SEO in 2015. Google has eliminated all the dodgy tactics and every SEO agency is as pure as the driven snow – right? Unfortunately, this is not the case and most SEO companies are still selling worthless, old-fashioned and potentially damaging techniques. These strategies, whilst they can work in the short-term, often directly contravene search engine guidelines and can lead to penalties and often a complete removal from visibility in the search results.
The purpose of this article is to outline the main approach taken by the majority of street-level SEO companies and to help you determine if the work being done is helping or hurting. My sincere hope is that you will take ten minutes to read this and be better armed when it comes to choosing an SEO agency to work with – however, if you want to just skip to the end of the article and learn how to determine if your SEO company is using underhand strategies that could have a negative impact down the road then skip to the end (I promise not to be too upset).
Before we can really dive into what is being done we need to set some context so I will start with:
What is SEO?
The term itself has some variance in meaning depending on who you talk to. Too many folks think SEO is simply building links. To others, it is an umbrella term encapsulating digital or at least search engine strategies to progress your business goals. For most small business owners it really comes down to being visible in the search engine result pages for the specific search terms that are of value to their business – “locksmith in Birmingham”, “plumber in Birmingham” etc. These seemingly simple goals branch out towards many activities in the search of sustainable online visibility and it is the goal of the SEO company to advise their clients on what activities, strategies and tactics they should undertake in the search for solid visibility, click through and lead generation in Google (and Bing etc).
SEO 2015 – The State of Play
The SEO industry has always been about influencing search engine results for clients. An unfortunate element of this is that often the easier, quicker and certainly more scalable ways of doing this go against the search engine guidelines. What ensues is a game of cat and mouse between SEO companies who favour these simple, scalable but somewhat dodgy tactics and the search engines who keep refining the algorithm to remove loopholes that allow for manipulation.
The collateral damage here is businesses that employ these SEO companies may see initial improvements, but they will also see their rankings dive or suddenly disappear overnight when Google catches up. Often they pick up penalties that can in many cases make it all but impossible for the site to rank for the targeted terms. The net result over an extended time period can be a negative equity but hey, most folks only do SEO for 18 months or so before moving on so the company picks up a new client and it is someone else’s problem.
House of cards
One of the main problems here is that where you may work with an SEO company for 6 months, 12 months, 18 months or even longer before you notice that either A) this is not working as well as it should (or at all) or B) that you have suddenly seen a huge fall from grace. In these cases as well as having a penalty of sorts which creates a hole you have to dig yourself out from you have also built nothing of long-term sustainable value.
In most cases, this puts you in a worse position than when you started despite thousands of pounds spent with your agency. The stock response here is often that “Google changed their algorithm” but in practice, if an SEO agency is doing their job properly then whilst you will always see fluctuations there should never be a sudden, stark fall from grace. In fact, any agency worth their salt would be looking for potential problems and managing your entire digital brand and website presence. Google is getting pretty good at warning folks when changes are coming as they did with the mobile update and your SEO agency should be working with you to ensure you are in tip-top shape and these threats become opportunities for advancement.
Why this happens
So, just what the hell do these companies do to try and influence your rankings? SEO is a hugely diverse industry in that it covers everything from content marketing, traditional marketing, PR, web design, user experience and so, so much more yet the approach of these companies is incredibly narrow. In nearly all cases I have seen (and this makes up about 90% of the so called SEO companies out there) these businesses are born with a pure desire to make money and little else (and often at the expense of their customers). In many cases, this is likely well intentioned but in almost all cases that is not good enough.
We all want to make money, but most reputable folks in the SEO industry have a genuine love of marketing or technology or writing or some such that underpins the business and allows them to deliver value. These churn and burn shops have a very simple model that allows them to easily scale and make money as the breed of SEO they sell is purely a mechanical process designed to exploit gaps in a machine learning system.
Some of these companies are genuinely passionate with regards to chasing rankings, but marketing is about so much more than just visibility – you can pay for top of the page search engine adverts yet it does not guarantee results. Only a holistic approach led by marketing and business goals will succeed and a single focus on rankings is simply not enough.
