After punishing JCPenney and overstock.com 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. Overstock.com was rapped for offering discounts to any .edu site user (Google bots give extra points for .edu links) that linked future searches back to overstock.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.