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Exposing Various Types of Spam – Offering SEO & Webmaster Tips

November 14, 2006

How to Tell Black from White: The First Thing to Learn

Filed under: Articles by Irony,Search Engine Spam — Irony @ 2:31 am
The date of the first publication: February 28, 2006

If you are very new to SEO and are just considering learning the basics of it, you are probably asking yourself what you should start with. You have probably heard about some mysterious things like keyword density or Google PageRank; someone might have told you that these things are vital for your future success in SEO.

Is it true?

The answer is a big, resounding “No”! Neither keyword density nor PageRank will ever bring you success; what’s more, chasing them can cause huge problems and ruin your SEO prospects and hopes, unless you first learn one very important thing: how to tell the black from the white, in terms of SEO and the so-called “SEO Hats”.

Why is it so important?

If you don’t know exactly what is right and what is wrong, what is “best practice” and what is spam and deception, you will be in constant danger of reading some misguided information, believing it and then using it on your domain. If you don’t fully understand (and accept wholeheartedly) the importance of an ethical and “whitehat” approach to SEO, then each and every spammy idea you come across will probably look impressive, effective and tempting to you. When this happens you are in trouble and you’ll have no idea why.

Unfortunately, bad information and unsafe SEO advice populate the Net, are repeated over and over again in various articles, forums and blogs and are left undisputed by administrators and moderators who for some unknown reason prefer not to point out that these methods are wrong (even when they probably wouldn’t use those techniques, strategies or tools themselves). Sadly, it includes some people who are traditionally perceived as industry leaders and, consequently, hold a lot of credibility.

It’s sad but true. I have to apologise to you for the condition we SEO/SEM practitioners have allowed our industry to descend to. This article is just another humble attempt at cleaning some of the mess up and hopefully taking steps to undo the harm.

You need to learn the basics, but …

You need to choose your source of information with great care. There are many SEO forums around from international to small community level, and new ones appear online almost daily – so, why did I list so few of them on my “SEOs Bookmarks” page? There are gazillions of SEO blogs – so, why do I list only a handful? Is it because I don’t know about the others?

The opposite is true. What you can see on that page is a collection of resources I can safely recommend to my readers, picked with the utmost care out of a much larger number of places I have frequented, studied and participated in. These are the resources to start with; when you are ready to make your own educated judgement about the black and the white in SEO, you will find many other sources of information for yourself, but they will no longer be dangerous to you. However, if you are just taking your first steps in SEO/SEM, run like the wind from places that allow threads like this one. Believe me; you’ll thank me for this advice afterwards.

One love I want to share

Here is the advice that goes directly from the bottom of my heart: if you are looking for an online community that will both be friendly and offer you tremendous help in learning all you need to know about SEO, join the IHelpYou SEO Forums.

That’s one place on the web where the “Black and White” issue is taken most seriously. You will be safe there; besides, you’ll soon discover that Doug Heil, the owner and the admin of the IHY forums, is very welcoming to newbie SEOs. The same is true for his highly qualified team of moderators, to which I proudly belong. Refrain from making your first post self-promotional and everything should be fine.

One thing that makes IHY special is the strongest “spammers don’t belong to our industry” stance. Every SEO firm that is caught spamming gets ruthlessly “outed” at IHY, often with examples of the spammy code included (and so you will know what to avoid and who to stay away from if you are looking for an SEO company to hire). And if the tone of some threads looks harsh to you at first, remember that the “Black and White” issue in SEO is very serious and requires a serious approach. Some say there’s a war going on; though the “war” word might seem a little strong in this context, I have to agree with the statement.

Remember though that if you are not a seasoned spammer but a new SEO who got misinformed by the bad guys and got yourself into trouble, nobody at IHY will blame or hate you, but everyone will be willing to give you a hand. I know personally of many people who successfully got their websites unbanned in major search engines with the help of the advice they received at IHY.

The way they talk

But let’s say you found another community talking SEO stuff and wish to determine whether these people are whitehats or blackhats; how do you do this for yourself without any help from more experienced people? Most often it is easy to tell from the way they talk.

