The dark side of search

ROB O’NEILL
Last updated 16:00 27/02/2014
Dark side of search
Making Google work for you is an important part of modern business.

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Being at or near the top of Google’s search rankings can make a huge difference to a business’s online sales and profile, but to get there and stay there requires constant effort and investment.

It also requires vigilance, because there could be someone out there trying to take you down.

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is the sometimes controversial practice of optimising a website to appeal to Google’s search algorithms. Many firms may not know that it has an even more questionable dark side.

“Negative SEO” is an emerging online phenomenon based around changes to Google’s algorithm that penalise websites with poor quality incoming links. 

Google’s algorithm has always used links as a kind of currency - the more you have to your site, the higher it would normally rank. Some SEO firms, however, began creating links to help boost their clients’ websites up Google’s rankings.

Richard Conway, managing director of Auckland-based search optimisation consultancy PureSEO, says such dodgy “link spam” is created by various means, including using internet addresses (URLs) that had become disused after previously earning  a good Google ranking or reputation.

Take a look at the former local blog nzbc.net.nz, now owned by a Canadian search engine optimisation company, as an example.

Other more aggressive tactics include “comment spam” on blogs and forums that include links.

Conway says he comes across such “link building” a lot in New Zealand.

In response, Google made a series of changes to its search algorithm late last year to penalise dodgy linking practices which didn’t add value for the searcher. It applied those penalties to the websites that previously benefitted from them.

Legitimate sites whose SEO providers engaged in link building as part of their services have also been caught and penalised.

Unfortunately that change in turn may have opened the door to a different kind of abuse: the ability of a competitor to attack a legitimate, high-ranking website by bombarding it with dodgy links that Google will detect and penalise.

Colloquially, this is called “link bombing”.

This form of attack is a fairly recent phenomenon, Conway says. Google’s stance is it doesn’t see negative SEO as a big problem as yet, and much of the abuse seems to be centred in industries such as payday lending, he says.

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Google has also created a “disavow” tool to allow webmasters to notify the search engine of unwelcome incoming links. But getting your site back up the rankings can be a long and painful process, Conway warns.

“They are hard to remove. It can take six to eight months and there’s no guarantee the site will move back up the rankings.”

Internet NZ technical policy advisor Dean Pemberton says the issue stems from what is a fundamental incompatibility between Google’s aims and those of website operators. Operators want their sites to rate highest, while Google wants the best and most relevant results for the user.

Google’s aim is to be “ungameable”, while SEO providers need to be able to say they can game the results to justify their existence, he says.

Another change makes the situation even more complex, Pemberton says.

Google now holds a lot of data about users and their interests and preferences. These also feed into its search algorithm. Therefore, when anyone claims they can influence Google’s results the question that should be asked is “for whom”. Those search results are increasingly personalised.

It’s important to vet SEO companies carefully before engaging them, Conway says. He suggests anyone looking for that kind of help speak to the company’s clients about their experiences first. If there is any sign of unethical practices, such as spamming keywords all over the website, the company may be best avoided.

“There are all sorts of dodgy tactics that can deliver short and medium term benefits, but when you lose your ranking it may be very difficult to get it back again.

“There are only a handful of SEO companies that really know what they are doing and stay on the right side of Google’s guidelines.”

Much of Google’s requirements are common sense, he says. The search giant is trying to detect and eliminate anything that doesn’t deliver value, in the form of useful accurate search results, for people using its services.

“If something looks like spam, it probably is,” he says. Legitimate and ethical SEO isn’t complicated, but it is time consuming.

“Too many people try and make it sound difficult.”

 

Caught in the trap

Late last year, lauded US wedding dress designer Maggie Sottero approached Andrew Pincock, CEO of internet marketing agency Trafficado, with a problem.

After a series of changes to Google’s algorithm targeting websites with a large number of poor quality inward links, Maggie Sottero’s site had fallen off Google’s rankings.

The brand was a victim of negative SEO. It had been “link spammed”.

The changes to the algorithm, collectively code-named Penguin, not only discounted such links but introduced penalties for the sites receiving them. Maggie Sottero received a manual penalty that dropped the company off all rankings including when searching for the brand name.

For a website that received over 150,000 brand searches a month, that was quite a shock.

“Google provided them with no specific information or examples of what the offending links were,” Pincock wrote on SearchEngineJournal.com.

In a laborious recovery procedure, Maggie Sottero first had to request  the removal of questionable links. The designer submitted a comprehensive disavow file of links and two requests for reconsideration in Google’s Webmaster Tools, Pincock wrote. 

The responses to both requests were canned, indicating the site continued to violate Google’s guidelines.

“This is obviously a complicated issue to solve without killing Google’s ability to assign value to a link,” Pincock said.

“It’s my opinion that in order to shut the door on negative SEO, Google should assign no benefit or value to links deemed to be spam. The result will be that sites will neither benefit nor be hurt from such inbound links, thus neutralising the incentives for any party to engage in such linkbuilding tactics.”

The good news is that Maggie Sottero is now back on Google’s rankings, right at the top when searching for either the brand or generically for “US wedding dress designers”.

 

Managing reputations

SEO techniques are also used to manage personal reputations, to drive good news stories to the top of search results.

Again these can be lifted up Google’s rankings by increasing the number of third-party website links to the positive stories.

Bad news can also be drowned out through the generation of large numbers of fake stories and profiles online.

Having an impact is expensive and time-consuming, PureSEO’s Conway says.

Quite a few “unsavoury” characters have approached him for online reputation management services, he says. However, there are also legitimate reasons for it, such as when a company or individual is subject to an unwarranted online attack.  

 

Seven tips for search success

- Post genuine content that adds value to your audience, and post it regularly

- Encourage and foster legitimate incoming links – don’t buy them or engage in link exchange

- Use legitimate keywords that describe your site and its content

- Ensure Google’s robots can access all parts of the website you want indexed

- Register with Google Places to take advantage of local search

- Submit a site map to Google

- Engage an ethical SEO firm if needed

- Unlimited

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