What does Google want?
We must consider what Google wants here to ensure we align our search strategy with their own goals. We don’t want to try and reverse engineer an ever more complicated system for results. Rather we want to understand where they are going and what they want and swim with, rather than against the current of change.
Google is a referral engine. People ask questions and Google want to deliver the best results. If the results become weak then people would move to another search engine. Google want the results to be great so people keep using Google and ultimately so they can sell adverts. The sixty billion dollars Google made in 2014 has to come from somewhere right?
In fact, this desire to connect search engine users with relevant results is even present in the AdWords advertising platform in the Quality Score metric. Adverts that satisfy users have a better quality score. An improved quality score provides better positioning and lowers click prices. A mechanistic way to ensure that the adverts don’t become a spam festival and user satisfaction is always a key factor of any search adverts.
Ultimately Google wants to connect users with quality content and services. Simple. Focus on quality and being the best result possible and providing the signals that allow Google to understand that and you won’t go far wrong. In practice, there is a little more to it than that but if you can make ‘be the best’ your SEO mantra and connect your online presence with all your other marketing activities then results will follow.
So what do these SEO companies do?
So, by this point, I am sure we can all agree that SEO is a hugely complex and multifactorial job when done well. However, the majority of SEO companies still focus on one single area which is the building of links. Sure, links are important. Very important. Links are votes and part of how Google determines if you can do what you say you can do. Much like referrals – if someone you trust vouches for a third party you instantly trust them.
So links are crucial. No doubt about that. But they are not the be all and end all of the rankings. In fact, there are many things Google can do to determine the quality and authenticity of a link. In 2015 and onwards having a well-rounded marketing program that includes social, content, digital PR and a whole suit of other marketing activities will only help to further illustrate the authenticity of the links you do acquire.
Additionally, the kind of links you need is important. Links in 2015 need to be from popular, topically relevant and active sites. This machine learning system is getting cleverer every year and will only continue to get more so. In fact, as computing power continues to double in line with Moore’s law the processing power available to better assess the link graph is only going to get scarily more powerful.
What these companies do can be basically broken down as follows:
- Find websites that have some authority but have expired
- Register the website and set up some low-quality content – often a single page website
- Place a link on that website to your site
In most cases, the sites built on these domains are a single page site with some rubbish content that is generally outsourced and written by a non-native English speaking author. Sometimes a blog is spun up on the site to allow for additional content pieces. The links use the anchor text that the company wishes to rank for. That is it. Pretty much. There is some nuance and there are ways to do this well but in most cases, it is not done well. The company may also make some edits to your website to cram in the keywords you wish to rank for but by and large, that is it. Has an SEO company ever made a content edit that made you stroke your chin and thinks: “that does not really read right – is this legit?”
The thinking here is that the authority for a website is primarily on the homepage so a link from this page with keyword rich anchor text is going to provide a boost for the terms that you target. In theory.
The main nuance employed here is not with regards to the quality of the page or content but rather in attempting to remain undetected by the search engine algorithm components that attempt to police these manipulative pages. To this effect, the sites are often hidden from link indexes like Majestic and Open Site Explorer and the only place you will notice links from your network sites will often be in Google’s Search Console (Formerly Webmaster Tools). The goal here is to prevent any kind of kind of pattern that would make these sites identifiable (duh – other than the lack of any discernible reason to exist).
The sad thing is this used to work all too well. If it didn’t then these companies would not do this. But it is not working so well any longer. In fact, in nearly all cases it is potentially harmful and is what Google considers a link scheme and openly advises against. And if history teaches us anything it is that Google will find a way to stamp out these links given time. It can also still work well to a degree but I would counter that the work needed to create topically relevant sites that can stand a manual review is harder than actually just acquiring a link from a real, active site. It is something of a moot point as none of the PBN links we have reviewed were of this kind of quality and where the SEO company is chasing profit they will remain firmly in the realm of $5 content pages.
