Many businesses can't afford an SEO expert in house, and look to agencies and freelancers for help. While there are some great professionals and companies you can hire, there are unfortunately a lot of cowboys. Here are some of the discredited "old-skool" techniques to watch out for if you don't want to waste your money on SEO with hit-and-miss benefit.
1. Second-guessing the search algorithm
Search engine algorithms are constantly being modified, so if your SEO outsourcer talks about knowing how to outsmart the algorithms, any insight they might have could be gone tomorrow. Here's Google's Matt Cutts talking about how they change their algorithms at least once a day.
Even if you somehow strike it lucky and come up with a great ranking through "gaming" or cheating the algorithm, your success will probably be short-lived - and worse, you might later be penalized. A classic example of this was "keyword-stuffing" in the early days of SEO - these days, as most people know, lots of repeated and hidden keywords is going to be detrimental to your search rankings.
2. Link-building factories
You can easily hire any number of link-building companies offering to build 1000 links for $5. Some create hundreds of new websites, each with a handful of links to your site. If you're lucky they might use relevant keywords on these new websites and in the links to your site. Others spam blog comments with your URL.
However, none of these sites or comments offer any value to a human visitor that visits the site, and few will be linked to by really authoritative sites. The search engines detect this and assess the value of those inbound links, and your website, accordingly.
You'll have got what you paid for - there really will be 1000 inbound links to your site - but the boost to your search engine credibility will be negligible. Worse, irregular linking patterns mean your site can be put into the search engine sin-bin, leading to months of under-performance or not appearing in search results at all.
3. Directory submissions
There are some really helpful Internet directories that people actually use to find content. There are thousands more that barely have a handful of visitors and are purely there for SEO companies to create links in. Here's Google's Matt Cutts again talking about how they assess the quality of directories.
By all means submit your web site to authoritative, relevant directories, especially if they are manually curated. But like link-building farms, submitting your site to an arbitrary number of directories without any consideration of their quality is a pointless exercise.
4. PageRank sculpting (as a headline)
PageRank sculpting was all the rage in SEO. Essentially it's all about choosing where to place links on your website, and where to use the "nofollow" attribute on those links, in order to maximise the likelihood of certain pages on your site being ranked more highly. If your SEO talks about this, they'll talk about "PageRank flow", "Google juice" and other such jargon.
PageRank exists, but it is just one factor among many that affects a site's rankings, and Google have been advising for some time that it's not something to obsess over. They even removed PageRank from their Webmaster tools last year because people were focusing on it too much. Here's Matt Cutts again, telling us that PageRank sculpting can be useful, but as a second-or-third order issue.
Now, he does say that you might want to link to a more profitable product from your home page so that the PageRank flows to that product page. But a better way to look at this is to forget the PageRank, and think of it from a user journey perspective when you're designing your website: if you want to sell more of a given product, you might want to promote it on your home page so that users find it easily. The primary goal here is getting more users who are already on your site to visit that product's page - and that might well have a beneficial side-effect of boosting that product page's search rankings.
Whatever you do, don't let an SEO browbeat you into making PageRank-related changes that are detrimental to the user journey on your website.
5. Meaningless money-back guarantees
Plenty of SEO companies offer money-back guarantees, but be careful what they are really guaranteeing. It's not hard to achieve a top-ten ranking for a keyword within a few months if you're allowed to pick any keyword at all. For example, you might want rankings for "organic haggis", but find you're not entitled to your money back because your SEO expert has "achieved" a top-ten ranking for "HaggisLand Abercrombie Road Edinburgh".
One golden rule
Yes, there are many black holes in SEO ready to suck away your cash. But if you focus on natural, transparent techniques you'll be getting the most benefit without risk of penality. Any effort that is just for search engines and not humans should be closely interrogated.
Build natural links from relevant sites, join related communities, create content by hand, link to yourself to improve user journey and fix website usability issues. These are all investments in your website rather than a short term, high risk, uneducated gamble.
At Plug in SEO it's great to hear when we help our customers to get more visitors to their web sites. Anne Currie used Plug in SEO for the launch of a new-look website for her company’s time tracking product, Qlockwork. The new site launched at the end of March, optimized based on Plug in SEO’s recommendations. What has the benefit been in just 5 weeks?
Anne is managing director of workingProgram Ltd, which offers IT consultancy alongside its flagship product, Qlockwork. The company had recognised that a standalone site for Qlockwork might be clearer for potential customers, and it was also time for a refreshed look-and-feel.
Operating on lean startup principles, there is very little cash for workingProgram to splash on marketing, so getting traffic to the new site through natural search and through inbound links is a clear priority.
A big push has been on building inbound links to the new site. It was common sense for workingProgram to contact their existing list of bloggers who had previously written about Qlockwork, but many additional, relevant sites and conversations were located through Plug in SEO.
Despite their small budget workingProgram are investing in content creation. Says Anne “On Plug in SEO’s advice we’re now making the time to blog about time management and time tracking. We’re also creating different types of content – we’ve even dipped our toe in the water with making videos, which turns out to be easier than I anticipated, as well as good fun!”
Result: Visitors double in 5 weeks
For Qlockwork, it took around 3 weeks for search terms to first start appearing in the top 50 results.
“We’re thrilled that within a month, the new Qlockwork site is already getting more traffic than the workingProgram site was,” says Anne. “At present Qlockwork is getting most traffic from site referrals, so we still have some way to go with natural search – but we didn’t expect search results to materialize overnight. We have at least overtaken our old workingProgram site to rank most highly for the Qlockwork brand name! And the good news is that the charts are moving the right direction for our most important keywords.”
And... what we’ve learnt at Plug in SEO
workingProgram has given us a customers’-eye-view of what it’s like to use our Plug in SEO features. For example, it was quickly clear that our conversations recommendations started off too broad, and we’re tightening up the relevancy.
We’ll be paying a visit to Qlockwork again in a few weeks’ time to report back on how their traffic building is coming along.