StairSupplies then switched to yet another SEO firm that said it would have to go through Google channels and disavow the bad links. "We emailed the linking sites up to three times asking them to drop the links," says Morris. "If there was no response, we uploaded a list of the links to Google to disavow them. Over three or four months, we saw our ranking slowly go back up. With the addition of better content rather than just keyword-stuffing, our traffic is now again at 1,200 organic clicks per day."
After the battle
While Google's initiatives may have taken the wind out of classic black-hat practices, not everyone has gotten the memo.
"A large majority of [so-called SEO experts] are sales guys who outsource to India, and the result is really bad content by non-native English speakers," complains Josh Rubin, co-founder of Post Modern Marketing in Sacramento. "I get a dozen requests a day from India wanting me to outsource my SEO work to them for pennies on the dollar - I can have them do the work for 20% of what I get. But they would do black-hat SEO and get the customers penalised."
The Wild West ambience of the SEO field has certainly struck Rubin, who notes that it has neither a governing authority nor professional credentialing. He recalls that a stranger from the Philippines started complaining to him that Rubin had not paid him for six months. "It turns out that a firm pretending to be mine had hired people in the Philippines to build fake sites to do back-linking and other spammy tactics, with Skype interviews and a 30-page contract. They were getting free work," Rubin explains.
True black-hat these days has moved toward negative SEO and malware, says Clay. Negative SEO, he explains, involves pointing black-hat links at the sites of competitors to poison their rankings, while malware involves hacking into unsecured sites to add links from them to one's own site.
"But you still see sites using old black-hat tactics that talk to robots rather than to people, where the language is poor, keywords are stuffed everywhere, and the site has 10,000 incoming links," says Rubin.
The white-hat way
Penguin aside, credible, engaging, mobile-friendly, fast-loading, secured sites with fresh and original content (i.e., things Google is known to like) still need legitimate incoming links if they are going to have decent rankings, sources agree. "You need links in order to rank in a competitive market - just making [SEO-related] site changes won't produce that big a lift," says Sanders.
As for getting links the white-hat way, "It's very labor-intensive," says Julie Joyce, director of operations at link-building firm Link Fish Media. "You search the web like any human and find a site that looks good and makes sense. If you saw this link in an article on the site you would click it. If that is the case you would say that's a quality link."
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