Q: How do you know if the SEO company you hire to boost your rankings is actually putting your website at risk in the long term?

A: It will largely depend on whether they are using ‘black hat’ or ‘white hat’ SEO techniques.

Yes it’s good vs evil in the search engine arena.

White hat technicians build rankings using methods considered acceptable by the search engines that rank them. Creative, relevant and sharable content built into a clean website structure will be at the centre of a white hat SEO strategy.

Black hats attempt to mislead search engines to gain priority rankings. Smoke and mirrors are the tools of choice, and results are built on ‘quick fixes’.

The thing is; we already know which approach comes out in front.

Good eventually triumphs over evil as search engines compete to provide users with the most relevant search results and the best user experience. Google employs teams of brainy geniuses to decipher black hat SEO tricks and adjust its search algorithms to push these perpetrators way, way down on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP). Manual penalties are also applied to sites found to be practising the dark arts, and they can be very difficult to emerge from.

With search engines intent on bringing down black hat SEO, it’s just not worth joining the dark side. Short term gains can easily bring long term pain.

How can I tell if my SEO company is using black hat SEO?

We hope that your site is ranking well for all the right reasons, and that you’ve done the usual checks you’d do before engaging someone, including background checks, speaking to referees and seeing examples of the company’s work.

But if you’re not very familiar with SEO, it can be difficult to know which questions to ask. It’s easy instead to focus on how well your site is ranking rather than how it’s getting  there.

Be a black hat investigator

Even if your SEO knowledge is limited, you can play an investigative role to get an idea about which hat your SEO company wears.

By taking a look at websites they’ve done SEO work on (whether that’s work they’ve already done on your website, on their own website, or on the website of another client) we can get an indication of whether they favour black or white SEO techniques.

Google’s algorithm takes into account both on-page factors and off-page factors as it analyses both the content a website presents to its users as well as how credible the website appears.

Some on-page black hat SEO techniques to look out for

Keyword stuffing

Is one word or phrase repeated over and over on the page, or in the text that describes the page on the SERP? Long gone are the times when Google can be hoodwinked into elevating a page for perceived relevance due to keyword stuffing. Although these days it can do more harm than good, the practice can still be spotted on some older websites.

Duplicate and scraped content

Copy a portion of text from a page and paste it into the search bar of Google. Does the text appear to be scraped from another source without proper attribution? Of course it’s possible that you’re viewing the original, and someone has scraped it, in which case you might need to dig a little deeper to solve the mystery. If there is a link from the duplicated text to the original, then Google considers that fair attribution for SEO purposes.

Off-page investigations

Dodgy backlinks

Although Google’s Penguin updates sent many link schemes crashing and burning, there are still plenty of SEO operators buying or arranging dubious links to websites because of the boost a high-ranking website passes onto a site that it links to.

Google analyses the calibre of the websites that provide links to your websites to determine the authority or reputation of your site. If a site with oomph – let’s say Gizmodo or the Office of the Prime Minister of Australia – links to your site, then you must have a pretty good site there, hey?

The problem of course is when websites are artificially inflated to appear as sites of authority, and then Google figures out they’re not. A link from such a site can send your site to the bottom of the pile by association.

White hat SEO technicians are still likely to cultivate link-building, but the sites they court and the methods they use will sit more comfortably above board.

You can test any site’s backlinks for free using various software. One that doesn’t require a download is www.opensiteexplorer.org. The free version is limited, but you will be able to figure out if the sites that link to the site you’re analysing are doing so as part of a natural linking pattern or something potentially more sinister.

What if you smell a rat?

It’s important to have an open mind, and to allow your SEO practitioner to respond to any questions you have. But if they’re unable to offer explanations, then get a second opinion, or a second quote. If a sudden drop in traffic could cost you a lot of business, then you need to be sure that your SEO company is not putting you at risk with black hat tactics.