Watch yerself, pardner. There’s a new breed of snake oil salesman hawking search engine optimization (SEO) services out there. They sell fear—and fear sells. Such people are known as “black hat” in web parlance.
One such black hat charlatan recently pitched Altitude on why our clients need his help with SEO. That’s one of our sweet spots, but we’re always willing to learn new ideas from other experts in the field. So we played the “dumb new guy” and listened. Intently. We wanted to hear his rationale. Turns out that instead of providing real value, he was spewing fear and nonsense—and his tactics are much more common than you might think.
This man—we’ll call him Black Bart—”analyzed” one of our client sites and said it was woefully underperforming according to his company’s “proprietary analysis tools.” When we asked for specifics, he said it probably had “something to do with the font selection.” Now, trust me when I tell you, Google and Bing don’t give two hoots whether you use Times New Roman, Arial or Verdana on your website. We pushed him on other key indicators and the results were always the same—compelling “statistics” and misinformation that preyed on fear, half-truths and out-and-out falsehoods.
SEO is an evolving science. It’s also a goldmine for unscrupulous black hat operators. Google looks at more than 200 factors in its search algorithms and changes its formula on a regular basis. Consistently ranking high is a methodical process that requires initial testing and refinement and ongoing attention. But for the majority of small- to medium-sized businesses, it won’t cost anywhere near $8,000 a month. In fact, there’s a lot you can and should be doing by yourself to increase your SEO.
One key to good SEO is to regularly update your website with fresh content. Regularly updated content should be timely, relevant and valuable to your customers and prospects. Accomplish this through a well-thought out strategy for frequent news posts, e-blasts, Twitter, Facebook, and so on. This helps keep the site fresh, the search engines reindexing, and customer and prospects returning to the site. If your website is properly coded with something known as an XML sitemap, every time you update your website, it lets Google and the other major search engines know so they reindex your website—which is good for ranking.
A backlink is when another website links back to yours. Search engines use the number of backlinks as an important factor in determining search engine ranking, popularity and importance. In other words, the more backlinks to your site, the better.
But the quality of the backlink is extremely important—not as much to Google, but definitely to your company’s brand and reputation. Industry directory sites, blogs relating to your business, press release sites, clients and partners—all great places to get backlinks. If someone is promising to build you hundreds and hundreds of backlinks a month, beware. Ask how and where. Your brand is at stake.
Good example: We work with a Christian homeschool academy. They got hooked into a bad deal with a black hat SEO provider. Rankings went up in the short term as he spammed the company’s website address anywhere and everywhere—including places where it most definitely did not belong, such as porn sites and other questionable places. Higher (temporary) search engine ranking came at the expense of the company’s carefully tended brand image.
Here’s where the water gets real murky—when the snake oil salesman can scare the pants off you with technical jargon. A few key things to remember about SEO:
- Page titles
Page titles are one of the most important SEO tools that a website owner has control over. A standard should be established and adhered to. This involves giving each page a proper description so Google knows what it is reading.
- Meta Tags
Meta tags should appear in the code on every page. The “meta description” attribute is used by most major search engines as a fallback if the search engine cannot generate a description based on page content. Since this is the information that most search engines display on results pages, having clear, concise and engaging descriptions will lead to high click through rates.
Flash is great—if you hate Google. Flash adds a nice element of movement to a site, but can’t be read very easily by Google without additional advanced coding techniques—and Flash doesn’t show up at all on mobile devices. So if you have content “locked up” in Flash, Google doesn’t recognize it. An alternative approach, such as using jQuery in place of Flash, would make it easier for you to update the site yourself, present the content so its readable by search engines, and also allow the page to load considerably faster, which is a key SEO metric and creates a good user experience.
- Image tagging
We have a client in the landscape architecture field. They have a great gallery of images showing off many of their recent jobs. Too bad Google can’t tell. The images all lacked descriptions which could provide both geographic and topical context for each image, helping boost search. Adding ‘alt’ and ‘title’ attribute tags allow you to include additional keywords to pages to increase keyword density and relevancy.
Anyone who promises to get you on the first page of Google is selling snake oil. It just doesn’t work that way. It takes time, consistent effort—and all of what we’ve described above. If you need help and budget allows, shop around. Beware the “black hats” selling fear and confusing you with technical jargon.