“First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green fieldOdysseus and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear.” — Book XII, The Odyssey, Homer

Sometimes I wish I could block the ears of small business owners against the siren call of “top rankings!” “increased visibility!” “more profits!” touted by nefarious SEO firms.

To the lay person, these claims do sound legitimate, enticing, and easy. The problem, however, is that the lay person has no idea how the SEO firm goes about its work nor which questions to ask to determine if its practices are “good” in the eyes of Google.

Then, the sh*t hits the fan. The Website, which was rocking and rolling the first few months of the campaign, no longer shows up in Google. Traffic drops considerably. Panic ensues. OMG! What happened?!

Two words: Penguin and Panda

Beginning in February 2011, Google began penalizing bigger content sites that used paid links as a way to get inbound traffic. It also penalized Websites that allowed people to reuse content or that created lots and lots of “thin” content.

Sites such as About.com, Ezine Articles and eHow.com all took dramatic hits. At the time, Eric Enge, of Stone Temple Consulting, said at a SEMNE presentation that Google would begin cracking down on smaller and smaller sites.

This is the case today as more sites get hit with penalties.

And one of those penalties is due to the use of spammy back links.

Fact: You cannot buy your way into top rankings

I recently had the opportunity to do a Website audit for a small company whose Website rankings had tanked. In fact, the site no longer appeared in Google.

wmt-search

It was pretty easy to figure out why. The business owner had, in good faith, hired an SEO firm to help “boost” rankings. This firm then created inbound links through the use of spam blog content.

In fact, the SEO firm had done such a “great job,” the company had over 1,000 inbound links within a 10 month period! So many links in such a short time frame raised a red flag.

Once Google’s algorithmic update went through, the Website was toast.

“But Dianna, aren’t inbound links good?”

Yes. And no.

For a long time, companies called “content mills” paid people pennies on the dollar to create thousands upon thousands of crappy blog posts about anything and everything for SEO firms and other companies.

These posts included hyperlinked keywords — or inbound links. For example, a department store could buy 250 blog posts that included reviews, descriptions of shopping experiences, clothing items purchased, etc. Each blog post would be a little different but all would include a link to the department store’s Website.

The posts were also usually very poorly written — as you can see in the example below.

spam-blog

This is just one practice that Google has cracked down on — and it’s why my client’s site was no longer showing up in Google.

The good way to build links

I feel like a broken record saying this, but the key to getting found in Google is to create high-quality, helpful, original content on a consistent basis: white papers, case studies, blog posts, reports, video, checklists, FAQs, product comparisons, etc. etc. etc.

When you create this type of helpful original content, people naturally want to share it, download it, and comment on it. Over time, people link to it.

This type of natural link building takes time but it’s what Google wants to see. In fact, Google’s “brain” or algorithm is so smart now, it takes into account how a post was written, if it’s short or meaty, and if it has grammatical errors.

In short, Google can now tell if the content presents a poor or even untrustworthy experience to the user. Poor user experience = lower rankings. It’s that simple.

What can you do?

So, you’re a small business owner, and you have only so much time in the day to keep up with all of this. Plus, it’s all changing so fast and your head is swimming.

I know. I have to keep up with it, too. So what can you do?

1. Become familiar with Google Webmaster Guidelines — None of what I presented in this post is secret or rocket science. Google explains all of it in its online help center, specifically its “Webmaster Guidelines.”

If you have any question about whether you or the SEO firm you’re using should employ a tactic to improve your rankings (e.g. micro sites, keyword linking, etc.), consult the Webmaster Guidelines first. (You can also email me — I’ll answer your question, no cost.)

2. Look at your Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools (WMT) — Both of these tools work together. Most of the small business owners I work with know about Google Analytics, but not about WMT.

In WMT, Google gives you lots of great information, including the health of your site, if it’s been infected with malware, and the broken links that need fixing. It also gives you a downloadable list of your back links.

3. Turn a deaf ear to “get top rankings fast!” claims — Lots of companies are still peddling SEO snake oil. I know because I get those emails and calls, too.

While the claims sound enticing, the cost of doing business with these firms is simply too high.

The client whose site was banned has his work cut out for him. He now has to go back and get those spammy links removed and then begin creating new, high-quality content.

In addition, he has to wait for Google to reinstate his Website, a process that can take months.

That’s a lot of time and money for a small business to absorb — especially one dependent on search engines.

What do you think? Leave your comments below.

  • Equating the shady SEO companies to the Sirens…well done! 🙂

  • Great article Dianna! I also love your analogy of the irresistable “Sirens” of SEO companies! I see so many small businesses fall for it. Everyone wants the easy way. And I’m delighted to see Google cracking down and improving their algorithms to foil the tricksters! Your client was lucky to have found you to diagnose the issue so that they could change their approach. You described the problem well and then gave solutions and a generous offer to answer questions at no charge. You know your stuff! 🙂

    • Thank you, Christine! I really appreciate your feedback. I do want to help people succeed via their websites.

  • Amber Gebhardt

    So basically don’t bother hiring a SEO firm and instead create good quality consistent content is the way to go. I feel like I keep going back and forth of what we should be doing.

    • Amber, It depends on which SEO firm you hire — and the tactics they use. My colleagues at KoMarketing Associates, for example, do great SEO — and I’d highly recommend them. Also, not every company has the in-house resources to create quality content consistently; to get help, you may have to outsource.