Setting up a new website on Wordpress, and one of the first things on your checklist is content SEO. It’s crazy to think about a site that isn’t SEO optimised. Especially since it’s one of the most cost effective marketing tools for the broke start-up guy, and so hands-on, you don’t need to be a guru to crack it. It’s like you’ve hit a goldmine or something. Like in one of those billboard ads that say “What if I told you could have all your dreams come true without spending a single penny?” Sure the ROI is slow, probably more frustratingly than my 2G internet in 2010, but that’s the best you get for minimum price.
In the last 5 years, SEO has really picked up. More websites have embraced white hat and black hat practices to get to page 1 of Google. It has made it to KRAs and KPIs of top and bottom rung companies alike. It’s so momentous, that even Google products are competing with other companies. And I think, it is this massive rise in importance that has made SEO a villain for websites today.
SEO has promoted an unhealthy search environment. Black hat SEO was not a term coined out of prevention, but cure, because most websites today are desperately following them. They’re using cheap methods to improve their SEO score.
Being a digital journalist, I’ve seen how the news fabric changed with the emergence of SEO. Channels are now tailoring their content to accommodate popular keywords rather than useful information. For example, in February 2015, when the government announced its annual budget, we reporters were instructed to tweak headlines and articles to include the name of a popular adult film star (since she was all the rage at that point). Here’s what our headlines sounded like;
“What does Sunny Leone think about the budget?”
“Here’s what’s common between Sunny Leone and the Finance Minister”
It’s not uncommon for websites today to tweak the angle of an important article to accommodate trending words. Here’s another example. While working for an education start-up a few years ago, I was doing a featured interview piece about the education system in North India. This was around the time the movie Udta Punjab, about youth drug abuse, was released. It gathered a lot of traction mainly because of an infamous pissing scene involving the lead actor. The movie was everywhere! Social media, television, papers, YouTube, et al. And suddenly, on demands of my editor, my intense interview had turned into an inquiry into the resemblance of North Indian college students to those depicted in the movie.
Another tacky tool is creating “coming soon” pages. A few years ago websites used what I thought was a cheap but wise SEO tactic. They’d create webpages with a keyword-filled headline about an event that hadn’t even happened yet. This event (say, an exam result declaration) wasn’t due for at least a month. But the site would create a coming soon article (with less than 100-words of content), with only an attractive headline 30 days before the event, giving Google’s crawlers enough time to index the page. So that when the exam results were finally announced, and were trending, this site would appear on page 1 of the SERP, while other sites (competitors) were still in the process of publishing their articles.
This obviously seemed like a unique idea back then — of course today a lot more sites are doing it — but it made the website look crappy. Imagine stumbling upon a site that gets you excited with its header but loads up a near empty page filled with ads and zero value content. It goes without saying that the site had no credibility. They didn’t care though. A lot of sites willingly forego credibility in the name of search hits. Because the tyranny of online overloads is such that credibility brings in fewer recurring visitors than search hits bring in ad money.
Nevertheless, Google has picked up on this tactic and has now changed its algorithm to discourage such pages. For one, it baulks at any webpage with less than 250–300 words of content to its database. Two, it now flags such pages as duplicate content, which eventually harms the overall SEO ranking of the site and reduces traffic.
Then there are websites who’ve attempted to strike a balance between content and SEO by divvying up their content into two types — one for humans and the other for bots. The bot content is obviously “SEO over-friendly” meant to provide false information to the crawlers. This seemed like a clean way earlier, but with Google’s ever so often changing algorithms, it’s difficult to keep this strategy going. First, Google doesn’t reveal the IP address of the bots it uses to crawl, and second even if your tech guy is some kind of a genius hacker, the IPs keep changing often, making it near impossible for him to track them.
And then there’s this super degenerate tactic called keyword stuffing. Websites stuff their articles with keywords so much so that it becomes unbearably annoying to read the piece. Here’s a great example of it. (Image Right)
Websites often ignore the 3% cap on keyword repetition and unknowingly indulge in stuffing. This is especially common with new sites that are trying to reach higher SERP pages fast. Of course these are the first sites to be down ranked by Google.
But despite repeated consequences websites are finding creative ways to temporarily trick the algorithm and get their so called “15-mins of page 1” glory. But what happens when this nebulous popularity fades?
Readers obviously feel frustrated being bombarded with an obscene amount of flashy ads and yet receiving no worthy information from the page. The site’s bounce rate skyrockets and credibility plummets into a dark winding abyss.
So this it. The tendentious SEO and the precarious use of black hat techniques has a negative impact on websites’ credibility and ranking. And no matter how much SEO gurus prescribe a content plus SEO strategy, the covert lobbying for the latter to take over is what’s going to kill your blog.