After the hubbub about JCPenney.com a few weeks ago, last week Google appears to have made an example of Overstock.com and Forbes. While Overstock was offering students with .edu accounts discounts for providing .edu links to the Overstock site, Forbes was accused of selling links for PageRank. Were these violations intentionally violating Google's webmaster guidelines for SEO gain? For webmasters and SEOs everywhere, it's time to re-evaluate your own site(s) and ensure that you don't get caught possibly violating Google's guidelines. Here are my top three tips to avoid doing so, based on the most common mistakes I see.
1. Avoid using hidden text and/or hidden links. This problem is more rampant than I'd like to admit. I often see companies that want to rank highly for a particular term, yet when it comes down to brass tacks, they don't want to put the actual keyword on their website. Often companies may want to avoid having their website messaging match a popular search phrase for branding reasons. For instance, I worked with one major automobile manufacturer that didn't want to use the search term "used cars" on the website because car companies don't like to call cars "used" anymore - they're "certified pre-owned vehicles." In other cases, companies or organizations may be trying to rank for terms related to the competition, as the group "Texans for Kay Bailey Hutchison" did in 2009 when the Hutchison camp used fellow candidate Rick Perry's name on Hutchison's website in hidden text.
Here's the thing: If you don't want to put a keyword on your site, then you need to think twice about why you're targeting that keyword. There are creative ways to incorporate keywords into your messaging, even if they're not flattering keywords. Take the "used car" example from above. If you want to still brand used cars as "certified pre-owned vehicles," you can do so while adding the term "used cars" in a positive spin, such as "Our certified pre-owned vehicles aren't just any used cars -- each vehicle has passed a 120-point safety inspection, making them the best used cars on the road." All you need to be is a little creative, and you can often work keywords into your copy -- without cheating!
2. If you buy links, be choosy. Many SEOs will tell you to NEVER purchase a link, but I will not. Why? There are plenty of valid, important links out there that would be considered paid links but are also valuable for many reasons other than SEO. For instance, if you're a member of your local Chamber of Commerce, there's likely a directory of members. Technically, if you're included, that would be a paid link, since you paid for membership and receive a link because of that payment. But a Chamber of Commerce link is valuable not only for local-based companies for SEO but also for just targeted traffic in general.
So what should you avoid? Defining bad linking sites is like the threshold test Justice Potter Stewart gave for defining pornography :"I know it when I see it." You can often tell a bad linking site by a number of factors - for instance, who else has put a link there? But that's not always a great guarantee. So use your best judgment and choose who you link with carefully. Don't buy links just to improve your SEO rankings.
3. Avoid intentional duplicate content. Oh how duplicate content abounds! I'm always amazed at how webmasters are unaware of how much duplicate content they have on a website. Many ecommerce site owners make this simple mistake when a sort order on a category page adds a variable to the URL. In Google's eyes, the variable makes the URL a whole different page, leading possibly to having several pages of essentially the same content ranking for different URLs.
A good example of this is half.com, which textbooks as well as other items. A search for the beginning part of a URL string from one of half.com's category pages yields two results in Google - essentially the same content, just sorted differently.
There are cases, like the aforementioned half.com example, where duplicate content is pretty much inevitable. However, if you are faced with the possibility of having multiple pages of the same content indexed, be sure to use the canonical tag on the versions you don't want duplicated in the results.
The canonical tag essentially consolidates all of the inbound link value to the version of the page you choose. So if, for instance, the category page sorted by price low to high is a better performer for you than the category page sorted alphabetically, use the canonical tag to encourage Google to rank the better performing page. This is a legitimate workaround for duplicate content issues and is supported by Google.
I find that really most of Google's webmaster guidelines make a lot of sense. If you try to game the system, it can be pretty obvious. So don't be malicious. Just do your best to follow the guidelines, link legitimately, and hopefully you won't end up like JCPenney, Overstock or Forbes!