Protecting Against SEO Poisoning

In recent months, a tactic from the earliest days of SEO has re-emerged. Here’s how you can deal with it, as both a website owner and an Internet user.

As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. 

Unfortunately, that applies to the tactics used by cybercriminals just as much as it applies to legitimate businesses. It’s why distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks have been around for decades. And it’s why ransomware has changed so little over the years.

Sure, we’re seeing more sophisticated distribution tactics, but ultimately modern ransomware works nearly the same as ransomware from a decade ago.

With that in mind, it appears another blast from the past has started to re-emerge. At least a few of you probably remember the early days of search engine optimization (SEO). Back when search engines were akin to a virtual wild west, black hat tactics were the best way to rank. 

What Is SEO Poisoning? 

You likely also recall how many malicious websites rose to the top of the search engine results page (SERP), abusing SEO to serve poisoned results to users, hence the term SEO poisoning. It didn’t take long for Google and other search engines to release algorithm updates that shut down most of the shadier tactics. But just like life, criminals always find a way. 

Today, SEO poisoning takes a different form.

First, criminals create a website and take great pains to make it look as legitimate as possible. From there, they begin ‘trend chasing,’ leveraging their understanding of SEO in an effort to gain a prominent position on the SERP. There’s no limit to the number of keywords a single malicious domain may target in this manner.

Security firm Websense Security Labs estimates that these malicious websites represent as much as a quarter of the first page of search results for trending topics.

Generally, the objective is fraud or identity theft. Hackers will use the poisoned sites to steal the personal details of unsuspecting users. They might also inject ransomware onto a victim’s system, add another node to a botnet, or — if they’re lucky enough to infect a PC belonging to a webmaster — hijack another website to add to their malicious network. 

How Do I Protect Myself From SEO Poisoning? 

As with many types of cyberattacks, a little mindfulness goes a long way.

  • Be incredibly wary of opening a website you’ve never heard of before, particularly if you’re searching for a trending topic.
  • We also strongly recommend installing an up-to-date antivirus.
  • Use a password manager for both your personal accounts and your business accounts.
  • Keep all your software and systems up to date. 
  • It may be worthwhile to use a VPN or invest in a router that has built-in encryption. 
  • Consider installing an ad blocker and blocking scripts, as ad networks and malicious scripts are two prevalent delivery mechanisms.

If you own or operate a website, the same rules apply — remain vigilant, and put in the necessary work to keep your personal files and your professional data safe. 

Measuring the Return on Your Search Engine Optimization Efforts

Search engine optimization is a must for any business with a web presence. But how do you determine whether or not your efforts are bearing fruit?

As with any business initiative,  it’s crucial that you understand how to quantify the success of your search engine optimization efforts. Not only do you need to show leadership that your budget is generating tangible results, but you also need to calculate SEO’s return on investment for your own purposes. Consistent measurement of ROI can also help you identify weaknesses and shortcomings, and help you determine where your time (and money) should be directed. 

But how exactly do you measure the ROI of SEO? 

Nebulous Returns

From an ROI perspective, the issues with SEO are similar to those with marketing. Namely, while there are certain fixed costs and returns, as a whole, the core goals of SEO are difficult to express in concrete numbers. Concepts like brand awareness and organic visibility are inherently abstract.

With that said, it is possible to at least approximate them. 

SEO Metrics That Measure ROI

The first step in determining ROI is to figure out how much you’re spending on SEO. If you’ve hired a third-party agency, this is relatively easy to calculate. Just look at whatever you’re paying them. 

If you’re managing SEO internally, things get a bit more complicated, and you’ll need to look at a few different factors. 

  • How much time your staff is spending on SEO. This includes developers, designers, marketing specialists, etc. 
  • How much per hour each staff member is paid, on average. 
  • Subscription costs for any tools or platforms you’re using to inform your SEO efforts. 

