How to build web traf­fic with­out turn­ing to the dark side

You can buy links and likes, but they won’t do you any favours in the long-run, ex­perts tell

PC Pro - - November 2017 Issue 277 -

The Force is strong in Davey Win­der, as he ex­plains why buy­ing likes and links will lead you down the wrong path.

If once you start down the dark path, for­ever will it dom­i­nate your destiny...” Yoda Episode VI: Re­turn of the Jedi

Much to learn, you still have…” Yoda Episode II: At­tack of the Clones

Ev­ery web startup faces the same chal­lenge: how do you get no­ticed amongst all that com­pe­ti­tion and build traf­fic? The clever money says leave all that search en­gine op­ti­mi­sa­tion (SEO) stuff to the pro­fes­sion­als. Yet money, clever or not, is the one lux­ury most star­tups don’t have. This can of­ten lead to a DIY ap­proach to both SEO and on­line mar­ket­ing, which is no bad thing if done prop­erly.

The temp­ta­tion to cheat and fol­low the dark side when build­ing traf­fic is strong. Yet, grey- or black-hat SEO, along with so­cial me­dia fol­lower farm­ing, isn’t the panacea you may have hoped for. So, what’s the al­ter­na­tive to ei­ther in­vest­ing in SEO ex­per­tise or be­com­ing the Darth Vader of ecom­merce? Well, you could ask SEO and dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing ex­perts to pass their knowl­edge on for free – which is pre­cisely what we’ve done.

Let’s start with how not to do things, even if it does look like an easy and rel­a­tively cheap way to build your traf­fic in no time at all. Some call it “black hat” SEO, while oth­ers try to dis­guise the un­der­hand na­ture by la­belling it as “grey hat” in­stead. What­ever you call it, if you try to game the sys­tem us­ing dodgy tech­niques, you will likely end up on the naughty step with Google, Face­book and Twit­ter – plus all the other ser­vices that you need to push traf­fic in your di­rec­tion. So how do you know what is an il­le­git­i­mate mar­ket­ing tech­nique to be­gin with?

Joe Lin­ford is the head of SEO at ISP price com­par­i­son site Broad­band Ge­nie, and warns that Google has cracked down on web­sites “seek­ing to gain an ad­van­tage in the SERPs [search en­gine re­sult pages] and will pe­nalise sites for build­ing un­nat­u­ral links”.

Links were the lifeblood of the Google al­go­rithm for many years. Who you link to, and the back­links your site gets from oth­ers, are still im­por­tant; but link sig­nals are not the sole de­ter­miner of strong SERP rat­ings. “Google has moved to­wards re­ly­ing more on hu­man opin­ions such as search qual­ity raters, Chrome browser ac­tiv­ity and An­a­lyt­ics data,” Lin­ford told PC Pro.

The trou­ble is that those Google al­go­rithms are im­pen­e­tra­ble to mere mor­tals. Which is why so many busi­nesses still turn to high vol­ume and low cost link-ac­qui­si­tion strate­gies, such as plac­ing links into generic di­rec­to­ries or link net­works. Th­ese are a group of web­sites, more com­monly than not owned by the net­work op­er­a­tor, that gen­er­ate huge vol­umes of what are es­sen­tially fake links. They will of­fer the un­wit­ting cus­tomer a bun­dle of, say, 250 or 500 new links to their site for a fee. Trou­ble is, not only are those links of very low qual­ity, as they pro­vide noth­ing of any real value to some­one who clicks on them, but Google has be­come a Jedi Mas­ter at spot­ting link net­works and black­list­ing them. That’s hardly sur­pris­ing: if there are no “foot­prints” link­ing th­ese dis­parate sites to­gether, chances are the net­work is fake. By buy­ing into such a link-farm­ing net­work, your traf­fic could suf­fer as Google pe­nalises you for be­ing as­so­ci­ated with a black hat op­er­a­tion.

It’s not only link-farm­ing that will get you into neg­a­tive eq­uity with the search supremo ei­ther. Jake Ra­mon-Capon is se­nior SEO con­sul­tant at Green­light Dig­i­tal, a dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing agency that counts eBay and Dixons Car­phone (whose brands in­clude PC World and Car­phone Ware­house) among its clients. “Google has a long list of well doc­u­mented tac­tics that could neg­a­tively im­pact your brand,” Ra­mon-Capon ex­plained, be­fore point­ing in the di­rec­tion of cloak­ing. This is where you serve up dif­fer­ent con­tent to search en­gines than ac­tual users, the for­mer de­signed to be uber-SERPs-friendly of course. “Google spots this as its crawlers parse the source code of the page to find irregularities in the code that sug­gest cloak­ing,” he said, “and then a mem­ber of the web spam team will man­u­ally check the af­fected pages.” If they’re served up some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent, the site will be pe­nalised.

