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Want top search results? Tread carefully

In the business of promoting Web sites to top search results, some push limits to find what tricks are allowed. But there's evidence the trade is getting more respectable.

Earlier this year, Matthew Inman had achieved the notable distinction of vaulting a Web site called JustSayHi high into the results for a search on "online dating." But after he expanded his effort to new areas, Google obliterated the site from its search results.

Inman had used an aggressive technique called widget bait to get good search results, but had to scrap a site that had been used for years and start from scratch. He was caught in a gray area in a sometimes-shady industry called search engine optimization (SEO) where it can be tough to distinguish a clever trick from a dirty trick.

It's well known that Google wields tremendous economic power for those trying to use the Internet as a business tool: high search results can send customers to an out-of-the-way bed-and-breakfast. The SEO industry has sprung up to help customers find ways to get their Web sites high in search results, and its practitioners are always testing new methods.

Matt Cutts, leader of Google's effort to screen Web spam pages from the company's search index, speaking earlier this year at the Web 2.0 conference.
Matt Cutts, leader of Google's effort to screen Web spam pages from the company's search index, speaking earlier this year at the Web 2.0 conference. Stephen Shankland/CNET News

Some "white-hat" methods pose no problems, but others range somewhere between crafty and definitely naughty "black-hat" techniques. Notwithstanding Google's belief that it's not so tough to comply with its guidelines, the trouble for SEO companies is the size of the gray area.

"Eighty percent is in the middle," said Sage Lewis, president of online marketing company SageRock, who believes his industry's reputation suffers as a result. "Some people consider SEOs to be spammers. If there were standards, that could make us more reputable."

Gaming Google PageRank
Gaming the system is hardly new to the Internet. The quantity of plumbers with "AAA" in their company names shows how important alphabetical order was in the days when people found services through the phone book.

What's new with the Internet is the global breadth and the technological automation that figures into the search engine business.

Google got its start in search success with an algorithm initially called BackRub, later changed to its current name of PageRank. This technique judges the worth of a Web site based on how many other Web sites include hyperlinks to it, and on the worth of those other sites.

The result in SEO circles has been a wide variety of techniques to build as many of these inbound links. "Everything we do revolves around the power of the inbound link," said Matt Stoddart, executive vice president of sales at search marketing company LinkWorth. "The Web is like a popularity contest. Each inbound link counted like a vote."

Google, which wants to show the best Web results based on content rather than promotional budget, can penalize a site that uses paid links designed to manipulate search results. But links are bought and sold all the time, Stoddard said.

"We live in gray-hat SEO," Stoddard said. "According to Google, unless a Webmaster links to you on their own, for whatever reason, you shouldn't be buying or selling inbound links. That makes you black hat to them. We work with some of the biggest advertisers in the world. Their feeling is they're being negligent if they don't buy links...we are right smack dab in the middle."

In the gray area: brokering or bartering links
Linkworth doesn't buy or sell links, but it's a middleman that enables the practice. "We have a pretty big network of publishers that will (sell links), and we help them manage that process. We ride the fence in a pretty big way," he said.

And if selling links is bad, what about other motives for including them?

"I think buying links tends to be more evil the more it is being done to propel bad quality or irrelevant sites into the top listings. Personally, it's not something I like," said Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of the Search Engine Land site. "But then when you see the ways people may get links through bartering or because they know someone--say a top blogger links to a friend with some nice anchor text--is that really a 'deserved' link either? Rather than wage what might be a losing war on paid links, I'd rather see Google take Microsoft's attitude that they'll try to judge the value of a link regardless whether it is bought or sold."

Widget bait is another envelope-pushing technique. In it, somebody who wants to promote a Web site creates a component that can be added to somebody's Web site, such as a blog. In Inman's case, it was quizzes to tell bloggers if they were being too verbose and other subjects. The code included a link back to the dating site. Inman's trouble came when he also added links to his parent company's efforts to get search results for "payday loans" and "cash advance," he said in a blog posting, ultimately gathering more than half a million inbound links.

