Launching an SEO strategy is no straight forward task; there are Google regulations to ensure positive user experience, SEO best practices, and despite efforts made to keep web masters on the “straight and narrow”, black hat tactics continue to undermine noble white hat efforts.
The search optimization methods you embrace and execute will reward you with one of the following three outcomes:
- Google Paradise – High organic ranking with clicks that lead to conversions
- Google Limbo – Slight improvement in organic ranking with moderate conversions, though you can’t seem to improve beyond this point
- Google Inferno – Welcome to hell; you just fell to the stygian depths of the SERPs, or your site was removed entirely
When it comes to learning a valuable lesson in good SEO practices, we can learn from Dante–the 14th century poet who presented his interpretation of hell in ‘Inferno’, the first part of his ‘Divine Comedy’. One of the epic’s poems uses was to serve as a moral guideline steering citizens clear from sin. If Dante were to explore the arena of digital marketing and create a moral white hat guideline via Virgil leading him through the 9 levels of SEO inferno, it would likely resemble this.
1. Limbo, or Vanilla Digital Marketing
Dante’s defined limbo as a place for virtuous people who didn’t convert to the faith. This was a place that was comfortable enough, but it wasn’t as blissful as Paradise. Many digital marketing strategies that play by the white hat rule book result in limbo placement. They may be on page two or three of the SERPs and get just enough clicks that translate into conversions to make ROI, yet the results are consistent from one quarter to the next.
How to Ascend from SEO Limbo
As hard as you try, you just aren’t able to achieve higher ranking and increased conversions. Most, at this point, hire a top SEO agency to gain that extra boost. If you want to take one last stab at doing this on your own before reaching out to a professional digital marketing agency, try these steps:
- Audits – Run a technical SEO audit and a full content audit looking for duplicates in on-page, meta, and titles.
- Mobile Friendly – Ensure the site speed is fast and the mobile user experience is buttoned up.
- Content – Update your on-site content. Make sure you use long tail versions of your keywords, and phrases in line with natural voice search.
- Backlinks – Disavow bad backlinks and acquire relevant ones from referring domains with high authority.
- Blog – Blogs still matter. Add new, fresh content to your site every week with blogs that address interest-driven topics in your industry, and promote them through social media outlets.
2. Lust and the Sin of Cloaking
Though we tend to think of Lust as giving in to excessive sexual appetite, its literal Latin translation “luxuria”simply means intense longing. Aside from committing strange over-the-top sex acts involving a taxidermy moose head, a spatula, and a gallon of olive oil, lust can also lead to non-sexual sins such as committing unsavory acts to achieve money and power. In Dante’s journey to the Underworld he beholds lost souls condemned to being rocked back and forth by violent storms without rest thus symbolizing the way their appetites swayed their reason.
The SEO sin of Cloaking is used by those burning with lust to rank their site higher, in multiple places, in the hopes to drive more conversions (hey, this leads to more money in the bank). Cloaking tricks Google’s search spiders, and anything aimed at deceiving Google is search spam (total damnation). This is done by delivering one web page to Google’s search engine with a completely different one seen by online visitors. Certain SEO techniques such as optimized content, titles, and META tags will get a page to rank for certain search terms, but when cloaking is taking place the actual content seen by consumers will be completely different.
Here is an example scenario of Cloaking playing into the theme of our traditional understanding of lust: Porn. Millions of people view it online for free, and often. It’s primary keywords are in the top all-time searched phrases. This means that consumers in ALL industries are actively looking for this type of content, and you can’t get a much bigger online audience than that! Imagine a business owner that offers a product or service that almost all people use, and theirs is so good that by simply exposing it to more consumers he will see additional sales without much effort. Take printer cartridges for instance; they are costly items, and three out of four people buy them (huge market needing a huge audience). Imagine a company that offers re-manufactured ink cartridges for any printer, with a full money-back guarantee, and you save 70% off the big box store brands. People who watch porn need ink too, so the business owner decides to analyze all the pages that rank for specific keywords, and devises a strategy that will rank his ink cartridge landing page for rather naughty search terms this exposing his no-brainer products to a massive audience.
White Hat Alternative Method to Cloaking
There are honest ways to get a landing page to rank for various search terms. You just need to make sure your subject is relative to these search terms, and have that be reflected across your website. Let’s continue using the example of the ink cartridge company. To ethically expand your online audience by tapping into high-volume search terms, follow these steps:
- Identify high-search volume markets that use your product (for ink cartridges you can look into keywords surrounding family life, education and schools, government offices, hospitals, law firms, etc)
- Perform Google searches to see what results come up when you combine these keywords with your product keywords (“discount office supplies for educators”)
- Run a soft audit on the landing pages looking for ranking factors, including any backlinks
- Compile the data and create a ranking strategy designed to outperform theirs
- Add content to your primary web pages that show how your product is used in conjunction with these newly defined keywords (“We give an additional 10% off to teachers and schools”)
- Create a landing page dedicated to that relationship, and internally link it to the main page that mentions the relationship
- If you plan to do multiple pages like this, it is ideal to create an entire subject category on “Popular Uses” so that Google bots can crawl structured content with internal navigation that makes its relevancy and user friendliness easy to detect.
