If there was ever a cautionary SEO tale, it’s that of JCPenney. In 2011, the retail giant hired an SEO firm to help boost online traffic. The firm began linking to irrelevant websites to artificially increase rankings, a practice Google has long sought to extinguish. Once Google’s algorithms identified the black hat tactic, JCPenney fell off the search rankings entirely.
The punishment had a devastating effect on JCPenney’s online performance and revenue.
The retailer fired its CEO and the SEO firm, but the damage was done. Unless customers explicitly searched for JCPenney, the retailer didn’t appear in search results for several months. It was as if JCPenney had ceased to exist, at least from Google’s perspective.
The lesson: Don’t be a leader who’s not in the know about SEO. No business wants to land in Google’s crosshairs, and all it takes is one ill-informed or unscrupulous employee to derail a multimillion-dollar company.
Many executives entrust brands’ online campaigns to their marketing teams, assuming they’ll follow standard best practices. But this practice of assumption can allow black hat tactics to flourish, not only jeopardizing the company, but also costing it millions of dollars.
Google blacklists an estimated 10,000 websites each day. It maintains nine blacklist categories, and businesses that land on any one of them struggle to regain an influential online presence. The easiest trap to fall into is the AdWords blacklist because there’s no way to predict which terms or search queries will be targeted for regulation.
The only way to defend against the AdWords blacklist is to try to anticipate which words will fall under scrutiny (then dissuade customers from using them in their searches). This is a fool’s errand; the only viable approach is to remain vigilant about shifting regulations.
Search engine blacklisting is more insidious. It often occurs when business leaders are ignorant of the SEO strategies their companies use. Perhaps a programmer decides to buy links or a marketer engages in a little keyword stuffing to boost rankings. Before the CEO knows it, his business is going down in search engine flames.
That’s why oversight is essential. You don’t have to be the one mapping out the SEO specifics, but you should know what your employees are doing, and why. Hands-on management is the best defense against Google’s blacklists.
Here’s how you can safeguard your company without disempowering your employees:
1. Become master of your domains. While building out my own high-ranking sites, I learned to constantly monitor for telltale signs of trouble. I check on employee activity to ensure no one is buying links. By simply checking through corporate credit card statements online in real time, I’m able to see expenses without having to question individual ethics or cause possible misunderstandings. I also monitor daily for even the slightest decline in site rankings by searching specific keywords for which I know we traditionally have certain rankings in the search engines. Knowing the usual numbers for keywords gives you a good baseline to compare changes against.
A dip in search engine performance could signal a minor problem (like you’re tracking the wrong search terms or your site is showing a 404 error), or an impending catastrophe (like Google has deemed a large percentage of links directing traffic to your site as spam). You want to catch both as early as possible. You can’t ruminate over every detail, but knowing the warning signs will help you avoid severe financial pain. If it’s a slower fall behind other sites, you might be dealing with a simple on-site issue.
If there’s a major drop in your search rankings all of a sudden, something is likely wrong. If you come across harmful links while going through your Google Search Console, you can use the Disavow Links Tool to distance yourself from problematic sites. You’ll want to check and see if a penalty was simply handed out along with an unannounced Google update or whether a Google employee intentionally flagged your site.
2. Educate yourself and your employees on the ins and outs of SEO. When I started my business, there were no classes, boot camps, or conferences on SEO and SEM. Although there are some resources out there now, the best approach is still self-teaching through trial and error. Versing yourself in Google’s Webmaster guidelines may sound tedious, but it could mean the difference between a successful online campaign and getting slapped with a search engine ban. There are numerous online resources and discussion board threads accessible via the Google Webmaster Guidelines page, which can further clarify any areas of uncertainty.
On one or two occasions, I have also used our Google Account representative as a resource for clarifying any questions I couldn’t find answers to through my own research and resources. I generally save this option for the most vital moments and always communicate via email so the discussion is recorded.
Define ethical SEO practices for employees as well. This simply means putting your core ethics in writing and spelling out which practices are acceptable and which could constitute intolerable offenses. You might consider having a good legal adviser create a solid employee handbook that spells out specific examples of behaviors and practices the business will not engage in or condone. This will thwart the possibility of anyone misconstruing what is or is not an acceptable method of getting the job done.
Training employees on these acceptable means of achieving goals versus the unacceptable ways to go about getting the job done is crucial. Anyone who may come into direct contact with tasks associated with SEO should be required to acknowledge the importance of such policies and their commitment to honoring the business’s ethical standards. This could mean providing an SEO training course for existing employees or hiring a specialized SEO team depending on the resources your company has. This not only protects the business, but it also protects the employee if there is ever a difference in opinion as to the best practices for the business.
Penalties for maliciously manipulating search engine results can mean severely lower search rankings or having your site removed entirely, so make sure everyone understands what’s at stake. Ebay’s run-in with Google, for instance, cost it an estimated $200 million. You don’t want your company to suffer because someone didn’t realize that link went against the code of ethics.
3. Get the finance team on board. Let the CFO and accounting team know which marketing expenditures warrant a closer look. A junior accounting executive might consider “link buying” or “web marketing” harmless, but those phrases should set off alarm bells. Google devotes entire teams of people to examining link quality; questionable links will be discovered, damaging your site’s ranking. There’s enough questionable online marketing going on as it is. Don’t let your team add to it out of ignorance.
Explain that phony web marketing expenses disguising black hat SEO (such as link buying, hidden text, or cloaking), could trigger a doomsday scenario to drive home the seriousness of their responsibilities. Repairing a website can cost thousands of dollars, not to mention the revenue losses. Extend this information to other departments as well, and encourage anyone who sees something suspicious to bring it directly to your attention.
Leaders, you set the tone for the company. If you make it clear that you don’t tolerate questionable SEO practices, employees will follow your lead. Provide training and education on changes in the SEO landscape to ensure everyone knows what’s acceptable and what’s not. Monitoring your business’s SEO operations is a time-consuming and ongoing project, but if you include all of your team members, you’ll empower them to work ethically and uphold the company’s moral code (and keep from falling off Google’s radar).
Written by: Daniel Wesley, chief evangelist at Quote.com