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December 12, 2007

SEO Should Be Invisible, But Not Hidden

Trying to hide your SEO practices can get you in a lot of trouble with the search engines. It could even get you banned. At the same time, however, your SEO practices should go unnoticed by the casual visitor.

Some of the oldest and most classic SEO tricks involved “hiding” your attempts at higher rankings from real visitors. Some of these activities included keyword stuffing a page and making the text the same color as the background. Or tucking the keywords away in a div somewhere on their main page. Or making the keywords a single pixel high and “drawing” a line with them somewhere.

All of these practices are more than outdated and will likely get you banned from the search engines. Yet there are people in the unethical SEO circles who will still attempt to perpetrate offshoots of these tactics and hide certain things from normal users.

The online dating industry, for example, is one of the most competitive markets on the Internet. People will employ all kinds of SEO tactics to gain an edge in the business. Recently a certain website climbed the search engine rankings at an incredibly fast rate. In fact, they reached number one for the term “free online dating” in just one hundred days.

This was truly an impressive feat, and one that deserved a little research into how they did it.

The site was clean, efficient, and friendly. It gathered inbound links at unprecedented rates by employing viral widgets that were extremely popular among bloggers. They didn’t necessarily have anything to do with dating, but tens of thousands of links from blogs is a great thing, whether they are dating-related or not.

All that is good clean SEO practice. Where things got questionable was the amount of internal links they had on the main page. Links and the associated anchor text, whether inbound or internal, carry a lot of weight these days. And this site had nearly fifty links on its main page. Each one included the term “free online dating” in the anchor text. Of course, each link included the name of a city as well, and clicking on it would take you to a search for the members who lived in that city.

So the links were more or less valid.

The “less” part, however, comes from the fact that those links weren’t actually presented directly to the visitor. They were hidden away in a div at the bottom of the screen.

And if your links are really valid, and really there to help a user, why would you hide it?

They weren’t the only ones to attempt this new spin on an old tactic. Their competition has tried the same type of strategy. They didn’t hide their links in the div, but made certain that they would only appear below the fold. They also appeared in white text on very light blue background. Not hiding them… but not displaying them either.

That first website has since been purchased by another, but not before they removed those links from the page. Which only happened after they had secured a strong position in the SERPs. Was this a calculated maneuver? Was it meant to push the boundaries of good SEO and then dispose of the evidence before a search engine could ban them? Maybe. But we’ll likely never know.

It’s hard to say how the search engines will react to this type of behavior. Although history has shown that if too many sites begin abusing this type of search marketing, they will come down hard on the perpetrators.

Nevertheless, good SEO should be practically invisible. Have you come across pages that have proper, visible content but is so filled with keywords that it is practically impossible to read? Or a blog that is just one big advertisement? Maybe a forum post that has nothing helpful to say, but displays a big link? Or maybe you’ve come across blatant pages that offer no added value to the site and merely exist to house a few more keywords. And lets not forget the search engine results that sport nothing but keywords in the description and title.

All of these activities are based on sound SEO techniques, but there is a proper way to do them if you wish to remain invisible. And when you do things properly you won’t have to hide and you won’t have to worry about the search engines coming down on you.

Content needs to be keyword rich, but it has to be interesting, engaging, and grammatically correct. Blogs are communication devices and should be treated as such. Doorway pages can get you in a lot of trouble, but proper landing pages for your products or in your PPC campaign are extremely useful. Meta tags and meta keywords don’t carry much weight with the search engines these days. Therefore optimizing them for search engines only displays your tendency to fall behind the times.

The moral of the story is to keep your visitors in mind at every step in the SEO process. If you do this, you won’t have to hide from the search engines or your visitors.

Author:  Andy Eliason is a writer at Main10, an Internet marketing and development company. This SEO company in Utah offers a range of upfront, quality search engine marketing services.