Here’s a tale of woe. It begins a couple of years back, when a search engine optimisation company approached one of my clients – promising great things.

You possibly know the pitch: top of Google, guaranteed. It’s the type of e-mail that every website owner gets daily, along with spam for porn.

In this case, my client decided to give them a go. The service wasn’t cheap: around £1000 per month, if I recall – I guess this was considered good value if the search optimisation company could deliver on its promises.

Well, what could go wrong? If it didn’t work out, they’d part company, no harm; no foul. No lasting damage, right?

Well, things didn’t work out. They did part company – but there is lasting damage. In fact, the damage is so great, it may cost more to repair it than was originally spent on search optimisation.

Here’s what happened.

The search optimisation company began by engaging in activities that are against Google’s webmaster guidelines. This included putting hidden text in the website’s pages, loaded with keywords. Google is very clear that text should not be hidden and it does penalise sites that do this – in fact, it famously blacklisted one of BMW’s websites for this very crime. They also put lots of pages on the website that were hidden, but available via sitemap, that had one purpose – to raise the keyword density of the site. The pages were badly written junk, useless to human visitors.

At this point, I extricated myself from the relationship – there’s no way I wanted any of my clients, Google or anyone assuming that I was in any way involved. The client wasn’t entirely happy to be ‘sacked’ but I have my principles.

Recently, the client approached me again. The search optimisation company was gone. In fact, during the company’s tenure as a supplier, not only had the client’s position in Google not improved, it had drastically dive-bombed; for most searches where they had previously performed well, they were now nowhere to be seen.

It didn’t take too long to work out why.

The search optimisation company had built a strategy around one of Google’s well-known criteria for ranking a website: popularity. Google ranks sites on two things: relevance (does the word/phrase being searched for appear on the page?) and popularity (how many other websites link to that page?) – this is a very simplistic view, but it’s essentially what happens.

So, it’s a reasonable strategy to write articles that appear around the Web and then link back to your website. If the articles are good and original, placed on relevant and reputable websites, then they will do well in search engines, people will read them, then come back to your site – plus, you get an inbound link to your website which helps to boost its popularity.

That’s not quite what this company did. First off, the writing was rubbish, almost certainly subcontracted out to the cheapest bidder – who almost certainly didn’t speak English as a first language. The pages were incomprehensible – but littered with keywords.

Second, the articles weren’t placed on reputable websites – far from it. They were placed here, there and everywhere – but mainly on websites which sold things like (ahem) recreational pharmaceuticals. In Google’s terminology, these are websites which reside in ‘bad neighbourhoods’. So, instead of passing on a high-quality link to your website, they actually pass on a negative link, effectively sucking you downwards in search results.

It’s a common mistake – once people think ‘I need lots of links’ they set about it with energy, missing the point that one really great link (say, from a leading news website like the BBC) is worth literallydozens or hundreds of links from bad websites. Quality and relevance are more important than quantity.

The problem is that this is very difficult to undo. There are now hundreds of links, pointing from some very dubious sites, within documents that are quite obviously link spam. The client has no control over those websites, so the chance of getting the documents removed is almost nil.

The only counter-strategies are hard. One would be to adopt the same strategy again, but using only good content on good websites – this will work, but it will take time and effort. Another is to start again, by moving the website to a totally new domain, throwing away all of those bad links. Neither is an option to be greeted with enthusiasm.

Not all search optimisation companies are this bad – but many, many are.

Here’s the bottom line: a well-written website, with a solid publicity strategy, does not need additional search optimisation.

If you choose to engage a search engine optimisation company, then aveat emptor. Many such companies promise more than anyone can deliver. Remember: only one company can promise to get you to the top of Google, and that’s Google. This is a fact.

Here is some advice direct from Google on the subject of choosing a search optimisation company:

  • Be wary of SEO (search engine optimisation) firms or agencies that send you e-mail out of the blue.
  • No one can guarantee #1 ranking on Google.
  • Be careful if a company is secretive and won’t clearly explain what they intend to do.

(There’s more – you can read it here.)

The point about secrecy is well-made. We have a 100% open-book approach. We tell clients about everything we do, how we do it and why. If your prospective search optimisation company won’t do the same – don’t trust them. (If they claim to have a secret sauce, walk away – no one does; in fact Google publishes public guidelines for how to optimise your site!) Ask to speak directly to their clients.

It is so, so important that you buy carefully – because bad search optimisation doesn’t have a temporary effect, it can be so bad that you may have to write your website off.