A problem of scale
Google knows what is going on and you can bet your hat that they are working on a solution. However, it is a big Internet and it takes time to engineer solutions to problems of this scale. Sooner or later though they will close the loop and any value from these links will fall away. All the value of your investment will fall away. Back to square one. In fact, if Penguin taught us anything you could find yourself with a massive hole to dig yourself out of.
The question you really have to ask is – do you feel lucky punk? Do you want to generate traffic from search today, tomorrow and in five years time? Are you building a business? If you intend to grow and sustain your business over the long haul then these low-priced strategies are short-sighted and will only damage your business.
Repeat after me – “my SEO company is not smarter than Google”. Now make that your mantra and question everything that is done and ensure it makes sense to you from a common sense and marketing perspective whilst still providing SEO benefits. You need full visibility of every single link and an agreement that any work that was done will not go against search engine guidelines. Anything less is not enough.
I recently visited with a small company that has been working with a local SEO agency in Birmingham for 18 months or so. During this entire period, they have seen no real signs of improvement. The firm they work with has essentially built a single spam site like this every month for the last 18 months or so. To reiterate that is a one-page website on an expired domain.
These are largely US domains like plumbingbaltimore.com so whilst historically they have a loose correlation with service area they are not UK domains so are not even a terribly good choice for this approach. In fact, only a few of these domains are actually topically related and none are UK based. Domains are generally purchased based on domain metrics thrown out by tools like Majestic.com or Open Site Explorer. Citation flow, trust flow, domain authority etc. Raw and often useful metrics assuming these are active, topically related sites.
Another approach we see is where the company has a large network of sites often known as a blog network and links are added to this network. Often these two approaches are blended with some private sites (PBN) as described above and some from the open network. The net result is much the same although open networks create a larger signature and as such are riskier.
So this is what is what they have paid for over 18 months. These firms tend to have tiers where the lowest tier gets you a single site. The second tier gets you two. So on so forth.
It gets worse though and in this case of the 18 sites built only 5 are currently in Google’s index. That is Google thinks so lowly of these sites that they have removed them from the index. Sites removed from the index are the lowest of the low. No value to anyone. The clutter and junk of the web born out of a desire to game Google. If the sites are not indexed they have been rumbled and won’t help in any ranking – transient or otherwise. And, what does it say about your business if the sites that link to you are predominantly like this? You become devalued by association. Not exactly what we were trying to do here.
What makes this worse is that the company providing the service has seemingly not twigged that these sites are deindexed despite the total lack of any visibility (they are in the late 40’s for their targeted terms). Looking at the competition it is not a difficult subject to rank for and has a local bias. Likewise, there is no local SEO work being done here and citations, Google+ and the site itself lacks any local optimisation.
To keep on heaping on the good news here, they have a second site that has had exactly the same medicine. This site ranks a little better but given the fact that again most of the sites built are not indexed this is unlikely to be due to the work done here.
So, we have around 18 months and an almost £10,000 outlay with very little to show for it – except possibly a hole to dig yourself out of in terms of bad links. Good work folks. You are doing the SEO industry proud.
White Hat, Black Hat, Ethical – yadda, yadda, yadda
Google does not own the web and you don’t have to play by their rules. There is lots of money to be made from having a visible lead generation site in Google search results. Certainly, where click prices are starting to hit upwards of £50 in certain business categories then there is good money to be made from gaming the system. Is this fair game? I think so as long as it is done from a position of knowledge and understanding. There are certainly lots of folks who understand the risks and play the system. That is fair game in my mind. This is the digital wild west after all – go prospect!
Where this becomes problematic in the small business SEO space where SEO services are being sold as white-hat, Google guideline friendly, safe, sustainable etc. This is total bullshit. Small businesses are being lied to. This approach whilst scalable and simple for the SEO company is totally against Google’s guidelines and will lead to at best a decrease in visibility and a ranking hurdle and at worst a complete lack of meaningful visibility. This also takes the focus of sensible marketing all of which would help with ranking if done with some SEO smarts.
