While still in the early years of the internet, it became clear that there would need to be a way to organize and find the information that was becoming available on numerous websites. Throughout the 1990s the technology for reading and indexing websites evolved, both as a result of improved technological capabilities, and as new needs arose. By the late ’90s, all of the major search engine names we know today (Google, Bing – previously know as MSN Search, Yahoo, Ask.com, and more) were in development.
As more websites were published, businesses started to see the value in being ranked higher than their competitors in search results. Being listed as number one or two for popular keyword searches could mean the difference in millions of dollars worth of sales, especially if you were an online retailer who relied on getting as much website traffic as you could. Search engine optimization (SEO) was born from this need. SEO is the process of influencing the placement of a website in a search engine’s list of unpaid, or “organic”, search results (a website’s placement in paid search listings is covered in more depth in our article “The Basics of Pay-Per-Click Advertising”). There were, and still are, two primary approaches to controlling a website’s SEO, the white hat approach and the black hat approach.
As you may have been able to determine from the name alone, the black hat approach to SEO relies on aggressive, often under-handed tactics that either outright violate search engine terms of service, or at the very least, go against the spirit of the guidelines. Black hat SEO is generally disapproved of by professional agencies and search engine optimization experts, as the practice focuses primarily on gaming search engines’ algorithms, instead of improving the value of the website to the viewer.
When search engines were in their infancy, a large part of the onus of determining what keywords were relevant to a website or for classifying the content of a website, was placed on the website itself. This was done primarily through a series of special “meta tags” used in the website’s code that would, for example, give the search engine an easy list of keywords that were applicable to the content of the page, or a summarized description of the content. On a travel agency’s website, for example, a page dedicated to Paris tours might have keywords of “Paris tours” and “international travel”, whereas the contact page would have keywords of “contact a travel agent” and “travel agent phone number”. Problems with this system arose when companies began overloading their websites with terms that were not relevant to the page content, hoping to gain website traffic from having their website listed among search engine results for popular but non-relevant terms. A travel agency website, for example, might start listing keywords like “home mortgage” and “coupons”.
Search engines were quick to recognize that they would live or die based on the quality of the search results they provided. As competition between the search engines intensified, and as individual websites continued to overload their keywords, search engines began to move away from trusting the “word” of each individual website, and toward using more complex algorithms that use a variety of factors to influence search rankings – algorithms that continue to evolve even today. With every round of changes that have come to search engine algorithms, black hat SEO practitioners have tried to find ways to continue to “game” the system, which has resulted in a number of black hat techniques including, but certainly not limited to:
Black hat SEO techniques can seem attractive at first glance. When you get a phone call or an email from a company offering to get you in the “top five spots in Google,” they are most likely offering some sort of black hat technique that draws you in with a low cost.
In a best-case scenario, if you engage in (or hire someone to perform for you) black hat SEO, you may see a short-term increase in your website ranking. However, search engines are in the business of giving their searchers relevant and helpful results. It is, therefore, in their best interest to actively identify and combat every black hat technique that is developed. As they make adjustments to their algorithms, you will see your website ranking decrease, and the money you had spent on black hat SEO in the first place will have gone to waste. Do you think you have the time and resources to stay one step ahead of some of the largest companies on Earth? In a worst-case scenario, one or more of the big name search engines identifies your website as one engaging in black hat techniques, and as a consequence, they de-list your website from any and all search results or ban your domain completely. Can you really afford to risk having your website blacklisted?
Examples of black hat SEO are referenced here purely as an educational reference, and are not endorsed nor offered by Grid.
Behind the scenes, the need for more accurate search engine results, and the transition of internet-usage from collegiate and professional situations to our everyday lives, drove a slew of technological and computing-based advances. Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow, put it perfectly when he said that over the past decade, the expected results of a search engine query have moved away from “give me what I said” to “give me what I want”. Search engines and their associated technologies are no longer looking at specific queries (“corporate accountant”) and matching those word-for-word with websites that said they were relevant, but are instead extrapolating the meaning behind a search (“how does an S Corp track its finances”) and providing website results that offer the most value to the searcher. When you stop trying to affect how a search engine sees your website, and instead focus on the experience and the benefit you provide to your website’s visitors, you are engaging in white hat SEO.
White hat SEO uses a series of tried-and-true methods for improving your website’s search rankings, while adhering to a search engine’s terms of service. There are a wide variety of techniques that fall in this camp including, but by no means limited to:
Not every factor that goes in to a search engine’s algorithms is related to your website, or your internet presence. Some factors are, in fact, influenced by the searcher, and are why two people can search for the exact same keyword, but get back very different results. These include:
After all this information about search engine optimization, you may be thinking that SEO is important for absolutely every website and that you should drop everything and start working on it! But with all marketing, that’s not necessarily the case.
SEO is a long-term, often very intensive process, where results can take months if not a year or more to propagate. At Grid, we consider your overall business and marketing goals to see what sort of role SEO would play in moving you toward those goals, and consider that role against other opportunities that may cost less but do more. It’s important to remember that search engine algorithms are changing constantly (as often as 1.5 changes per day, according to Google CEO Eric Schmidt in 2010), and without a long-term commitment to the SEO process, you may see the work that you’ve put in negated by a simple algorithm change.
However, if your business relies heavily on search engine traffic, sells products online, or is in a relatively competitive industry, SEO may be the next important step you take for your marketing. If you’d like more information on your current SEO rankings, or to discuss what an SEO implementation strategy may look like for your business, we are.