Recently we received an email from an SEO company that promised to help us get off of pay-per-click (PPC) advertising and to start generating more affordable leads through SEO.
Here is a portion of the email:
Obviously there are some huge red flags from the start that show this is a scam. The punctuation is inconsistent and often incorrect and the prose reads like something from your aunt's long-lost friend in Nigeria who has a million dollars to give you if you'll just provide your banking information.
That said, not all scams will be this obvious. So today we want to talk a bit about how to recognize a scam.
What is "black hat SEO"?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the work of aligning the content of your website with the algorithms that search engines use to rank websites. Done properly, good SEO work will even help your prospective residents, because good SEO focuses on producing great content and on organizing it helpfully on your website. This kind of "good" SEO is called "white hat SEO."
But there is also a dark side to the SEO world called—you guessed it!—"black hat SEO." Black hat companies use techniques that are automated, low-quality, and ultimately ineffective for boosting your rankings on Google. What's worse is that black hat SEO can even prompt Google to penalize your website.
You probably get lots of these emails:
Hi, I was doing some competitor research, and I noticed your website www.yourcommunity.com wasn't coming up very high in Google. We have cracked Google's algorithm, and we can get you to the top of Google GUARANTEED!!!
Now, some of these emails are very obviously scams--filled with misspellings, ominous links (or worse, attachments), or even asking you to send your credit card information right over.
But occasionally, someone sends you a really compelling pitch that seems like it might be legit. How can you know the difference?
In this post, we will expose the top five apartment SEO scams that black hat search engine optimizers might target at your community website.
The Thin Content Scam
One of our clients forwarded us an email they had received, pitching a "long-tail" SEO strategy. This was their proposal:
We build a website containing thousands of pages, each page is written for the Long Tail Keywords for your site to rank under (known as content). Long Tail Keywords are not highly competitive; it’s not hard to rank high for them on Google.
The tricky thing about this idea is that it is built on a half-truth. The "long tail" refers to the many, many low-competition keywords that exist and that each individually generate a small amount of traffic. An effective long-tail strategy can be great because if you can win 100 keywords that each get you 10 visits a month, that's actually quite a bit better than winning one that gives you 400 visits and another that gives you 300.
For example, you will find it easier to rank highly for the keyword phrase "luxury pet-friendly apartments in chicago" than you could for the simple phrase "apartments in chicago."
The extra modifier words "luxury pet-friendly" (the long-tail) added to the main phrase "apartments in chicago" narrow down the field of competition, making it easier to rank higher on search engines.
That said, because of the way Google works, you don't necessarily need to create a lot of different pieces of content for each of these long-tail keywords. Google has become very good at understanding the user's intention when searching and finding the right content that fits that need. So you don't need to create one page for "luxury apartments in chicago" and another page for "pet-friendly luxury apartments in chicago."
In fact, from Google's perspective, building thousands of pages with auto-generated content built to target thousands of different keyword phrases doesn't provide value to searchers using Google. So they won't rank those kind of websites anyway! What this means is that the person who pitched you this idea either doesn't know how Google works or is looking to take advantage of your own ignorance about Google in order to make some money off you.
We should say this as clearly as we can: Google takes thin content scams very seriously. To target websites with thin content, Google has rolled out several updates called Panda.
The Consequences: The penalties are sometimes so severe as to have your website completely removed from Google's listings, so don't fall for a SEO solution that generates a lot of low-quality content for your website.
The Bad Review SEO Scam
At the very least, the Bad Review SEO Scam takes a bit of research to pull off. One of our clients forwarded us this email:
Your company has a [bad review] in the first pages of Google search results and it might affect your online reputation. This is the link to that report:
We make it so people will only see good links about you when they search your name.
So, we checked out the claim, and sure enough, that particular bad review did show up on the first page of Google when someone searched for this particular community.
This scam is a step above the simple form email that gets sent to thousands regardless of the industry, location, or SEO success of the website company.
The problem with this pitch, then, is the promised solution: "We make it so people will only see good links about you when they search your name."