3. Gluttony and the Sin of Keyword Stuffing
Gluttony–over-consumption of something to the point of waste. In Dante’s 3rd level of inferno there exists gluttonous sinners forced to lie in a putrid slush produced by never-ending icy rain. The putrid mire symbolizes individual degradation of one who overindulges in various pleasures, while the coldness represents the inability to see the needs of others.
Considering these sinners were paying the price of stuffing too much food into their gullets, if Dante were sitting in an agency office reading bad copy it seems he would easily identify keyword stuffing as SEO sacrilege. Consider your website as a human body: it has a heart (your homepage with “emotional content”), a brain (content for the bots and human readers), and it has arms and legs (your primary web pages). It even has a circulatory system that feeds “search juice” to optimized pages throughout the site. This is your website’s oxygenated blood that derives from new content addition, solid backlinks, and positive engagement signals that empower its domain authority just as a human body maintains good health from vigorous circulation.
Overindulging in keywords creates poor web pages that read like spam; you completely waste the power of your otherwise good content, and spoil your webpage as a whole. When Google crawls your site it will damn it to Search Engine Hades for reading like spam. All the noble work you put into other aspects of your SEO will be completely wasted.
Alternative White Hat Method to Keyword Stuffing
People stuff their content with identical keywords because they want their site to rank, and several years ago this worked until Google made changes to its algorithm to enforce better content quality. Thanks to Google RankBrain’s ability to decipher search intent, and the dominating presence of mobile voice searches, you can produce highly-optimized content for specific keywords peppered heavily throughout your site, but in a way that reads naturally. This is what you need to do:
- Use long tail keyword versions
- Add organic search-friendly phrases
- Include Google recommendation keywords
- Add phrases that appear in top ranking site descriptions
- Use popular related searches that appear in the browser address bar
- Write educational, high-quality and entertaining content that addresses popular industry questions while including keyword relevance
- Produce off site content about various keywords on an industry-related domain, and have it link back to your page using an ideal keyword in its anchor text that promotes cross-relevancy.
The Google bots are a little “less botty” these days. Thanks to RankBrain and advancements in mobile SEO, content that reads human in a natural non-spammy manner wins every time. Additionally, If you form a cohesive profile of legitimate high-quality backlinks to your optimized pages, you can avoid the vile ice-cold hell at the bottom of the SERPs where greedy keyword-stuffed websites rot.
4. Greed and the SEO Sin of Countless Citations
In the 4th level of inferno, Dante saw those guilty of hoarding possessions forced to push heavy weights with their chests to symbolize their selfish quest for fortune. If Dante were here today, he would likely compare the antiquated ritual of citation hoarding as a greedy sin. Years ago webmasters collected citations like 70 year-old Mid Western women collect Hummels–they couldn’t stop with just a few. In recent years Penguin updates rolled out, and no longer is there value in having a Russian directory for mechanical parts suppliers link to a Denver-based real estate agency’s site. But people still do it, and their citations profile attests to a greed that only delivers a semblance of spammy that makes Google bots frown.
The purpose of citations is to showcase your name, address, and number (NAP) in appropriate places so Google can better evaluate your online authority and help you rank for local searches. Though having tons of citations can raise big red spam flags, there are still instances when you can use them (in good taste).
Celestial Citations VS Junk Citations
The key is to source citations from directories that are relevant, high authority, and local. Citations can be structured or unstructured, and having a well-balanced portfolio of both types can help with your local ranking efforts.
Structured Citations– These are the most common and appear in directories like Angie’s List, YellowPages.com, and Care.com. While virtually any business can get a listing in YellowPages.com and remain far from committing the sin of spammy citations, not all can get links from directories like Angie’s List or Care.com without risking a hit to your domain authority. For example, only contractors and home improvement type industries should link from Angie’s List (not bakeries or clothing retailers) while links from Care.com had better feed sites advertising babysitting or house cleaning, as opposed to a bait and tackle shop or a dance studio. Just make sure there are geo-specific settings to give your citation local authority.
Unstructured Citations– These can appear in digital newspapers, blogs, or various posting boards. Again, the source needs to be industry-relative and the referring domain should have a high authority. For example, if ‘The Los Angeles Times’ has an article on scuba diving safety concerns, and you own a dive shop that offers advanced certifications, and the article is about how advanced training makes safer divers, the citation will be healthy and add value to your own quest for greater domain authority.
