Opinion: How Companies Are Cheating Online & Why It’s a Bad Idea

This is a guest column by Alyssa Mertes, Quality Logo Products (asi/302967).

If you need to get bread, you probably think of your local grocery store. Want some new flooring? Take a trip to Home Depot. For the average consumer, it’s pretty easy to know where to go when you need to buy something in particular.

For those of us in the promotional products industry, however, it’s not as simple. If someone is looking for customized pens with their business’s logo, they most likely have to go to Google to find a distributor. And that’s where strong SEO (Search Engine Optimization) comes into play.

Perhaps that’s why some companies are doing whatever it takes when it comes to getting to that coveted top spot in Google. Sneaky moves like paying for posts or hiding links in irrelevant content are unfairly tilting the scale in one direction instead of another.

To see what I mean, let’s use a controversial article written about the industry just this year as an example. This article doesn’t say anything positive about promotional products, but ones just like it are sometimes written as a consequence of paying to build backlinks and boost rankings. The distributor doesn’t always have control over the content, and as a result, the articles that are housing the links may just be negative and defamatory.

Whether or not this particular article is an example of this in action, it does serve as a catalyst to talk about bad SEO and how it’s affecting not just our industry, but also the credibility of written content as a whole.

The sad truth is promo distributors that play by the rules are losing business to distributors who are engaging in these tactics. At the end of the day, is this really a good idea or fair to the competition?

It’s time to put a stop to bad SEO and get back to what really matters – good customer service, a strong user interface, and honest, fair pricing.

How SEO Works

When your business is done entirely online, as is the case for many promotional products distributors these days, SEO can be a deal breaker. It dictates where customers are shopping because the higher a company ranks in the search results, the easier they’ll be found.

Google uses an always-changing algorithm to score every indexed page on your website. To overly simplify things, they determine how much quality, authority, and trust each of your pages has based on the number of sites that link to you, the uniqueness of what you offer, what people are posting about you on social media, and reviews from your customers.

It’s a lot to handle and even more to try and figure out. However, some companies have found ways to cheat the system, as I’ll get into next.

The Battle Begins

Have you ever seen the HBO show Game of Thrones? It’s about dynasties competing for the coveted Iron Throne and taking control over all the kingdoms. Unfortunately, SEO is working the exact same way. Promo companies are engaging in ruthless tactics to get to that top spot. They’re showing up in irrelevant content or paying for posts in order to build their “link value” and improve their rankings.

Articles that are paid for to boost rankings raise an interesting question about the authenticity of content. Are they being written because the author has something to say or are they paid for as a way to boost traffic to a company’s website?

Manipulative SEO is happening in our industry in many ways. Here are some of the tactics being used:

1. Buying content. A company can pay for an article to be written with the intent of placing their link in there and making it seem authentic. This is done by hiring an optimization agency that pitches these articles to other sites or outright paying the writer directly. Often the distributor doesn’t have any control of the content, which is why it could be praiseworthy, defamatory, or completely unrelated to the industry.

2. Mistreating sponsored posts. Not all sponsored posts are against the rules, but they are when it involves a “dofollow” link, also known as a link that has merit in Google’s eyes. A company is paying for this article to be written for the sole purpose of securing a few links and improving their rankings.

Many Sponsored Posts provide legitimate content, but some are designed as a manipulative SEO tool. 

3. Paying for links. An external website charges you to place a link to your site in their content. The author conveys a payment plan over email so the link appears authentic on the site.

4. Creating deceitful widgets. Widgets are small blocks that are typically embedded on the sidebar of a page. They’re designed for functionality and include links to other pages, which is why they’re easy to manipulate. A top ranking promotional products distributor made a plugin for a popular blogging platform called Joomla and put secret links in each widget they created. When a user installed one of these on their site, they were unknowingly creating a link back to the promo company’s website.

Plugins, like the one above, were being used on the sidebar or bottom of a webpage and appeared to be callouts for popular social media platforms like Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. The link to the promo company is hidden at the top of this widget.

5. Using link networks. Link networks are websites, often of poor quality, that are connected and owned by the same person or company. The only reason these websites exist is as a platform for other companies to build backlinks.

This is an example of a website that could be part of a link network. Notice all the grammar mistakes in this mention. “Peak” should be “peek,” and “Realtor” shouldn’t be capitalized.

6. Burying links in irrelevant content. If you sell promotional products, your link shouldn’t be on a page about how to take care of your garden. Makes sense, right? Still, that’s not all. There are other ways to cheat online and unfairly pull ahead of the competition, such as keyword stuffing, cloaking your webpage, and creating sneaky redirects.

These practices, and the ones listed above, are all referred to as “Black Hat SEO.” These tactics are designed to increase a site or page’s rank, even though it’s against Google’s guidelines and policies. The name comes from old Western films where the “bad guys” were distinguished from the “good guys” who always wore white hats.

Ultimately, this is unfairly affecting the competition and even more unfairly affecting the customer’s experience. The Black Hat companies are appearing at the top of search results and getting the clicks, leaving the White Hats hiding in obscurity on later pages. This makes a huge difference as according to a report published by Leverage Marketing, the average web user won’t go past the first five listings on a search engine results page (SERP). People are visiting the distributors that end up in the top five, and more often than not, those are the Black Hatters.

In effect, their bad SEO is causing the White Hats to lose a significant amount of business.

Why This Matters in the End

Google has guidelines and policies in place that are meant to prevent Black Hat SEO from happening. However, the internet is a massive place and it’s easy to fall through the cracks. Eventually, though, you’re bound to get caught if you’re being intentionally deceptive. Take a look at DJ Khaled and Floyd Mayweather, two celebrities who got fined by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for illegally promoting cryptocurrency on social media.

The musician and boxer respectively were paid by a company called Centra Tech to promote their services. However, they didn’t “disclose the nature, scope, and amount of compensation exchanged for the promotion.” This paid sponsorship was designed to boost the rankings of Centra Tech but ended up backfiring in the end.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has also taken action to ensure honest endorsements. The organization released a press release last year stating: “If there is a ‘material connection’ between an endorser and an advertiser – in other words, a connection that might affect the weight or credibility that consumers give the endorsement – that connection should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed.” –Federal Trade Commission (April 19, 2017)

A company engaging in Black Hat SEO has the potential to face penalties and fines from either of these organizations. Furthermore, Google can become involved and give you a Manual Action that blocks your page from their index. That means you won’t show up in any results, which isn’t ideal for getting customers to do business with you. Many big companies have received these penalties over the years, including the BBC, Overstock.com, and JCPenney. Their sites were down for a significant amount of time and they lost traffic as a result.

Get Back to What’s Important

At the end of the day, you can be #1 in Google’s search results, but it’s your customer service, pricing, and overall user experience that speak for itself. Google rankings always fluctuate, but what you’re bringing to the table will always remain the same. It’s all you can really control.

Black Hat SEO has the potential to backfire in the end, and it’s also hurting the credibility of the authors and what’s being written.

Obviously, we all want to be on the first page, but it shouldn’t be through any means necessary. Let’s focus on providing quality over quantity and get to the top organically and with our black hats left on the rack.

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