Make us your home page

Tampa Bay SEO companies quake at Google crackdown

After punishing JCPenney and for gaming their way to top search results, Google last week launched a crackdown on companies trying to trick the dominant Internet search engine in 12 percent of all searches.

That's got some local companies in the search engine optimization business quaking — whether their tactics are clean or not.

"It's stirred up a lot of fear among optimizers that Google is coming after them, while our industry's black hat optimizers are freaking out they'll be put out of business," said Dave Barry, co-founder of Web Tools & Technology in Largo, who has taught about 5,000 people this arcane trade. "It's about time."

More art than science, search engine optimization, or SEO, has mushroomed to about 100 companies in the Tampa Bay area. A few employ up to 35 people to write the rich, descriptive Web content that Google bots crave. But it's mostly a cottage industry of the self-taught working from a spare bedroom with skills learned in hotel ballroom seminars.

About 10 percent claim to be "white hat" firms that scrupulously follow Google guidelines while another 10 percent known as "black hats" boldly cling to banned tricks. The rest, industry veterans say, operate in a gray area, pushing the rules as far as they think they can.

"A client can get away with black hat tactics and get huge search results, but Google will find them in a few months," said Chris Behan, president of Socius Marketing, a Tampa firm that grew from six to 30 employees in three years. "Then overnight the client's traffic drops to nothing."

Behan knows from experience. That's exactly what happened in his previous marketing job at an online vitamin sales retailer. He had to fire an outside optimizer engaged in strategies that Google regards as no-nos.

"We're often the third optimizer hired by clients," he said. "They've been burned twice."

For retailers, top spots on a Google search results page mean feast or famine. The top few sites found in a shaded area pay for the space. So do advertisers stripped down the right column. However, four of five shoppers ignore them, heading straight for the top 10 "organic" search results that fill the rest of the page. Only one in 20 shoppers clicks to the next page.

The trick of SEO is getting ranked atop this mountain of clutter. Last week, for instance, the words "dress shirt" summoned 2 million sites.

Retailers willing to pay Google $1.81 for each search hit (but not sale) could buy the words "dress shirts" to appear in the ads, but not the organic searches. They're left to please Google's bots, which are driven by an algorithm of measures that deliver the most relevant results in a split second.

Enter the optimizers with their nuanced shortcuts, tricks and outright cheats.

Google penalizes tricks that fool its bots into judging a site more relevant by its neighbors. Punished like spammers are link farms, or the "You-link-to-our-site-and-we'll-link-to-your site" and "cloaking," which means showing the bots words that are not actually on a site to make it sound more content-rich. Also frowned upon: "link buying," paying the owner of an otherwise dead, irrelevant site to direct and redirect traffic to capitalize on Google giving extra credit to older domains.

After Google penalized JCPenney for buying referral links to old sites on subjects like nuclear power, the online retailer, which pays Google $2.2 million a month for keyword ads, saw its search results in some apparel categories dive from No. 1 to No. 59, according to the New York Times. was rapped for offering discounts to any .edu site user (Google bots give extra points for .edu links) that linked future searches back to

Now Google is taking on content farms, a tactic it so far has vaguely defined. These are programs that pretend to be real content by creating gibberish with words the bots think hint at relevance.

A joke making the rounds shows the thought process: "An SEO walks into a bar, pub, grill or Irish bar and asks if they serve beer, wine or liquor … "

"Google changes its algorithms all the time — more than 200 times in the past few years — to keep searches relevant," Behan said. "That's how they clean out the clutter. But you have to do SEO right or risk your client being taken out with the trash."

Mark Albright can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.

How to find a 'white hat' SEO contractor

Search engine optimization works, but Google and industry veterans offer tips for hiring a contractor.

Read Google's guidelines for search optimization and develop metrics to make sure your contractor is accountable. Hire a third-party diagnostic firm to monitor the contractor if you suspect it isn't.

Be dubious of claims an SEO contractor can make your site No. 1 in search results and insist on documentation. Call a prospective contractor's past clients. Search for the contractor's website on Google. If it doesn't rate well or show up, ask the contractor why.

Know that if you farm out hosting to a contractor, your business takes the hit if Google penalizes its SEO tactics. If SEO strategies are driven by software, find out how the program conforms to Google's guidelines.

Effective SEO must be updated often or Google bots start regarding it as dated. Learn how often your contractor updates optimization and the source of its content.

Tampa Bay SEO companies quake at Google crackdown 02/28/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 4:28pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Exploratory Lab Boot Camp provides real-life technology training to students


    CLEARWATER — At this graduation ceremony featuring some of the brightest local minds in tech, it was the youngsters who stood out.

    Laszo Leedy, 17, a senior at Shorecrest Prep, presents part of his team's project for SPC's Exploratory Lab Boot Camp. Students presented their ideas at the end of the SPC Exploratory Lab Boot Camp. The program provides real-time business training to students. This year's graduation celebrated 15 students that finished the program. 
[JIM DAMASKE   |   Times]
  2. Appointments at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and World of Beer highlight this week's Tampa Bay business Movers & Shakers



    Tampa Bay Watch, Inc., a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of the marine and wetland environments of the Tampa Bay estuary, has announced two new employees. Pamela Arbisi is the new development director. Her responsibilities include …

    Scott Bendert has joined the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay as the non-profit organization's Chief Financial Officer. [Company handout]
  3. Tampa's Homeowners Choice seeks to offer flood insurance in other states


    Tampa-based insurance company HCI Group Inc.'s subsidiaries are trying to expand their flood insurance offerings beyond Florida. HCI has filed with regulators to offer flood coverage in Arkansas, California, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas.

    Tampa-based HCI Group is trying to expand its flood insurance offerings to other states. Pictured is Paresh Patel, CEO of HCI Group. | [Courtesy of HCI Group]
  4. Home of Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman hits market at $3.45 million

    Real Estate

    TAMPA — The Davis Islands home of Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman is back on the market for $3.45 million after a brief hiatus.

    The Davis Islands home of Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman is on the market for $3.45 million. [Courtesy of Hi Res Media]
  5. Trigaux: Halfway through 2017, a closer look at six drivers of the Tampa Bay economy


    We're nearly halfway through 2017 already, a perfect time to step back from the daily grind of business and ask: How's Tampa Bay's economy doing?

    Is there one theme or idea that captures the Tampa Bay brand? Not really but here's one possibility. The fun-loving annual Gasparilla "Invasion" of Tampa is captured in this photo of 
The Jose Gasparilla loaded with pirates of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla on its way this past January to the Tampa Convention Center. In the future a vibrant downtown Tampa or St. Petersburg may be the better theme. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]