The past several months have afforded several high-profile examples of how search engine optimization, or SEO, should not be done. Last fall it was DecorMyEyes and the case of the abusive business proprietor, and just recently it was JCPenney and the case of the short-lived black hat success.
Such stories are by no means the only ones out there, of course -- they've just drawn more publicity than most. Either way, examples like these are a rich source of instruction for the rest of us and a good reminder that in SEO -- as in so many aspects of life -- there's a right way to do things, and there are wrong ones.
Want to improve your company's search rankings? Then make sure you don't try to play any of these dirty SEO tricks.
1. Cloaking Your Content
The No. 1 top offending SEO technique, according to both SEO software firm SEOmoz and Google's own guidelines, is to design your Website so that search engines see one thing while human visitors see another. This is commonly called "cloaking," and it's generally considered the dirtiest trick there is.
Car maker BMW kindly provided a vivid illustration of this technique a few years back, as well as what happens to those who try it. Specifically, it was discovered that BMW's German Website was using what are called "doorway pages," or text-heavy pages sprinkled with select keywords, to attract the attention of Google's indexing system. The particular search term it focused on was "used cars."
BMW's reward for its cloaking efforts? Google unceremoniously kicked the BMW site out of its index, as Google engineer Matt Cutts explained in a blog post from 2006.
2. Acquiring Links from Brokers, Sellers or Exchanges
The second worst dirty trick, according to SEOmoz, as well as one apparently employed by both DecorMyEyes and JCPenney, is to pay a link broker or participate in other link schemes so as to get numerous links to your site from all across the Web.
The reason this trick is tempting is that Google's page ranking system factors in the number of links pointing to a page when it tries to evaluate that page's importance. It's also tempting because it can work well -- at least in the short term, as JCPenney recently demonstrated.
Why shouldn't you use it? Well, mostly because it's in direct violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines, and it can get you severely punished, as JCPenney learned. If you participate in a link exchange program -- whereby you link to a spam site in exchange for their links to you -- the outbound links you install are also another factor that will negatively affect your rankings.
3. Duplicating Content
If a Website operator offers the same content on multiple pages, subdomains, or domains, it can result in extra traffic and higher rankings -- or at least, so the thinking goes. Unfortunately, it's another violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines, and it can get you kicked out of its index.
Other instances in which content sometimes gets duplicated include affiliate programs that offer little or no original content, auto-generated content that's packed with keywords but makes little sense to human visitors, and content "scraped" from legitimate sites and then modified minimally.
Not only will such techniques get you punished by Google, but they'll also turn away human visitors. Note that when content is duplicated legitimately, such as for printer-friendly versions of articles, there are ways to alert Google so it doesn't misunderstand.
4. Keyword Stuffing
The keywords used on any Web page are a major factor in that page's ranking, but it's a bad idea to use them indiscriminately or deceptively. That includes using too many of the keywords you're hoping to optimize on -- thereby exceeding any kind of naturally plausible keyword density -- and it also includes packing keywords in hidden text, different-color fonts and tiny type.
Once again, Google engineer Matt Cutts offered some additional explanation in a 2007 blog post, along with an illustration: Alex Chiu, whose Web page featuring "immortality devices" was at the time stuffed with irrelevant keywords. Guess what? Chiu didn't show up in Google's index. (Since then, it appears to be back, presumably because the keyword stuffing has been corrected.)
A useful test, as Google points out in its guidelines, is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?"
5. Banking on Negative Reviews
Although it was disputed by at least one SEO expert, the owner of the DecorMyEyes site believed that the more negative reviews and comments his site got -- and there were many, thanks to his atrocious customer service -- the better the site's rankings, primarily as a function of all the extra links and traffic. For a time, too, his strategy worked pretty well, for whatever reason.
In response to the case, however, Google says it has since tweaked its algorithms, though it didn't explain specifically how. My assumption is that the overall sentiment of a site's reviews are now a factor. So, lest anyone be tempted, this is not a sustainable strategy, nor a smart one.
6. Automatic Queries
If you're like most Website owners, you wonder how your pages rank on various keywords at any given moment in time. Lo and behold, there are even tools that will perform automatic queries for you, to find out the truth from Google itself.
The only problem is, Google doesn't like that at all. Tools such as WebPosition Gold, it asserts, "consume computing resources and violate our Terms of Service." Better avoid them.
There are other dirty SEO tricks out there, to be sure, but these are some of the worst ones. If you handle your company's SEO yourself, make sure you don't stray into these dangerous waters. If someone else handles SEO for you, manage them carefully so none of these slip by.
Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk .