Adding white text on a white background may sound like an easy way to add content to your website to improve your SEO (Search Engine Optimization) while keeping the content invisible to the reader. But beware: "hidden text" is actually an old-school web spam tactic. It's one of the first "black hat" SEO tactics (those that go against search engine guidelines and disregard a human audience) that initiated Google penalties nearly 12 years ago.
You may be aware of current spam tactics, but are you familiar with the "ancient" SEO tactics that still cause penalties with search engines? Let's step into our time machine and revisit some of the oldest black hat SEO tactics used within the body content of your site that you may be guilty of – without realizing they're SEO web spam. We'll also share some common hyperlink SEO strategies that will also result in penalties from Google.
Regarding the white-text, white-background tactic: Making a page's text the same or similar color as the background is considered spam in Google's eyes. Google will diminish the rank of pages containing hidden content and even those that link to pages containing hidden content.
When hidden text exists, the content is present in the HTML of the page, and therefore visible to search engines but invisible to the reader. This breaks a fundamental rule of Google optimization: a user must be shown the same content that's shown to Google.
You'll get penalized by Google for having content that's too heavy or too light. You want the content on your webpage to be just the right amount. Online retailers frequently have a category page that contains ten or more rows of products bookended by a paragraph of content near the footer of the page. Regardless of how informative this content may be, it's likely to have a low value to the search engines.
Once content flows over the 600-pixel mark, its value to Google diminishes dramatically. Pages longer than 1,800 to 2,400 pixels aren't preferred. You should have 300 to 1,200 characters of content about the 600 pixel mark and as close to the upper left-hand corner of the page as possible. Minimize images and ads at the top of your pages, and when possible, don't embed text into your images.
Online retailers that are using "infinity scrolling" solutions (like Polyvore) may not need to worry about this issue. Most infinite scrolling solutions create a dynamic user experience, but the search engine sees pagination when the site is indexed.
Hopelessly Unoriginal Content
For the online reader, unoriginal content is often "duplicate content," "too similar content" or "plagiarized content." Let's explore:
Duplicating the Manufacturer
Google insists that content needs to exist on a webpage in order to participate in organic search. But just any content isn't good enough – it must be original. This is a high bar for online retailers that carry thousands of products.
Say, for example, a retailer uses the product description directly from the feed provided by the manufacturer. This process is repeated by hundreds of online retailers, so that the product description is duplicated hundreds of times across the internet. The manufacturer's content quickly becomes unoriginal as it's used and reused. This issue alone drives many online retailers to rely solely on paid search to appear in Google's search results.
To help combat this problem, write unique product descriptions for your top 20 products. Adding customer reviews to your page can also help, but make sure they render in your HTML code.
Many online retailers are the original manufacturers of their products, and they write their own original product description copy. But in the interest of time, copywriters often duplicate snippets of content.
For example, if a 50/50 poly-cotton sheet comes in both a 150-thread count and a 300-thread count, a copywriter may use the same product description for both and change only the thread count number. Then, Google will select one of the two products for organic listing – not ideal. Simply changing the thread count from 150 to 300 isn't enough to make the content appear original.
Online retailers will frequently duplicate themselves with boilerplate copy. Repeating a paragraph over and over on press releases, product pages or category pages will likely attract a duplicate content penalty. In marketing, there's an adage that says, "Tell them, tell them and then tell them again." Google, on the other hand, would prefer that you say it just once. Avoid the boilerplate and designate this type of information to your About Us page.
Affiliates, News Sites and Blogs That Duplicate You
Online retailers that write their original product content can still discover that search engines aren't giving them credit for their efforts. The culprit is usually their data feed. Though the product description is unique, because it's in their data feed, it's being sent to multiple channels, such as Amazon, eBay, affiliate networks and blogs.
The best solution isn't to give all your content away. Break your product descriptions into a minimum of two parts in your web database: short descriptions and long descriptions.
Syndicate the short description in your feed to marketplaces and affiliates, and keep the long description for your site only. Instruct the affiliate to use the data feed you provide. If bloggers or affiliates scrape your site and use the long description, let them know that this is against your affiliate guidelines, and they'll usually cease the practice. If they don't, you can always discontinue their affiliate ID.
Doorway Pages and Cloaking
Doorway pages and cloaked pages are content-heavy pages stuffed with keywords and are programmed to load only for a second before redirecting to another page on the site. These pages are frequently created using automatically generated content that reads as gibberish. While this does make the content "original," it runs afoul of semantic search engine algorithms that grade the readability of copy.
Google, Bing and Yahoo easily sniff these pages out and will remove entire sites with these pages from their index.
Google penalties for all content spam are generally doled out by the Google Panda algorithm. If your site is suffering from a Panda penalty, you'll likely notice an abrupt fall-off in traffic. The solution? Simply blocking offending, spammy content with a robots.txt will not solve this problem. The bad content must be removed before traffic is restored. The Panda algorithm updates regularly, and the penalty can usually be resolved within 90 days. The best solution is to hire a product marketing copywriter to write unique and compelling content for your shoppers.
Links that don't stand out from the surrounding unlinked text are considered hidden. This includes hyperlinks that are the same color as the background of the page, not underlined or that originate form the odd period or dash. Many online retailers try to hide links because they want to control the shopper click path or minimize the distracting look of hyperlinked text within a paragraph.
The best solution is to map out a sensible (and visible) click path for your shoppers. Shoppers are more likely to stay on your site longer if they're able to easily navigate and explore. If the look of embedded links in content bothers you, then implement micro-navigation menus specific to the page.
If you're a site owner, you've more than likely received an email from a webmaster offering to put your link on their website if you'll return the favor. This is web spam, and you shouldn't participate in swapping links because often your link will be one of many various links on a webpage called /links.html.
Many online retailers seeking SEO services are told they need to buy backlinks from link brokers, directories and content syndication services to increase their page rank. The theory is that "higher page rank means more rankings." What they're really saying is, "Trick the search engines into believing your site have more authority than it really does." Google's Penguin algorithm is quick to figure out the difference between a paid link and a link acquired because of genuine admiration or partnership. A Penguin penalty (not a manual spam action) will usually look like a slow erosion of traffic volume.
To remedy a link penalty, contact the webmaster to remove your paid link from their site. Ask blog owners and press release sites to ad the "rel=no follow" tag to links pointing to your site. Also be sure to keep an updated Disavow file.
If you want more link participation in social media, create meaningful online conversations about your company and products, use an editorial calendar to stay on top of your social media efforts and engage with your customers and business community. There's nothing quite as viral as goodwill.
Whether you're a search marketing old-timer or newbie, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with all the spam practices Google recognizes. You don't want to repeat past mistakes (even if they weren't yours).
Online retailers can refer to the Google Webmaster Quality Guidelines to review all spam tactics – old-school and new-school – disliked by Google.