There is a dizzying array of online marketing hype that entrepreneurs get subjected to. Many offers from include promises that are clearly impossible, like guaranteed ranking for competitive keywords in Google searches. Worst of all, some of these paid services will actually hurt a website’s standing in the search results. Luckily there are some rules of thumb that can keep you in good standing. Below is a list of techniques to help you build search visibility and stay out of the Google penalty box.
1. Don’t Attempt to Trick Google
Paid optimization tools have been around since just after the birth of internet search engines. Some tools are essential in helping marketers determine the best approach to reaching their audience. These analytic tools like SEO Moz and SEMRush are safe to use and offer valuable information. These tools make no claims about specific results, as their effectiveness depends on how they are used. Combined with free tools like Google Analytics, they are excellent for formulating a long-term SEO strategy and monitoring progress. However, business owners who are looking for immediate results can be deterred by the time it takes to build organic SEO. In that case, the best approach will likely be to use paid advertising through search engine marketing (SEM), but that is a topic I will need to save for a future article.
There is another type of paid “SEO tools” referred to by web professionals as “black hat tactics”. Simply put, they are designed with the intent of outsmarting Google. Black hat SEO tactics have evolved over the course of time from link buying schemes to content spinning and other forms of algorithmic SEO hacking. The key to black hat is that it works, but only for a limited time. The life cycle of black hat tactics typically looks something like this:
- Analysis of existing search results exposes an exploitable aspect of Google’s indexing algorithm
- Black hat marketers exploit this weakness to obtain high page ranks
- Google adapts to defeat the exploitation and penalizes sites employing the tactic
- Black hat marketers continue to market their technology long after it will damage clients’ page authority
The most important stage in the black hat cycle to understand is the last one. Most black hat tactics are marketed aggressively, even long after the tactic has been blackballed by Google. They are usually fairly cheap and come with outrageous promises of performance based on metrics derived from the short period of time before Google adjusted to neutralize them. Regardless of whether Google has blackballed them yet, you should avoid these tactics because you can be sure they eventually will be blackballed. That means there are two types of people engaging with black hat tactics (1) Those are currently penalized, and (2) Those who will be penalized.
One useful analogy to use when evaluating if an SEO practice is a good idea is to think of it like building a relationship between your website and Google. Nobody likes to get tricked, and Google’s indexing adjustments can range from indifferently ignoring tricksters to outright vindictive punishment. The best approach is to build your relationship with Google on a firm foundation of give and take, and the rest of this article focuses on methods of showing Google that you are indeed providing value.
2. Be Social
At it’s heart, Google’s indexing algorithm aims to present people with a few options that satisfy their needs. To achieve this, they’ve focused a great deal of effort on trying to determine indicators of quality and reputation. Social media has become an important aspect of this calculation. A good flow of activity and two-way engagement with the community on social media sites not only improves your businesses’ visibility, it shows Google that you are offering value to the community.
A little listing research (as detailed in #3 below) reveals that Google grants good authority to most social media sites, which makes them great sources of inbound links. This effect can also be compounded by the fact that useful content tends to propagate across social media with minimal effort. One caveat to remember is that the content in your social media must be publicly available for Google to index it. Below is a list links that can be used to register your business on reputable social networks:
3. Get Listed
There are plenty of directory and listing sites offering free business profiles. These sites can provide a source of inbound links to build page reputation. They will also provide direct referrals by showing up in search results for keyword combinations that your primary site doesn’t. Depending on competition and how niche your market is, having your business listed at these sites may be the only thing necessary to gain good search visibility. Below is a list links to free business listing pages that should be in your portfolio.
- LinkedIn Company Page
- Angie’s List
- Better Business Bureau (must have been in business at least 12 months)
There are other listing sites that can also bolster your page rank, but some can actually harm your SEO if they have bad reputations… But how can you know which directories to avoid? I’d like to offer both a word of caution and a technique that can help you sort out which sites are safe.
Before I tell you how to find good sites to list with, I want to highlight the fact that there are several businesses that sell listing services. Some are definitely black hat and will get you in trouble, others are white hat, but probably not worth the cost. Either way, you don’t have a guarantee that any of them won’t get your site associated with poor quality sites that can hurt your reputation with Google and frustrate your potential customers. The best advice here is to just stay away from them and use the following link list building technique, as detailed by Kevin Bates of Infinite Skills in his SEO video course.
- Decide the keyword combination you want to target
- Enter the keyword into Google search
- Find the highest ranking business competitor
- Visit the competitor’s page and record their website address (URL), business name, and street address (some don’t list their address, usually this can be found on Google Maps)
- Return to Google and enter a query with the following syntax
[business name] “[portion of street adress]” -site:[URL]
For example, your search might look like this:
Flowers By Irene “123 Fake St” -site:http://FlowersByIrene.com
This syntax tells Google to return all of the sites containing both a part of the name and the quoted portion of the address, but which are not the actual competitor’s site. The great part is that you can infer by the order in which they are returned how much Google trusts their reputation. Look through the list of sites in the results and make a list of potential directories on which to list your site. After a few times repeating this process, you should have a good feel for how much effort your competitors are putting into SEO and which listing sites are safe to join. You will probably notice that several of the directories marketed by the paid listing services will not show up, indicating that Google ignores them or potentially has penalized them for employing black hat tactics.
4. Go Local
Competing for keywords is tough. If it fits your business model, one great technique to lessen the competition is to narrow the keywords you are targeting to the geographic areas you serve. For instance, instead of targeting “Florists”, Irene could target “Florists in Ipswitch”. The level of competition for the second phrase will be much lower, allowing Irene to compete for better search visibility in the local market.
For the same reasons listed above in #3 (Get Listed), you will want to be listed in map services that are critical to geographic SEO and also bring in local referrals.
- Google Maps
- Bing Places
- Mapquest (see here for the list of info to include under “Add a basic Business Listing”)
- Yahoo Maps (make sure to click the tiny free listing link beneath the paid plans when you get to that step)
Finally, there are often local listing sites or publications that are great opportunities for referrals and reputation building. These can be easily found with searches for terms like “business directory in (your local city name)”. There are also some paid options like the local chambers of commerce, which may be a good investment depending on the nature of your business and ability to engage in local events. When evaluating local listings, prioritize sites that have a long track record (better reputation), and applicability (don’t waste a ton of effort getting your flower store a link on the local plumber’s union website).
Just like the previous tip, this one focuses on narrowing the competition by reaching the correct audience. As much as you are able, try to focus on specific specialties that make your business stand out. The key phrase “Wedding Floral Arrangements in Ipswitch” is likely to have less competition than “Florists in Ipswitch”. It also provides a greater indication of relevance for Google to use when evaluating your value to a query.
When specializing, there are also opportunities for listings with professional organizations or directories that specialize in your area of expertise. Some of these may carry more weight with Google than the local directories and should not be overlooked. Using the link list building technique detailed in #3 (Get Listed) above using similar businesses as yours, even in markets outside your own, is a great way to find these directories. You can also simply try to google “business directory (your specialty)”, and see what comes up.
I hope you’ve found this helpful in determining your own SEO strategy. The information in this article should have you well on your way to formulating a sound basic SEO strategy. For help with hosting, website design, SEO, SEM and more advanced marketing strategies, please consider contacting me. If you have questions specifically about this article, please use our contact form, leave a comment below, or comment at Facebook, Google+, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
Jeff Hill is the owner of Jacksonville Web Consulting