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April 2, 2008

Bad SEO: Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time, many webmasters abused the system.  The system now abuses the webmasters (okay perhaps not, but these tricks no longer work).

While many of the articles written on good SEO techniques I’ve decided to turn things around and look at a few of the sure-win techniques of the past.  The point is to make sure that you are no longer making use of any of techniques.

Hidden Text:
This is one of my favourites.  A long time ago I even tried this one, and it worked!  You picked a background colour and matched the text colour to it.  Very quickly the search engines caught onto this one and simply marked the sites for spam.  But that wasn’t the end however.  By creating a background image of a particular colour and then making the text the same colour, you could once again benefit from hidden text.  Again, it wasn’t long before the search engines caught onto this one and penalized the offenders.  While webmasters continue to find ways to add hidden content to web pages the search engines will continue to find ways of exposing this and you will be penalised.

I think this was the first bit of code to be totally discarded by the search engines.  Gone were the days of simply putting any old keyword into the meta keyword tag and hey presto, there you are.  Keyword stuffing was the norm and has thankfully slowly become a thing of the past.  However, many designers still seem to think that you need to fill this tag with as much as possible.  Google have time and time again stated that they simply do not use this tag for anything.

Description Tag:
The description tag was abused in much the same way as the keyword tag was.  Webmasters everywhere stuffed as many keywords into the description tag as possible.  Because of this, the search engines no longer use this as a ranking tool.  Although a well written description may not gain you rankings anymore, this can still be useful in promoting a click through by working as a sales pitch.

Gateway Pages (Landing Pages):
When mentioning gateway pages I’m not referring to those pages that you have optimised for a particular search, but rather those rubbish pages that have no value, no real content and redirect a visitor before they know what is happening.  While many SEO’s still believe this is the way to go, the search engines frown on these pages as they offer the visitor little to nothing of any value.

Links are good.  Links from just anybody, are bad.  Gone is the day where a link from a Free For All (FFA) is worth anything (then again, was it really ever worth anything?).  All those links from reciprocal link pages are now worth very little if anything at all anymore.

As much as I like breaking the rules, I’ve never actually done this personally.  Cloaking is as the name suggests hiding one version of a webpage from either the visitor or the robot.  This was usually done by returning a specific super optimised page to the robot and then a pretty design to the visitor.  While there may be the occasion where many feel this is a valid technique (returning text to the robot, flash to a visitor) it is still a massive “No-No”.

While each of these techniques has been used, abused and banned over time it is useful to remember the following:

While hidden text is very much frowned upon it is good practice to keep active code off of the webpage.  By adding all of this code into a separate file and included later the search engines have less code per page to spider and this should translate into a higher text/code ratio.  This should aid with text/page density, adding value to the text content.

Keywords are no longer used by the majority of search engines.  Many SEO experts now even suggest leaving out the keywords tag so that you don’t alert your competitors to which keywords you are targeting.  That said, as a few search engines still use keywords (although with minimum weight) it can’t hurt to add them, sparingly.

The description tag is one of my favourites.  As mentioned above, it won’t aid with your search engine rankings, but it can add value to a page.  If you have optimised your page to rank highly for “search term” then make sure that your description compels the searcher to click on your link.  This is a short description of what the page is all about.  If this tag is used as it was originally intended it can be very valuable.

Gateway pages spammed to death in the hope of tricking a visitor into visiting an unrelated website are a thing of the past.  You can bet on being permanently banned for this one.  However a properly optimised landing page for a particular special offer or product is still very useful.  Remember that this page should offer something of value to a visitor or it still is just spam.

Links are one of the most important factors when trying to rank highly for a search phrase.  While the old adage “content is king” has been worn out, the content of an anchor link is now king.  So much so that a website can rank for a phrase that does not exist on its site purely from the sheer weight of links (this can be done for malicious reasons too however, often referred to as a Google Bomb).

Cloaking is still a bad idea in any form.  Instant redirects are pretty much instantly banned by Google if not heavily penalized.  But should you have moved a page be sure to put a 301 redirect in place.  This will pass on any link strength to the new pages.

While the use of these techniques has been discouraged and outlawed over time their use can usually still be applied in some form or other.  As a friend of mine always says, “It’s not what you do, but how you do it!” How very true.

Robert Cerff is a search engine analyst and marketing consultant for Prop Data Internet Solutions. He has ten years experience in e-commerce, online marketing and web development.