The Rules of SEO
RULE 1: If you can automate it, it's probably SPAM
Google believes in a "human-generated" internet. Any content, link, or page generated by a machine alone is likely to be classed as SPAM at some point in the future.
This also includes downloading content from another site or provider and regurgitating it on your own website. The days of cheap "affiliate" sites that could reproduce a manufacturer or supplier content but with generally better SEO are truly dead.
RULE 2: If you're doing it "because it’s good for SEO" or "good for Google" but not "good for the user", it's probably SPAM
Anything done to a website purely to help it position better and that has zero benefit for the end user is probably a SPAM tactic. Whatever you do to your website, whether you do it under the banner of SEO or not, should be done to improve the experience for the user. Google wants to deliver its customers to websites that give them a great experience - if that's you, they will position you better.
RULE 3: If you are paying an unknown third party for something, it's probably SPAM
Anything that promises links, clicks, or traffic from undefined sources in exchange for money is either a straight out con or more SPAM (unless we're talking about a clearly paid for advertisement). Google doesn't have a problem with you buying advertising from them or from anyone else - but they don't like to see links, social media updates, or blog posts that are made to look organic but have really been bought and paid for.
RULE 4: If someone tells you it will "trick" or "trap" Google, it's probably SPAM
No matter who it is you are talking to, if they tell you they've figured out something Google doesn't know about its own system... then they're wrong (or soon will be). The problem with any SEO "trick" is that Google gets to hear about them pretty quickly. Any technique that works is invariably engineered out of the algorithm in very short order. At best, the benefits are real but transitory. At worst, those real benefits become real penalties if Google think you've been trying to abuse the system.
RULE 5: If someone told you about it in a SPAM email, it's probably SPAM.
The snake oil salesmen of yesterday still exist today and they're still shilling their wares via email, social media, and good old-fashioned cold calling. If a company is resorting to SPAM email to get your attention, how good do you think their SEO is really going to be? Shouldn't they be living handsomely off the customers who find their website organically?
Hit delete and move on.
White Hats, Black Hats, and Negative SEO
Before we continue, and on the topic of snake oil salesmen, I'm going to make a quick note here for you about the two kinds of SEO that you might hear talked about on the web - "White Hat" and "Black Hat".
They're nicknamed this way because, in a Western, the good guy normally wears a white hat and the bad guy wears a black hat. It's the same with SEO; the "White Hat" guys are trying to be "good" and play by the rules, whilst the "Black Hat" guys are out there trying to break the rules.
By now, I hope by now I've already warned you off the sort of tools and tactics that are ultimately only going to damage your website but, as one final warning, don't be fooled by self-proclaimed “Black Hat” SEO providers. In recent years, offering "Black Hat" SEO has become something that some providers specialize in. They want you to believe that their "Black Hat" techniques are going to go undetected by Google and that they are selling you something better than a "normal" SEO provider. The truth is, it's extremely unlikely that any “Black Hat” tactic is going to have a long shelf life. Google are watching these guys constantly and in the rare occasions that they do achieve something spectacular, Google have been known to dish out penalties manually to websites that it believes are breaking the rules.
Remember, Google is a business and a closed system. Whilst they are under increasing scrutiny from government bodies, there is no law that they have to rank your site, and they don't have to include it in their index. Their business is predicated on giving their users the "right" answer - not the answer that you want them to give.
Sadly, “Black Hat” tactics can not only be used by people on their own websites - but on other people's. A burgeoning area of endeavour for “Black Hat” SEOs is "Negative SEO". Negative SEO uses known “Black Hat” tactics, which carry known penalties, on a target website to try and attract a penalty from Google.
For example, if you're getting roundly trounced on Google's front page by your competitor around the corner, you might be tempted to hire a "Black Hat" to go off and do some of the things that I'm advising against doing but, instead of doing them to your website, they do them to your competitor. They don't need to hack the competitor's site to do this (although you will find that service offered on some darker corners of the Internet as well) as most negative SEO tends to be "off-site" - e.g. it is concerned with activities such as creating lots of SPAM links to a website that Google will perceive as being spam and therefore (potentially) issue a penalty for.
Google claim that Negative SEO is impossible but there are a growing number of case studies that show examples of it. I’ve seen it myself and whilst you might be able to debate how much real impact it can have, there is no doubt that it is going on.
Arghh… this is getting confusing! Can I really do my own SEO?
White Hats, Black Hats, Penguins, Pandas, Web Spam... it can all sound a bit daunting, right?
One of the things I'm most often asked by clients and colleagues is "How do you stay on top of all of this?" and the truth is that it takes a lot of time reading, experimenting, testing, and then reading some more to sort the wheat from the chaff. SEO best practice changes frequently and there is always something new to learn. What was true today may not be true tomorrow but, in this day and age, you can say that about a lot of things and even in SEO there are certain "evergreen" truths that seem unshakeable.
- Don't spam.
- Don't cheat.
- Build a good website.
In short, you don't have to be a chef to make a good meal; you don't have to be a plumber to stop your sink leaking...and you don't have to be an SEO consultant to take control of your website and improve things.
DIY SEO is about understanding the fundamental, evergreen aspects of SEO that will pay dividends when applied properly. If, after that, you still want to hire an SEO consultant that's great - every penny you spend with them should be going into something worthwhile, not into fixing basic things that should never have been wrong in the first place.
Look, I’m really busy. I don’t want to do my own SEO!
“Can’t someone else do it?”
There’s nothing wrong with using an SEO agency, hiring an SEO specialist, and having someone else do all the legwork. SEO is hard, it takes graft, and you may not think you have the time. That’s fine.
But I don’t think you want to risk giving someone else, inside or outside your business, control of something so fundamental without having an understanding of it.
If you’ve ever sat in a meeting and not understood a word of what that person responsible for your website is saying, if you’ve ever thought “that doesn’t sound right” but not known what questions to ask, if you’ve ever stared at a graph or a report and realised that you didn’t know if it meant things were getting better or worse, if you’ve ever had that nagging dread that you’re handing money over to someone and not getting a return on it… this is the book for you.
Francis Bacon was right when he said “knowledge is power”: you don’t have to be doing the day-to-day SEO work to understand how it works, what doesn’t work, what should be happening and how to measure it.
No matter what business I might be in, I’d be damned if I didn’t make sure I understood that part of my business. I’d be damned if I didn’t understand every part. A long time ago, I worked in retail and before you could run a store you had to work in every department. You had to know how every part of the business worked. Looking back, that was a very sensible thing for them to do.
Make no mistake - you need to KNOW this, even if you don’t DO this.
That's the preamble over. Still ready? OK, now let's go!