Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has been a huge buzzword among marketers for years. The reason for this is that search engines can be legitimate sources of mountains of traffic for your site and the higher you rank on them the better.
The problem that arose in the early days of SEO was a blatant abuse of the system. What began as a few innocent tricks to earn more visitors morphed into questions of etiquette and heated debates regarding what should and shouldn’t be allowed. The web design community has come a long way in the past decade but there are plenty of marketers that still follow the tactics of the 90s either through ignorance or defiance.
Today we’ll briefly look at how to engage in SEO in an ethical manner by pointing out five key techniques to avoid.
Don’t Fill Your Meta Tags with Keywords
This is a clear example of how developers and marketers took advantage of the system to the point that any usefulness has been stripped. Years ago, websites began stuffing their meta tags full of every possible keyword and phrase that they could find. It was even a common practice to simply steal the meta tags of competitors.
If the fact that this practice is unethical and annoying doesn’t convince you to cut it out, consider this gem: it doesn’t help your rankings. Despite what your SEO guy might think, most modern search engines have abandoned (or simply never supported) meta tags as a way to rank results.
Google saw so many misconceptions regarding this subject that last year they published an article all about how they do and don’t use meta tags. They do occasionally use the description tag as the preview snippet for the site, they don’t use any meta tags to determine your page ranking.
Don’t Fill Your Footer with Crap and/or Hide Content
Another example of developers trying to boost their rankings through nonsense is by unnecessarily filling the footer with keywords or links. This results in a huge footer that doesn’t increase the usability of the site one bit (it actually reduces it!).
Also avoid hiding keywords on the page. This is one of my biggest pet peeves and really shows a complete lack of general knowledge or concern relating to ethical web development. I’ve seen pages filled with text the same color as the background, items piled on top of others, and other bizarre and desperate attempts to cram as many keywords as possible into the content. If it doesn’t fit with the content, leave it out!
An alternate version of hiding content is “cloaking.” This is a clever trick that makes search engines see one thing and users another. This way you can still have a nice clean website but still use all the dirty little SEO tricks. Cloaking is definitely frowned upon by the good people at Google and should definitely be avoided.
Don’t Duplicate Content Across Multiple Domains
Have you ever searched for something on Google, clicked on a dozen links or so that seemed unique only to realize that half or more ultimately led to the same site or product? Remember how annoying that was?
The key here is to continually put yourself in the mindset of a user. We are all aware that more traffic often equals more money, but duplicating all your content across multiple sites just so you appear multiple times in a search is essentially just spam! You’re not targeting valuable traffic for the sake of conversions, you just want to watch your analytics rise. Never mind the fact that half the people visiting your site are annoyed at the fact that they keep ending up there and will therefore never consider buying whatever it is you’re selling.
Having multiple domains is fine, if that’s what you genuinely need for content purposes. Creating a network of unique but connected sites is a completely legitimate business practice and can lead to a large following of interested users, just make sure you’re not mindlessly copying and pasting content simply to enlarge your snare.
Don’t Sacrifice Quality or Usability
At the real heart of all of these principals is a desire for quality and usability. If your SEO is reducing the ease at which people can use your site, then it’s counterproductive and reduces rather than increases the value of the site. Ask yourself what the fundamental purpose for the existence of the site is. If it’s to be a professional face for your company to the public, then don’t cheapen it for the sake of SEO.
Even good practices can make your site suffer if not implemented properly. For instance, the necessity of inserting keywords into paragraph copy often leads to sentences that are nearly unreadable or at the very least an assault on the English language.
For instance, repeating keywords again and again in different ways can make your site both annoying and confusing. As an example, your site can be made quite annoying and confusing by repeating the same keywords and phrases different ways throughout the paragraph copy. To illustrate, if you want to confuse and annoy your readers, repeat the same keywords again and again throughout the site.
See what I did there? Never imagine that your users are too dumb to notice your incessant attempts to fool search engines into giving you a higher rank. They will both notice and resent you for it.
Strive to make a website that people can use and even enjoy. Use the SEO techniques that you know are respectable and effective, but if you have to choose, give usability a higher level of importance.
Don’t Let Your Clients Believe SEO is Magic
One last thing that really irks me is “SEO Experts” who take advantage of clients that simply don’t know any better. Everyone uses the Internet, but few really understand it to the level that we web developers do. Consequently, it’s really easy for someone who knows the lingo to convince an aspiring business owner that the reason they haven’t achieved fame and fortune on the web is because they need a little SEO.
There are plenty of legitimate SEO experts that can in fact provide a measurable and valuable increase to the number of visitors to a site, but it sure seems like there are a lot more individuals who have learned just enough to rip people off.
Be honest with your clients both about your experience with SEO and how it will and won’t benefit them. If you don’t know anything about it, don’t claim that you do. Read a book or two on the subject before you start bragging about how good you are at it. If you really do know all about SEO, then you should know enough to tell your client how much of a return they can realistically expect from their investment.
How to Get Banned
If you read and discard the information above as the drivel of an overzealous designer, you should definitely reconsider. There’s more to my argument than simply stating that I don’t like it when developers engage in these tactics. The truth is, most of the web community doesn’t like it. So much so that engaging in practices like keyword abuse, cloaking, and duplicating content are excellent ways to get your site banned from Google and other search engines.
It might seem draconian for Google to police the web in search of violators, but you have to remember that the primary goal of a search engine is to provide relevant and useful links to searchers. If your shady actions are inhibiting this goal, don’t be surprised if you get the boot.
Ultimately, remember that good practices are those that don’t feel like you’re getting away with something. Proper use of headings, assigning alt tags to images and creating site maps are all great ways to boost your SEO without selling your soul. Exploiting loopholes and constantly searching for that one golden trick that will bring you the traffic of your dreams is a fool’s errand that ultimately hurts more than it helps.
Leave a comment below and let us know what your SEO pet peeves are. We want to hear horror stories of sites that go way beyond what is acceptable in the name of first page rankings!