At its core Search Engine Optimisation or SEO is the task of making a website search engine friendly, or more simply put, easier for search engine robots to crawl and discover what the site is all about. In recent times the term has also come to mean any activity that promotes your site and helps it move up Google’s search engine results pages. Most companies realise that being listed above others when someone types in their product or service can do wonders for their bottom line and with this in mind they want to know more. A few Google searches later and things can appear very confusing indeed. Lots of talk of different coloured hats for example, as well as various other things like cloaking, which only makes you think of Star Trek. Most of these things could be categorised under either ethical or non-ethical SEO, so which one is it?
In my honest opinion people often have an odd perspective on things. For example someone might look at a service that others provide and upon seeing how much money they could potentially make providing the service themselves, they decide to give it a try often with very little expertise. When looking at websites a similar scenario can often occur. Seeing a search volume of several thousand each month can often make people try and rank for it by using all sorts of tricks and deceptions (more on that later) but if you are an expert at providing a certain service and you talk about it on your site in great detail, including all conceivable aspects of that service, then really isn’t it Google’s job to recognise that? If it couldn’t then it wouldn’t be great at determining what sites are really all about.
To help Google understand what you’re good at, you need to include information relevant to the services you provide, and if you know what elements of the page Google or other search engines are looking at, you can include your service in that information to help things along even further. That is called on-page SEO. It’s easy really and if your site is built to a good standard, you should hardly need to change anything at all.
Another thing Google looks at for example is who links to you, or refers/recommends you for what you’re good at. So if you can convince other website owners that you’re good at something that they might know a bit about, they may link to you and Google thinks ‘hey, that’s a recommendation from ‘someone in the know’ already, so they must be good!’
With all the above in mind ethical SEO is making sure your site is built correctly so it’s easy for search engines to understand and making sure you get good recommendations . This is sometimes referred to as ‘white hat’.
Going back to strange perspectives. Let’s say Bob has a website that sells tables, and Bob is an expert on tables. Fred has a website that sells chairs and Fred is an expert on chairs. Surprisingly when people buy a table they often get the chairs with it so this is reflected in the search volumes which sees about 1,830,000 for chairs and 4,090,000 for tables. Bob is fine with that of course whereas Fred is a bit upset. He feels his chairs are just as well made as Bob’s tables and his chairs are certainly better than Bob’s, so why should he make more sales? In his frustration Fred decides to put lots and lots of the word ‘tables’ on his site to try to rank highly for tables, even though he knows his tables are not as good as Bob’s. This doesn’t seem to work too well so he employs an SEO specialist to help him get higher for Tables.
When reviewing Fred’s website the advice given is to have more information about tables on the site, but Fred doesn’t really want his customers to see this information so it’s put on the site ‘just for SEO’ and for ‘search engines to read not users’. May be they decide to hide the information by use of hidden elements or text the same colour as the background. The situation escalates as Google is wise to such activity and in fact devalues Fred’s site rather than crediting it for trying to manipulate the rankings. Other tactics might involve building thousands of spammy links all recommending Fred’s site for tables. This is done via hundreds of article submissions and automated blog comments perhaps. In the past this just had little or no effect, however recently this can also lead to reduced credibility. This kind of activity is referred to as ‘black hat’.
So is it the right thing to do that Fred is trying to manipulate his ranking? No, as Bob is much better at ‘tables’ than Fred and as a user of a search engine you would always want to presented with the best results for the product or service you are searching.
They also know they don’t want to do anything that would drop them out of favour with Google in the near future, even if it does get them a bit of a ‘quick win’. The main reason we see most people turning to non-ethical SEO is because of time constraints. It take a lot of planning time and effort to make a site popular. The mistake commonly made is to set up a website as a bit of a ‘shop window’ with static information that never changes. Site owners will then simply wait for people to find their site while twiddling their thumbs. After some time may be a month or six, the site starts to become a cost to them rather than something that sends them business and makes them money. In order to make the figures still work they therefore have to keep the site live with a very small budget. Of course they want the situation to improve and may be they decide to employ an SEO agency to help move the site up the rankings and generate more business for them. Generally because ethical SEO is harder to do it will take more time and therefore more budget, so with that in mind agencies that have non-ethical practices are often used as they offer cheaper packages. This is a typical scenario that I see occuring all the time. I’m going to try and outline how having a slightly different view can mean choosing the right options for your site in the long term, and ultimately could save you the money in the long run – money that you have to spend trying to rectify the damage non-ethical practices can cause that is.
In my experience this should be looked at from a completely different angle. Google for one knows how difficult it is to write unique content and create a site that is engaging enough that users want to come back to it, will bookmark it and will in some cases even link to it from their own site. This is exactly why Google rewards you so handsomely for doing the hard bit.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the old saying that time is money, and this is as true when applied to website activities as many other aspects of life and work. It take a long time to effectively plan a good article, brainstorm ideas, bullet point what you want to say, write the content and proof read it before unleashing it on your site. Again this is something that, if you do correctly, will set you apart from the crowd, and because it clearly takes time and effort for you to share your expert knowledge with your users, Google will notice that and help you to share it with the rest of the web.
Links. We all know we want them, we all know Google looks at who’s linking to you but how should you go about getting these in an ethical way? If someone has a site then effectively they have the right to recommend whomever they want, by the way of linking to them that is. Let’s say I have a site with some information about my experiences with building computers. Some of the information on my site talks about where to get the best computer parts from and in particular some snazzy LED lights to go inside the PCs I’m building. Would it then make sense that I might want to recommend some retailers to my users via the use of a link straight to where I got my lights from? Of course it does. That’s the right thing to do to help my users in their quest to build better, or at least more interesting PCs.
Of course all of this activity takes time. It takes a lot of time to write good content as we mentioned before and it takes even more time to convince others with decent sites to recommend you for things. If however you do take the time to plan what you’re going to populate your site with and how you’re going to encourage others to link to you and recommend the information available on your site, you will have something in place that lasts much longer, and gives you much more favour with Google and other search engines.
There are many different activities that can cause your site to see a sharp jump in positions/ranking in the search engines. These kind of surges in popularity are often treated by Google and other search engines as ‘news’ initially. If something suddenly becomes popular over night then it makes sense that it would be something like an event. The problem with this is that, after a short honeymoon period, the site in question would fall out of favour again, similar to the way that news becomes old. Using the more ethical methods I mentioned earlier you will be constantly giving Google and the like, signals that you are ‘always’ popular and good at what people constantly recommend you for. This is therefore much more sustainable and will see your high rankings stay intact for a much longer period of time.
Going back to our earlier scenario let’s imagine that they didn’t employ a cheap SEO firm and they planned out a good budget for some slightly more expensive SEO practices. Three months in and I wouldn’t expect much to have changed, but signs that things are starting to improve are there. Six months in and the site is now generating a steady flow of visitors due to the awesome information that has built up over the last six months. Another six months in and the site has become so popular that the traffic has gone through the roof, with enquiries coming from all angles. Other sites that decided to use the spammy link building tactics or similar strategies had a great few weeks during the first 3 months, but then Google fell out of favour with their ‘news’ and so they built more spammy links, which Google noticed through their algorithm because there are now enough of them to tip the balance and get the site caught in the ‘filter’. The next 6 months are spent trying to clean things up, and although this is successful, the site is now back to square one. Meanwhile the site that employed Ethical SEO services is doing so well budget is simply no longer an issue. I know where I’d rather be.