There are lots of underhand tricks employed to boost websites’ ranking on search engines, and much has been written on the subject – often citing ‘guaranteed success’. The truth is that not only do these tricks not work, they can even significantly disadvantage your site’s rankings.

There is, sadly, an entire industry built around the deceit of search engines. Many search engine promotion companies promise high results and with most it’s a total waste of money. Even tricks do work, they succeed for a limited time: search engine companies are on the case, blocking tricks as fast as others discover them. It’s far easier to just get your pages right.

Repeating keywords meaninglessly

The way that search engines work is much misunderstood, especially when it comes to keywords. The general rule is: increased keyword frequency improves your search engine ranking. However, when search engines assess the context of repeating keywords, they are not as dumb as people think. Any strategy for adding multiple instances of the same keyword (often called spamdexing) is pretty much a waste of time. Entering (for example) “golf balls, golf balls, golf balls, golf balls, golf balls” (and so on) on a Web page (either hidden or not) won’t help you – because search engines can now detect this repetition and will (at best) only count one instance anyway, or (at worst) penalise how your page is ranked – because of the obvious attempt to rig results. (In some cases, your page won’t be indexed at all.)

Search engines do this because they want to ensure that only relevant results are presented to the person who is searching. When a website is trying to rig results, it’s generally because the page isn’t good enough to attract people on its own merits – so it’s often assumed that adding in a few tricks might help boost hits. Forget it. Concentrate on writing good copy and ensuring that your keywords are in there. They can be repeated, sure, but in context and in prose.

‘Hiding’ keywords on a Web page

This is another common trick. The idea is that you put lots of keywords on the page – but hide them. This is done by having white keywords on a white page (or any colour on the same colour) or hiding keywords in hidden layers. This means that although they can’t be seen, they will be indexed by the search engine and can boost your rankings. Guess what? Search engines are wise to this too, and most now ignore text when it is the same colour as the background. Search engines want to index the text that Web users can see. If Web users can’t see it, it’s probably a cheat – therefore they ignore it.

Even if it works, doing this leads to user frustration – because users search for a word, see that word in the search engine’s results, click on the link and then – d’oh! They can’t see the word on the page. It doesn’t necessarily matter if your page is relevant or not – the user will be looking for that exact word or phrase, perhaps using the ‘find’ facility within the browser, thus revealing that your keywords are cunningly hidden. How do you think a Web visitor feels about that? Yes, that’s right – you’ve given them a cast-iron reason not to trust your site.

There is a legitimate reason to hide text – because you might want, or need, to provide additional information to visually disabled visitors. Such people use screen readers to ‘read’ the page audibly and hidden layers or white text on white backgrounds are not invisible to them. Using these kinds of hacks makes the site very frustrating for non-sighted visitors as they have to wade through acres of garbage to get to the real content. Show some consideration. Don’t do it.

Keyword ‘stuffing’

Sounds painful. This term refers to the practice of misusing ‘alt text’ (’alternative text’) – the ALT element of the IMG tag. The actual use of this tag is to provide textual information about a picture, so that people who browse with images turned off can see a description of what the picture might be. Some websites hijack their ALT text and stuff it full of keywords – dozens or even more. It’s true that some search engines do spider ALT text, so you can see where the scam came from. However, search engines are now wise to this and can often detect what appears to be a misuse of ALT text – again, downranking the site in the process. There’s limited value in this anyway, because search engines only read the ALT text in the context of what’s already on the page, so it can only tweak your results (if you use a keyword which doesn’t appear on the page already, it’s usually ignored). Worse, this tag is essential to Web users with visual disabilities – they might be using software which ‘reads’ the contents of the tag audibly, which is a downright annoyance to them.

You can use ALT text to influence your rankings, but again, it’s best done by playing with as straight a bat as possible. For example, let’s say your page is entitled ‘setting up a Novell network’, and you have a similar paragraph heading, plus the words ‘Novell network’ naturally repeated within the text. If you include a picture of a network engineer, I’d recommend changing your ALT text from ‘engineer’ to ‘Novell NetWare engineer configuring a network’. It’s a little bit of fine-tuning but there’s nothing underhand about it.

