Last week Expedia was hit with a 25% drop in search results for some of their most prominent keywords on Google. This was because of what Google deemed unnatural links. Similar to what happened to Rap Genius in December of 2013.
Unnatural links are artificial links such as purchased links or links in a bad neighborhood of the internet that point to your site. Examples of bad neighborhood sites include scraper sites (sites that copy all of its content from other websites), link farms (a group of sites that all link to one another) , sites with large amounts of spam, malware or illegal or pornographic material.
I noticed this event being reported in my news feed just as I finished a conversation with a client that said he was contacted by Google about his search results. Wait – what?
Google Does Not Call You
Everyone seems to pay attention when the word Google comes up. It's hard not to. They are for all intents and purposes, despite Bing's efforts, the king of search. I imagine that is why the company that called my client said they were working either for, or with them to help small businesses gain an edge in their search results.
Google will not call you. They might send an email to you if they see something fishy and that's only because you have registered your site with Webmaster Tools. There are however, Google Partners but those are for generally for AdWords.
There Are Not 1000 Search Engines
He continued telling me they said he could get listed in a thousand or so search engines. Sounds good doesn't it? I get emails and calls like this all the time and they are nothing but snake oil salesmen preying on small businesses trying to make a living.
There very well may be one thousand search engines but the ones that really matter are Google and Bing. Yahoo's search results come from Bing's database so if that name is dropped I know they are either flat out lying to me or they don't know what they are doing.
Everyone Can't Be First
As my client was beginning to feel he was wasting his time the salesperson must have felt he was losing him and pulled out the big guns by saying he would get him listed number one on Google for his keywords. Also sounds good doesn't it? Everyone want to be first. There's just on problem with that...
If I did a search for web designers in Green Bay without counting I would notice there are a lot of them. Now say that salesperson called all of the web developers in Green Bay and promised the same thing. Now it's possible he could get everyone first but for what exactly. Being ranking first for “web design Green Bay” is not the same as being ranked first for “web designers in green bay with two kids and a receding hair line”. I'm just saying they would have to get pretty creative to meet their guarantee.
The bottom line is that no one can guarantee the very first spot for your major keywords in search results and if they do be very wary.
Not All Directories Are Created Equal
The salesman went on to say he would get him listed in directories and forums and blogs. At this point the guy was just trying anything. I used to do the same thing in high school when I had to write an essay. I would just blather on about anything that popped into my mind thinking if I wrote enough of anything the teacher would have to give me a passing grade. Didn't work fo rme either.
Now there are some good directories out there like the Yellow Pages, dmoz, and local listings on Angie's List, Yelp, Google, Bing and Yahoo (which still maintains their own local listings). There are many unsavory ones out there too in those bad neighborhoods that are really nothing more than link farms.
I once inherited a project when I was doing contract work that in the copyright at the bottom of the page, each letter linked to another page of links. That is a link farm if I ever saw one.
Now I'm not going to bash on anyone that puts their web address in comments or forums but at least those are generally things you're interested in or have something to do with your business. It's a good bet that if they ask for your website address on your profile they are adding a rel=”nofollow” to that link which is not penalizing you in search results.
What these SEO snake oil salesman will do is set up fake accounts on blogs and forums, comment once with a link to your site. Sites that have nothing to do with your business. And most of the time they have computer scripts do the work for them. You've probably seen them yourself in your travels through the internet.
So by now you might be asking yourself what this has to do with Expedia and Rap Genius. The answer is – everything. Either those two sites intentionally did this to game their search rankings or they fell victim to an SEO firm after the big money.
Now you might say to yourself, “But those are big companies with large targets on their heads. Nobody's going to pay attention to my little site. Wrong. Google sees no difference from the mom and pop shop scamming to get higher results than it does the big boys. They have an advantage over smaller websites though and that is name recognition. People will go to those sites regardless of how well they do in search. I don't think the same can be said for some small businesses.
So How Will I Know Who To Trust
It's hard to know if the person you hire to manage your search engine marketing (SEM, SEO) is trustworthy. Here's some examples of things you can do to make sure you choose correctly.
- Search for them on Google: If their known as a fraud you will most likely find out by a simple search.
- Ask for references: You will glean more information from their customers in five minutes than a half-hour chat with a sales rep.
- Get Recommendations from friends: Word of mouth is a great example of credibility.
- Ask them what keywords their site ranks for: If they don't rank well for their own keywords they're not worth hiring.
- Look them up on Social Media: Everyone is doing it and everyone has an opinion.
These are but a few examples of how to gauge an SEO/SEM company but the best thing to do is use some good old fashioned gut instinct and some research.