With those numbers in mind, measure the following key performance indicators (KPIs) from the beginning of your SEO campaign to its end: 

  • Organic traffic. Self-explanatory. Traffic generated from the search engine results page (SERP).
  • Bounce rate. The number of people who visit your site and leave without performing any actions. Can be paired with time on site to identify potential bottlenecks. 
  • Organic impressions. How many people have seen your site on the SERPs. 
  • Organic click-through rate. The number of users who clicked your site on the SERP, measured against total impressions. 
  • Pages per session. How many pages a user views, on average. 
  • Conversions. Here’s where things get a bit complicated, as there are multiple ways you might define conversions. 
    • Sales. 
    • New subscribers. 
    • Sign-ups for mailing lists/asset downloads. 
    • Downloads. 
    • Social shares. 
    • Phone calls. 
    • Demo/proof of concept requests. 

One way to monitor the above is through conversion tracking. Google allows you to define certain actions as conversions, while also assigning a dollar value to each. Although this is typically intended for Google Ads, it can easily be applied to your site. 

Expressing the ROI of SEO

So, in light of the above, you can express the value of your SEO efforts in a few different ways: 

  • Percent increase/decrease. Applies to bounce rate, organic traffic, impressions, clickthrough, etc. 
  • Spend vs. Revenue. Specifically applies to conversions that involve monetary transactions. 
  • Volume. How much more traffic/how many more phone calls you’re receiving now versus when you started. 

How Will Augmented Reality Influence The Future of Search Engine Optimization?

From a marketing standpoint, augmented reality is one of the most exciting technologies currently in development. And it’s going to change how we do SEO.

No one expected the runaway success of Pokemon Go. How for a few brief, glorious months, fans both young and old took to the parks and streets, exploring their towns and cities in an effort to catch them all. A few savvy businesses were able to tap into the craze, but for the most part, the marketing potential of the game went largely unfulfilled. 

Believe it or not, Pokemon Go is still going strong today, even during the pandemic. A few competitors have even popped up in the interim. But these are all simply a sign of things to come.

Augmented reality has potential that goes well beyond mobile games. Imagine the following: 

  • Using your phone to visualize how furniture might look in your home or to see how you might look in a new outfit. 
  • Scanning a piece of computer hardware with your camera to see a list of specs along with recommended components to pair it. 
  • Viewing the calorie count and ingredients of what you’re eating simply by snapping a photo. 
  • Being able to immediately pull up reviews, social chatter, business listings, and other information on a business simply by pointing a device at the storefront. 

These are all within the realm of possibility. Google and its competitors in the artificial intelligence space have been making significant strides in object recognition. And the technology to introduce AR to our lives beyond smartphone apps already exists.

Remember Google Glass? On paper, it was an incredibly promising piece of tech. That it failed can very likely be chalked up to it being slightly ahead of its time — a product introduced to its audience before they were ready to consider its potential. 

At this point, it seems likely that in the very near future, we will see similar technologies to Google Glass, and this time, they won’t fall flat for a few reasons: 

As you may have already guessed, AR will have the most significant impact on local SEO. Businesses will have a wealth of new ways to engage with their audience, an entirely new marketing channel through which they can bring in prospects. And Google, for its part, will be a driving force behind this evolution, just as it’s steered the future of search up to this point.

What Makes a Keyword Effective?

Choosing the right keyword can be difficult, but it’s a lot easier if you understand how keywords work and the difference between an effective keyword and an ineffective one.

What’s in a keyword? 

A whole lot more than you might expect. Although quality and relevance are far more important than exact-match keywords, targeting the wrong one can still considerably undercut your search engine optimization (SEO) efforts. With that in mind, let’s go over the three core qualities that determine whether a keyword is a winner or a dud. 

Relevance

The best keywords are chosen with their target audience in mind. They account for how that audience talks and thinks and are tailored to the audience’s specific search intent. For instance, let’s say your business sells home repair supplies, and your blog primarily consists of how-to’s. 