There are folks that openly create and sell link networks. There are link networks you can subscribe to. These are open and if you are on Black Hat forums or some such and sign up to these services you know what you are letting yourself in for and the potential gains. Have at it. Where this approach is sold to you as a guideline compliant and risk-free way of improving search visibility then that is not cool.
Ultimately, if you want long term visibility in search this approach is at best ineffective and at worst hugely damaging. You are building a shaky foundation that will slowly but surely be devalued. No value there. Just risk over short term gains.
Is this even legal?
Now, this is a tricky one. In my mind companies are being misled in many cases and if work is sold as one thing and is, in fact, something else then I believe there could be a problem. Certainly, SEO companies can’t guarantee results as such but they can guarantee adherence to best practices and we are starting to see some litigation against SEO firms that mislead and poorly represent their customers.
This is a tough one and it is going to need educated purchase decisions with contracts that state an adherence to search engine best practices and quality guidelines. In my mind, this should be in every SEO contract as it gives you a legal footing should the representation not be up to scratch.
This is more common than you think
Bowler Hat is based in the UK’s second city Birmingham. I am aware of several other SEO companies all aggressively going after Birmingham business. I also know that many of them don’t do the work in-house. Others that do are predominantly using the method described above or variations on this theme. I am aware of one of the more visible companies that have openly claimed to an associate of mine that they are making a lot of money and should anything go wrong they will shut down and start again. Great for them. Not so great for you and certainly seems like a deliberate and uncaring attempt to profit with little consideration for the long-term implications of what they are doing.
Lessons from the past
I have been involved in the SEO game for 15 years or so now. There were white hat advocates back in 1999 like Jill Whalen and Doug Heil. The problem was it was just so damn simple to game the system back then. Still, Google started to put pay to manipulation in 2003 with the Florida update and in many ways, this culminated with the Panda and Penguin updates tackling site quality and link manipulation in 2011 and 2012.
Each of these updates floored the more manipulative elements of the SEO industry and more and more of the manipulators fell away. Penguin was a total game changer and suddenly the quality of links really mattered. Years of building low quality and over optimised (unnatural) links created a scenario where many well-ranking sites sank like stones. Businesses were closed. People lost jobs. SEO companies updated their tactics.
Many companies moved to the spam site / PBN approach, but Google has largely wised up to that as well now and even top tier spammers have learned their lesson and moved on to more sustainable inbound & content marketing practices.
The point being here that Google catches up with the loopholes sooner or later. Lessons from history teach us this. Yet, many companies seem to either have not learned these lessons yet or are intent to keep making these mistakes on behalf of their customers.
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein
Greed or stupidity?
It is interesting to consider what motivates these businesses. Certainly, building good, awareness raising, high-quality links on real, trafficked and visible platforms is difficult. It is a creative endeavour. Not an easily scalable production line system. Building best of class content on your site and running promotions so it earns links is again very difficult. Doable, sustainable and works but not easy.
From what I can see the folks do this break down into three main categories:
1. Young and Naive
– these folks think they know better than Google. They get some results for themselves. They game the system. They think they know better. Suddenly, the next Penguin or Panda comes along and they learn (the hard way). The real losers though are their clients who bought a dream and received a nightmare.
2. Old and out of touch
– these folks often have some experience manipulating search results. Often they are strong salespeople. They believe in the approach but don’t really understand guidelines or the long-term impact of what they are doing. These should know better. Albert Einstein was right about these folks.
– many of the companies selling SEO don’t actually do it. They look for the most cost-effective reseller platform and end up using the services of #1 and #2 above. Most traditional marketing agencies, website designers and graphic designers tend to fall into these categories.
There is likely a fourth case as well where you have well-intentioned branding or marketing businesses that think “hey, there is nothing to this SEO game, I have read a couple of blog posts, we can do this” and have a go. This is less likely to result in any negative outcomes (depending upon what they have been reading) but it is also highly likely to be ineffective.