One of the most important rules to keep yourself safe from SEO scams is that the more SEO companies promise for results, the less likely that they are legitimate. Real SEO companies know that there is no way to manipulate Google's algorithm, so a real SEO company wouldn't make this kind of promise.
The Consequences: It depends on what this particular SEO company might be trying to do, but if they are trying to get other websites to rank more highly on Google, they probably won't mess up your own search engine rankings. Probably, you would just waste a lot of money by following this SEO scam.
The Backlinks SEO Scam
Originally, the algorithm of Google primarily ranked websites by weighing the number of other websites that linked to yours, a complex mathematical equation called PageRank. To manipulate this system, black hat SEOs built automated link farms, websites which served no other purpose than to provide backlinks to other websites.
So, these black hat SEOs would sell "thousands and thousands of backlinks" from these low-quality websites, tricking Google into thinking that your website was hugely popular across the internet. In the early days, this trick worked pretty well.
To combat this, Google began launching algorithm updates called Penguin to identify low quality backlinks to different websites. If websites had too many of these bad backlinks (often because they had hired a black hat SEO at some point), Google would penalize the search engine rankings of that website.
The Consequences: This apartment SEO scam is bad... really bad. Anyone who sells you backlinks is either clueless or malicious. They don't work, and they can get you severely downgraded on Google. If you happen to be in this position, you might want to check out Google's Disavow Tool, but do your research on its pros and cons, and use it only as a last resort.
The Keyword Stuffing SEO Scam
Here is how Google defines Keyword stuffing:
"Keyword stuffing" refers to the practice of loading a webpage with keywords or numbers in an attempt to manipulate a site's ranking in Google search results. Often these keywords appear in a list or group, or out of context (not as natural prose).
Filling pages with keywords or numbers results in a negative user experience, and can harm your site's ranking.
Focus on creating useful, information-rich content that uses keywords appropriately and in context.
On apartment websites, this typically looks like a repetition of "Chicago, IL apartments", and then "Chicago apartments", and then "Chicago, Illinois apartments", and then "apartments in Chicago", etc. These keywords (and all the other variations) show up again and again in the text of the website, or sometimes buried at the very bottom of the page. This example is from several years ago but it is a classic case of keyword stuffing.
Even worse, some black hat SEOs hide these words by putting them in font that is impossible for a human to see (e.g., in the same color as the background) to jam even more keywords on the page without looking too unnatural to a human being.
Or, we have seen each of these keywords link to different pages on the website that are optimized for their respective keywords--a variation on the "long-tail" SEO scam we discussed above. At it's worst, it looks like this (from Google's article on keyword stuffing).
The Consequences: As with most of the other SEO scams, this strategy can cause your website to be dropped in Google's rankings. Google can tell the difference between quality content and keyword stuffing, and it wants to reward the former and penalize the latter.
The Meta Keywords Tag SEO Scam
Meta tags give information about your website to computers. They are not visible to human beings and even most search engines don't pay much attention to them at all (with one major exception, which we will address below).
But because they aren't visible to human beings, most people don't know anything about them. Shady, black hat SEOs describe meta tags as some kind of secret weapon in ranking higher on Google. Specifically, they point to the meta keywords tag (where websites can list out the keywords they are trying to target), even though Google has stated repeatedly that Google does nothing with that tag.
Here is Matt Cutts, the head of Google's Webspam team:
The one thing that Matt Cutts does recommend is that you take the time to write out a valuable meta description tag unique for every page, because Google typically uses those descriptions in the snippet of the search engine listings on Google. So, if you write a compelling description, you could increase the amount of clicks you get when your website comes up with others who write less compelling descriptions.
The Consequence: Thankfully, there aren't any penalties that Google has assessed to address this specifically that we know of. Probably, this SEO scam will only cost you money, not your position on Google.
SEO Scams vs. Real SEO Work
Real SEO work is never simple. There isn't a quick-fix, a hack, or a trick that will vault you to the top of Google. Real SEO work is less about cramming your shopping list of keyword phrases onto each page as it is about helping the people who use your website. Real SEO work means building a well organized website with high quality content that actually helps prospective apartment residents.
Don't fall for the scams. If someone is selling you SEO services that sound too good to be true, you probably are getting pitched by a scammer.