Link-baiting also is alive and well as a way to generate inbound links. With it, a site publishes provocative or entertaining content and tries to encourage word of mouth publicity. With all the bloggers in the world, a sufficiently witty, inflammatory, or inane post can generate a lot of inbound links.

The problem with link bait is moving beyond the one-hit wonder phase, said Gabriel Goldenberg of SEO ROI, an SEO firm. For it to be effective, a marketer needs a means to seed the next round of interest, such as subscribers keeping up to date with RSS feeds or an e-mail list.

End of the Wild West?
Google doesn't believe the gray area is so gray. It advises Web site operators to follow the guidelines at its Webmaster Central site, to avoid anything that deceives Web users, and to apply age-old ethics tests such as asking yourself whether you'd be ashamed to tell your grandmother about just exactly what you were up to. (Microsoft and Yahoo also offer search-related guidelines.)

And Google believes white-hat SEO is on the rise.

"We see the majority of the trend is people trying to find legitimate ways" to promote their sites, said Matt Cutts, who as head of Google's Webspam polices abuse of Google's search engine. He stopped short of saying the Wild West days of Web site promotion are over, but said, "The hope is you can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Google believes it's made technological progress to stay ahead in the cat-and-mouse game. "Our approach is to try not to do hand-to-hand combat. We try to find algorithms that will shut down a whole technique," Cutts said. But when it comes to Web sites Google believes are violating the rules, it will take manual action. "Google does reserve the right to take manual action on spam."

The search giant thinks it's mostly licked some SEO tricks from days of yore. One involved posting links on online guest books; including search keywords white text on a white background was another; a third are doorway pages, in which people create a Web page stuffed with keywords a search engine will discover. When a user opens the doorway page shown in the search results, the doorway page is quickly replaced by the site the doorway page creator wanted to show. Typically, many doorway pages are created by computers to point to a particular site.

"Google is good at detecting machine-generated spam, so we don't see much of that these days," Cutts said.

Web marketing is maturing as a business. A lot of SEO work these days is done in-house at companies that definitely don't want to see their sites vanish from Google's index. Consequently, Cutts believes, accountability is increasing and it's rare to find "mercenary" consultants who believe "you're not a real SEO unless you've had a network of sites torched to the ground by search engines."

Goldenberg, who says he has black-hat SEO consultants as friends, agrees.

"As the algorithms got more advanced and you keep getting sites and parts of your network banned, it becomes tedious generating stuff en masse and figuring out the new hole," Goldenberg said. "It can be entertaining, but when you want to rely on it for income, it gets frustrating."

FindLaw denies selling links
There's evidence to support Cutts' view that reputation matters. Take a case in August involving FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters division that helps lawyers build Web sites and otherwise market themselves online.

A blogger at Oilman.ca revealed evidence that FindLaw had apparently violated the link-selling guidelines. An e-mail said "up to three hard-coded links will be placed on editorially relevant pages of content" along with various other search engine marketing services for a price of $1,000.

When word of the e-mail emerged, FindLaw reacted strongly to contain any potential damage. "The message was sent before it had been reviewed and approved," Thomson Reuters said in a statement. "It misrepresented how the product was intended to work and didn't fully and accurately describe it. The use of the words 'hard coded links' and 'for sale' in the document incorrectly implied the intent to sell links."

And just to make sure there was no confusion, the company immediately canceled the search engine marketing product. "We do not sell links," the company said.

But in a way, FindLaw was in the fortunate situation of knowing where it stood. Not so some others.

"As much as I'd like to have the wiggle room, I'd prefer clarity," said Inman. "Getting my dating site burned nearly cost me my business, so I'd rather know what is acceptable and operate within those guidelines rather than have the freedom to be more aggressive with the risk of getting burned again."