Who would have thought that my deep love of criminal forensics and the minds of our most hardened criminals would pay off in the land of online marketing.
As it turns out they are not all that different. We recently started an online marketing relationship for an exceptional client, whose ecommerce website plays a crucial role in all revenue. Part of our initial discovery process includes conducting extensive situation and competitive analyses to establish a baseline against which to measure growth and ROI. During this process, little red flags started popping up in my mind — their rankings were okay, but something wasn’t right. Whitehat tools don’t usually detect black hat techniques, so we had to use some unique forensic tactics.
- First up, we reviewed the number of unique domains compared to the number of links. A fairly balanced ratio is normal — but theirs was 1:11!
- Nothing beats some good, old-fashioned legwork. We had to do some digging to detect all the backlinks (not just those returned by Raven or Open Site Explorer).
- Once we had a list of suspicious links, we conducted a manual audit by clicking through and reading content. It sounds tedious, but human judgement isn’t something that can be easily automated.
We uncovered a nasty leftover of their previous SEO agency: black-hat back link development in the form of paid content and link farms. The client had no idea. Their previous agency had told them that they were writing articles with relevant content and posting it on sites with related content around the web creating an SEO benefit — but in reality they were just irrelevant content pages stuffed with keywords that linked to our client’s site. Of course, Google doesn’t care whose fault it is — if they detect unsavory tactics, they’ll drop your site from their rankings. (For a large scale example, read about JC Penny’s 90-day ban from Google) Knowing the impact that would have on our client, we sprang into action to clean up another agency’s mess. I compiled a list of the “bad” sites and manually reviewed each one to determine who owned it, what it was about and how to best get us removed. Then, I created a situational analysis outlining the risks associated and shared the results with the client. The client put us in touch with the previous SEO agency to discuss their tactics and request their involvement removing the links they had created. And just in time too — as we’d heard was sure to happen, a few months after our detection we received notice from Google that the client was likely to be penalized for the unsavory backlinks. We promptly responded to Google to communicate our plan for remediation. The biggest takeaway here is to know your agency. Know what they stand for. Know why they’re in the business — is it to create greatness, or just to make a buck? I could (and will) devote an entire post to this topic alone. In the meantime, here are 4 tell-tale signs your SEO agency is conducting black-hat techniques.
1 - Your agency promises hundreds of backlinks virtually overnight.
Earning backlinks is a lot like posting a flyer around town. There are crowded, community bulletin boards that are usually woefully out of date, advertising garage sales from last summer alongside used cars and piano lessons. A better, though more time-consuming, option is to convince a relevant business to display your flyer at their checkout or break room. (You’ve likely noticed concerts advertised in coffeeshops, and the symphony promoted in book stores.) If community bulletin boards are like link farms, and relevant businesses are like quality sites, then you can see how it takes time and effort to earn the right kind of backlinks. Look at the reports from your agency and see how many links they say they are getting you. If it is more than 3 or 4 per month — or if they won’t name the sites — investigate further.
2 - You’ve never heard of any of the sites your agency is earning you links on.
Are they writing irrelevant content with links and anchor text to your site and posting it up on "blog networks" that are obviously only there for the sake of rankings? These aren’t sites your customers are reading — these are the sites your customers are bouncing from when they click a misleading link. Ask your agency what they feel quantifies a quality backlink, if they say, “any link is a good link”, run! Links should be completely relevant to your domain and content and should always ask the question " Is this site relevant" Would my visitors be here?
3 - The sites you’re earning backlinks on all look eerily similar.
Blog networks are easy to spot, they are often wordpress and use the same theme but with different colors and urls. The content contained on each domain will be about every single topic known to man and have zero relevance to the domain itself. To see an example, visit this URL: www(dot)realityfire(dot)com (Note: If this domain is no longer working then it has been banned by Google since posting.) The blog titles range from “How to Choose a Rice Cooker” to “Offshore Marine Careers”, to “Curing Your Blood Pressure with Lotar”. There are no pictures, no bylines, comments are disabled, and the articles ramble on and on with repetitive keywords and of course, backlinks. You can also look into who owns the domains — often there’s a consistent company or person tying them all together. Use WhoIs to look up the owner of any domain.
4 - Something just doesn’t feel right...
Maybe you’ve requested data your agency wasn’t willing to share. Maybe you’ve stumbled across a link to your site in the middle of content on a totally unrelated website (a common tactic). Whatever the situation, trust your gut. If you think something’s up, ask for more information. If they won’t give it to you, walk away. You should feel good about the agency you’re trusting with your online brand.