5. Wrath and the Sin of Fraudulent Clicks
When Dante entered the fifth level of hell, he witnessed the “savage self-frustration” while being accosted by a man who took his property after the poet was forced to leave Florence. In the world of digital marketing, there are attempts made by wrathful competitors to “attack the competition’s house”, and a perfect example takes place in PPC.
Many wrathful business owners find their competition’s paid links, and click on them repeatedly thus driving up huge expenses with the hope they will no longer be able to run a paid search campaign. By doing so, the wrathful competitor is destroying his competition’s internal infrastructure with the goal to win the ad placement and is therefore “taking his house”–his paid link real estate atop the SERPs. Though fraudulent clicks aren’t always detected, Google does attempt to catch such attacks and in many cases the punishment will result in account suspension.
An Ethical Way to Gain PPC Placement
Rather than focus on attacking your competition, work to improve your Quality Score to ensure you get great placement with winning bids. Quality Score and max CPC determine positioning. You can hire a Google-partner PPC management team to improve your Quality Score. If you wish to attempt this yourself, here are some steps to follow:
- Show highly relevant ad copy for each search term targeted. One factor in determining quality score is ad relevance to the keywords you have targeted, which is determined by Google’s algorithm.
- Increase CTR through relevant ad copy and pause ads with a lower CTR. The more relevant your ad is to a person’s search term, the more likely they are to click your ad over a competitor’s. This also increases your CTR which is one of the most important factors when Google calculates quality score.
- Use dedicated landing pages with content related to your targeted keywords. The landing page experience and its relevance account for the third major factor in calculating Quality Score.
You can also set your max CPCs at non-round numbers. For example the majority of advertisers will set a bid at $1. By setting a bid at $1.01 and all other factors equal, you will out position the competitor with a $1 bid.
6. Heresy and the Sin of Blindly Deleting Pages
When Dante ascends into the sixth circle of hell he beholds two heretics trapped in flaming tombs–an eternal punishment for convincing others to believe that “the soul dies with the body”. All too often webmasters are quick to remove pages because they think that once the page is dead, so too are all traces of it (its soul). However, you can remove a page but a 404 error will result and there is also the potential for dead links to infect other pages. If you have specific tags on your deleted pages, it will exist as an empty component with an archives URL sending off another 404. By blindly deleting a page you are leaving its soul behind without a host, and a flood of errors will boil hot like the River Styx banishing you to SERPs depths aka Google Hell.
The Right Way to Remove Links (or Redirect Them)
If you can redirect a page as opposed to deleting it, this is almost always a better option because (unless you are advanced) you will lower your risk of creating errors, and you can pass along the page value. Make sure you use a 310 redirect, which is permanent, and point it to a URL with the same kind of content.
If you plan to delete the page then you also need to be prepared to remove all traces hinting at its existence. First, be sure to send a HTTP header (a 410 content deleted header). Remember that a 404 means “content not found” while a 410 translates to “content deleted”. When using a 410 Google knows the removal was intentional and will therefore likely remove it from its index. If you used tags on these pages make sure to 410 them as well, or you will result in a series of damaging 404s.
If there are remaining posts under a tag, make sure the tag archival number reflects what is accurate. For example, if you display 12 posts per page in archives, and page three of that archive has ceased to exist, a 404 error will surface. Finally, if you are removing pages make sure no other links are directed to it. You will need to kill these links, or change the URL destination to a permanent page within the site.
7. Violence and the Sin of Keyword Cannibalization
When Dante entered the seventh layer of hell he beheld three rings housing various types of violent offenders: violence against neighbors, against the self, and against Nature. Perhaps no other SEO sin is more ghastly than cannibalization–a transgression that assaults internal neighbouring pages that can ultimately lead to “SEO suicide” as it violates the very nature of what a good, holistic optimized site should be. This ishow keyword cannibalization happens, and often the webmaster isn’t even aware he is committing the sin. Keyword cannibalization occurs when a website has multiple pages trying to rank for the same keyword or search phrase. Rather than a steady flow of valuable SEO juice going to specific pages, it is dispersed over a broad range thus offering little value. If multiple URLs contain the same keyword, as does the content and its general message, your site may even face a Google penalty.
How to Rank a Site Void of Content Cannibals
First, you will need to audit your site to make sure there is no cannibalization. Review all the content, do a duplicate content check, inspect URLs, and check title tags and rich snippets. Once your audit reveals zero cannibalization, you can proceed with a healthy SEO strategy.
