Are marketers who play by rules falling behind?

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Matt Saunders
Matt Saunders

Webmasters have been looking for ways to artificially manipulate organic rankings since the inception of search engines. As Internet usage has exploded and competition for rankings continues to grow, the use of so-called “black hat” tactics has intensified. Users judge search engines based on the relevance of their search results, so search engines work to continuously evolve ranking algorithms to stifle such activities. Regardless, webmasters continue to find and exploit weaknesses in a high stakes game of digital cat and mouse.

“Black hat” tactics can take many forms; many of which are eventually devalued over time through algorithm tweaks while other high-profile examples are remedied through manual adjustments. Some of the most common techniques include reciprocal linking schemes, blog comment and forum link spam, and “link farm” networks, which quickly generate thousands of links primarily from low quality sites. In addition, spammers often employ a form of cloaking or doorway pages to serve different content to users and search engines.

Inbound link data is a foundational element of the Google ranking algorithm used to determine the authority of a website. Anchor text, or the clickable text of a hyperlink, is an important indicator utilized to demonstrate the relevance of the link's destination page for a particular topic.

Links from quality websites are generally more impactful to rankings than sheer quantity; however an extremely high number of links from topically unrelated and low-quality websites targeting precise anchor text can result in prominent organic rankings for competitive searches and thus are considered spam. Despite the potential for short-term success, utilizing spam links is a risky practice that could jeopardize the organic search performance of a website over the long-term.

While Google was the first search engine to account for inbound links as an indicator of authority, all of the major search engines now utilize inbound links as a factor in determining organic rankings and it continues to be an important factor in gaining organic search visibility. Instances of search result manipulation through link spamming is not an isolated issue. Most recently it impacted Google's search results, but similar offenders can be identified in search results for competitive queries in Bing and Yahoo as well.

The search engines, most notably Google, prefer to abolish spammers through algorithmic updates to improve search results as it is a more scalable way to eliminate infringers. In some high profile instances, such as the recent example of JCPenney, it is deemed in their best interest to ‘make an example' of offenders to demonstrate the risks of failing to adhere to their established guidelines. With JCPenney making prominent headlines, Google made manual changes to the site's organic rankings by devaluing the links acquired through these spamming tactics that helped to propel them to the top of search results.

Websites have evolved from a 24-hour business card to a key source of customer interaction, acquisition and revenue for many companies. Capitalizing on the immediate impact of black hat techniques does not outweigh the risk of suffering long-term penalization.

All link acquisition and offsite promotion strategies should adhere to best practices and focus on developing a large quantity of high-quality link placements from topically relevant sites. Building domain authority without the use of spam tactics drives prominent organic rankings that lead to measurable business impact.

By continuously monitoring search results, companies (or their agencies) can identify link spam infringers and report them to search engines through the appropriate channels.

Search is a dynamic marketplace. Hundreds of changes to ranking algorithms are made annually, while new competitors and new technologies emerge every day. SEO should be viewed as a process that drives short-term incremental growth while building a foundation for long-term success. Fly-by-night tactics such as link spamming should be avoided to eliminate the risk of penalization and ensure perennial organic search performance.

Matt Saunders is a search/media manager at Rosetta.

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