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SEO: Beware of the dark side

Lamont Wood | June 1, 2011
Search engine optimization offers benefits for those who understand its nuances and dangers for those who don't.

Being at the top of a search engine results page can mean the difference between business success and failure. So, what would you do to ensure a listing there?

SEO

Absolutely anything?

If so, you could be walking into a minefield.

Search engine optimization (known as SEO) involves actions intended to get your page listed higher on a search engine results page. In the past 15 years, SEO has evolved into a complex art, one that is now the foundation of many businesses.

The problem is that there are ways of trying to improve your standing that are considered legitimate by the search engine companies like Google, but there are also methods that can get you into trouble. Google (which receives 90% of the world's search engine traffic, according to StatCounter, and 65.4% of the U.S. market, according to comScore) does not appreciate being gamed -- and will retaliate.

Just ask $17 billion retailer J.C. Penney, which got caught using black-hat (i.e., illegitimate) methods to boost its search results during the 2010 holiday shopping season. Penney was accused of taking part in a so-called link scheme, probably the most complicated black-hat SEO technique.

"Our high [search engine result] rankings were pushed down," Darcie Brossart, Penney's vice president of communications in Plano, Texas, confirmed concerning the sanctions Google imposed. "We have terminated our relationship with our former natural SEO firm. We don't know how it happened. We did not authorize it, and we were not involved."

It's important to recognize if your SEO firm (or your in-house Web expert) is venturing too close to the edge of the black-hat cliff -- because if Google or other search engines find there is some hanky-panky happening, it's your site that will suffer. "I'm not saying everyone is doing it, but it's not unusual," says Vanessa Fox, former Google Search employee and author of Marketing in the Age of Google. "A company might hire an SEO firm without knowing a lot about SEO, or they might think it's not risky," she adds. (Google publishes advice for those considering hiring SEO firms.)

A good grounding in what the major search engines do and don't consider acceptable can help companies avoid these issues. What follows are some of the techniques that are considered legitimate -- and not so legitimate -- and how you can tell the difference.

But first, let's take a quick look at how Google ranks sites.

Google's secret sauce

 

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