What colour hat is your SEO adviser wearing?
That, ridiculous as it might sound, really is a genuine question and not a vague reference to London Fashion Week or some idle musing on the sartorial elegance of your adviser’s attire. Fashion sense may be determined by designers, wealth and even climate, but the rules of internet marketing and optimisation are well and truly determined by search engines, in particular Google. Like it or not, what Google says goes: just ask J. C. Penney, the latest American giant to have fallen foul of the seemingly vague rules of SEO.
So what are these rules? What are SEO advisors asked to do and how do they abide by them? Well, that’s the nub of the problem. There are no strict rules, more general guidelines or best practices and that is arguably where the problem lies. These rules don’t tell practitioners what to do, merely what not to do. Consequently there is a polarisation amongst the practices of SEO specialists: advisers can either do things the right way (white hat) or the wrong way (black hat).
J.C. Penny chose to opt for the dark side and has been punished by Google for deliberately flouting these rules. A study by the New York Times uncovered underhand optimisation practises of extraordinary proportions, where the mega-retailer had paid other websites to link to their own. The majority of these links were bogus and had little, if any, relevance to the products they sold. The result was that J.C. Penny topped the Google rankings. The company has, of course, denied the accusation that it paid for these links, blaming any element of fault on the actions of the SEO advisors it employed.
Regardless of fault and culpability, Google has cracked down on what it sees as underhand link-building schemes and has manually penalised JCPenny.com.
The consequences have been serious and the company has now dropped from the top of the listings to relative obscurity. However, it’s worth pointing out that a company can hardly become obscure overnight on the back of such notoriety: is there any such thing as bad publicity?
What this teaches us about optimisation is open to question. There are still no clear, defined rules on what SEO specialists should do and how they should behave. Google has produced some guidance about what any company should look for before employing an SEO advisor, but even that falls short. The fact remains that it’s still unclear what best practices are: should you opt for the black arts or try a little white magic? The truth is nobody really knows and the only real lesson to be learned from this debacle is that if a business is caught engaging in sharp practices, then there are potentially serious consequences that could have a profound effect and damage the business permanently. So be cautious before choosing your SEO advisor.
In answer to the question, can you leave your hat on? Yes you can leave: just make sure it’s the right colour.
It’s probably best to ensure it’s a white one in the circumstances, but you might just about get away with a grey one. Now that’s something Tom Jones never mentioned.