Wednesday, May 11, 2011

SEO, it's Not Black Magic

Spin, spin, spin, for many firms it's all about the spin. Overblown claims are common on the Internet, especially when dealing with the touchy issue of Search Engine ranking.  The perception is that the better a site fares in Search Engine rankings the more money the associated business / charity / whatever will make. Many firms exploit this perception by making wild promises about how they'll boost your ranking in various search engines.

More is not better

The House Rabbit Network (HRN) is a New England based animal rescue group. Their web site, gets a lot of traffic from people seeking information about keeping rabbits as pets. Starting in 2007, they started getting traffic from a new and unexpected source. "Adult" search terms started directing people to  It didn't take long for the webmaster to figure out what was going on.

The HRN web site had recently added "How to Sex Your Rabbits", an article about determining the gender of a rabbit. It's one of the better online articles on the topic and a lot of other rabbit related sites were already linking to it. The large number of links to the article gave it a higher Google page rank. The text contained phrases like "bunny" and "sex" which caused people seeking, er, "mature" content to be directed to the site. To make matters worse, people began posting the URL to adult themed forums.

From the view of many SEO "experts" this was a grand success. The site was getting more traffic from a larger and more diverse audience. From the view of the rescue group, this was an annoyance.  The increased traffic didn't negatively impact server performance or increase bandwidth costs, but it didn't result in people donating to the 501(c)3 registered charity or increase rabbit adoptions from HRN's foster homes.

People who stumbled across the site while searching for mature content weren't interested in a pet rabbit.

Misdirection to kill a campaign

In February 2008, the UK chain Marks & Spencer was engaged in a battle with the British union "Unite." As part of the conflict, Unite chose to engage in what they called "cyber-warfare." While the article was light on details, the union was probably spending £500 on Google Adwords.  The trouble hit when someone posted the article to the news aggregation site with the headline "Union to hijack global search engine - Google!." The headline depicted the relatively straightforward purchase of some paid search results as a form of black hat hacking. As a result, a large number of members searched for "Marks & Spencer" on Google, clicked the link to the Union grievances and then went back to to ask "Who the heck is Marks & Spencer?"

In short order the £500 had been burned up and searches for "Marks & Spencer" no longer resulted in an ad directing people to Unite's grievances page. A lot of people saw the ad, but few of them knew who Marks & Spencer was. As a result, the campaign had little effect on Marks & Spencer's bottom line.

The relatively low cost of advertising in search results may level the playing field a bit, but if a competitor can burn up your paid clicks it won't benefit you very much. Did the link help Unite's campaign? Not really.  Many of the paid search results went to people who had no involvement in the battle between Unite and M&S. Unite would have fared better if they'd not spoken to the press about the campaign.

Better means people want to go there

In both these example, the traditional "More is Better" SEO criteria was met. Both HRN and Unite got more traffic and more attention. From a practical standpoint, neither of them benefited.  Unite's money was burned up serving ads to people who didn't even recognize the name "Marks & Spencer". HRN didn't place any more rabbits.

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