Black Hat SEO: Is It On Your Site?

 In light of the recent news that’s been screaming across the Internet about J. C. Penney and Huffington Post, we wanted to take on the task of helping our clients and readers learn about ways they can tell if their SEO firm is cheating them by using black hat tactics.

Content may be the ultimate goal, but if there’s shady business going on, like horrible keyword stuffing or bad link exchanges, then your site will never see page one of the search engines. Or maybe it does, but it only lasts as long as it takes the search engines to catch on to your scheme.

There’s also the flip side to black hat tactics, and that’s when your SEO “expert” doesn’t really know what he/she is doing. They say that they do, but the results will quickly show that they’re merely a hotdog stand SEO vendor.

The good news is that you can spot bad things going on with your site; you just need to know where to look and what to lookout for.

With that said, these are actual cases that I’ve come across from clients, friends and others. And best of all, these are the ways they could have figured the answers out themselves.

The Right Keywords

You’ve been told that your site has been optimized to a T and that you’ll be #1 in no time for your given keywords. Just sit back and wait for it to happen; the problem is, if the keywords don’t get any traffic, then why would you want to be #1?

Let’s say you’re a Japanese restaurant in Denver, and the keyword that your SEO firm told you to go for was “best Japanese restaurant Denver.” A month later, there you are #1! You’re excited, you feel butterflies, but your referring traffic in analytics is showing you no increase. What gives?

Let’s take a look at the traffic on those keywords over at Google’s Free Keyword tool:

Well, no wonder they got you in the #1 position, the competition is at 10%… and there’s only 28 local searches per month.

You laugh now, but this has happened with more clients that I can remember.

Bad Links

Want to know if your site has bad links? The best free tools for links is over at Yahoo! site explorer. You’ll definitely need to monitor this overtime, but it gives you a great view of how many inbound links your site has, and the anchor text being used in the links pointing to your site. Let’s use JC Penney as an example of what to look for…

See the one’s circled in red? I think they deserve some investigating, especially since the title (anchor text) isn’t even relevant to the site.

And that number of inlinks at the top, maybe you should keep an eye on that number every month. If you see big drops, or big increases, maybe you should start investigating these links a little bit more and see if they’re coming from spammy locations.

The unfortunate thing that this tool doesn’t do is show you anchor text distribution, but if you’re up for signing up to be a pro-member over at SEOMoz, their Open Site Explorer tool can show you just that. Here’s a glimpse of what you can see, and what got JC Penney in trouble…

Looks well and good right? Let’s compare it to one of their competitors, Macy’s…

Do you see how the majority of the keywords are now brand related and off the wall text like “here” and “the”? That’s a sign that JC Penney is doing a lot of link work… and not necessarily good link work (obviously).

On the flip side, if you are seeing words in this list that match the keyword that your SEO firm said you’d rank for, like “best Japanese restaurant denver,” that should be another clue to check and see if your keywords are the right keywords (see “The Right Keywords”).

Keyword Stuffing

Yes, we told you to use keywords in your content, but not like the Huffington Post did. I’m not going to link to it, because I don’t think it’s worth the link, but I’ll give you a screen shot…

This is keyword stuffing, and it’s easy to avoid. I think our best content writers here at Bridgeline Digital will agree, you only need to use your keyword maybe two times per an article. Okay, three if it’s long, but the point is that it needs to flow. The screenshot above is confusing and hard to read. So when you write, just write, don’t worry about keywords. It should really come naturally… really.

Dropped Page

So, you have a page that is doing well. In fact, it’s tripled in search engine traffic and is sitting in the number one position for your chosen keywords. You did the research on your keywords, so you know they’re perfect, but all of a sudden the page is dropped. You can’t find the page in the search engines, and analytics is showing a huge drop in traffic. Gulp, what happened? Well, there are a lot of things that could have happened; time to investigate.

Go through your site, does everything look normal? Have you changed anything recently? Did you go through a redesign?
There could be multiple reasons why a page was dropped from the search engines. Look out for these…

Pages being blocked from the search engines

Do this: right-click on the problem page, click on view source, click ctrl+F and find “robots.” If you see this:

then you’re blocking the search engines from crawling your page. To find out if you’re blocking your entire site from being crawled, you have to go to each page and see if the html above is on different pages.

Hidden text

It’s hard to find if your SEO firm finagled your content, unless you know what to look for. I like to use two different tools to spot this evil secret. Check out SEO Browser (free tool) and put in one of your URLs. Are you seeing text there that you don’t see on your page? That’s hidden text. Are you seeing everything really, really big? Then all of your text has been put in heading tags, which is also bad.

You can double check heading tags by using the SEOBook X-Ray tool (also free).

Another great tool that will show you hidden text and your heading tags is the Wave Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool… you guessed it, also free. Look for the eye to find hidden text, then head back over to SEO Browser to read through the text that’s showing, can you spot the hidden text?

You stopped working on your site

We don’t just preach killer content for the heck of it. It’s great for building out your site, creating link bait, and most of all, it keeps the search engines coming back to your site. So what happens when you stop creating content? What happens after you build your website and never visit again to add that killer content? The search engines will stop coming by to crawl your pages. They’ll go find other sites that have fresh content on the keywords that you are targeting; maybe a competitor even. Your pages will slowly go down in ranking and other sites that are continuing to build that amazing content will top your pages.

Is there more?

Of course there is, but these are things that our clients and friends have come to us with lately, screaming for help. And all of them they could have tested themselves if they were just paying attention.

You need to remember to stay on top of your organic search engine traffic in your analytics program. JR’s our analytics expert, so if you have questions about what you should be monitoring or want more analytics info, check out his blog posts.

In the meantime, let me know what you’re having problems with on your site or what you think may be shady SEO tactics, and let me see if I can help you find a solution.

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