Posted by randfish
One of the central goals of all the major search engines has always been to limit the extent to which manipulative activity could affect the top search results. It’s been my general opinion that there’s no better place to start this enforcement than our field, search engine optimization, and the SEO companies that offer this service. After all, if you’re going to police the practice and claim that "white hat" techniques are effective and permissible while manipulative ones don’t garner results, you’ve got to take the most caution on the results for those seeking SEO services. If you’re not careful and those who manipulate wind up ranking in top results for queries related to getting their sites and pages ranking, this could (nay, would) give the impression that manipulation is, indeed, par for the course.
Therefore, it was disappointing to see the following search result at Google for the query "SEO Company:"
If you’re a frequent reader of this blog, you know I don’t lightly call out manipulative activities in the search results very often (even though I love ID’ing gamers almost as much as these guys). In fact, I usually do it only when it really raises my ire and this is one of those cases for two big reasons. First, I think that the SEO-related results, particularly those on page 1 for popular queries, need to be among the most carefully monitored. Otherwise, you’re treating the symptoms instead of curing the disease – allow manipulation in these results and you encourage it everywhere else. Second, I find Google’s endorsement of this site via sitelinks (and make no mistake, sitelinks send a definitive message to a searcher that this singular site is not "a" result, but "THE" result for this query) especially egregious.
Here’s an excerpted SEW blog post from earlier this year:
This morning I got an email (my tenth) from a company that hadn’t read my rules: National Positions, an “SEO” firm out of California, promising me “five times the RELEVANT traffic at a substantially reduced cost.” The site, which I’ve linked to above using a 302 redirect so as not to give out any of my link juice, said they could place my “website on top of the Natural Listings on Google, Yahoo and MSN” using their “proprietary techniques” and “valuable closely held trade secrets,” without using “link farms or black hat methods.” And they charge “less than half of what other companies charge!” Awesome.
So I checked out their site, and their SEO service includes: Keyword Market Intelligence (umm…keyword research), Meta-Data Optimization (sweet), Title Optimization and a Best Practices Doc. Considering most companies give away most of that info for free, their prices must be excellent. Their “proprietary trade secrets” don’t seem to include, as far as I can tell, any blackhat techniques, so there is no need to worry about National Positions being the next Traffic Power (who cold-called me back in the day), but it’s still a rip-off.
Sadly, while what they’re engaging in may not technically be black hat, it is certainly not the kind of SEO I’d like to see rewarded (and not the type I think the engines want to encourage either). Let’s take a look at just how they’ve achieved that position using our new friend, Linkscape, and our old friend, Site Explorer:
SIGNAL 1: Linkscape shows me 757 juice-passing (non-nofollowed) links pointing to the URL from 493 unique fully-qualified domains. Since Linkscape also says that there are 777 links to the pay level domain (*.nationalpositions.com) from 442 unique pay-level domains, that tells me nearly everything points to the homepage.
SIGNAL 2: Anchor text distribution. Linkscape is showing me that they’re earning an incredibly disproportionate share of what I’d call "optimized" anchor text. Have a peek:
If, like me, you’ve run a lot of reports like this on a lot of domains, you’ve probably noticed that this almost never happens naturally. The homepage of companies that aren’t called "SEO Company" don’t usually accumulate anchor text that contains "SEO Company" – it’s almost always indicative of spurious behavior.
SIGNAL 3: The links themselves usually have a story to tell. Let’s look at a few of the ones passing the most value (in particular, those using "seo company" in their anchor text):
Those don’t look great – pretty much all low quality directories (and digging down the list of the other 700+ links we’ve got doesn’t help much). These are the kind of links you hope wouldn’t help rankings, particularly for such a competitive search phrase. In fact, clicking through to many of these, it appears they have no visible toolbar PageRank (not all, but many), which suggest Google probably already discounts a lot of them. However, a ton of these are in Google’s index (and their link builder made it easy by using the same description when submitting to a lot of these) – note SERPs like this one and this one.
If we check out Site Explorer’s link list, the prognosis isn’t getting much better:
Yahoo! reports about 2X the number Linkscape does, but the samples look pretty much the same: low quality directories all with external links that say "SEO Company." If this is the kind of SEO we should be performing for our clients to help them rank competitively (which is precisely what the engines suggest when they rank them so highly), why exactly do we work so hard on quality content and attracting links naturally?
BTW – Google’s not the only one with this issue:
That’s Yahoo! above. SEOCompany.ca is, if I remember correctly, Bob Mutch’s firm, and they do solid work and have earned a big following with the great lists of SEO tools and resources they put out free to the community. I’m not sure what they did to tick off Google, but I see them ranking around #250, maybe because of geo-targeting to me in the US?
Live doesn’t do a terrible job here (seo company SERPs at Live), although the first two results aren’t geo-targeted very well and there are some other manipulative folks in the top 10. And poor Ask.com is also putting our friends at #1 (seo company SERPs at Ask).
Let me cut straight to the point. I don’t have any problem with what NationalPositions.com is doing. They found a way to rank well, leveraged it and are now getting dozens, maybe hundreds of daily inquiries for SEO help from companies who want to emulate their success in their own markets. Where I struggle is with the engines claiming that SEO in this fashion doesn’t work and shouldn’t be effective, then rewarding this kind of behavior with clients who are now going to get and apply these exact same tactics. A relevant analogy might find the court system giving out win after win to attorneys pursuing frivolous lawsuits – propping up their background with winning records, thus ensuring that more needless cases enter the system.
I know web spam is hard. We actually tried to build a spam metric into Linkscape at launch and found it to be a real Mt. Everest sized problem. But after 10+ years in the game, to find Google, the leader in this arena, giving sitelinks on results like these just doesn’t sit well with me, and it shouldn’t sit well with anyone else who employs best practices in white hat SEO.
p.s. If you’re planning to report web spam of your own in the search engines (and technically, the behavior we’re observing above isn’t spam – it’s just directory link building), Google likes to receive it from your Webmaster Tools account, Yahoo! appreciates it at their Site Explorer Suggestions Center and Microsoft/Live has a spiffy forum. Many in the SEO sphere have found that, perplexingly, spam gets dealt with fastest when it’s blogged about – making sites like YOUmoz and Sphinn havens for this activity.
p.p.s. No, SEOmoz is not trying to rank for "SEO Company" and yes, there are some great results that could show up in those SERPs – like:
Just trying to illustrate that it’s not a vast wasteland of results – there’s good stuff that could be showing for that query.
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