Some observers – some Googlers included – are going pretty easy on J.C. Penney for being the latest big company to fall “victim” to black hat SEO techniques.
And the ensuing tips on how to separate the wheat from the chaff are still too soft on the whole issue, as pointed out by Lisa Barone in this excellent piece. Like Lisa, I think the advice stinks. It’s coming from people who have been burned before by failing to do due diligence.
To add to Lisa’s suggestions, here is my take.
Right off, you’re never going to get people to admit that what they really did was start to like the aggressive promises and aggressive results they achieved, so they looked the other way when it came to the decision to look the other way at increasingly aggressive tactics.
If you do that for a company you own or control, and it blows up in your face, you lose money.
If you happen to be the gambling type, maybe you are one of those companies that invests in throwaway domains or throwaway ideas, and you aren’t too worried about the consequences. That’s your own personal risk profile.
While by no means a universal law, business owners with tightly-controlled companies, who have a low risk profile, do not typically knowingly hire black hat SEO’s.
Managers dabbling in SEO, by contrast — whether through ignorance, laziness, or an inappropriately aggressive stance — may take outsized risks.
Needless to say, SEO is mission-critical for many companies. If you fall out of favor with Google, goodbye online visibility.
Just as common as marketing managers doing the SEO vendor search, is the generalist outside advisor or web development layer who is involved in the vendor selection. Maybe they have their own ideas about what vendor selection means. If you were hiring a graphic designer for a mural, what’s the worst that could happen? If you didn’t like how it looked, you could pull the plug. You’d be only out the money for the mural. But you wouldn’t hire that way for an encryption technology firm. The higher the fallout risk, and the more technical a field is, the more due diligence you should do, and also, the less specific direction you may be qualified to give the vendor once they are selected, due to that complexity.
Sometimes, wanting to rise to that challenge, someone in “IT” wants to outdo the previous SEO strategy regime, so apply their dangerously little knowledge to the effort.
In most of those cases, this is not only a failure of knowledge or a matter of being outsmarted, but a failure of accountability and leadership. Notice the pattern of finger-pointing, as opposed to any “mea culpas,” in these situations where the site gets penalized by Google?
Source of the “I hired a crappy SEO” syndrome
Let’s take it as given that there are shady people and firms in the world. There is also Bernie Madoff. I can’t help that. But just as investing your life savings requires due diligence on your part, we need to move beyond excuses and finger-pointing at “shady SEO’s” who “burned us”.
Here’s a list of key internal sources of these snafus, with only the beginnings of a suggestion or two on how to do better.
Hmm, on second thought: I can boil the list down to one thing.
1. Managers and firms looking for SEO improvement are typically too specific in their implementation deliverables. They too often micromanage the order of work, the type of work needed, and the tactics employed, all in a field they purport not to know well enough to work in directly! For some reason, a specific type of link-building has become de rigueur as a hard-wired “how much will is cost to build x links on x PageRank sites” deliverable, even though this was already ceasing to be a novel or productive tactic (especially on its own or in the wrong hands) at least five years ago. What’s more, when it comes to taking several bids for this very specific deliverable, a responsible, strategic SEO agency partner will always lose out to an irresponsible vendor. Always.
One simple solution to this overly tactical approach, which we”ll call “S,” is simple!
S. Before doing anything, engage a 360-degree-thinking, well respected SEO strategy agency for a comprehensive review or audit of all facets of your search visibility. This isn’t a panacea, and sometimes we in the industry are guilty of getting too technical and tactical in such audits. So then you need to ask more questions, engage a lead strategist for an hour here, and an hour there. Since it’s hard to find those people willing to do that work for a mere hourly rate, it can be cheaper to hunt them down at the major search conferences and find good, meaningful conversation somehow.
If that isn’t quite specific enough to the link-building and reputation management objective, engage a reputation building expert with some SEO knowledge for a package of training sessions so that your in-house culture can become aware of all the things the company and its existing fan base can be doing to increase its overall reputation (including but not restricted to inbound links).
And of course, put aside mega-tactical concepts such as “linkbaiting”. Good attention is good attention. Life is “linkbaiting”. Some attention gets you more links than other attention, sure. But you succeed if you think about life as one big “linkbait”. Not by calling in a Ninja linkbaiter to drop some links into your life in a one-off.
If you’re just looking to find a great firm to partner with over time, then think of it that way… a partnership! Not a list of vendors in a spreadsheet. How to nail down a productive partnership with a firm that will help your organic search results (among other things)? Here are some suggestions.
