Stung by Unethical Search Engine Optimization – A True Story

Editor’s note: Even knowledgeable, ethical professionals can get swindled by unsavory search engine optimization techniques. Here’s how one firm discovered — and fixed — the damage inflicted on an unwary online retailer.

My company specializes in promoting online storefronts for etailers. Several months ago, one of our clients who we had helped to increase orders by 40% reported a sudden decline in sales. This was not a trend we liked to see three months before Christmas.

After checking the WebTrends traffic report for the site, we realized that much of the retailer’s traffic had dropped off from MSN since late September. We searched MSN and noted that most of their product URLs were no longer showing up. This surprised us, as we had an active subscription for 25 or so URLs submitted to MSN through PositionTech’s submission service. Strangely, these pages seemed to have been withdrawn from MSN.

I logged into our PositionTech URL listing account and noted our client’s daily click-thru traffic reports had completely dropped off since September 18th. MSN typically sent 20-30% of my client’s traffic each month — these URLs had received over 10,000 click-thrus. To see a complete drop off in traffic was suspect. We contacted PositionTech to find out why we had lost subscribed pages in MSN.

Search engines were sending 75% of our retailer’s web traffic each month, but to gear up for the ultimate Christmas shopping season, we launched a Dealtime and Yahoo Store to attract more shoppers through additional channels.

Both the Yahoo and Dealtime stores launched around the 18th of September, about the same time as the loss of visibility and click-thru traffic from MSN. Was it possible that the duplication of content at another shopping channel could have any effect on the MSN listings?

PositionTech initially thought the duplication might have caused a spam penalty. While Yahoo and MSN have competitor-shopping channels, and the store was basically duplicated at Yahoo, I could not imagine that this could cause a problem with our products being listed in MSN. They were separate marketing channels.

I called on Danny Sullivan and Jim Stob of PositionTech to help me investigate the real source of the problem. We soon learned that our client’s site had indeed been blacklisted by MSN, but the Yahoo and Dealtime shopping channels were not the reason.

They discovered that Inktomi, an MSN search partner, had blacklisted our client’s web site. I was shocked, considering my knowledge and implementation of ethical search engine marketing techniques. We use a combination of web site content optimization, page relevant metatags, paid search engine submission, tracking and analysis to enable our client web sites to show up in the search engines. We do not employ techniques that are frowned upon by search engines, such as:

  • Doorway pages (also known as ghost pages)
  • Cloaking, or using bait-and-switch techniques that serve one page to search engines and another to end users
  • Link popularity farms, used to create numerous links to a particular site, theoretically increasing chances that the site will rank higher in the search engine positions due to perceived link popularity.

PositionTech looked at our client’s home page code. The metatags at the top of the home page had been written by our client’s previous SEO company, earlier that year, and had appeared benign so I had never changed them. PositionTech agreed with that assessment, but also instructed me to look at the bottom of the page’s source code.

Here we found eight or nine “invisible” links to several other SEO company sites. These were invisible to the typical end user, the client, and even myself, because the text links was the same color as the background. Invisible text, multiple metatags, and transparent gifs are all considered spam by the search engines, and penalized. As if this weren’t bad enough, there were more problems causing the client’s site to be blacklisted by Inktomi.

We found a link to our client’s web site, I pointed my browser to this URL up and discovered a “link farm,” listing hundreds of links to other sites. This link farm was some 20-plus pages long. Viagra was one of the products being promoted from our client’s site, unbeknownst to them.

I thanked PositionTech for the new insight. I logged into our client’s web site to see when these suspect files were posted, and learned all were modified and/or posted on March 20th and March 21st, 2002 by the previous SEO company.

I was frustrated. This SEO company had played roulette with our client’s search engine positions in MSN, and as a result had caused us to lose visibility, traffic and sales. We immediately removed all of the files associated with this company from the client’s site. We removed the link farm code, and rewrote the metatags on the home page. We notified PositionTech. Thankfully, we were re-positioned in MSN through PositionTech’s service within just a few weeks, just in time for holiday shoppers.

Just when I thought I had learned just about everything I needed to know about search engine marketing, I learned about being blacklisted, and how a SEO company’s work eight months prior could cost our client visibility, traffic and online sales. In addition, I cannot underscore the value of industry relationships, which enabled us to determine and fix the problem.

Our client tripled his daily sales compared with Christmas 2001. Notably, most of their traffic was coming from search engines, followed by the new Yahoo store launched earlier that year. Proof that search engine marketing works when done correctly and ethically.


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Laura Thieme is the president and founder of Bizresearch, a search engine optimization (SEO) and Web site traffic analysis company.

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