Someone who comes to your site looking for information on repairing a pocket door doesn’t want to be hammered with your sales pitch. Instead, they want a simple, step-by-step tutorial. Your keyword choice should account for that, as should your copy. 

As you may have surmised, choosing a relevant keyword means you’ll also need a clear notion of your niche. Again, make sure you’re as specific as possible. The better you define your niche, the more effectively you can target your content. 

Difficulty & Traffic

One of the most common mistakes we see made by novice SEOs is that they choose keywords without much thought about how the search engine results page (SERP) looks for each. Ideally, when selecting a keyword, you want one that isn’t too competitive. However, if you choose one that’s in extremely high demand, you’re going to end up competing with larger, much more established brands, many of which might not even be in your industry. 

The key is to strike a balance — not too competitive, but with enough traffic that targeting it is still worthwhile. The exception, of course, is if your business works in an extremely specific field. Your keywords might still bring traffic to your site, but your SEO tools might consequently not have much to offer in terms of traffic data. 

Long-Tail

Back in the early days of SEO, short-tail keywords were all the rage. The industry has evolved, as has the way your audience uses search engines. Between conversational search and Google’s ever-increasing focus on semantics and intent, long-tail keywords are the way to go. 

The idea here is that you want to think about the kinds of questions your audience might be asking, or the sort of thing they might type into search, and optimize to target that. 

Choose Your Words Carefully

In light of how Google has changed its algorithm in recent years, it would be easy to simply assume that keywords no longer matter. To treat keyword selection as an afterthought to be sacrificed on the altar of content marketing. Doing so would be a mistake, however. 

Keywords might not hold the same sway they did back in the Internet’s infancy, but they’re still a crucial component of an effective SEO strategy and one that you ignore only at your peril. 

3 Ways to Find Out What Questions Your Audience is Asking

Keywords still have their place in SEO. But it’s far more valuable to know what your audience wants to see. Here are a few ways you can determine that.

Do you know what sort of content your audience wants to see? 

Many old-school search engine optimization (SEO) and content marketing advice maintains that you should start with keyword research. The trouble is, that’s no longer relevant. Instead, you need to find the right topics to write on, then build your keywords out from there. 

As for how to find those topics? If your goal is to establish yourself as an expert or thought leader, your best bet is to do a bit of research into the sorts of questions they’re asking. Figure out what they want to know, and from there, it’s only a short jump to some great content.

Here are a few places you can look.

Take Your Research to Social Media

Social networks are good for more than just relationship-building. Pay attention to what prospective customers talk about, and keep a particularly close eye on the sorts of questions they address to your competitors. Reddit is the holy grail in this regard — if you can find a subreddit related to any of your products or services, then there’s a good chance you’ll find plenty of potential topic ideas, too. 

Check Online Discussion Boards

Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook aren’t the only communities you can seek out online. Communities like Quora tend to be a goldmine, too. But, of course, if Quora is too general, you can also seek out industry-specific sites for a bit of inspiration, as well — Github, for instance, tends to attract a lot of tech geeks, making it an ideal community to check if that’s your primary demographic. 

Use a Q&A Tool

If you’d rather not spend time trawling Reddit or poring over Quora, you can simply use a tool like AlsoAsked. There are also plenty of AI-driven content creation and research tools, such as Market Muse, that generate a list of possible questions based on content. And even keyword research tools may occasionally have questions mixed into their results as long-tail keywords. 

It’s All About Answering the Right Questions

When it comes to devising a content creation strategy, knowing your audience is a crucial starting point. By understanding what they know, what they’re asking, and ultimately, what they want to know, you can gear yourself up to create more compelling, engaging content. Finding those questions need not be difficult, either.

At the end of the day, you simply need to know where to look.

Are You Properly Contextualizing Your SEO Metrics?

No metric exists in a vacuum. It’s one of the first things to understand about SEO. It’s not enough to contextualize, though. You need the right context.

It’s one of the most frequent mistakes we see from search engine optimization (SEO) novices. Rather than taking the how and why into consideration, they simply view individual metrics in isolation from one another. They don’t analyze or contextualize.

