Learning From SEM Blunders

Last year was an anomaly in that I was directly involved in terminating business relationships with no less than three search engine marketing (SEM) firms. All practiced questionable SEO (define) tactics.

Out of respect for my present and former employers, and current libel laws, I can’t name names. But I can share details about each incident to help others avoid falling into similar traps.

Two of the terminations were the result of affiliates’ requests that I review work their SEM firms recommended they implement to achieve “top search rankings.” The third termination is another story entirely. It illustrates the delicate relationship between good intentions and bad implementations. Taken together, these incidents should help other businesses avoid similar SEM mistakes.

Newbies and Affiliates

The first two SEM firms in question were very new to the industry. One originally specialized in Web site design and the other started out as a Web hosting business. Both firms had recently branched out to provide SEM services to “keep their clients happy.” Both fell into the same trap many new to the business do. They figured they could corner the market on SEM intelligence because their tactics provided “quick results.” Long-term results proved to be an entirely different matter.

The site design house managed to get one affiliate’s site deeply tangled in a web of link farms (define). If a site lives in a “bad neighborhood,” the search engine algorithms know it. Extracting the affiliate’s site from the link farms took a couple months. A few cease-and-desist letters from general counsel hurried the extractions along.

In the meantime, we quickly cleaned up organic issues lingering in the affiliate’s Java-intensive site design. All ended well, and the affiliate’s site is now found via the search engines for its primary business line. It still took about six months of playing nicely with search engine algorithms to get the SEM campaign back on track.

With the other affiliate, the Web hosting firm convinced the affiliate, which operated a Flash-intensive site, to set up a series of HTML microsites. In doing so, the Web hosting firm guaranteed it would deliver “top search engine results” to the affiliate.

The Web hosting firm double-dipped its dupe. All the microsites were designed and housed on the Web hosting firm’s servers for a “nominal fee,” which added up to thousands of dollars per year. The search engine strategy produced nominal results right out of the gate, which was right about the time I got the go-ahead to complete a formal site review for the affiliate.

Working with the affiliate, we quickly dismantled the microsite strategy. I recommended the affiliate work with a small SEM firm that could provide insightful organic work by way of a site redesign, which is really what that affiliate needed to improve its search engine visibility. The site remains Flash-intensive, but the Flash workaround that the SEM firm crafted continues to perform well.

Good Intentions, Bad Implementations

The third SEM firm I played a role in firing is a highly reputable industry player, which is probably why I find this firm’s organic tactics particularly disturbing. It’s supposed to be very good at what it does.

I came into contact with this SEM firm haphazardly, via an acquisition. My former employer purchased quite a few dot-com companies over the years. I’d not yet been assigned to look at the site’s search engine performance. With 125 sites in our repertoire, the system for initiating an SEM site review was simple: Prioritize sites with sluggish performance and leave alone those that perform to expectations.

I was, however, already working on optimizing a similar site, an e-commerce entity in the same vertical. As the sites were so similar, I questioned why the older acquisition performed well and the new one had subpar search engine visibility. The older acquisition performed relatively well in the search engines because it included invisible text, a variation of the search engine spam tactic.

In this instance, the SEM firm recommended the site add about 400 words to an image-intensive home page. The page was retooled to include content the SEM firm provided. Unfortunately, the content was added to the site in a small, black typeface on a 70 percent gray background. The content was stationed below the copyright and contact information, nestled beneath a black bar that visually signaled viewers they’d reached the end of the page.

No one who participated in the site acquisition had noticed the nearly hidden text on the home page. When I found it, I took it to my boss, who quickly concurred this was indeed a search engine spam tactic. We felt we needed to take fast action to avoid potential spam penalties, so we presented our findings to the CEO. He, too, had never scrolled down to the real bottom of the page, below that black bar. We immediately adjusted the site.

The fix was simple: Increase the size of the typeface, place the content on a white background, and move the black bar and copyright information to the real bottom of the page. Although Google PageRank isn’t as critical today as it once was, our changes received a near-immediate boost on the search engine. The site’s PageRank increased by one click in just three days.

Blame Game

Several challenging questions linger: Why would a highly respected SEM firm recommend such a risky tactic for a $20 million e-commerce entity? Why would a site administrator agree to visually bury relevant content the general Web public should see? How had the site’s search engine performance influenced our acquisition of the company?

A politically charged blame game ensued.

The SEM firm said it hadn’t recommended the spam-like scheme. it blamed the site administrators for implementing its recommendations in an iffy manner. The site administrators claimed they followed the SEM firm’s recommendations to the letter, and no red flags were raised when the SEM firm reviewed the changes prior to the redesigned site’s release.

Back at the corporate office, we felt the SEM firm coerced a relatively inexperienced marketing manager into implementing questionable SEO tactics. Consequently, search engine site reviews became a general part of our due diligence prior to acquiring new online entities.

Although we’d fixed the home page, the entire site still needed some serious navigational enhancements to improve overall usability. My former employer bid out the redesign project. The original SEM firm was replaced by a highly regarded, white-hat consultant who fully understands the delicate nature of organically optimizing big brands on the Web.

SEM Strategies and Business Goals

When it comes to building a successful SEM strategy, there’s no need to employ hidden text, microsites, link farms, or other dubious tactics to gain search engine visibility. All it takes is developing good, relevant content in a search-friendly format for search engines algorithms to find, crawl, and index.

I’m sharing some of my more recent negative experiences with you to illustrate that building a successful search engine strategy requires two essential elements: good advice from an experienced, trusted SEM consultant and competent implementation of that strategy.

The majority of SEM firms don’t practice questionable SEO tactics. Similarly, most Web masters and marketing manages don’t intentionally strive to implement risky SEM strategies. Both, however, are usually under pressure to produce quick results.

Forego seeking short-term gains in the search engines. You’ll better serve prospects and customers by developing business goals that include SEM as a key part of a long-term strategy. It’s a critical first step toward finding an SEM firm that will do right for your business.

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