Is this SEO technique dodgy?
February 7, 2008 1:13 AM   Subscribe

How dodgy is this third-party supplier's SEO practice? And if it is dodgy, how do we tell our customer?

At work we have developed a lovely, extensive, and very useful site for a client. Let's just say it's a particular specialty retailer.

The client has engaged an SEO firm. They had an existing relationship that predates us so we were not able to step in.

The SEO firm has made basically two suggestions. One is about effective use of META tags (which we already were doing). The other really concerns me. What they want to do is have a link in the footer of every page to a "related pages" page. That "related pages" page, they say, will have links to relevant related sites on it. They have requested the ability to upload new links on a regular basis.

I have had a look at their suggested links for our client's site, and for other sites these guys have worked on, and while one or two seem relevant, the vast majority are to directory sites I have never heard of - and not to a page relating to our client's specialty, but just to the directory site home page.

How can this work? It feels... shady. And if it is shady, how can I best explain this to our mutual client?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
There's a lot of 'voodoo SEO' about, where people do stuff that might improve rankings, even though it seems iffy or pointless. They might be hoping to improve rankings for relevant topics by associating the site with others in that field, but links to obscure/spammy directories certainly won't help.

Having a links page can help make a site feel like more of a part of the web and maybe attract one or two reciprocal links, but in this case I'd worry that they may be making a few quid on the side by selling link placement on their clients' sites to dubious directories, or promoting their own projects, etc.

95% of worthwhile 'white hat' SEO is about having effective page titles, content, markup, URLs & monitoring tools, and attracting good, relevant inbound links. The other 5% is ever-changing, of dubious value, and constantly argued over.
I've done SEO work myself, and dealt with reputable SEO firms, but I have to say that most of the firms out there are cowboys who over-promise and use a lot of pointless or harmful techniques. Unfortunately, some of them are rather good at convincing clients they have magical powers that can transform a site's fortunes.
posted by malevolent at 2:00 AM on February 7, 2008

It doesn't just feel shady, it is shady. They are creating a link-fest to whatever sites they want. Who is to say a few of those sites are not their own. This practice will help search engine results in the long run (maybe for the client, maybe not), but in my opinion, degrades the reputation of the site.
posted by B(oYo)BIES at 2:06 AM on February 7, 2008

If I understand correctly, your SEO wants to use your site to do a link exchange. From what I understand from reading Matt Cutts's blog, this will probably not help you and Google might decide to remove your web site from Google if you do this.
posted by grouse at 2:11 AM on February 7, 2008

This will not help your client's Search Engine rankings at all, you do not gain ranking for outgoing links.

Presumably, your client's site will be linked to from other sites under this SEO companies control and this is how they intend to improve rankings. This is unlikely to have much effect, and depending on the quality of other participants in this link exchange, may have a negative effect.

From Google's Quality Guidelines for webmasters
Don't participate in link schemes designed to increase your site's ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or "bad neighborhoods" on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those link
posted by missmagenta at 2:41 AM on February 7, 2008

This doesn't help your customer's site, because Google measures how many sites link TO you, not FROM you. As well as the above, I'm betting the SEO company owns or benefits from the sites that are being linked to, so what they're doing is using a clean and honorable site (one with content not available elsewhere, unlike link farm/directory sites) to give credibility and improve the search rankings of THEIR passive income sites. Your customer will effectively be vouching for the sites in the "related links" section.

Pretty much all they customer has to ask the SEO company is what linking to these sites will do to improve their ranking when search engines ignore outbound links. I mean, if all you had to do to improve your rank was to link to other sites, no matter how lame, all anybody would have to do is create a huge page with every possible URL. The #1 hit for every search would be a 100TB page.
posted by rhizome at 2:54 AM on February 7, 2008

Yeah, it's dodgy, and lazy, and as nicely pointed out, voodoo.
posted by mattoxic at 3:37 AM on February 7, 2008

I worked with one of these outfits via a similar client setup once - ie, not my choice.

The guy had about 100 clients. What he did was divide them into three groups, A, B and C.

Everybody in A would link to everyone in B. Everyone in B would link to everyone in C. Everyone in C would link to everyone in A.

You did, in fact, end up with as many inbound links as outbound links. The link list descriptions where ever so carefully worded, down to which words in it were linked. Google certainly didn't mind it, but it didn't help, either.