They simply passively observe. 

To be blunt, taking such an approach to optimizing your website ultimately amounts to a waste of time and effort. Without considering context and connections, you don’t see the bigger picture. And if you don’t see the bigger picture, you have no idea what works in your approach (and what doesn’t). 

As an example, let’s say a site owner notices that his traffic numbers are up. At first glance, that seems pretty exciting, right? More people are visiting his website, which means his SEO efforts must be paying off.

Or are they?  If he just looks at traffic, the owner has no real way of knowing the actual reason for the surge. Maybe it’s not something he did at all, but one of his competitors messed up and dropped on the search engine results page (SERP). 

Or maybe it has nothing to do with SEO at all, and he was simply lucky enough to have one of his blog posts go viral. Beyond the reason for the increase in traffic, our theoretical owner should also be considering the result. Namely, what are visitors doing

  • Are they simply reading one page and leaving?
  • Are they bouncing immediately, without even interacting with any content?
  • Is there a particular page or segment on the website that new visitors reach before leaving? 
  • Does their visit to the site ultimately conclude with the desired outcome? (i.e., purchasing a particular product, signing up for a mailing list, etc.) 
  • Is the audience interacting with the brand outside the site, such as through social media? 

As you can see from the above, an individual metric like traffic numbers presents an extremely narrow vision of what’s actually going on. Unless you consider the context of each metric you work with, you do not see the whole picture. With that in mind, for each metric you measure, you need to answer the following questions: 

  • How does this relate to my core SEO objective? 
  • What external factors might be influencing this metric, and why?
  • What other metrics should I use that are connected to this one? 
  • What story does this metric tell as part of a whole?

Basically, you need to consider what you want to achieve with SEO and figure out what key performance indicators (KPIs) can be used to measure your progress towards that goal. From there, it’s a simple matter of understanding that, where search engine optimization is concerned, everything is connected. No metric is entirely irrelevant, and every piece of data could provide an insight you might otherwise have missed.

It’s Time for Autoplay Video to Finally Die

Plenty of websites, news agencies especially, seem to love shoving autoplay videos in their audience’s faces. Here’s why that’s a bad thing.

If you’re thinking of including autoplay video on your site, don’t. 

It doesn’t matter how many media sites are doing it. It doesn’t matter that you just recently saw a video automatically start playing on a publication like CNN.  It doesn’t matter how many marketing ‘professionals’ claim that autoplay is a good thing.

It’s not, and it never will be.

Imagine, if you would, that you’re visiting a bookstore to purchase the latest novel from your favorite author. The moment you walk in the door, one of the store’s employees walks up to you and gets uncomfortably close to your face. They then immediately begin screaming about all the exciting items that are currently on sale, about how good the new book is, about how much they appreciate your visit.

That’s essentially what you’re doing to your audience if you impose any sort of autoplay media on them. 

Autoplay video is not going to generate more leads. It’s not going to compel people to visit your site more frequently. And it’s not going to do your position on the search engine results page (SERP) any favors. 

Instead, it’s going to alienate your audience for multiple reasons.

  • Frustration and surprise. Someone searching for an article on Google wants to read an article. They don’t want to immediately have their eardrums split apart by a video played at 100% volume.  As such many of them likely won’t even stick around to finish reading — they’ll simply bounce. 
  • Poor compatibility. Not everyone has a browser capable of supporting automatic media, and many people are likely visiting your site on mobile devices. This means that a good portion of your audience might end up finding your site completely unusable. 
  • A lack of respect. Are your readers listening to or watching something else when they browse? Are they using a screen reader or other similar software? Shoving a video in their faces the moment they access your site sends the clear message that you honestly don’t care. 
  • Spam-adjacent. You may recall that Google has long since disavowed intrusive ads featuring sound, video, or obnoxious animations. Autoplay video is arguably just one step removed from this kind of media. 
  • Out of touch. News sites are the most frequent offenders where autoplay is concerned.  The same organizations are bleeding money, using paywalls, and attempting to harvest customer data in direct violation of regulations like the GDPR. Do you really want to follow their lead on this? 

