments rooted in relevance and human connection can provide some SEO benefit. Entrepreneurs should also take pains to ensure these comment links don’t wind up in their own company or personal blogs – they can damage your own page rank as well.
Those are six things you and your Internet marketers shouldn't do. What should you do? Listen to experts like Danny DeMichele of LSF Interactive and focus on consistency across your site, employ relevant title tags and develop quality content. Do those things well, and you're practically guaranteed to stay on Google's good side.
Chris Birk is director of content and communications for VA Mortgage Center.com, the nation's No. 1 dedicated VA lender. A recovering journalist, he also teaches at a private Midwestern university. Follow him @cjbirk.