The term “SEO” is almost a dirty word around the internet these days. It has a horrible reputation behind it, and SEO Professionals are increasingly using alternative acronyms like “Search Engine Marketer” or “Inbound Marketing Specialist.” While those jobs can differ from SEO, it’s all too often used as a mask to hide the shame some SEOs have around telling people what they do.
It all started in the seedy corners of the internet: chat rooms and forums for internet marketers. You know, the guys who create web sites to sell someone else’s stuff. They’re called affiliates, and they get paid a commission every time someone buys a product through a link on the affiliate website. For every product where there’s an affiliate program, there are hundreds, or even hundreds of thousands, of people selling the same product, often with the same sales copy, competing against each other to get found on the search engines.
As SEO techniques developed, these marketers all fought for a piece of the big Google pie. And when the going gets tough, the tough go Black Hat. Black Hat marketing/SEO is the process of using “less than above-board” means to manipulate search engine rankings. For the most part, that means spamming the crap out of every blog that accepts comments without moderating the content.
As some got better at it, they developed tools that scour the web for open blogs, generating random usernames and comments, and inserting their affiliate links. Tools were posted for download to the general public, or sold for sale (with an affiliate program to have other marketers sell the tools for them!). Those that bought good tools now had the means to run massive spam campaigns not only for themselves, but for other marketers as well. Branded as “SEO services,” they created monthly packages where they ran the automated tools spreading links to any old place that would accept them.
Search engines, being for profit companies, seek to provide a positive user experience, and thus display the best pages for particular search terms based on authority, relevance, and a number of other factors. These small affiliate pages aren’t good for the user experience, and thus not for Google. And as Google does, they develop advanced algorithms to find horrible pages promoted with spam and either de-index them (remove from all search results) or penalize them (push them deep down in the results).
That would be all well and good, if businesses didn’t pick up on these tactics and either try them out themselves, or hire these new SEO companies to do it for them. Sadly, many businesses did (and still do) get caught up in the sales pitch of “SEO Experts” and buy link packages and fake Facebook likes thinking it will improve their search visibility, only to have themselves penalized. Not only do you lose money you pay the SEO team, you lose money that you might have received from customers that would have bought your products had they found you.