Autoplay video is a remnant of a bygone era on the Internet. It’s intrusive, annoying, and disrespectful to your audience. And 90% of the time, it adds nothing of value for your readers.

We’re not saying you should avoid using videos altogether. Video content can be immensely valuable if leveraged properly. What we’re saying is that you need to give your visitors a choice.Allow them to play the video if they want to see it, and ignore it if they don’t — because ultimately, their experience matters more than what you think they might want to see.

What Can You Do if There’s No Data for Your Target Keywords?

If you’re targeting a particularly niche market, keyword data might be difficult to come by. Here’s what you can do about that.

For the most part, search engine optimization (SEO) platforms all carry the same basic functionality. They form the foundation of your SEO and content marketing efforts. Helping you determine what keywords you should target and on which topics you should focus. For the most part, they work quite well, providing a detailed breakdown of a particular keyword’s traffic numbers, competitiveness, and permutations. 

It’s valuable data, indeed. But what happens when that data is incomplete? What if, for one reason or another, none of your SEO tools provide you with any insights? Should you continue onward or step back and rethink your keywords? 

What Causes Gaps in Keyword Data? 

Generally, if your research tool is drawing a blank with a keyword you’ve provided, this can mean one of several things. 

  • The keyword is highly niche, to the point that they’re rarely searched.
  • The keyword is from Google’s ‘restricted’ list. 
  • There’s something wrong with the keyword you’ve chosen.
    • Too complicated
    • Worded poorly
    • Not a phrase your audience typically uses in search

How Do You Deal With Keyword Gaps? 

Your first step here is evaluation. You need to be certain that the issue here is with your niche rather than with your keyword choice. There are a few steps involved here. 

  • Search Quora, Reddit, Facebook, and/or Twitter. Is anything coming up? Are people using the keyword you’ve chosen in regular discussion, or does there seem to be a complete dearth of conversation? 
  • Enter your keyword into Google and take a look at the Search Engine Results Page (SERP). What sort of content do you see there? Are all the top results competitors in your target niche? 
  • Use a keyword suggestion tool. See if any of the alternative keywords it suggests have better traffic than the one you’ve chosen. 
  • Analyze your competitors’ websites. What keywords do they typically rank for? Are they similar to the ones you’ve chosen? 
  • Look at your analytics data. What organic search terms seem to bring the most people to your site, and which ones generate the most leads? Note that in some cases, organic search data may simply display as “not provided.” 

As a bonus, if your keyword of choice doesn’t quite work, this process will help you refine things.

Should You Target a Different Niche? 

Once you’ve established that your choice of keyword is not the problem, you have a decision to make. You need to ask yourself if it’s worthwhile targeting this topic or niche. Is it something you’re certain your audience will be interested in, and will the leads it generates be worth the effort it demands? 

Only you know the answer to these questions, and only you know for certain what decision is the correct one.

The 3 Rules of Image Optimization for the Web

Images are among the most important elements of your site. And you need to do everything in your power to make sure they’re properly optimized.

Especially with the rise in prominence of ecommerce, social media, and digital communication over the past year, a picture truly is worth a thousand words. However, a picture that’s overly large, slow to load, or poorly chosen will inevitably do more harm than good. In order to avoid alienating your audience and ensure you bring in as much traffic as possible, there are a few cardinal rules you should follow where image optimization is concerned. 

Resize

Whether you’re downloading a free image, purchasing a stock photo, or using one of your own photographs, there’s a good chance that the image is going to be absolutely massive. And that means it’s going to ruin load times.

Your first step, then, needs to be downsizing. Use an image editing program to cut down your image’s resolution. Generally, we’d recommend 1200×800 or 800×600, but this may vary depending on your website’s layout. 

