Experts Blog

Following Google Guidelines

By Mary Bowling on Sep 14, 2011 - 03:27 PM

Face it, we've all been guilty of trying to game Google at one time or another. In all fairness, I have to say that in many instances it was a complete lack of clear direction from Google that lured even those SEOs with lily-white hats to occasionally dip their toes into murky water. And when those timid forays resulted in better rankings, some not only jumped in with both feet, but encouraged others to join them in the fun. Before you knew it, everyone who had ever heard of Search Engine Marketing was diligently following best practices that were not really best for anyone except spammers.

But this is the nature of SEOs, isn't it? We're like accountants who are always looking for loopholes. Only in our case, it's tactics that will give us that unfair advantage over our competitors. We want to know what’s working right now and when we find something, we latch on to it like pit bulls and won't let go. Pretty soon, skillful spammers are using it for evil purposes and everyone else is doing it - often to excess - to try to compete with them.

Then, Google warns us against the newly-unacceptable behavior and tries to make us stop. While these early warnings can deter some SEOs from continuing to use the tactic, they usually have little effect until Google actually begins punishing offenders. Then, Google will typically make examples of a few high-profile companies in order to scare us off and we all scramble around trying to undo the damage we've done to ourselves and/or our clients. But before you know it, we've latched on to some other iffy tactic and are repeating the cycle.

In Local Search, some of the most obvious things that we have done this with in Google Places are: adding location or location+keywords to the business names; using location terms in custom categories; using PO Box addresses from Post Offices close to the city centroid; and getting phone numbers for areas where we had no office or storefront and using them to multiple create listings. I've been doing this since 2003, so I could go on and on about fake reviews, spoofed addresses, damaging your competition, etc., but you get the idea.

At the time, there was really no reason NOT to do most of these things. They weren't against the current rules, they worked and our clients expected us to help them compete against those who were using them. It was only later that these tactics violated guidelines and came back to haunt us.

They often left us - or the next SEO who was hired - with an unhappy client and a mess to clean up. The client rarely took what they gained from the high rankings they enjoyed (for a while) into account when adding up the clean-up costs. This was true even when using a specific tactic was their idea and/or they were warned of the possible negative consequences.

The Search world is growing up and at times, even Google appears to be learning from past mistakes. It is generally issuing warnings earlier than in the past and publishing new guidelines and revising old ones before things get too out of hand. One of Google's most recent recommendations that will likely have far reaching consequences if it is not followed is the real names policy for Google+. Timothy Jordan explained at SES San Francisco last month:

"Google profiles are designed for users to have a public page on the Web that represents a real person in the real-world that you can connect with. By using a common name, it enables your friends and social network that would like to find you to make a connection with you."

While on the surface this appears as a harmless attempt to try to weed out spammers, there's a lot of controversy about it and much of it is for legitimate reasons. Search for Google real names policy and read some of the opinions represented in the results. You'll probably come away with mixed feelings about following Google's guidelines on this one. I know I did!