Let’s say people around you are saying things like …

  • “make sure whatever you do is good for your visitors, not for the search engines only”;
  • “don’t try fooling the engines; it won’t bring you long-term success”;
  • “SEO won’t be quick; it’s a long process that requires hard work and patience”;
  • “don’t try reverse-engineering Google’s algorithm, try making your site the best it can be for your visitors, and the rankings will follow”;
  • “remember that ROI is more important than rankings”

… then congratulations! You are lucky and have arrived at the right place. You are surrounded by white hat SEOs and can follow their advice without worrying about the consequences.

If, on the other hand, you have come to a place populated by black hat SEOs, you will most likely read very different things …

  • “Ethics? What are you talking about? Those white hat miseries will teach you stuff that doesn’t work! They are so ethical because they don’t know how to achieve rankings!”
  • “Black hat? No, we are not black hats! They call us this because we outrank them. And yes, you are right, I do cloak, but I do it the right way.”
  • “Will you get banned? No, with my new script you can fool the bots as long as you wish, and they will never catch you.”
  • “Heck, they banned me again, for the second time already! I have done nothing wrong! Can you imagine this? Google is evil!”
  • “You are not a real SEO until you’ve got at least one site banned.”
  • “Don’t worry about ethical-schmethical nonsense, as it has nothing to do with SEO. Go and earn your buck!”

… and more stuff like this. In this case, just click your “Back” button, as no advice you can receive from this place is ever safe to take and follow.

Actually, regardless of what the spammers might tell you, the engines are becoming more and more sophisticated in detecting various sorts of SE spam, and more and more determined about fighting it, so you really are much better off if you stick to white hat methods and listen to white hat experts. Please don’t underestimate the danger, my dear reader. I really care about you.

And I wish you good luck. Happy SEO’ing!

November 9, 2006

Researching an SEO Company

Filed under: SEO General — Irony @ 1:50 am

In this article we (Irony and Connie together) are combining resources here in response to this thread.  Although we use the term SEO, keep in mind that this could relate to anyone in the SEO Industry, such as someone who offers link building services. 

In fact, many of our suggestions will not only relate to the SEO industry, but to anyone considering doing business with another Company.  Especially if you do not  know anything about the Company. 

If you own a business and website and are considering hiring an SEO consultant who will help you increase the amount of free traffic to your website and improve your sales, you have to do a thorough research before actually hiring an SEO. A good choice of an SEO vendor will ensure improvements in your web presence; a bad choice can ruin it. Above all, you should avoid the co-called “blackhat” SEOs who might apply their dishonest SEO methods without your knowledge and get your website permanently banned from the search engines.

Where to start?

There are a lot of ways to create an initial list of SEO companies to choose from. You can do a search in your favorite search engine for various keywords related to SEO, like, for example, “search engine placement”, “SEO services for small businesses”, “SEO experts” and many others. You can pick your prospects from the organic listings or the sponsored listings, whichever you trust more. You can visit a few major SEO forums and contact moderators and/or active members, or post a request for professional help. You can use Elance (in this case, you need to be especially careful), or ask your friend if he knows a good SEO company. Some SEOs will actually find you and offer their services before you even consider looking for them. But once you compiled your lists and got the information about their approximate prices, it’s time to do your research.

First of all, eliminate those who are too cheap: no decent SEO campaign can be run on $300. Eliminate those who are too expensive, as well, unless your site is really huge. Then look at those whose costs are realistic, more closely.

Quick overview of the various sources of information

If  you are researching a Company, the first thing to do is go to a Search Engine such as Google, and search for the Company name.  This will tell you several things about the Company. 
1) It will tell you how strong they are for their Company name.
2) Next it may tell you if there are any good or bad comments about the Company on the Internet.  This is not fool proof which we will deal with in more detail.
3) You could check with the BBB (Better Business Bureau). http://www.bbbonline.org/  The BBB is a US based organization, but they also operate in some other countries.
4) In the US you could contact the Attorney General’s office for the state involved to see if there were any complaints filed against the Company.  In the US you can find links to every Attorney General’s website here.  We know that Australia has Government agencies where you can check.   Like in the US, it that would best be done on the state level.  Here are a couple of links.  This is Consumer Affairs in Victoria
http://www.consumer.vic.gov.au/

This is the Office of Fair Trading in New South Wales
http://www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au/  

We are not sure about other countries at this point.  When we looked into the situation in the UK, Canada and Russia (with the help of our friends), the indication is these countries don’t have anything similar. From the information posted on one of the Russian Customer Protection Agency websites it looks like they will be glad to help you and even represent you in court if you bought bad quality food that made you feel sick, or shoes that fell apart three days later, but they don’t look into anything IT-related yet. If you know of a Government agency in any other country, please feel free to post a web address.

