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Sunday, February 25, 2024

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The SEO Rap Sheet: What Does Your Mug Shot Look Like?

While attending the SMX Advanced conference in Seattle this year, I was very eager to sit in on the SEO Mega Session to see a panel of industry vets. True to form, this session was chock-full of useful insights, lots of ribbing, and more than a little eye rolling between the panel members. At some point during the session, Stephan Spencer mentioned the idea of an “SEO rap sheet.” I thought this was an excellent way to characterize how those managing search marketing programs should view their efforts.

Food for thought

To make sure things are clear, let me plainly state – there is no SEO rap sheet in existence. It’s merely a food-for-thought idea suggested by someone on a panel of SEO experts. An idea, however, if you’re in the field of SEO, that bears exploring before you ask “What did I do wrong?” or “Why is this or that happening to my site?” I’ll go so far as to suggest each website owner act as if there is an SEO rap sheet. Letting this frame of mind guide many decisions wouldn’t be a bad thing. Remember: If you have to ask if a tactic is acceptable, chances are you already know the answer.

All websites start off innocent. We all want positive results with no negative downsides. Too often, however, in the world of online marketing, you can be lead astray. You might not even realize you’re headed down the wrong path. It’s hard to know who to trust when you are new to a topic. Worse, even experienced folks get caught by slick sales people and their fast talking ways.

Heck, you might even find yourself the unwitting victim of sabotage from within!

This hypothetical concept of an SEO rap sheet is intriguing. If we view the work we do against the desires of the engines, many times we see gaps. For any number of reasons, you may choose to do something your way, as opposed to adhering to exactly what a search engine might suggest in their webmaster guidelines (such as with Bing, Google, and Yahoo!). They only suggest, they don’t often instruct. The engines understand it’s your website and you’ll do what you want, but they do make suggestions from time to time.

Why it matters

Most times, the gaps between an engine’s point of view and your actions are small and innocent. They rarely result in any kind of issue. If you have a dynamic URL, when it’s easier for the engine to crawl keyword rich, friendly URLs, this isn’t the end of the world. Unless taken to the extremes, it’s unlikely to hurt you. (Though making the switch to clean URLs can often help you.) Make no mistake, though, the engines are watching. They’re even trying to help you with great resources like their Webmaster blogs. Bing and Google have produced a wealth of information, and with a number of excellent industry blogs to read, you’ll never run dry of guidance on the current topics and issues facing SEO today.

The engines see all of your actions and when something really rubs them the wrong way, they remember it in relation to your domain. This is where the SEO rap sheet starts to become relevant.

For example, engines don’t like it when you buy or sell links. So think of this as a way of getting a mark on your hypothetical SEO rap sheet. Collect enough and the engine pushes back – maybe dropping your ranking, maybe de-indexing you in extreme cases. Sure, you can reach out and beg for forgiveness after cleaning things up, but what if just like in real life, that rap sheet doesn’t go away? What if that infraction remains on record?

Given that it’s all just data, and abuse can cost a search engine a lot of time and money to manage, the engines can afford to keep track of this data to make future decisions easier, faster and more efficient. If SEO rap sheets did exist, would it change your online marketing behavior and strategy?

While there are no actual rap sheets being tallied for websites by the engines, let’s face facts: if you break their rules, claim to fix your site, then are found to break the rules again, how quickly do you think the engines will trust you in the future? These systems understand the concept of “Hurt me once, shame on you. Hurt me twice, shame on me.”

Act as if it’s real

Those folks running websites should take the concept of an SEO rap sheet to heart and make decisions with this in mind. While I’m not advocating blindly following each suggestion issued by an engine, it certainly would pay to think of the crawlers as “users” and treat them as nicely as you treat humans whose money you are trying to attract. The crawlers may not directly bring wallets, as their own currency is visitors, but you definitely want them in the party, having a grand old time with everyone else.

Visualize your SEO rap sheet as a running tab. Do good, nothing hits the blotter. Do bad and things start to get tossed at the blotter. Some bad things stick and might cause you long term pain. Some bad things slide off over time, or simply never stick due to low severity. The point is that as website owners, search engine optimizers, agencies and consultants, everyone has a burden to bear ensuring that their project’s blotter remains stain-free.

In the end, the right course of action is to follow established best practices for search optimization, and listen to what the engines provide as feedback via spaces such as the webmaster blogs, and think carefully about how best to implement work on your own website. And most importantly, thinking – and acting – in terms of avoiding getting on an SEO rap sheet, means not having to pose for that ever-embarrassing SEO mug shot!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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