Talk­ing of con­tent, we come to the much used “trick” of steal­ing some­one else’s, known as spin­ning. Marc Swann, search di­rec­tor at SEO spe­cial­ists Glass Dig­i­tal, told PC Pro that it’s

Who’s more fool­ish? The fool or the fool who fol­lows him?” Obi-Wan Episode IV: A New Hope

un­for­tu­nate that there are “50 shades of grey ar­eas when it comes to SEO” cour­tesy of Google keep­ing spam-de­tec­tion tech­niques some­thing of an in-house se­cret.

That para­noia is un­der­stand­able: if the process were made pub­lic then the black hats could game the sys­tem more read­ily. But that doesn’t mean def­i­nite no-no’s are hard to come by, in­clud­ing the afore­men­tioned con­tent spin­ning. “Steal­ing some­one else’s con­tent us­ing a word-swap script to turn stolen con­tent into unique gob­blede­gook is an ef­fec­tive way to get slapped with a Google penalty,” Swann said. He also cau­tioned against any agency or “ex­pert” who “prom­ises #1 rank­ings as ab­so­lutely no-one can make th­ese kinds of guar­an­tees”.

Manch­ester based I-COM is one of the biggest dig­i­tal agen­cies in the North West, and Ja­mal Atcha is the SEO man­ager there. He talks us through an­other black hat tech­nique that should be avoided: key­word spam­ming. This is when spe­cific key­words are used many times on a page to try and bump up the rel­e­vance rat­ings.

Google is, nat­u­rally, onto this one. Far bet­ter, Atcha said, “to avoid overuse of the same key­words or phrases on a page and write nat­u­rally with the user in mind”. Sim­i­larly, overus­ing your key­words as the an­chor text (link) ev­ery sin­gle time some­one links to you is harm­ful. “When link­ing back to your web­site,” Atcha ad­vised, “keep an­chor texts var­ied by in­clud­ing brand terms, sim­i­lar key­word vari­a­tions and generic terms like ‘click here’.”

It used to be that all that would hap­pen if you tried to game Google was that it can­celled out any ben­e­fit, by mak­ing what­ever tech­nique was be­ing used im­po­tent. That all changed in 2013 when Google started ac­tively pe­nal­is­ing sites caught cheat­ing the sys­tem. But what does “pe­nal­is­ing” ac­tu­ally mean to Google? Ac­cord­ing to Ra­mon-Capon from Green­light Dig­i­tal, the penalty can vary from page-level to site-level and sim­ply in­volve a drop in your or­ganic, as op­posed to spon­sored/advertising, rank­ings. That, in turn, will harm or­ganic traf­fic to your site, pre­cisely what you were look­ing to build in the first place. “If you are pe­nalised by ei­ther the Panda or Pen­guin al­go­rithm,” Ra­monCapon con­tin­ued, “you will see the im­pact in near real-time once you make changes as th­ese penal­ties hap­pen in a very speedy man­ner.”

Cheat­ing Google may be a fool’s er­rand, but what about so­cial me­dia? So­cial me­dia can drive plenty of traf­fic to your on­line busi­ness if done prop­erly. Of course, that takes time. You can kick­start traf­fic with com­mer­cial tools such as pro­moted tweets and tar­geted advertising that the plat­form it­self pro­vides. How­ever, for many new on­line busi­nesses, th­ese can seem like a slow and ex­pen­sive route to traf­fic they need right now.

This has led to the emer­gence of black-hat tech­niques such as fol­lower and like farm­ing. Both have be­come heav­ily mar­keted by the “farm­ers” in ques­tion, and both are against the terms and con­di­tions of the so­cial me­dia plat­form – be it Face­book, In­sta­gram, LinkedIn or Twit­ter.

The pitch is sim­ple: we will pro­vide you with a bun­dle of fol­low­ers or likes, in re­turn for a fee. That fee will de­pend on how many thou­sands of ei­ther you are buy­ing. Both can be de­tected by the so­cial me­dia plat­forms us­ing pat­tern recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy, which can de­ter­mine when fake ac­counts or click farms are be­ing em­ployed. Much of the time, for ex­am­ple, Face­book claims it can block fake likes be­fore they even reach the tar­get page of the buyer. Face­book says that it will “send no­ti­fi­ca­tions to page ad­min­is­tra­tors when we block or re­move fake likes... to help them learn how to gather authen­tic fans.” Re­peat of­fend­ers could find their ac­counts sus­pended.

Ag­gres­sive fol­low­ing is more in grey hat ter­ri­tory, where an ac­count fol­lows or likes large num­bers of oth­ers ev­ery day in the hope of get­ting a re­cip­ro­cal fol­low or like, and then un­fol­lows those who don’t play the same game. The thing is that none of this re­ally works any­way, as Green­light Dig­i­tal’s Ra­mon-Capon ex­plained. “It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that it’s not about the num­ber of fol­low­ers or likes you have but the en­gage­ment th­ese fol­low­ers have with your pages,” he said. And, as Atcha from I-COM re­minded us, “gen­uine cus­tomers will see straight through you if you have thou­sands of fol­low­ers but only a few peo­ple lik­ing or shar­ing your posts.”