5) You could do a WhoIs lookup.  This would tell you how long the Company has been in business on the Web.  I would not base a decision about a Company based solely on how long they have been in business, but it is something you should consider.  It could also tell you if a Company is hiding part of their information.  Some registrars allow that.  If they are hiding some of their information, I would wonder why?

Now, let’s look into more details of your future research.

The name says it all

Do a search in the engines for the company’s name, and click through links. If you find out that articles written by the company’s staff, get reprinted by authoritative websites like searchengineguide.com, webpronews.com or isedb.com, it’s a good sign. If you find negative feedback on the company in the industry-specific blogs/forums, you need to pay close attention to it.

Read it carefully. Does it sound like a well thought out, constructive criticism or a poorly prepared revenge? Does the author of the negative feedback sound confident and get the facts straight? Do you trust this person? What does your gut feeling tell you?

Do a search for “search engine spam classification”, “SEO spam classification”. Look through the resources that appear high in the search. Read them carefully. If your prospective SEO vendor is accused of spam by other SEOs, compare the facts that support the accusation, with the SEO spam classification and the search engine quality guidelines.

Google’s Webmaster Guidelines
Yahoo! Search Content Quality Guidelines
Site Owner Help Guidelines for successful indexing (MSN)

What can a website tell you?

If you look at the website of your potential SEO consultant, you’ll find a lot of areas of interest, very useful for your research.

Read the content on the home page. Is it well written, clear, concise and understandable? Has it been proofread? Use copyscape.com to make sure your future SEO uses original content, not just a few lines stolen here and a few paragraphs scraped there.

If you have basic understanding of HTML, look at the code. Does your SEO comply with the basics of the SE-friendly web design? Are JavaScript functions moved to a separated file? Are any deprecate tags used, like, for example, <font>? Does the SEO use <table> tags or just <div> tags? Table-free designs are considered more advanced, though requiring special skills, but tables are still popular also, and have their uses. Run the code through the W3C validator and notice the number of errors found.

All these factors can give you an idea on your future SEO’s professional abilities, though even the worst W3C errors are not as bad as blackhat SEO tricks. If you have to choose between a whitehat who still uses deprecated tags, and a blackhat who is a CSS guru, choose the first option. This way you are still safer.

Do the site:www.domainname.com search in Google for the domain name of your SEO. If it shows no results, chances are the site is already banned. Ask your prospect to explain this fact, or simply walk away quietly.

Click Ctrl+A to highlight the whole page. If you suddenly see more text than you could see before, the site is using hidden text – the oldest and silliest blackhat SEO trick. Avoid this company.

Lastly, look at their testimonials, if any. Remember, testimonials can be genuine or faked. Sometimes it’s possible to guess which are which by simply reading them, but if you are still in doubt, contact the people who gave the testimonials (provided there is enough data for this).

The questions to ask your prospective SEO consultant

1. Could you please show us the sites you have optimized? (If they can also show you some impressive rankings in the engines, that’s fine, but don’t get obsessed with rankings. Look at the sites themselves and ask yourself if you like the business image of the site and if you would buy from it).

2. Will you work with my site or create a new site for SEO purposes? (Stay away from those who will tell you they will create a new site on a separate domain. A good SEO will work with your own site. In some cases it will probably be necessary to completely redesign your site, but there is no need to bring a separate domain in.).

3. Do you use doorway pages or cloaking? (If they say yes in any way, shape or form, stay away. Notice that they can use other terms instead the “doorway” word, e.g. “attraction pages”. It doesn’t matter how they call them, such pages are still spam.)

4. Do you guarantee rankings? (Don’t hire those who do! Professional SEOs know that guaranteeing certain rankings is impossible, because rankings vary from day to day and from datacenter to datacenter. Only the search engine engineers have the power to assign particular rankings to web pages. The only way to guarantee positions is to use PPC (pay per click), which some unscrupulous consultants would at times dress as SEO.)

More considerations

How did you find about this Company?  Was it the result of a Spam e-mail?  We would never use the product or service of any Company that sends unsolicited e-mails.  We believe you have to be leery of any Company who uses Spam e-mail.

