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If there's one thing that bugs me more than anything professionally, it's when bad marketing people give good marketing people a bad name by continuing to use spam and automated techniques when they simply do not work anymore. It's a plague in many industries, but seems to find its happiest home in the realm of search marketing.
There's a reason for this, of course. Real search marketing is hard. Google and Bing have done a masterful job the last three years at deterring just about every known form of search spamming out there. They have learned to recognize quality over bulk. They can tell when something is automated and when it's manually created. They can determine when links are legitimate or just placed there for the sake of optimization value. They're starting to discern between quality social signals and junk signals.
It's abundantly clear that those who rely on bulk and automation are losing ground. Why, then, are so many of them still heading in this direction? Why are they not only failing to stop the bad practices but are actually developing them even further? Call it a rant. Call it a warning. The smoke and mirrors in search marketing may have been exposed by Google and Bing, but they're still preying on businesses who aren't paying close enough attention to what's happening. Here are some examples:
This is one of the easiest ones to see because it held little ambiguity in the eyes of the search engines thanks to the two major and dozens of minor Penguin updates. They can tell when a network is specifically designed to drive links to various websites. They have devalued these links to the other side of zero. In other words, they aren't just worthless, they can actually do harm to the rankings of the recipients.
It has been a challenge for Google and Bing to distinguish between poor SEO tactics and blatant negative SEO attacks, but they're getting there. They know that if they give spammy or automated inbound links the ability to hurt the target domain that there will be those who drive links to their competitors in an effort to discredit them in the eyes of the search engines. As a result, Google created the disavow tool that may or may not have a powerful effect, but that's not the point. The reality is that if enough links are disavowed from a domain, Google can do a manual review to determine if this is the target or their SEO company's attempt to game the system or if it's a negative SEO attack. It's not perfect. It can be wrong. Thankfully, it's been working well so far.
Links should be earned, not created for the sake of SEO value. That's not to say that quality links cannot be built, but it's better to simply create value with the content and perform the appropriate tasks necessary to earn inbound links. It's not a matter of "if you build it, they will come," as it does take effort to get the target pages attention, but if the quality is truly useful and can be exposed to the right audience, the links will definitely come.
Panda supposedly fixed this problem, yet it persists today. Heck, it's used as a shining example of the way to do SEO by some large companies. The challenge is that the Panda update is a work in progress. Google must learn how content flows and how to recognize based more about value than length of HTML code.
A couple of sentences followed by a useful infographic or video is better than 500 words of SEO spam, at least to the end user. Google is still learning how to recognize this properly, but one thing they have down is recognizing automated pages.
When pages are built automatically based upon pre-fab content with certain "unique content" factors in place, it has worked well in the past. Today, Google is de-indexing pages by the tens of thousands when they detect this type of automated SEO spam. If a page is created with low-quality content that cannot bring value to anyone, one should actually hope that nobody ever sees it. This can do even more damage when pages like these are indexed, start ranking, and start bringing in traffic.
People aren't stupid. Google isn't stupid. Still, some companies reminisce about the days when these things weren't factors. They are now, and some are unwilling to change their ways.
You can buy just about anything when it comes to social media. Do you want more Facebook likes? There's a place to get those. You want more retweets from pages on your website? There's a huge market for them. Google +1s are often bought. This works...
...but not for long.
Google and Bing already take into account the quality of a signal. This understanding is completely missed by many, including some of the most respected in the search marketing world. They will say that Google +1s is the most important factor in offsite search rankings, for example, but they won't mention that a +1 from a quality, aged, and trusted account is exponentially more powerful than a +1 from a spam account. This is a shame and I don't know whether it's simply not common knowledge or if it's just too difficult to make prospects understand.
As a result, marketing companies are buying social signals. They think that if they can get 100 retweets to a piece of content that their work is complete. What they don't seem to know is that those 100 retweets are being summarily dismissed by Google and possibly Bing. The same holds true for Google+, Facebook, Pinterest, and some of the other social signal components. Today, quantity still works as long as there is some quality involved, but looking ahead, a savvy search marketer will be prepared for the days when these fake social signals will be as dangerous as the fake automated inbound links.
If there's one word that should be understood and adopted by every search marketing firm out there, it's quality. One strong piece of quality content is more powerful than 1000 automated pages. One high-quality inbound link is more powerful (and much less dangerous) than 10,000 low-quality links. A few social signals from trusted accounts is more powerful than hundred of signals from crap accounts and this is shifting more in that direction every day.
If you focus on quality, you'll win.
"Quality" image courtesy of Shutterstock.