Using competitors’ brand names in the META KEYWORDS tag

It might seem like a smart idea to include your competitors’ company name or product names in your META KEYWORDS tag. The idea (often called ‘meta tag theft’) is simple – by adding competitor brands to your keywords, when someone searches for that competitive product, you will lure them to your site.

Of course, there’s no way that search engines can detect competitors’ brand names, but there are still reasons why this is a flawed strategy.

First, the META KEYWORDS tag is virtually useless for search optimisation: very few search engines now support it.

Second, those search engines which do support it only use the information in the context of the page. So, unless your page also contains the same references to your competitors and their products (pretty unlikely) then even those search engines which do read the META KEYWORDS will ignore the covert ones.
It’s not hard to see why search engines now ignore META KEYWORD information and concentrate on the page content itself – because it’s more worthy of trust.

Even if this trick works, it’s not a good idea. If people are searching for a competitor’s product, then that’s what they want – not yours. Stumbling across your product instead is not likely to excite them. Indeed, they’re going to be frustrated that they can’t find the same exact keyword on your page. Most users will dismiss your page as not relevant.

Technical users, who check the meta tags, will see your deception and will judge you as not being trustworthy.

But there’s an even better reason to not do it – this activity is a clear infringement of the brand/trademark owners’ copyrights (and misrepresentation) so it’s no surprise that quite a few law suits have now been won by companies wanting to protect their brand or trade mark.

Since most companies doing this are trying to piggy-back off another brand, it follows that the hijacked brand is usually the bigger brand – otherwise, they’d be more confident about getting the majority of hits first. It follows that your competitors can afford better lawyers. Unless the company is a business partner (for example, you’re a Microsoft Solutions Provider, in which case they’re not going to sue if you mention their name) then there is no defence. It will cost.

Using non-relevant keywords

This is a very common error – using loads of keywords in the META KEYWORDS tag, in the hope that it will help drive people to a site. It doesn’t work. As I’ve already said, the content of the META KEYWORDS tag is virtually ignored – and where they are indexed, it’s only in the context of the page. This means that adding words or phrases which appear on the page might help your ranking with some search engines, but adding in lots of unrelated words is a simple waste of time.

Using keywords in the TITLE tag

Since we know that search engines use the TITLE tag extensively, and also that search engines favour keywords repeated in context, it seems reasonable to add lots of repeated keywords to the TITLE tag.

It’s a strategy that’s unlikely to work with most search engines, because (again) they’ve got smart to this one. It’s easy for search engines to detect continually repeated words in the TITLE tag (especially if there’s lots of them) – and your site will be downranked as a result.

But even if it works, it disadvantages you in another way.

When people search, they’re looking for something specific. When a search engine displays the results of a search, the content of the TITLE tag is displayed as the heading/hyperlink. Lots of repeated keywords don’t mean anything – a proper page title is much more likely to result in a click-through. What’s more, repeated keywords look like a scam – and result in people trusting your site less. So, use the TITLE tag in the way that it’s intended.

Doorway pages

‘Doorway pages’ are pages designed specifically for search engines, not for people. Search engines prefer dumb pages: just text and no graphics, if possible with no tables and little layout. Such pages get much better results from search engines (although they’d make for a site so dull most visitors wouldn’t thank you).

Some people add pages structured in this way to their site, either with relevant or non-relevant content, often with lots of keywords. The pages are not designed to be seen by humans and can work in one of two ways:

  • Once the search engine has indexed the page and stored the content, the page is swapped out for ‘normal’ pages of the same name – it might be some months before a reindex wipes the false content, and then the site’s owners simply repeat the process.
  • The page has an instant refresh, so you never see it. Search engines would index it, but when a human lands on it, the automatic refresh instantly loads a different page, so the covert page is invisible to humans.

Doorway pages are bad because they cause irrelevant content to be indexed, so misleading people when they follow links from search engine results. People hate being presented with irrelevant content, and typically blame the search engine, undermining it and making it a less useful tool.

Anyway, search engines are smart to this, and now typically don’t index pages with a fast META REFRESH command (anything fast enough for the visitor to not be able to see the page). They also don’t typically follow links from such a page.

Conclusion – the best trick for the best results

The secret to effective search engine ranking is almost disappointing – it’s to use meta tags and keywords the way that they’re intended. Keep your strategy above board, although some clever copywriting to boost your repetition of keywords will help.