What's all this about penguins, pandas and search engine optimisation?
Optimising websites to rank highly in Google search results is a lucrative industry. For years, businesses have employed search engine optimisation (SEO) providers to boost rankings.
However, the industry has been shaken as a result of Google releasing its latest updates on how websites are ranked (known as 'Panda' and 'Penguin'), and its policy of placing unprecedented penalties on what it considers attempts to manipulate the rankings by, for example, utilising low quality spam techniques that do not take much time or investment.
In the last 12 months, following the release of these updates, millions of websites have found themselves suddenly demoted in Google's search rankings.
Google has stated that its Penguin update released earlier this year, is 'an important algorithm change' aimed at preventing spam and underhand tactics that allow less useful websites to appear at the top of a search.
Notwithstanding this, frequent changes to the way in which Google detects these 'spam' websites has caused huge problems to SEO providers and their clients. Many SEO providers previously pushed the boundaries of what is allowed by search engines in order to maximise results for clients.
However, the Google upheaval is expected to prompt litigation, as website owners look to recover losses resulting from their search ranking demotion.
'Black hat' versus 'white hat'
The terms 'white hat' and 'black hat' have been coined to differentiate between the fair and right way to optimise your website's Google ranking, and the unethical methods used by some SEO providers that search engines are so keen to stamp out.
'White hat' techniques include researching key words and phrases that you think people will use to find your site, and assigning several of these to each web page.
Finding the right keywords relating to your business is crucial to climbing Google's rankings. Building online relationships and producing articles for other websites is also important, as this generates quality inbound links that are highly regarded by Google.
"Black hat" techniques that may cause your ranking to fall are likely to include packing long lists of keywords on to your site, known as 'keyword stuffing'; and becoming part of a group of websites that all hyperlink to one another, where the content of the websites are not relevant to each other. This is known as 'link farming'.
What does this mean?
Google's combating of spam tactics is not going away, and its update strategies are likely to be developed further over the next few years, leading to further developments in its search rankings.
Whilst using an SEO provider that employs 'black hat' techniques may bring short term gains, the long term risks are mounting - being identified as a 'black hat' user by Google could be disastrous for your website and, in turn, your business. Demoted websites are left with a loss in traffic and loss of business as a result.
Many of those who have lost out are now turning to litigation to recover their losses. Some businesses are looking to Google for recovery of loss, but given Google can create its own rules in respect of the Google search index - and would undoubtedly take the view that those penalised have broken those rules - success seems unlikely.
Of course, the success in pursuing the SEO provider depends on the terms of the contract in place, and whether the terms and conditions are clear concerning the techniques SEO providers may use.
What should you do?
- Ask your SEO provider to explain the techniques it uses to increase your website's ranking.
- Operate within Google's current guidelines by focusing on 'white hat' techniques - this should help to safeguard your website against future changes. You may even find that your website's ranking improves, as others are penalised for using 'black hat' techniques.
- Ensure that the contract with your SEO provider clearly identifies those SEO techniques that are acceptable and those that are not.
- If you are in any doubt about the best course of action for you, seek legal advice.