Navigating the waters of Google compliance. It used to be an art form, now it’s just good SEO practice to hue to ‘white hat’ SEO practices. In this episode, Ben and Jordan discuss the guidelines and requirements and how to understand them to follow great Google SEO practices and hygiene.
Topics covered include:
- The importance of educating yourself and your organization when it comes to white hat best practices
- Steps you can take to ‘de-risk’ your business in the face of changing Google guidelines
- The importance of testing to ensure low risk SEO environments
Ben: Welcome to Gray Hat SEO month on the Voices of Search Podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro. This month, we’re talking to some great SEOs to learn what separates best practices from bad behavior in search. Joining us today is Jordan Koene who is the lead SEO strategist and CEO of Searchmetrics, Inc. Today, Jordan and I are going to talk about what we consider to be white hat SEO practices.
Before we hear from Jordan, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data-driven decisions. To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complimentary digital diagnostic where a member of our digital strategies group will provide you with a consultation that reviews how your website, content and SEO strategies can all be optimized. To schedule your free digital diagnostic, go to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic.
On with the show. Here is my conversation with Jordan Koene, lead SEO strategist and CEO of Searchmetrics, Inc. Jordan, welcome to Gray Hat Month on the Voices of Search podcast.
Jordan: Hey, Ben. This is going to be a lot of fun. I think our listeners today are going to actually learn a little something new about these topics.
Ben: I have to say that this has been one of the more challenging months in terms of finding SEOs to talk about their experiences because for lack of a better term, we’re going to talk about some of the shady shit that we’ve tried that didn’t work. To start off, I’m going to tell you a little story. Are you ready?
Jordan: I’m ready.
Ben: Once upon a time, there was a general marketer that launched a site called strumschool.com. He worked at eBay with his buddy, Jordan, and he got some SEO advice on how to build a content asset. This little marketer was running his website, and he was building content the right way, and he was finding different ways to create content at scale to the point that he had hundreds of guitar-related pieces of content. There were how-to videos. There were transcriptions of favorite songs. There was definitions of various guitar parts. This site was beautiful, and people flocked to it, and it was a happy time. The digital marketer got greedy and wanted to charge for his content. What he did was he tried to put a filter on the content so someone could come in from Google and see one piece of content but not the next one without running into a gated experience that he had to pay for. The implementation wasn’t one that was very successful, and the big bad Google came to the digital marketer and said, no more search traffic from you, right when the marketer was about to sell the site to someone else. Boohoo. Poor digital marketer.
Jordan, here’s the saddest part. That’s a true story, and that digital marketer was me. What did I do wrong, buddy. Apparently, I stumbled on a black hat SEO strategy when I thought it was a white hat SEO strategy. This is something we all have to worry about, isn’t it?
Jordan: It is. It’s surprising how little attention we give to it, but it is something that often, just like in your case, we stumble into these scenarios unknowingly, unwillingly and then we have to retrace our steps.
Ben: In my case, I was trying to replicate a user experience that I saw from other brands. There are plenty of gated websites that enabled Google to crawl and serve links to their content. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, these are subscription websites. That’s what I was trying to build. I was under the impression that this was a white hat strategy. The devil is in the detail. Let’s talk this month about what white hat is, what black hat is, and what gray hat is, what some of the area that isn’t necessarily clear to SEOs about what they can and can’t get away with. Today, what I want to focus on is how do we understand what is white hat SEO? What are the usage and optimization strategies and tactics that SEOs can follow to help search engines find and serve their content?
Jordan: White hat in its entirety is a pretty straightforward concept. It’s, hey, follow the rules and guidelines that Google has provided. As we’re going to learn here, white, gray and black, they each have a degree of subjectivity to them, and that makes it a little bit challenging for us to put really firm borders around what is white, what is gray, what is black. In its simplistic form, it’s really the application of Google’s guidelines and policies. One of the most important things is to ensure that if you are struggling to follow those guidelines and policies that you are asking for advice, you’re looking and seeking for an answer. Like in your case, Ben, you created basically a doorway page experience, and a doorway page is considered against Google’s policies and that’s what happened. That’s why you got penalized.
Ben: I think I got penalized because the SEO that was helping me didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, Jordan.
Jordan: Well, how much were you paying that guy?
Ben: Are we talking in dollars or in beers?
Jordan: Lots of beers. Maybe that’s where the advice-
Ben: We were in our 20s, buddy.
Jordan: Exactly. Yeah. The advice wasn’t so good after a few beers.
Ben: Maybe I got the order of operations. As I mentioned, it’s all about the execution.
Jordan: It really is. It really is. That’s actually white hat in its essence. How do you execute the guidelines and requirements of Google, not … This is I think the big fallacy. A lot of people think that it’s avoidance. How do I avoid getting caught by Google? It’s really not. It’s about trying at its fullest integrity to apply these guidelines and requirements and to do them in a genuine way for your users. I’m sure that you fixed the problem very quickly for your website. I’d love to actually know what you did, but it got fixed, right, and Google was okay with it?
Ben: No. I actually didn’t fix it. The engineer that I was working with then went somewhere else. I didn’t have the development resources and I had moved on and never ended up selling the business because the acquisition went away because the traffic died and then it died on the vine. Thanks, Jordan.
Jordan: I’m sorry to end on a sad note.