How to reach out for true SEO expertise
a. Marketing managers: accept personal accountability for professionalism, vendor selection, goal-setting, and process, not just credit for results.
b. Go with a marketing agency — of whatever stripe — that educates, inspires, informs, and connects. If they can’t do everything you need with SEO, keep them around to work with or evaluate the firm you do choose for that.
c. To provide one example — consider that your company’s reputation is paramount and that specific instances of that amount to “getting mentions” which inevitably place you on a sound footing indirectly for higher rankings on relevant keywords. You could run out and be purely tactical and chase an algorithm from six years ago — hiring a firm that specializes in this — or you could take a broader viewpoint and hire a hybrid firm that keeps you out of hot water while working on tactics. What am I talking about? Well, SEO is a very young industry, littered with tacticians who work completely divorced from professional standards (even mentioning a “know your client” rule leaves many SEO’s blinking blankly). While SEMPO and other groups want to change that, the fact is, it’s not the most grown-up culture. By contrast, public relations firms, for example, have been around forever, so maybe they understand a bit more about the subtleties of true “outreach”. Now, do a better job of marrying that sensibility with how things work on the Web (as Eric Ward has done since 1994). But realize that even as enlightened practitioners implement them, “link building campaigns” are far harder to achieve than they were 10+ years ago when these promotions were novel and the targets were more receptive. Yes, there is grunt work involved (such as anchor text that you’d be better getting than not), but if you see off-page SEO as completely divorced from the real-world strategy of getting out there and telling your story, then you’ve just shifted all your strategic accountability over to an SEO firm. And remember, you’re supposed to be accountable for this project?
d. To add to this, you can’t 100% outsource reputation building. Or if you do outsource it, the process needs to be collaborative as opposed to “farmed out”. (You can much more easily outsource performance marketing tactics like PPC.) When it comes to your online presence, creating content, fostering community and responses, etc., sustained campaigns work. “Links” don’t just get “built” by rote, like a handyman builds a storage shed in the backyard.
e. In an SEO capacity, kick the tires hard if you’re also getting SEO advice or implementation any firm that focuses on “building websites” or “ecommerce platforms.” Yes, your site and your cart drive the business, but SEO is not where such firms’ DNA typically lies. Which means they will either outsource, hire the best available talent they can afford, or make it up as they go along. (Often varying from project to project.) Because there seems to be a lot of pressure to claim all expertise is in the same shop, even when it isn’t, I’d actually be very receptive to a firm that says they partner with a reputable SEO firm — and explains who it is.
f. Sustained partnerships lead to continuity in moving forward on whatever aspects of your presence online relate to SEO, thus getting away from the “it’s only SEO if our deliverables list said it was” syndrome. I am pretty sure, for example, that your overall visibility and traffic will grow if that page on custom pottery designs keeps growing and adding customer feedback (star ratings and comments from real human beings). This creates signals of true customer and user interaction with the page in relation to certain links or SERP’s; it creates fresh new content; and it may get you into alternative forms of visibility (review aggregation) outside of the Ten Blue Links. “Gee, that doesn’t sound like the sort of thing an SEO firm would do for us,” you say? Well… (1) Hmmm… exactly — if the mutual pact between clients and vendors evolves to define only discrete make-work boondoggles such as low quality link building, then you leave out a lot of potentially good stuff; (2) Hmmm… exactly… a lot of the best ideas come from doing what’s best for your customers, the community, and the general Web user, and if you’re not always thinking about that, then what are you doing?; (3) A sustained partnership with solid experts will always bring to light good ideas like this and give you a permanent, qualified sounding board for various alternatives.
Google? What gives?
Google could have handled this better, by being more directly critical of the violating company — and I don’t just mean the SEO firm. By helping violators of Google’s guidelines to easily recover from their past mistakes by calling out SEO firms in general as the “real” source of the problem, Google isn’t helping the situation a whole lot. If there is no significant, long term downside to spamming Google, then it becomes a free-for-all. Firms “accidentally on purpose” hire black hat SEO’s, then come crying to Google later, knowing who Google will side with. Or they put too much performance pressure on rank and file marketing managers and generalist outside advisors, without any stated commitment to professionalism in process. And so … after the slap on the wrist and the pat on the head by Google, this morphs the race for high rankings into too much of a subjective matter of letting known brands off the hook, while continuing to penalize and ban unknowns. That runs directly counter to Google’s claims of algorithmic, never-manipulated, search results.