I received my undergraduate degree from a small, liberal arts college in Siloam Springs, Arkansas where drinking, smoking and even dancing were forbidden. Those were the rules, and everyone knew what they were. You signed a paper when you enrolled acknowledging you knew these rules. But in truth, the rules were only enforced in the most egregious cases. If you were halfway smart, you wouldn’t get caught.
In my youthful arrogance, my parting words in my final column for the school paper read, “And finally, I never got caught.” Looking back, I didn’t get caught because I was smart – but simply because the rules were not enforced as strictly as we perceived them to be.
For the past several years, we’ve been living in an environment where Google was much like my undergraduate school. Sure, we all knew the rules. We knew that some people got caught and penalized or kicked out of the index.
I’ve been doing SEO since before Google was around, and I can honestly say that while I have actually seen real penalties – most of what was thought to be penalty was an over-reacting client that had poorly executed a bad strategy.
The rules were there, but they just weren’t enforced uniformly. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that it is a huge job to truly enforce the rules. But, that’s another column.
The fact is, today Google is more aggressively enforcing its own rules. And, many SEOs are jumping on a disturbing bandwagon that enables them to channel their inner-Batman and justify vigilante justice in the name of making a better community. This, I believe, is misguided. That’s, again, a topic for another time. Yet, it is relevant to the topic at hand.
As we saw in the iAquire case, Google isn’t just penalizing sites that do bad things. Now, it’s penalizing the agencies and consultants it feels are responsible for promoting the behavior.
This sets a very dangerous stage for many SEOs, who, in the name of giving their client what they want, are putting all of their other clients and themselves at risk of Google’s wrath. It also opens up an entire realm of possibilities for unethical competition or even disgruntled employees and clients. At least until Google initiates a link disavowing tool – and if/when that happens, the entire game will change. But again, another column.
What’s An SEO Agency To Do?
So, the question is: How do you protect yourself? What do you do if a client is demanding that you purchase paid links, or they are going to hit the door?
The answer, as often is the case, is another question. Is it worth my company’s reputation to cave into my clients demands should the worst-case scenario happen?
Gone are the days when you could say, “Well, my client is too big to get penalized by Google for buying links.”
No one is immune anymore – I don’t care if you are working with the biggest player in the field, with more relevant content than anyone else. You can be affected. If you are building links in a “grey hat” way (and your clients don’t know about it) you are putting yourself, and maybe all your other clients, at risk. And, they need to know that.
Woah … now there’s a dilemma. If you buy paid links for a client that wants them, and not for another, are you putting all of your clients at risk? I don’t know. There is no precedent for that. But, with the vigilante justice going down, who’s to say that a rogue ex-employee won’t go all kindergarten on you and tattle-tale to Matt Cutts? Complete with a list of all clients. That should send shivers down your spine.
In the past, I’ve counseled clients against buying links except in certain verticals where it was almost impossible to get traction without doing so. But, I’ve also gone so far as to say, “If you do buy links, you must acknowledge the risks.” As in, a signed piece of paper created by a lawyer that says you know what can happen. I don’t want to get thrown under the bus as an agency when the client gets busted. Plus, it’s the right thing to do from a business ethics standpoint.
What about now? Thankfully for me, I haven’t bought any links in a long time. None of my clients are at risk or I wouldn’t be writing this column. To answer the question, there is no way to be completely safe except to be completely above board. That’s why we have invested so much in quality content writers and designers.
But, even as recently as three weeks ago, I was asked if we would buy links for a client. My answer was to refer the request somewhere else.
But that begs another quandry – if the client wants to buy links, without me knowing, am I putting my other clients at risk? That opens up a whole new can of worms. Do I need to perform link audits before taking new business meetings? Can I publicly work with a client to help them clean something up that I didn’t create, if Google might ban my agency from the SERPs? Or worse yet, ban my other clients because they work with me?
Just Say No To Risky Clients
In this day and age, you need to know who you are as an agency or consultant. And, your clients need to know as well. Are you willing to push the boundaries of the Google TOS? Maybe there is a need for agencies like that. Especially smaller agencies just getting started. That extra feather in your cap may help you win some business. And trust me, I know when you are just getting started it’s really hard to say no to a client, even if you are saying no in the client’s best interest.
For me, I can’t imagine telling my clients that they might be at risk because of the tactics used on another campaign. That won’t fly. So you won’t find me breaking the rules right now for any client. And luckily, I’m to the point where I can (and often do) say no to clients. It’s still unpleasant, but I’ve learned it’s a necessity.
Right now, SEO agencies and consultants could be on a slippery slope. I realize that some of the scenarios in this piece may seem a bit far fetched – but are they?
Until a few weeks ago, I never thought Google would penalize an agency for what they did on behalf of a client. I was wrong. Every day, I realize this is Google’s world. I just live in it.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.