SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is a process by which internet marketers draw organic traffic to a website. Over time, organic traffic should be the leading source of revenue for your business and will provide the best ROI on your marketing spend.
Let’s dig more into what exactly organic traffic is. Let’s say you’re searching for a professional painter to paint the exterior of your home. What is one of the first things you would do? Search for a painter on Google. You decide to search using the phrase “Professional Painter”– what results do you see?
At the top of the page is a paid result, called a PPC Ad. These are an entirely different conversation and you can read more about PPC Campaigns in this blog. As you scroll further down, you start to see the organic results for “Professional Painters”. Unlike the companies appearing in the paid results, these companies did not pay the search engines to be here, they simply optimized their websites by using SEO strategies. This is true for both the “Local Results” in the map as well as the organic results below the map. While running PPC campaigns can be a very effective tactic, studies have shown that the majority of clicks on a results page like the diagram above still go to either the local results or the organic results.
In order to rank in either the local results or the organic results, a series of steps need to be taken with your website, Google My Business page and other assets. These steps include first identifying relevant keywords (what is the behavior of searchers?) and then using those keywords in an effective way in your content. Every agency will approach these steps in a different way. There is no one, uniform approach to “SEO” as this is still far from a “regulated” industry. Internet Marketers and the search engines like Google have a “love / hate” relationship and there is a constant “back and forth” with respect to what we can do, and what Google wants us to do, to help a website rank. But generally, we categorize these tactics as either “White Hat” or “Black Hat”.
Before I start explaining the differences between white and black hat, let’s think of a car salesperson. When you are in the process of buying a car, there are trustworthy salespeople who truly want to get you the best deal, and then there are salespeople who just want the cash –regardless of whether they leave the customer satisfied or not. Who would you rather pick?
With SEO, there are ethical strategies (white hat) as well as non-ethical strategies (black hat) that marketers can use. Note that the use of black hat tactics put your site at risk for being penalized, which can lead to de-ranking your site altogether. So how do you tell which tactics your agency is proposing to use?
What is “White Hat”?
White hat strategies improve your search results and draw organic traffic while also following the general guidelines of the search engines. Search engines like google all strive to give searchers the best possible results and to only serve relevant sites and pages for a given search phrase. The search engines therefore provide guidelines to SEO practitioners to guide us on what we can and should do, and what we need to avoid. When in the process of finding the best agency to do SEO for your company, you want a company who optimizes your website without employing risky techniques that could potentially get your site into trouble. These people follow the rules and take the time and effort to do the proper research on your company to find the best keywords related to your business. They take the time to write unique and helpful content that brings relevant traffic to your website.
What is “Black Hat”?
In contrast to “white hat” techniques, “Black Hat” SEO’s do not follow the guidelines of search engines. Black Hat techniques are engineered to circumvent guidelines and beat out the rankings of those who ARE following the guidelines. You are probably wondering, what are black hat techniques? What do I look out for?
One of the most prevalent black hat techniques is with respect to backlinks. We know that links from another site to the site we’re working with will help improve rankings. These links are a form of “third party validation” that a site is reputable. A natural backlink profile that results from authoring and sharing quality content is the ultimate objective. Artificially creating backlinks from sites that are built solely for the purpose of providing backlinks is black hat. This was a widely used tactic years ago when SEOs would actually sell packages of backlinks. Google and the other search engines caught on to this quickly and began penalizing sites with a large number of artificial backlinks.
Another example of a black hat technique is using hidden texts and links. Inserting text within a page of content that is the same color as the background in order to maximize usage of the keyword on the page is black hat. Google caught on to people’s attempt at this and changed its algorithm to plummet their rankings.
Another technique that we’ve encountered is the use of a separate website and domain functioning as a “front” or a “mirror” to the intended site, creating a “cross-linking” strategy of multiple sites and links in a hub and spoke or tiered model.
What are the penalties of using Black Hat techniques?
Search engine algorithms are designed to detect many of these “black hat” techniques. They’re not perfect, and occasionally we still see sites using bad tactics that are ranking well. But the risk is that if those sites ARE detected, their rankings can be artificially “de-ranked” by the search engines which can cause organic traffic to plummet. Recovering a site that has been de-ranked can be a very long and difficult process. It’s simply not worth the risk.
How do you sort out the good from the bad?
If an agency is making guarantees or promises about rankings and traffic, you should be on your guard. Agencies do not control of the search engines, and any technique that comes with a promise for a “first page” ranking should be viewed with skepticism.
Outside of white or black hat, when researching agencies to help you with SEO, also make sure to look out for people who are just plain lazy. Good SEO takes time, effort and research. Some people may optimize your web pages for keywords that have very little to no search volume just to get onto the 1st page (often a guarantee for a page 1 ranking is tied to a phrase with no search volume). keywords with little or no search volume can easily present you with good rankings, however, there will be no additional traffic generated from the effort.
So, how do you avoid hiring someone who uses black hat techniques or is just lazy? Do your research. Ask them questions. Make sure they have a solid process in place when doing SEO. Just like when you buy a car, you get a good feeling when you have a salesman who wants the best for you. You should be able to tell how invested they are in you and improving your business.