Google spam traps: Don’t let them catch you!

Keeping your Web site in compliance with the latest search engine policies will help keep you well away from those nasty Google traps.

Many small business owners create a Web site because a colleague, family member or client recommended they do so. Unfortunately, instead of finding a knowledgeable professional skilled in Web site copywriting, design, usability, search engine optimization and search engine marketing, small business owners delegate the task of creating a site to a current employee who has limited knowledge of the Internet. While this may be passable for a time, eventually, inadvertent mistakes will be made that can remove the Web site from the visibility provided by search engines. Some of these mistakes are obvious and can be avoided, while others fall into grey areas and are not so easily avoided.

Low quality content

The easiest mistake to spot is low-quality content or a low quantity of content. For Web site content to be of high quality, it must be useful to your site’s visitors. If a Web page does not answer all the important questions a visitor has regarding your site’s topic, it will not be useful to your users. Similarly, a Web site solely containing a Home page, About Us page and a Contact page is not a useful site, as it contains very little content.

One way to avoid low-quality content is to focus on a narrow topic and answer the important questions visitors have about that topic. Quality topic sources can be found in the keywords visitors are utilizing to find your site. Adding pages based on what your Web visitors are searching for is a way to alleviate the low quality and quantity of content. Other sources of content topics include any current issues in your industry. Writing an article, top-10 list or checklist for a hot industry- related issue engages your Web audience and improves the quality of your Web site. Having a large quantity of high-quality content will help ensure your site’s legitimacy with the search engines, as this proves you are not creating a site simply as a search ranking scheme.

Linking schemes

Part of Google’s Webmaster guidelines policy states, “Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank.” PageRank is one of the many tools Google uses to determine where your page will appear in the search results. One of the main factors that Google uses in calculating PageRank is the number of Web sites that put links on their site going to your site. Google’s “link schemes” refer to the artificial means of inflating your PageRank score by acquiring links in an unnatural way. Google views links to your site as “votes” in favor of your site and wants to ensure the integrity of those votes. In Google’s eyes, participating in link schemes, such as sponsored templates and excessive reciprocal links, is the equivalent of a presidential candidate buying votes from the homeless.

A sponsored template link scheme involves paying a developer to create free templates for Web sites, blogs or other free Web site code that users can plug their content into and put on their Web site. Somewhere in the template, usually in the footer, the developer will add a link back to the sponsor’s Web site. Oftentimes, a developer will take sponsorship from many companies for a single template. At first glance, there may appear to be nothing wrong with sponsored templates. But if you take a closer look, you will see the sponsor is paying money for other Web sites to unknowingly “vote” for the sponsor’s own Web site. Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s Web spam team, has openly spoken out against sponsored themes in his blog.

Reciprocal linking, described as Web site A putting a link on its site to Web site B and vice versa, is not inherently harmful but can become an issue if overdone. Many companies build reciprocal links to their Web sites without encountering any problems. However, businesses face problems when they abuse reciprocal linking by acquiring too many links, low-quality links or unrelated reciprocal links. For example, placing 100 reciprocal links on a single page is an excessive amount of links. If you have more linked words than non-linked words, the page becomes distracting and provides a poor user experience. The quality of your reciprocal links matters just as much as the quantity. If your reciprocal links lead to keyword-stuffed Web sites or Web sites violating Google’s Webmaster policies, they are deemed low quality and could cause your site to experience search engine problems. The topic of your business’ site and the topic of the site you are linking to can also have an effect on your site’s rankings. If you have hundreds of low-quality reciprocal links leading to sites containing content unrelated to what your business does or sells, Google may think you are acquiring those links to manipulate the search rankings. To avoid facing problems with reciprocal linking, make sure the sites you are trading links with are useful to your site’s visitors.

Linking to bad neighborhoods

One way that business owners can unknowingly get into trouble is if they link to what is called a ‘bad neighborhood’. Linking to bad neighborhoods can have an adverse effect on your sites rankings and can cause the search engines to either ban or penalize your site.

How do you tell if you are about to link to a bad neighborhood? One way to tell is to search for the Web site name in Google and see if the site shows up in the search results. If the site does not show up for its own brand name, this could be an indication that Google has banned the site, and you may not want to link to it. It could also mean that the site is just very new and Google has not found it, or the site is poorly designed for search engines and they cannot relate the company name to their Web site. Another way to tell is to look at the Web site you plan to link to and see if it is violating any of the Google Webmaster polices. If they are blatantly violating these policies, then it would be best not to link to them.

If you find a site that you know would be useful to your visitors and you want to link to it but you are unsure if they are included in the search engines definition of a bad neighborhood, one option you have is to use the ‘nofollow’ attribute on your link. What a nofollow link does is let the search engines know that you are not ‘voting’ for the site that you are about to link to. By telling the search engines you are not voting for the site, you also do not pass any link value to that sites PageRank.

Paid links

Paid links have been a hot topic lately in the search engine optimization community. Some experts are in favor of buying paid links for Web sites, others are not. Paid links can either be a form of advertising or a way to trick the search engines into believing that other sites are voting for your site. Google has stated that buying links is against their Webmaster policies.

However, if paid links are a form of advertising, why do the search engines view them as a violation of their policies? The reason is because people use paid links to gather link votes to their Web sites in an effort to manipulate the search rankings. In the past, these actions caused your site to be displayed prominently in the search results, but as Google and the other search engines discovered which sites were in these paid link networks, they removed the sites’ voting abilities and penalized those sites buying and selling links. Some search marketers continue to buy and sell links for their clients, but this has become risky as the search engines have grown increasingly savvy. The easiest way to benefit from advertising on other Web sites is to request the “nofollow” attribute on any links purchased.

SEO software

One of the bigger mistakes small businesses make is buying cheap SEO software that promises outstanding results in a short amount of time. Since you may not follow search trends, this offer might sound like an answer to your prayers. However, in reality, you are buying a long list of upset blog and Web site owners wanting to know why you are spamming their sites with link-filled advertising. Software will not deliver results when little or no work is involved. Instead, this software offers a potential public relations nightmare that can be difficult to overcome on the Internet. It is best to avoid any software claiming to boost your Web site’s rank with the search engines.

Most small businesses form Web sites to increase sales and do not intend to violate the search engines’ guidelines. Oftentimes, businesses violate these guidelines unknowingly. Business owners do not realize they are committing an act that could lead to their sites’ removal from the search engines. Excessive reciprocal links, paid links or other search engine violations may not necessarily result in the banning of a site. Usually, a ban will only occur if a Web site commits multiple violations. There is no need to be overly concerned about an occasional, minor violation. However, you should vet your site and its links as much as possible to avoid being penalized if you do inadvertently add a questionable item.

Small business owners may not have the time or resources to manage in-house search engine optimization. Maintaining your Web site for the search engines can be a time consuming process. For those businesses that do not have the necessary resources, it might be beneficial to hire an outside company to handle the daily tasks of keeping a Web site in the search engines’ good graces. To find a reputable SEO consultant, try visiting:

Whether you decide to keep your search engine management in house or choose to hire an outside firm, keeping your Web site clear of search engine pitfalls is a must. Staying up-to-date with the latest search engine policies will help you avoid those nasty Google traps.