The page names ultimately made the biggest difference for that client.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:34 AM on February 7, 2008

I would be suspicious of anyone stressing the importance of meta tags. Admittedly I'm no SEO expert but it's not hard to find lots of believable articles online saying that meta tags are close to useless these days because of their abuse.

Make your own judgement about this but here is an article from 2005 suggesting meta tags are actually harmful to your site because they effectively let other sites "steal" your keywords.
posted by tetranz at 4:53 AM on February 7, 2008

Dodgy as, Mr Spleen. WRT the second part of the question: Make your client think of the site's 'message'

Is the 'related links' page branded by the retailer's brand and/or on their actual domain? It sounds like it is if the SEO requested upload access. If so, point out that it is, in effect, ceding control over site content to an outside party, with your client having no say in the matter and with whatever unknown implications those other sites will have. I can't imagine a commercial site worth its salt that wants anything but the message they are trying to get across (and probably paid for) to be displayed - and association with whatever generic viagra dealers or other online dodginess the SEO also represents will almost certainly dilute, if not spoil that message.

Not only that, but if any single one of those unknown linked sites goes down owing to google diligence about linkfarming, anyone else in the scheme will most likely also suffer. To lose control over one's site's message and content like that and leave it vulnerable to unknown other's business practices is pretty darn negligent.

The fact that a bad rep garnered via association with a dodgy SEO will harm their future ratings for ages should be just icing on the explanatory cake, especially if their eyes glaze over during technical explanations.
posted by Sparx at 5:37 AM on February 7, 2008

Thinking further: If the SEO counters with the ability to moderate 'related links' - point out what a waste of someone's time that would be to do research for every link.
posted by Sparx at 5:41 AM on February 7, 2008

I would be suspicious of anyone stressing the importance of meta tags. Admittedly I'm no SEO expert but it's not hard to find lots of believable articles online saying that meta tags are close to useless these days because of their abuse.

The linked article is specifically about meta keywords. There are other meta tags that are important, specifically title and description, these are what google shows in its results, the page title and the meta description (if the page has one), this is the information displayed to searchers and will help potential visitors determine if your site is what they're looking for. Filling in the meta description is well worth it, it allows you to control the information google shows for that page.
posted by missmagenta at 5:55 AM on February 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't allow the SEO to add outside links. This can only hurt your client and benefit the SEO who is presumably either getting money for these links or using them to help out other clients. You're the one paying the SEO--don't let them benefit at the expense of your client.
posted by null terminated at 6:13 AM on February 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's not the shadiest thing in the world, but it's not good for your client's site. The SEO is building a private linkfarm of their own clients. Probably all their clients benefit some from it. But it's squirrely.

Anyway, ignore the SEO craziness. Think of the users of your actual site. You know, your customers. Would they benefit from these "related links" at the bottom of every page? Are they actually useful related links? If so, then sure, include the link. But I'm guessing that it's the kind of link visually designed to be ignored, and as you've already said the resulting landing page is not very good. Why clutter your site with stuff that's not useful to your customers?
posted by Nelson at 9:59 AM on February 7, 2008

On the first one: meta tags haven't made a difference to an indexing engine for a very long time.

On the second point IMHO Nelson is right, SEO that tries to second guess a search engine misses the fact that at the end of the day natural traffic is made up of people (potential customers) searching for information.

The crucial step is defining keywords that potential customers would actually use when looking for the sites product or service.

Let's say the site sells underwear; the keywords could include:
wide fronts
boy legs
budgie smugglers

and whole lot more. The customers for your site may only use one or two of these keywords when looking to buy underwear, and which ones they use will depend on their age, sex, location, demographic, upbringing, etc. If your site specialised in women's underwear targeting the keywords gruts and jocks would be a complete waste of time.

Also SEO isn't something a site brings consultants in and does once, it is part of the ongoing management and maintenance of the site. Visitor behavior can be tracked and keywords evolved over time, as you notice that nobody who is served up on your landing page for "buy gruts online" ever actually goes on to purchase your frilly pair of pink panties.

How to unseat an existing prior relationship - I would say carefully.

Also are you going to Webstock next week Stephen?
posted by Samuel Farrow at 2:01 PM on February 8, 2008

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