Are You Following the Rules?
When I explain White Hat SEO in a UC Berkeley Extension course or sales discussion, most people nod and agree with the theory of playing within the search engine optimization rules. Until the discussion turns toward timing and results. Can you guarantee that I’ll be on page one for most of my keywords? How long will it take to rank better than my competitors? What’s the fastest way to show up in Google searches?
Let me tell you the truth about White Hat SEO and why many digital marketers stray to the dark(er) side.
Note: This post was updated on May 9th 2019. With a March 2019 Google algorithm core change, there was a significant impact on some websites’ organic ranking. The good news is that those Webmasters who followed White Hat SEO practices fared well. So the advice included in this article stands the test of time — even when the SEO ride is tumultuous.
What Is White Hat SEO Anyway?
In its simplistic definition, White Hat SEO techniques follow the rules (quality guidelines) that Google and other Search Engines set forth about structuring information on the Web. Google and Bing are in the business of answering human questions; they try to serve up the best matches to the search phrases (keywords) posed. The search engine’s job is to scour all possible pages they’ve indexed from the Web and deliver the most recent, relevant, and useful content.
By expertly matching searchers with content that answers their questions, search engines build a loyal following. When searchers have a positive search experience — finding information they want quickly — they are likely to return. According to Alphametic, Google has 87% market share in the U.S. In a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 77% of Americans go online daily, and 26% describe as their online usage as “constant.” So the data confirms there’s an enormous base of searchers they can target for ads, which in turn, adds billions to Google’s revenue each year. When there’s that much money at stake, it pays for Google and other search engines to take great care in helping searchers find the most relevant information on the most credible sources. Hence, why following quality guidelines is a direct correlation to White Hat SEO and your website’s long-term success.
When You Don’t Follow the Rules
Setting aside ethics for the moment, using Black or Grey Hat techniques can get you into serious trouble. Google has published their SEO guidelines. That said, nothing stands still on the Web, including SEO. Google algorithm changes are routine, as they continually test ways to improve search quality and a searcher’s experience. Therefore, Google rewards high-quality sites, and specifically targets webspam. Webspam is defined as techniques that “don’t benefit users, where the intent is to look for shortcuts or loopholes that would rank pages higher than they deserve.” When abusers are caught, punishment can range from lost ranking (the most lenient outcome) to complete banishment from the search engine.
What Color is Your Webmaster’s Hat?
Webmasters, who use SEO techniques that try to trick or manipulate a search engine for results they don’t deserve, are called Grey or Black Hat SEOs. If you outsource your website and/or SEO management, it’s important for you to know their philosophy and the techniques they use on your behalf.
Why is this important? Let me share a real-world example.
Several years ago we signed a client who was unhappy with the up-and-down results they were getting from their past two SEO agencies. This client sold a service to the B2C and B2B markets. Rather than seeing consistent growth in their organic visibility and subsequent web traffic, every time Google released an update to their search algorithm, their website took a hard hit. It would take several months of work to crawl back up to previous traffic peaks and revenue levels. Up and down it went until they went searching for a better solution and hired us 😀.
The day before we were to start our contract, they were hit by a manual penalty. The impact? Going from high visibility for several revenue-generating keywords in organic search, they became invisible (pushed down to page 50+). As you can imagine, this was catastrophic to their business; they lost thousands of dollars in sales each month. So, with zero SEO equity left on their website, the only way to drive qualified leads to their site was to pay for them (e.g., Google Ads).
From Google’s perspective of webspam, the business owner was at fault. While the agency they hired did the work, the owner paid the ultimate price. Recovering from a manual penalty was an arduous and lengthy process, one that cost them dearly. Basically, they had to regain Google’s trust in their business’ website. Not only did they have to pay for rebuilding their website’s SEO foundation, they had to pay for leads via ads to keep their business afloat.
That’s why understanding the philosophy and techniques your Webmaster uses on your behalf is a must. If you’re looking for an SEO agency, we suggest asking these seven key questions. In simple terms, ask yourself these questions:
- Is the user experience (e.g., well organized, easy to navigate, fast to download, no spammy tricks) on my website primarily positive?
- Does my website provide content that’s useful to searchers?
- Would credible websites want to link back to my content because it’s thorough, well-researched, and of high quality?
If the answers to the above questions are yes, then you’re most likely following White Hat SEO guidelines.
The Rules Continue To Change & Evolve
Search engine algorithms continue to evolve. At a rapid pace. If you follow MozCast, you see the volatility in organic search. In the past several years, we’ve had a record number of days (even months) with significant fluctuations to Search Engine Result Pages (SERP) rankings. Perhaps this is the new normal. Google’s algorithm now has artificial intelligence; in essence, this is machine learning. One of the pressing reasons the machine has to learn fast, is because 15% of searches every day are new and never been searched before.
In a Search Engine Land article entitled “How to stop worrying about Google updates,” the author chronicles the slew of no-name updates unleashed by Google in 2017, a trend that continues today. The article includes good ole fashioned White Hat SEO advice, things we’ve been saying for years. Like:
- Honor your website visitors by creating quality content they actually want to read and share – in some ways this is like the old adage “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about”. If you’re creating quality content, that serves the needs of your website visitors, Google will like you. Google want users to click on a link from the SERP and be happy with what they read. If your website fulfills that, then you are going to be safe from the majority of update reshuffles.
- Review your link profile — Remember that the websites that link to you are just as important as the websites that you link to. If you wouldn’t choose to link to a site because it looks spammy, don’t let them link to you either. Check your link profile frequently and keep it clean by removing any spammy domains you find.
- Fix any technical problems — Broken links and confusing navigation detract from a positive user experience. Don’t ignore small things like spam comments on your blog posts, broken links, CMS plugins/apps/add-ons that need updating or old pages that could be removed.
- Use analytics to make improvements — Google Analytics and Search Console provide insightful data on how your site is performing. Regularly look at your data to identify what’s working well on your site and what isn’t. For example, analyze which pages have good visibility in organic search and what content contributes to conversions is a good start.
Stay educated on quality guidelines — Ensure that your Webmaster and/or digital marketing agency is following the rules. Set up Google alerts or follow blogs that keep you informed. You can’t predict Google algorithm updates. However, Google is typically very good at communicating those where you need to take action (e.g., mobile-first indexing announcements were made two years before it was rolled out).
No Guarantees Allowed
If your SEO firm or digital marketing agency “guarantees” results, then they are most likely not wearing a white hat. If the competition is high for your keywords, then legitimate and targeted SEO efforts are going to take time. Due to competition, it’s not uncommon for organic visibility to take years, not weeks/months. If your competition has deeper pockets and are spending it on SEO, then achieving position #1 on page #1 may not be realistic. Want fast results that are ethical? We suggest a multi-pronged strategy that includes multiple long-tail keywords for both SEO and paid search. Include advanced techniques like schema and AMP, which are complex and need a technical expert. By diversifying your SEO portfolio, you can gain visibility with search phrases that are less competitive but still drive organic traffic.
Our clients are looking to improve visibility and protect their reputation. In our mind, it’s a no-brainer to keep our White Hat squeaky clean.