The nature of the beast is such that the most widely known SEO thought
leaders may not be the ones delivering the most value for their clients. This is
an important factor to be considered by anyone who is out looking for an agency
traffic to websites, or alternately relegate them to the equivalent of cyber Siberia.
Examples are numerous. Technorati, the blog search engine whose ranking has taken a hit on several occasions, and Answers.com, the knowledge exchange which once forfeited on a planned
acquisition after its stock tanked following a Google algorithm change in 2007,
comes to mind immediately. Still others have been punished for running afoul of
Google's webmaster guidelines. Retail giant JC Penney's website (jcpenney.com),
along with its SEO agency Searchdex, were outed after a New York Times expose in
early 2011 for buying links. Some years ago, the German site of automobile giant
BMW (BMW.de) had been erased from the Google index for creating doorway pages.
Another retailer, Overstock, was penalised in 2011 for benefiting from giving discounts to students linking in from prestigious .edu domains. Last year, SEO company iAcquire.com was briefly taken off Google's index after complaints about providing paid links to its
client Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. The penalties imposed on SEO agencies by way of loss of prestige after being outed, or the even severe banishment from Google's index, are pointers to the risky nature of the business. Clients are often able to wash their hands of any responsibility by channeling all blame to the SEO agency.
In the case of Dun and Bradstreet Credibility Corp at least, its top leadership, starting from CEO Jeffrey Stibel, has serious internet marketing chops, and cannot escape some responsibility for not closely monitoring the actions of its SEO agency. As Stibel himself puts it in his book Wired for Thought in a passage mentioning the woes of Answers.com: "This happened to no small degree
because Answers.com did not understand the internet as well as it thought __ and certainly it didn't understand the brain. It built its castle on the confidence that it could trick Google's algorithms. And for a while, it did..." Prophetic words indeed!
SEO practitioners function in a pressure cooker like situation. On the one hand, there's the constant demand to prove that they are indeed providing value to customers and are not, as many allege, peddling snake oil. On the other hand is the severe pressure from clients who want to occupy prime real estate in the SERP for keywords of their choice.
This pressure is in direct proportion to the growing importance of online transactions. Global eCommerce sales have topped the $1-trillion mark for the first time in 2012, growing at a
healthy 21% over the previous year, according to eMarketer. They are poised to grow at a steady pace this year, which means the pressure on SEO agencies to provide the magic recipe for higher listings in organic search is bound to increase.
The stakes are indeed high. Not surprisingly, some very smart people and heavy duty machines are at work, parsing the search giant's algorithm to discover loopholes. SEO practitioners who discover such loopholes quickly monetize it, and when word gets around about their success, they face a deluge of eager beaver clients only too happy to sign on. It's easy to refer to such strategies as 'black hat optimization', the dark art of raising the profile of a Web site with methods that Google considers tantamount to cheating. But these are indeed gray areas so long as the strategy adopted does not explicitly run afoul of Google's guidelines.
Let's take the case of the Overstock penalty. The company has a legitimate right to provide discounts to select customers. And strictly speaking, it was indeed not paying websites to provide
inbound links. It just asked college and university websites to make anchor text out of keywords like 'bunk beds' or 'gift baskets' in links to Overstock product pages in exchange for 10% discount on merchandise. The SEO agency which worked out this arrangement by exploiting the high PageRank enjoyed by University sites (Cornell 9; Harvard, UPenn, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Brown 8 each) may have considered it a genuine strategy.
But Google thought otherwise. And Google is always right!
Good SEO professionals study the art day in and day out, and perfect very precise techniques to raise the organic search rankings of their client websites. Since there's a premium on such techniques, such maestros keep them very close to their chest for the benefit of only their high paying clients. The nature of the beast is such that the most widely known SEO thought leaders may not be the ones delivering the most value for their clients. This is an important factor to be considered by anyone who is out looking for an agency to recruit.