I had lunch recently with a long-time friend who’s a top-notch financial planner. He said something about achieving investment success that, it struck me, really applies to the SEO world as well.
“I encourage clients to invest for the long term. Trying to time the market just doesn’t work. If you’d been out of the market and missed just the ten best trading days over the past 20 years, you’d have given up half of the total return. I recommend buying and holding quality funds. I know I’m not smarter than the market.”
It was that last sentence that seemed applicable to SEO; the problem with any type of black hat, manipulative, bad SEO practice is that the practitioner believes he or she is can outwit the search engines. While your SEO consultant should be smarter than a 5th grader, don’t ever hire one who isn’t willing to acknowledge: “I am not smarter than Google.”
The history of black hat SEO is littered with tactics created by people who lacked the humility to make such admissions. Keyword stuffing, link farms, cloaking, “white text”–all of these tactics worked for a time, before drawing the fire and the ire of search engines, leading to penalties and blacklisting in many cases for site owners.
More recently, J.C. Penney saw its rankings plummet on Google after the retailer, or its SEO firm, or some mysterious force (no one seems to want to take “credit” for the tactics of course) was discovered using link spam and link buying techniques to artificially inflate search results. Google also released the Farmer Update to its search engine algorithm in February, designed to degrade results for content farming (which is a tactic, not strictly a type of site; there are SEO “experts” who apply the technique of generating a large amount of keyword-rich but low quality content to commercial websites in order to manipulate search results).
Google employs thousands of top-notch engineers, including a significant number devoted to search quality. No SEO is going to outsmart this team–at least not for long. The experience of sites like J.C. Penney, wiseGEEK and HubPages demonstrates the risk of SEO hubris.
The best SEO consultants are smart enough to know how to apply Google-recommended best practices effectively, while remaining modest enough to accept that they aren’t smarter than Google.