Did they cold call you?  To us a cold call is just another form of Spam.  In some cases that is worse than Spam e-mail.  Now you have a trained telemarketer on the phone that is trained to break down your resistance to their offer.

An ethical SEO would wait for being asked for a quote/proposal. Of course, if you posted a request in a forum, a freelance website or a business network and asked interested SEO providers to contact you, that’s a different story altogether.

Does their offer sound to good to be true? It probably is.

Do they tell you they have a special relationship with the SEs? They are lying. 

Was it the result of a search on a SE, or did a friend recommend them?  The best recommendation you can get is from a friend, or at least someone you trust.

Should I hire an SEO who is new to this profession?

That’s for you to decide. “New” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”, and everyone has to start somewhere. Ask them to show you the websites they played with when learning SEO. Ask them if they will offer their services at lower prices than those of established SEOs (an ethical newbie should definitely do so). Be twice as careful with your research if your potential consultant is new to this business.

Exposing SEO companies in professional forums: good or bad?

Do we believe exposing a SEO or Company is a good thing to do?  Yes.  Why?  If the Company is weak on their Company name a popular forum or blog may show up in the SERPS when an individual searches for the Company name.  

We recommend that beyond your search on a SE for the Company name, your next stop should be a related forum.

Unfortunately, some popular SE related forums do not allow the posting of a Company by name.  We have never understood that kind of policy, because we believe that is where a lot (if not most) people will look.  We also think this is the kind of place most people will post their complaints about a Company. 

We do not think that people typically complain to the BBB, or to Government agencies.  Even when they do, we have to wonder how many people contact these agencies to see if there is a complaint.

One problem is that the Internet is still fairly new.  For a lot of people going into business on the Internet this is a new business experience.  It may well be their first business experience.   It may be well and good to post about principles.  It may be well and good to say research.  It may be well and good to say buyer beware.

It may be well and good to say, if you don’t have the knowledge to protect yourself, you should not get into business on the Internet.

Where did most of us learn?  On the Internet.  How many of us who started an online business had the knowledge at that time that we have today? 

Of course, people ought to research a Company they are going to hire.  It just seems to us that the policy of some forums hinders that research. 

One problem with forums or Blogs who will not speak out is they actually allow the hiding of information from someone who may actually be researching. 

Forums and blogs often hide behind the fear of a lawsuit.   In reality it often looks more like they have the policy of not naming Companies to protect their friends in the industry, who may not be totally ethical.

We also find these policies to be inconsistent.  Forums and Blogs that will not allow the “outing” (so to speak) of a Company, who ripped someone off, will allow links to a Company that promotes Spammy Tools, etc.  

If  you wanted to find out the good, bad or ugly about a web host, or registrar, there are a lot of forums where you could find that kind of information such as http://www.webhostingtalk.com/, or http://www.dnlodge.com/.

Why is it that some SEO forums will not allow a SEO, or Company  to be named?  Forums about webhost or registrars do not seem to have a problem with the naming of a bad Company. 

We believe it is only common sense to expect to find something about a Company by searching on that Companies name.  Of course that means, blogs and forums are going to have to allow a Company to be named. 

Here are a couple of examples. 

Search Term  Rapid Rank:  Search

Search Term UFindUs:  Search

Of course, it involves additional responsibility on the part of the forum administration or the blog owner, to avoid libel and abuse. But this doesn’t mean the “ostrich policy” of not naming anyone is the best solution.

When the infamous Traffic Power ruined hundreds of their clients overnight by getting their websites banned from Google, they were still hiding behind their clean BBB record (which remained so for some time after that). In search of truth, people rushed to forums, where the situation was already widely discussed. Even those who usually don’t allow naming bad SEO companies, made an exception for Traffic Power. Unfortunately, there are other SEO companies that might be doing equally dangerous things to their clients, and nobody is going to make exceptions for them also. But what’s the difference?

One of the places (about the only one) where shady SEO practices are freely exposed is IHelpYou SEO forums. You are welcome to visit IHY and find out if the company you are considering was ever caught doing unethical stuff.

And finally…

We would like to wish you good luck. None of the above mentioned methods of researching SEO companies is 100% fool-proof, but God helps those who help themselves, so, if you have done your homework really well, you should be fine.

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