What do the new Google Webmaster Guidelines mean for Small Business SEO?

This is a guest post. Kelvin Newman is a Strategy Director at SiteVisibility, a digital marketing agency, and also runs the twice yearly free SEO conference called BrightonSEO. The next event is in April 2013.

Even if you’re not the biggest SEO (search engine optimisation) aficionado you’ve probably heard that there’s been a lot of change in the space over the last year or two. The updates known as Panda and Penguin have dramatically changed the SEO approach of many, especially those operating in the SME world.

In this article I won’t try and dissect those changes, what I want to do is take the most recent series of changes to Google’s official webmaster guidelines around SEO, read between the lines and help you draw out what impact this may have on your company or online store.

Google state the following ‘link schemes’ which can negatively impact your search performance.

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.

Mostly this isn’t new news, Google have always tried to deter people from buying links, though originally the impact was mostly felt by the seller rather than the buyer. On this particular topic they couldn’t really be more explicit: don’t buy links to rank better.

What is new though is the reference to providing goods or freebies in return for links. Sounds a lot like traditional PR to me, rather than manipulative link building? In this case I don’t think this means you should never send someone with a website a sample to review for fear of them linking back, but I think they want to deter people from adopting this approach on a large scale.

I’ve heard stories of companies offering Amazon vouchers rather than cash for links in the misguided hope that they could use the ‘it wasn’t cash it was a present m’lud’ defence. This is what they don’t want people doing.

And interestingly in their most recent TV advert for Google Chrome they even show a budding business owner emailing a journo offering them a freebie, so they can’t think that’s all bad!

  • Excessive link exchanging (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”)

The analogy I’ve always used to describe reciprocal linking is if you buy me one beer and I buy you one beer, we both only have one beer each. But if you buy me a beer and I haven’t bought you one, then I’m much better off!

That’s still the case. Don’t get sucked into directories who won’t list you unless you link to them or random companies contacting you out of the blue telling you that they’re linking to you and asking to return the favour. It’s not been a positive influence for the last five years and recently it’s got the potential to do damage as well.

  • Linking to web spammers or unrelated sites with the intent to manipulate PageRank

Again this makes a lot of sense, a link from a craft business to a company makes much more sense than to a villa in Spain. But I think you should be doing this for your users’ sake as much as the search engine. If it’s likely to leave your visitors asking “why are they linking there?” then its a risky SEO move

  • Building partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking

Small confession here, in the past I have suggested to clients they encourage their customers to link to them on partner or supplier pages of their sites. But this does seem to suggest, that now it might not be such a wise choice. In this case I’d probably change tack a bit and only suggest trying to attract those links if the pages already exist.

  • Using automated programs or services to create links to your site

If anyone is selling you an SEO programme or system or network that will help you rank, the best case scenario is you’re only wasting your money and the worst case damaging your search engine rankings.

If it sounds to good to be true, it almost certainly is and this is particularly true in the SEO world. Successful SEO normally requires hard work, understanding your customers and being the best company you possibly can be Unfortunately that’s not something that costs ‘just $49.99 a month, first month free’ etc.