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There are dozens of black hat techniques that are still in use today. This article is not meant to be an all-inclusive list of those techniques; instead, it is meant to discuss the techniques that are most likely to be used by an agency and to help you, the customer, determine whether your agency is using them.
We will discuss what to look for on your website, what to look for off-site, and what questions you can ask your agency to get some inside details about what is happening with your SEO campaign. We will not conduct any technical analysis and instead focus on what the everyday person can determine on their own.
CHECK YOUR OWN WEBSITE
The most common on-site black hat techniques:
Duplicate Content – Agencies won’t be using duplicate content to cheat Google, but they might use duplicate content to cut costs. It is also possible that their contract writer is cheating them by sending the same piece of content to multiple clients.
- This is a pretty easy check -- just run your website through Copyscape. It costs five cents per page, which can add up. You can also do a batch search if you want to check your entire site in one scan.
Over-Optimization – This is caused by an over-aggressive SEO strategy by putting your ‘money’ keywords every place they can fit them in.
- Read through your own content. Do the internal links (links that go to other pages on your website) seem to be phrased to help guide the reader to other pages that might help them, or are the links there specifically to enhance SEO? Do all of the internal links use rich anchor text? (Example: Personal Injury Lawyer, Orthopedic Doctor, ‘Any Primary Keyword’)
- Check your primary product/service pages to see if the primary keyword for that page is used everywhere it possibly can be. Is the exact keyword in the URL address, the page title, the sub-headers, in the image alt-tags, and twenty more times throughout the main content? That is overdoing it.
Abuse of Schema – Changing the way your website is presented in the SERPs can do magical things. But you have to be sure that all of the schema you use is applicable to your website.
- Choose a few of your most important top-level pages and insert the URL into Google’s Schema Tool. This will produce a list of schema markup that is present on that page. Do these markups make sense? Most markups have logical names, which means you should be able to tell if they belong or not. You also want to ensure that you aren’t fabricating information. For instance, you should not have a review markup if you don’t have any reviews.
CHECK WEBSITES LINKING TO YOURS
The most common off-site black hat techniques:
- Buying Links – There are companies whose purpose is to sell links. Sometimes these companies sell links on websites they own, and sometimes the company will do manual outreach to get a link on a website they do not own. Often, you can pick from a list of websites like a menu, paying different prices for different links.
- Link Exchanges – These used to be more popular before Google caught on. The basic premise is that two websites agree to post a link to each other. This is often done through the exchange of a guest blog post.
- Private Blog Networks – These are websites that are built for the sole purpose of generating links, even though they look like real websites. Often, these websites will have banner ads, blog comments, social profiles, and anything else to make them look legitimate.
To a certain extent, you are at the mercy of your agency. None of the above are particularly easy to uncover. Aside from just asking your agency, the best thing you can do is look at your link profile and gauge for quality. Here is an easy way to find out what sites are linking to yours so that you can apply ‘everyday commonsense’ to gauge your website's quality.
DISCLAIMER: Most links available to small businesses are from other small businesses or small blogs. The below is not an end-all-be-all answer. It is meant to allow you to ask your agency educated questions.
- Open an internet browser.
- You can either search Google for ‘Search Console’ or just click this link to go directly there.
- Log into Search Console with the Google account that has administrative access.
- If you don’t have admin access, ask your agency to make you an owner of all of your Google services. This is something that you should do, regardless.
- You might see multiple websites listed; select the website you want to investigate. You might see the website listed more than once, in which case you will need to click through to find out which one actually has data.
- On the left, click ‘Search Traffic.’
- In the drop-down under ‘Search Traffic,’ click ‘Links To Your Site.’
- You should see two columns in the middle of your screen. The left column should be titled ‘Who links the most,’ and there should be a link at the bottom of that column called ‘More>>’ -- click that.
- This will provide a list of every website that links to yours.
You could click through to the next level and evaluate every single link coming into your website. But that would likely be too time-consuming for you and you would be better off taking a more top-level look at your link profile. Here is what I suggest:
- Scan through the list of websites in Search Console and create your own list of any that seem ‘off.’
- Start to visit each of the websites that are on your list.
- If the website ends up being a directory, just ignore it and move onto the next.
- Ask yourself the following questions about each website:
- Does the website have a clear audience and purpose?
- Read the content. Is it well written or does it look like it was written by someone who doesn’t speak your native language?
- If you want to go one step further, you can visit WhoIs and input each of the websites you are suspicious of. This will tell you who owns the website.
- Is the information blocked or private? This will usually show the domain registrar as the owner, such as Go Daddy.
- Are many of the websites owned by the same person?
ASK YOUR AGENCY
Sometimes you just need to ask your agency what they are up to. They will likely open a discussion about strategy. Here are some questions you should ask that might reveal what your SEO looks like behind the scenes:
- Have any of our links come from some of your other clients? (Link Exchanges)
- Have any of our links come from websites that you own or control? (PBNs or Link Exchanges)
- Do you ever directly pay for a link? (Buying Links or PBNs)
- How aggressive are you with on-site optimization?
Every industry, market, and company is unique. Your agency may have a good reason for using some combination of the above, but you deserve to know those reasons. We believe that you should have some idea about what is going on behind the scenes of your SEO campaign. Taking an active interest in the success of your marketing campaign generally, produces positive results.