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The big news in the SEO world is that Google has updated its explanation of SEO in its Webmaster Guidelines. This is great for both SEO consultants and businesses looking for search engine optimisation services because it means Google not only acknowledges that good SEO consultants can help businesses to build better websites that rank for relevant terms, it also helps businesses identify what their SEO agency should and should not be doing.
Google’s new guidelines, however, leave out one tactic which is really just a revised version of something they advise against and a tactic which seems to be working remarkably well – for the moment.
Now back in the olden days of wild west SEO when any link scheme was a good link scheme, skilled SEO consultants used to spend their days building link farms – groups of interlinked sites set up for the purpose of boosting each other’s rankings. Generally these sites wouldn’t link to each other if they didn’t get better rankings, so Google decided this was unnatural linking that could harm its results and started to penalise any sites who engaged in these tactics.
SEO companies today still build link farms, they just use their own sites and they call them things like "mini-sites" or "micro-sites" or even "blog networks." This tactic involves setting up a series of small websites with content about your business or industry that link back to your business and sometimes to each other as well. These sites are very often poorly written, contain content culled from other places and changed slightly or have lots of similar content that seems to be informative but really just gives generic information that’s of no real benefit to anybody. For example, if you’re searching for information about dentures, do you really need to be told that losing your teeth "can affect your ability to chew" and that a "pair of dentures will fix this problem"?
A good SEO firm will have many different ways to get links from sites where you’d be happy to have your business listed. SEO agencies that tell you that they use a "content network" because it’s quick, easy or cheap are risking the reputation of your business or worse, your business itself.
Best case scenario, Google finds the sites and ignores them so you end up with a bunch of badly-written, generic content pointing at your website that will do nothing for your business whatsoever. You will have paid somebody to build websites and write content that brings you no benefit at all.
Far worse is the possibility that these content networks boost your rankings for short period of time, potential customers find them and then realise that they are associated with your business. They wonder why they’re being brought to a third site instead of your business and they get annoyed with you for wasting their time or for introducing spam to the search results and you lose a potential customer who might even report you to Google or write negative reviews of your business online.
Worst case scenario, your content network
boosts your rankings significantly. Your traffic shoots up and possibly even
your conversion rates – assuming your SEO firm hasn’t added "optimised" copy to
your pages that involves repeating your main keywords a million times but makes
no calls to action. Then Google detects a pattern in your inbound links that
looks strange – sites which get almost no traffic only linking to you and
nobody else, sites which get almost no traffic only linking to you except for the
sites they link to in their Adsense ads, sites which get almost no traffic only
linking to you and the occasional link somewhere like Wikipedia or About.com,
or sites which get almost no traffic only linking to you and to each other.
Maybe at this point Google gives you an automatic penalty which drops your site down to page four or ten or one thousand of their search results. Or, worse yet, maybe Google sends a human editor to check out your site and its backlinks and realises somebody’s been trying to trick them and bans your site from the index entirely – Google doesn’t particularly care for people trying to trick them. Your traffic dries up, your sales dry up and you have no money. Then, just to add a little more humiliation to your predicament, Matt Cutts highlights you as a bad example in his blog. Your SEO firm, however, shrugs its shoulders, tells you they couldn’t predict that Google would have a problem and walks away.
When you speak to SEO companies about what they can do for you, logic and a bit of reading on the internet can save you a lot of trouble down the road. If they suggest a quick fix, run away. If they talk about rankings but don’t mention how they will increase your conversions beyond sending you extra Google traffic then run away. And if they suggest building multiple sites that you wouldn’t want to find as a searcher looking for information or a service, head for the hills.