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Avoiding the SEO Penalty Box

Insights September 19, 2013

Much like a game of hockey, poorly designed plays and excessive penalties can swiftly alter the outcome of the game. The world of SEO is no different. Fast-paced companies are constantly pushing to score a goal. But with search engines constantly monitoring SEO cross-checkers and trippers, we need to make sure we’re playing between the lines to remain viable. Now more than ever, companies who attempt to gain unfair advantages are more readily being slapped with penalties that hinder their opportunity to capitalize and win.

Unquestionably, the referee that is Google is getting more and more serious against black hat SEO practices. With SEO companies becoming more and more creative in how they utilize these backhanded techniques, Google itself is also becoming more creative in how they referee the game. As a result, Google continues to launch spam-fighting updates that highlight authoritative websites while diminishing some of the less reputable players.

Do you think payday loan sites are the only ones utilizing these tactics? Think again. You’ll remember a few years ago, Google caught J.C. Penney red handed trying to juice their search results by using backwards SEO tactics. While it can be common to see smaller, low profile companies take part in these frowned-upon schemes, catching an established brand such as J.C. Penney utilizing these practices comes as a bit of a shock. The company bought and traded links to their domain on other non-related websites in an attempt to manipulates Google’s PageRank assessment of their domain. As a result, their site skyrocketed in the search results. This came at the perfect time, coinciding with the retail-centered holiday season, launching J.C. Penney to the top of various search results in which they were conspicuously out of place. This was undoubtedly very lucrative for the retailer who, without this manipulation, would not likely rank 1st for dresses, bedding and area rugs.

Google’s webspam team and their algorithms caught wind of these practices. Google blew their whistle and J.C. Penney was sent to the penalty box. In turn, their site was demoted to an unenviable ranking in the search results. The effect of these practices lingered for some time and amounted to significant losses in search traffic revenue.

More recently, a flower delivery company, Interflora, went missing from Google’s search pages for 11 days. As it turns out, Interflora was being penalized by Google after the company was caught paying newspapers to publish advertorials on their websites with links back to the Interflora website for the purposes of manipulating PageRank. Additionally, Google smacked Interflora with a PageRank of zero. Like J.C. Penney, Interflora implemented this strategy around their busiest time of the year: Valentine’s Day. While this may appear to be an overzealous call from the Google referee, consider the rules. Paid advertorials that feature links must feature a no-follow attribute – something Interflora conveniently forgot to include. Those who purchase links to influence search engines take “search manipulation” to a whole new level. Not only was the company itself punished, but the newspapers that carried the advertorials took a hit by having their own PageRank reduced.

SEO penalties can happen to any site at any time. And while there are ways to hedge the damages these penalties may cause, it is much more sustainable to be proactive in avoiding them altogether. By utilizing the following practices, companies can maintain ethical standards, while ensuring a well-designed play.

1. Don’t Over-optimize your backlink profile

Like natural citations, link building has an acceptable pace. The acquisition of too many links overnight can be an easy sign of manipulation (or at the very least, irregularity). It is important to focus on a balanced, varied and above all, natural backlink profile.

2. Duplicate Content

Most people understand that duplication of your content is frowned-upon and could result in Google ignoring the content. While this is unlikely to get you penalized in the traditional sense, it’s probably not worth your time and effort and could diminish Google’s overall opinion of your site. Moreover, if we are focusing strictly on inbound value, and not on solutions to duplicate content for webmasters such as canonicalization of internal pages, content marketers should focus on the importance of the proper syndication protocols of their “shareable” content. Avoid mass duplication and discourage scraping of your assets, while always encouraging a link back to the original.

3. Low Value Content

Search engines have been crystal clear about this one and we need no other hint than Google’s Panda Algorithm for that to ring true. They will place more value on high quality content in the search results. This is something to take note of. Future penalties and refinement of Panda are imminent even if you haven’t yet been demoted for featuring thin content.

4. Keyword Stuffing

An oldie but a goodie. Loading your web page with keywords is an easily-detectable poor user experience and is a big no-no.

5. Use Descriptive Title Tags

Title tags not only affect your website’s SEO performance, but enhance the usability and click-through of your landing pages. It is important that you balance keyword goals for landing pages with conversion strategies and find a brand-friendly title tag convention for your site as a whole. While 65-70 character title tags are generally best, it’s also important to remember that Google is not bound to display your preferred title tag in instances where they fell it doesn’t accurately describe the page content.

So, as digital marketers (and hockey fans, I hope!) lets avoid the penalty circus one period away from victory. Don’t revert to the stone age of black hat marketing while Google and other search engines look increasingly toward the future. Let your competitors play in the mud and send them to the box man-down. In the long run, you’ll win on the strength of your powerplay content and inbound authority.

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