Have you ever found it difficult to gather evidence to support your case? What if the evidence is an ever-changing target that has no historical data, is never the same from day to day, and is different for each person who sees it? Sound impossible? If you have a client who thinks they have been effected by SEO manipulation, this may be the exact kind of evidence you, or your expert witness, will be required to collect. While it can be difficult to gather scientifically valid information to support your argument, understanding what SEO manipulation is, as well as the tools and methods available for collecting data, will give you a significant leg up in your case.
What is SEO?
Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the legitimate
marketing practice of building web pages that get more visitor referrals from search engines. SEO tactics include researching phrases that visitors use to search for information, writing properly optimized content, and improving the technology of a site so that it works better for the users. Utilizing SEO best practices not only helps a site garner more traffic, but can also improve the quality of visitors, resulting in more sales, and improve a company’s brand reputation.
The Dark Side of SEO
Sometimes, agencies and marketers practice SEO manipulation, or “Black Hat SEO”, that does nothing to improve user experience and often makes it worse. SEO manipulation tactics include keyword spamming, generating massive numbers of low-quality pages, creating artificial link networks, and creating deceptive web pages that appear differently to users and search engines. Sometimes, this manipulation can affect not just the website in question, but the web traffic of a third party website that is connected to the offending website.
SEO manipulation is frequently used to engage in unfair competition, to facilitate online fraud, to attack a person or company’s reputation, or as a shortcut to promote a client’s site without having to invest real efforts. This sort of marketing can backfire, because when a search engine, such as Google, detects SEO manipulation it can apply a penalty to the website causing its visitors from search traffic to plummet. When a penalty occurs, the website owner may want to make a claim against their SEO agency.
Methods and Guidelines
If you are working on a case that pertains to SEO manipulation, whether it be a company against an SEO agency or a third party website affected by bad SEO practices used by another company, there are resources at your disposal.
Every major search engine has published guidelines available to the public that can be outline the acceptable and unacceptable techniques of web design and SEO. If a page or website violates the guidelines, then there is a strong possibility of SEO manipulation. Google’s version of this is called the Webmaster Guidelines. These specific guidelines from Google include directives to avoid the following techniques:
- Automatically generated content
- Participating in link schemes
- Creating pages with little or no original content
- Sneaky redirects
- Hidden text or links
- Doorway pages
- Scraped content
- Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value
- Loading pages with irrelevant keywords
- Creating pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, Trojans, or other badware
- Abusing rich snippets markup
- Sending automated queries to Google
When SEO manipulation is suspected by your client, it is important to secure the evidence promptly. Search engines are making updates daily and there is no way to generate historical search engine results. To make matters more complex, search engines personalize results by user and by geographic location.
You, or your expert, may need to take advantage of a wide variety of tools that exist for measuring web traffic of third party web sites, mapping links on the Internet, or retrieving historical copies of web pages. Expert witnesses specializing in SEO, or other search engine disciplines, may be able to record this type of evidence in a scientifically valid manner better than a client or lawyer unfamiliar with the system. Experts who do not have sufficient experience may also make mistakes collecting evidence or analyzing evidence, and have their opinions limited or excluded.
When interviewing possible expert witnesses, ask about prior experience with SEO and SEO manipulation. Make sure that they are experienced with the tools and software used to collect search engine data and that they have extensive knowledge of how search engines, algorithms, and web crawlers operate. Retaining an expert on your case that is familiar with these systems will yield better results.