In all cases, the net result is the same and you are using a company for one of the most important marketing activities in the digital age and they are representing you in the worst way possible. SEO is a complicated old job and people doing the work well tend to be highly visible experts in the field. Is your SEO agency led by a thought leader? Are they featured on leading industry blogs? Do they have in depth and interesting blog posts on their own site?
I am a proponent of mixed marketing strategies that bring multiple strategies together to deliver great results. This is what we do ourselves. Yet, SEO companies should be visible for content and key terms and should be earning some work from search engines. They should walk it like they talk it.
Likewise, if the SEO companies focus on more aggressive outbound marketing like sales calls and spam emails then in my mind, it says much of their lack of understanding of how the modern, digital, inbound, content-led marketing works.
We also have to briefly consider that whilst the marketplace still wants $99 SEO then there will always be someone, somewhere that will provide that service and build a process that seemingly delivers – but for how long?
Fast, Good or Cheap
There is a saying in software development that you can have either fast, good or cheap. In fact, you can have two of these but it will impact on the third.
- Fast & Good – won’t be cheap
- Fast & Cheap – won’t be good
- Good & Cheap – won’t be fast
We can equally apply this thinking to search marketing and SEO and in most cases good quality, sustainable SEO will require an investment and won’t be fast (unless you are willing to spend big).
If you are already doing SEO then you need to take a look and determine if you have these kinds of links. There are a couple of ways to determine if the links that your SEO company has been building are of a good quality. This is not always as simple as it should be as these links are often cloaked and hidden from the standard web indexes like Majestic and Open Site Explorer to prevent competitors reverse engineering your ranking.
Request all links built from your SEO agency
Before you can review these you need to get a list of all links from your SEO agency. If these can not be supplied or are not offered instantly then alarm bells should start ringing.
Review links in Google Search Console
Next up review all your links in the Google Search Console
Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools): https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/home?hl=en.
Link Review Spreadsheet
Get all your links in a spreadsheet. Get the ones supplied by your SEO company in one tab and the ones you found in another tab. Create a column for indexation, referrals and trust score from 0 to 10.
1. The Smell Test
This is one of my favourite tests – what do the links look like? Are they from a single page website which kind of looks a bit off? The text does not make much sense. Design a bit ropey? Most low-quality PBN sites will not pass the smell test and if you simply can’t understand why this site would exist then it is likely dodgy.
Check if the site is indexed. Do this by prefixing the URL with site or info in Google Search.
So, to check this site we would use the following query: site:bowlerhat.co.uk
If Google does not return any results then that page is not indexed which gives you some further indication of Google’s perceived quality of the linking page.
3. Referral traffic
Check your analytics – do any of these pages send you any traffic? Surely, a real site with a link on the homepage would deliver some traffic if it was a real, trafficked site?
Check this in the Google Analytics dashboard: Acquisition > All Traffic > Referrals
Fill in your spreadsheet
As you go along fill out the details in your spreadsheet with any additional notes. Detail if the domains are indexed, referral traffic and an overall trust score from 0 meaning no trust to 10 for something that looks legit. You are using the referral traffic, indexation and smell test here to derive at your estimate for this score. Sites that are not indexed and send no referral traffic are a big fat zero – as are sites that are indexed but look like they were not built for humans and send no referral traffic. You are looking for a general guide here to the quality of the URLs so don’t obsess on the details. (If you are unsure give me a shout on twitter or via our contact form)
At the end of the day, SEO is an odd game. There are still strategies that Google does want you to employ that will work short term and this private blog network approach is one of them. The big problem here is that this is not a long-term strategy and if 15 years of algorithm updates have taught us anything it is that sooner or later Google will catch up and all of your SEO spend to date is flushed down the digital toilet.
Generating authority and links that will stand the test of time is more difficult. It will take longer. It will likely cost more, but this is the only sustainable way to ensure visibility and growth for the long haul.
There are new companies springing up every day and they all have lessons to learn. If you don’t want to be the SEO guinea pigs, you must educate yourselves to understand what a safe and sustainable SEO campaign looks like and create a range of SEO packages that can work for all different kinds of businesses as, one strategy that works for a business, may not work for the another.