If you have maintained a website for some time you may have had a vendor approach you at some point offering services around search engine optimization (SEO). The main objective of this service is to increase your business's online visibility in relevant search engine queries (i.e. “get to the top of Google's results”). Generally speaking, these services can help your site gain additional traffic. However, at the same time if you begin working with a vendor it's important to understand what techniques they plan on using. There are many ways to approach increasing a business's search ranking, and some methods are not ethical and can lead to penalties once search engines discover you're using them.
Beware of the Black Hat
There are two main ways to go about trying to improve search ranking. You can ethically use search engine-approved techniques (“White Hat SEO”), or you can attempt to find loopholes and exploit the search engine's algorithm to get an “edge” on competing businesses (“Black Hat SEO”). While Black Hat SEO sometimes yields quicker results, it's an extremely risky operation. Most search engines update their algorithms frequently, and if one of their updates closes a loophole that you're taking an advantage of, the traffic it provided will soon disappear. What's more, Google and other search engines will penalize and potentially blacklist websites that they see engaging in this type of behavior.
Examples of Bad Behavior
A common example of Black Hat SEO is stuffing and overusing keywords in the content and HTML data of your website instead of relying on more natural prose. Additionally, vendors might set your website up with “link farms”, generic websites that only exist to create inbound links to sites to increase their page ranking. Other common Black Hat SEO techniques involve leaving spammy comments on blogs or social media sites with links to your online business. If a vendor proposes any of these techniques, consider it a red flag.
Damage Already Done?
The good news is that search engines have gotten a lot smarter, closed many of the loopholes, and most SEO vendors, consequently, tend to use more ethical strategies. However, if you've already worked with a vendor in the past that has implemented these techniques and created problems for your online business there are some things you can do to help remedy the situation. If there are widespread amounts of inbound links coming to your website from link farms and spammy social media/blog comments, you can disavow these links using tools provided by search engines, such as Google Webmaster Tools. Google can provide a list of inbound links to your site, which you can review so that you can compile a list of the bogus URLs. These can then be uploaded as a “disavowed URL list”. The process may take some time and be laborious; however, it's worth your while if it means getting back in good standing with search engines given how much traffic they provide businesses.
The examples of Black Hat SEO above illustrate the most common techniques vendors have used in the past, and, today, search engines have rendered the these strategies pretty ineffectual. To that end, you hopefully will not run into someone hoping to offer these services to your business. All that said, if you begin working with a vendor it's important to understand how they plan on optimizing your site. When they describe the effort does it sound like something that search engines would find acceptable, or does it sound like something that cuts corners? If you hear anything come out of a vendor's mouth that suggests the latter, you should show him the door.