Ben: Well, we’re not done yet. The idea is that white hat versus black hat versus gray hat, it is not always a clean line. This is a gradient that goes from white to black, and sometimes you get into these practices like where I was where, look, I thought a gated experience was fine. I had seen it been done in other places. Clearly, the Wall Street Journal is not being penalized in terms of SEO for having a subscription service, but they serve some of their content through Google and they enable some people to see the content that’s searchable. The devil, like I said, is in the details. It’s about the execution. Just going back into white hat, how do you understand what Google’s guidelines and policies are to make sure and how can you check to make sure that you are implementing them in a way that doesn’t get you in trouble?
Jordan: I always love to start with the fact that the first piece to doing this right is education, education, education. If you’re an SEO that’s working at an enterprise, you’re in-house, or if you’re an SEO that’s working on agency, it is imperative to be both self-educating on these topics because they’re constantly changing. They never stay static. It is important to create practices within your organization to ensure that there’s a base level of knowledge around certain key themes that Google is pressing. I really fundamentally believe that this is the starting point to having a good SEO practice in your company or at your agency because without it, there’s just no vehicle by which you can keep that constant education coming from and it changes all the time.
Ben: I understand that if you’re an SEO, you’re going to be paying attention to Google’s guidelines and policies and keeping up with the industry and listening to the Voices of Search podcast to understand what some of the changes that are happening are, specifically the last one. There are people that are going to be in your organization that are not SEOs. There’s going to be engineers. There’s going to be your boss, the head of revenue at your company that’s going to say, you know what we should do? We should gate this content. How do you make sure that your entire organization is following best practices when they are not spending the time to stay up to date like you would on SEO best practices? How do you de-risk all of the technical changes?
Jordan: There is a combination of things that you can do here to de-risk your business, and one of them is clearly ensuring that you are monitoring your website’s presence in Google. It is ensuring that you know that there’s no volatility that could have hit you and so staying informed with how is Google interacting with your content? Part of that is being reactive to the state of what might have happened or may happen. The other piece to that is simply by having these tracking mechanisms in place, whether it’s crawling, whether it’s keyword rank tracking, whether it’s looking at your own internal analytics, you are by virtue creating a health scorecard of your website and the avoidance in an essence of any of these risky situations.
The other piece to this is I think what really good SEOs do when they’re on the cusp of what could be considered a black hat or a gray hat scenario is they seek out advice. They go out. They work with consultants. They work maybe even in some cases, at some of the larger enterprises like when we were at eBay, we worked directly with Google. You try to find solutions to these somewhat ambiguous problems that you may face and try to seek advice to course correct because in many cases, there isn’t a perfect blueprint. No one can slap down a map and say here’s where you got to go. You actually have to find the solutions yourself. You have to be a problem solver and you need to do that within the guidelines that Google has.
Ben: I think the takeaway here is stay involved, stay up to date, stay educated on what’s happening in the search industry. That goes without saying is the best practice for SEOs. Evaluate the health of your brand, of your domain and try to get signals to see whether Google is penalizing you and see where it is happening so you can address it quickly. The last thing is that you need to constantly be asking for help.
Jordan, I guess the big question for me is when you’re running into a scenario that you don’t know if it’s going to be white hat, gray hat, black hat, and the rest of the community doesn’t know, what’s the strategy for testing? Can you test practice? Is there anything that’s going to get you penalized? What if you’re not sure? Do you always stick to the white hat because the penalties are so severe or can you play a little fast and loose and run some testing?
Jordan: This is actually a great question, Ben, because this is what great practitioners of SEO do. They identify ways to create environments that reduce risk, and that’s what keeps you in the white hat zone. That’s what keeps you in a healthy place, applying Google’s guidelines to the best possible practice. That testing scenario changes based on the company. Some companies, they have a global footprint, so there’s the ability to test in smaller markets and see what happens. In other scenarios, you have a variety of properties so you may have multiple domains, multiple websites. Maybe you’re able to test and apply in different countries.
In other scenarios, you may be able to adhere to a threshold. You might be able to say I’m going to expose this experience to only 10% of my users and see what happens. I think that there’s two components to this. Depending on the scenario, there’s the first component, which is understanding the reaction of the user and applying your own standards. There’s the applying what will happen when Google crawls or reviews this particular change. Those two things are not necessarily simultaneous. Testing by itself can give you a lot of those user signals that can lead you into knowing and understanding how this might impact you from a Google crawl or Google a review standpoint.
Ben: Again, the takeaway here is stay up to date, stay in touch with what’s happening on your website, and if you’re testing a new strategy, ask somebody else who might have done it or find a way to have an environment where you can test your new strategy without necessarily putting your entire domain at risk. That’s your best bet to stay on the white hat side of SEO.
Jordan: Right. Exactly.
Ben: That wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search Podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Jordan Koene, lead SEO strategist and CEO of Searchmetrics, Inc. We’d love to continue this conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Jordan, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can send him a tweet. His handle is jtkoene. You can visit his company’s website. Well, that’s searchmetrics.com.
If you’d like to be a guest on the show or if you’d like to talk to me about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes or you can send me a tweet at benjshap. If you’re interested in learning about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, online visibility or to gain competitive insights, head over to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team. If you liked this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and we’ll be back in your feed tomorrow morning to discuss black hat SEO practices.
All right, that’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.