We’d also recommend reducing image quality to about 80 percent. This will allow you to further cut down on file size without any noticeable drop in image parity. Anything lower than that, however, and you’ll start to notice a decline. 

Preview and Test

Careful consideration of layout and design is at the core of a positive user experience. You thus need to ensure that your layout works on both desktop and mobile and that your images properly align with your copy. We recommend using either https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/ or https://caniuse.com/ for this, as well as to test the load speed of your pages. 

Write Your Title and Alt Text With Care

Per Google’s own developer guidelines, its algorithms use this data to determine context and better understand the content. As such, the metadata associated with your image is of crucial importance when it comes to optimizing your images for search. When you look at an image, consider the following:

  • What ideas does the image convey? 
  • What are you using the image for? 
  • How would you describe the image in a few words?

The answers to these questions will inform how you fill out your image’s title, alt text, and caption. The former should basically convey what the image is, leveraging a single keyword associated with the image. The alt text, meanwhile, should act as a brief description of the image, as it displays for people who are unable to see images on your pages.  

Optimize With Care

On the web, a picture is worth a thousand words, but only if it’s properly optimized. By following the three cardinal rules above, you can ensure that every image you use is. And you’ll be one step closer to ranking on the search engine results page because of it. 

3 Traditional Search Engine Optimization Tactics That Will Get You Penalized Today

Search engine optimization has changed a great deal over the past several years. Your tactics need to change too.

A lot of people don’t entirely understand what search engine optimization actually is, or what it means. It’s a little ironic, really. It’s right there in the name.

It’s about optimizing your website to perform well on search engines, which, in a modern context means putting content quality and the end-user above all else. That wasn’t always the case, though. Today, we’re going to take a look back at some old-school SEO tactics that you should avoid at all costs. 

They may have used to work, but they no longer do.

Duplicate or Thin Content

At one point in the past, thin content was a great way to game the system and get your website to the top of the search engine results page. Over the years, however, Google has released multiple algorithmic updates that harshly penalize this tactic. Content that’s deemed duplicate or thin by Google will directly hurt your ranking, meaning you’re losing out on potentially valuable traffic. 

Keyword Stuffing and Invisible Text

Keyword stuffing is another old-school technique that once went hand in hand with duplicate content. In the earliest days of search engines, websites filled with multiple, stuffed pages shot to the top. Again, however, Google’s algorithms are wise to this now.

Repeating the same phrases over and over indicates to the search engine that you’re attempting to manipulate the system and that you aren’t actually interested in providing quality or value. And even if your content is of decent quality, it’ll still get flagged if you insert invisible, repeating text keywords anywhere on the page.

Mention a few variants of your keywords throughout a page instead, making sure to stick to natural language. The better your content flows, the more your audience will engage with it. And the more your audience engages with it, the better you’ll do in the long run. 

Guest Post Spam and Link Farming

Guest posts are an excellent source of brand recognition and web traffic, particularly if you can place them on sites that are recognized as high-quality or authoritative by Google. It is, however, important to note that quality is what’s important here. If you publish the same low-grade guest post on multiple different sites with no rhyme or reason, that’s going to do you more harm than good.

Your guest posts need to be tailored to the sites on which they are placed. And they cannot be attention-grabbing clickbait or inaccurate, outdated filler content. The point of guest posting isn’t just to bring in more traffic, after all.

It’s to build a reputation. 

Similarly, link farms — websites that host backlinks for the express purpose of gaming the SERP — are explicitly prohibited by Google. You cannot buy traffic, and you cannot buy backlinks. If you aren’t growing your website organically, Google will be able to tell.

A Changing Landscape

We are nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic, and the world is changing very rapidly. Both businesses and consumers today operate in a very different fashion from how they worked around this time last year. And by this time next year, things will change again.

That includes the search engine optimization space.  Particularly with Google’s plan to implement core web vitals into its algorithm as a ranking factor by May 2021, SEO is going to change in a very big way. Don’t worry too much about that, though.

Focus on creating quality content, and you’ll do just fine.