Start by determining your keywords. You can use a number of keyword generating tools, as well as Google related searches. When assigning them to pages determine which keywords garner the highest search volume, and how these translate with your customers. These keywords should be embedded in content marketing strategies for your top tier web pages.
Example: There is a surfboard shop that has a physical storefront and an online store. Prior to learning about keyword cannibalization the business owner had planned to use “surfboards for sale”, “discount surfboards” and “online surfboard shop” across 12 pages. Now knowing better, he looks at various surfboard-related keywords, volume, relativity, and has created a healthy sitemap draft that won’t consume neighboring pages, destroy his ranking efforts, or defy SEO best practices. In this case “Online Surfboard Shop” could be part of the H1 on the homepage with content below defining what it is, what it offers, and who benefits from it. It is okay for him to mention “surfboards for beginners” a few times on the homepage so long as he doesn’t go crazy, and then create a tier one page clickable through the site’s main menu on “Surfboards for Beginners, allowing all tags and URL structure to reflect its main subject. Another page can be dedicated to “advanced surf boards”, “used surfboards”, “discount surfboards”, and so on. Just make sure the content defines how these are all relevant to one another, and let each be a main star on its dedicated page while making a few guest appearance on relative pages.
As long as the homepage is finely-tuned telling Google how all of these keywords are relevant to the main subject, the site as a whole (and specific pages) can rank for various search terms and keywords, without any violent cannibalism taking place.
8. Fraud and the SEO Sin of Plagiarism
When entering the eighth level of hell, Dante witnessed the fraudulent panderers being whipped by demons for all eternity. Plagiarism comes in many shades, and all versions of it can cast you to the fiery pits of Google hell. These include:
- Re-Writing Content – This is where you take content from another site and re-write it using your own words while still expressing the same subject and its various details. Though a duplicate content checker isn’t designed to catch this, Google’s algorithms are. This presents a number of SEO problems because semantic search goes deep into meaning and value in written words. When you rehash another person’s content there is no value, and you are a fraud because you are pretending to express a unique message that isn’t original, or yours.
- Cut-and-Paste – This is fraud at its lowest depravity. Here, lazy individuals copy and paste either sections from articles, or entire articles. This can result in a severe penalty–punishments so severe that content farms like TextBroker even have built-in duplicate content checkers to offer clients peace of mind.
- Accidental Plagiarism – Since writer’s have a unique voice with specific ways they articulate concepts and ideas, there is always the chance a writer can perform self-plagiarism. If someone writes multiple articles per week on the same subject, it is not uncommon to see accidental plagiarism on an article written the year before.
Avoid Plagiarism with High-Quality Original Content
You don’t have to plagiarize another person’s work to create good content. Rather than steal someone’s work, as yourself what it is you like about the content, and create a plan to execute a strategy uniquely yours that nods at its inspired source, but doesn’t rip it off. If you do want to use exact content from another source, then give them credit by referencing its origin. To avoid accidental plagiarism, use a duplicate content checker tool. There are a number of platforms out there that not only scan your internal pages for duplicate content but also on all indexed external sources. To really amp up the authenticity of your content you can include a branded voice. Think about voice and message your brand conveys to consumers, determine your company’s core values, and use these considerations to light up the voice and metaphors in your content.
9. Treachery and the Sin of Hidden Content
In the 9th and last circle of Hell, Dante discovers it is segmented into four rounds in which all sinners are frozen in a lake, with the more serious acts of treachery resulting in deeper ice burial. Though there are many treacherous black hat SEO tactics, the sin of hiding content is definitely at the top. This is something you don’t just accidentally do; you are clearly trying to rank a page with content, but you are hiding the text from your viewing audience. There are a number of reasons why someone may not want to have the text appear on their site. One of the most common reasons is they are striving to create a clean, minimalist design aesthetic, and too much text makes offers a messy look. Instead they write tons of text and color it so it blends into the background. If Google catches you doing this, your site can fall to the bottom of the SERPs, or be removed entirely.
Using Visible Text in a Minimalist Website Design
You don’t have to hide text to keep that clean look. It all comes down to a healthy ratio of text and images. You can put 1000 words on your homepage, but my spacing it out into blurbs amidst a clever layout of HD quality images, the human eye will be fooled into thinking there is less writing, while Google bots will recognize it in its entirely, and crawl it. Unless you are a developer, it is best to work with an award-winning website development agency that has this fine balancing act down to an art and science they excel at.
Are You on Your Way to Google Hell?
If you are guilty of committing any of these SEO sins, you have two options: repent your evil ways and embrace the white hat alternative, or, continue proceeding down that highway with a final destination of Google inferno. What digital marketers and SEOs can learn from Dante’s Inferno is this: there are a number of damning sins that easily cross over into the realm of search engine optimization. Consider them, their consequences, and the alternatives.