The Force is strong with this one” Darth Vader Episode IV: A New Hope

It’s a chance for you to make a fresh start” Mon Mothma Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

We’ve cov­ered what you shouldn’t be do­ing, which leaves us with the ob­vi­ous ques­tion of what mar­ket­ing path should you take to build web traf­fic le­git­i­mately? We turned to Joe Friedlein, founder and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Browser Me­dia, a UK-based “in­bound mar­ket­ing agency” that works to at­tract tar­geted web traf­fic for clients. Friedlein summed it up when he told PC Pro that the se­cret to build­ing sus­tain­able traf­fic to your site is to “think about your users rather than think­ing about Google”.

If you cre­ate a site that of­fers con­tent and func­tion­al­ity that is gen­uinely help­ful to your tar­get au­di­ence, you will ben­e­fit from or­ganic en­gage­ment and at­tract links. “The search en­gines will recog­nise this,” Friedlein said, “and you will be re­warded, over time, with im­proved vis­i­bil­ity across the ma­jor search en­gines.”

Friedlein has a few tips to help grow that healthy, or­ganic traf­fic. “You should use key­word re­search as a stim­u­lus to un­der­stand what peo­ple are look­ing for and to steer the con­tent that you pub­lish on your site” he said. By us­ing the same lan­guage that your tar­get au­di­ence use, you will in­crease the like­li­hood of rank­ing for the key­words that they use to search and, cru­cially, in­crease the like­li­hood that the site will en­gage with your vis­i­tors. “Rather than fo­cus­ing on com­mer­cially mo­ti­vated pages,” Friedlein ad­vised, “think about con­tent that you can of­fer that is gen­uinely help­ful. This will nat­u­rally at­tract links, which will then help to im­prove rank­ings.” Of course, con­tent alone is very un­likely to de­liver im­me­di­ate suc­cess. And it’s that im­me­di­acy that star­tups yearn for, and of­ten need to sur­vive un­til the next fund­ing round or let­ter from the bank. To build traf­fic quickly you must in­vest your en­ergy into what Friedlein refers to as “am­pli­fy­ing your con­tent”.

This is more of an on­line PR ex­er­cise than an SEO one. You have to build an un­der­stand­ing of where it is your tar­get au­di­ence goes on­line, and then forge re­la­tion­ships with those sites. Shar­ing con­tent works bet­ter than sim­ply adding ir­rel­e­vant links purely for per­ceived SEO gain. Un­der­stand­ing the type of con­tent that will res­onate with your au­di­ence, and that of any sites you share with, is key.

It’s bet­ter to start slowly, Friedlein ad­vised, than rush in and ask for too much. “This is es­pe­cially true for so­cial me­dia, which of­fers in­cred­i­ble po­ten­tial for re­fer­ral traf­fic.

“Take time to lis­ten and un­der­stand the na­ture of the dis­cus­sion be­fore steam­ing in with your cor­po­rate mes­sage,” he added. There’s no doubt that so­cial-me­dia en­gage­ment takes time, but it can pay div­i­dends in terms of shared links and con­se­quently traf­fic to your site.

All that said, Friedlein ad­mits there isn’t a sil­ver bul­let. “If you want im­me­di­ate re­sults you should look at paid traf­fic sources, es­pe­cially paid search,” he said. The ar­gu­ment be­ing that if you want to build a brand, a busi­ness that will en­joy long-term suc­cess, then in­vest­ing re­sources to build both a great site and great re­la­tion­ships is key to that goal.

The “build­ing a great site” bit is of­ten over­looked when it comes to think­ing about hits. Which is a shame, as it re­ally does mat­ter. “It may seem ob­vi­ous, but make sure your web­site is tech­ni­cally ‘in shape’ and keep up-to-date with Google Web­mas­ter guide­lines so you can fu­ture-proof your strat­egy,” said Green­light Dig­i­tal’s Ra­mon-Capon.

He also em­pha­sised the need for en­sur­ing all your im­por­tant pages are key­word-op­ti­mised with rel­e­vant ti­tle tags, head­ers and en­gag­ing con­tent. All of this will im­pact those key SERP rat­ings. As Google has strived to bring users more rel­e­vant search re­sults, so its al­go­rithms have been tweaked and evolved to bet­ter eval­u­ate the qual­ity of site con­tent in a more hu­man-friendly way.

“Google’s crawlers are bet­ter at as­sess­ing web­sites the way users do,” said Ja­mal Atcha from I-COM, “which means fac­tors such as click-through-rates, bounce rate and time on site, and pro­vid­ing good user ex­pe­ri­ence, have be­come im­por­tant things to con­sider to im­prove how your web­site is per­ceived by Google.”

Re­mem­ber: the bots are never go­ing to buy from you or read your ar­ti­cles. Peo­ple will.

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