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Many SEOs make a lot of claims. Some, of course, are entirely legitimate. And others fall under the snake oil category.
But here's a claim you probably haven't yet come across: "I have read and understand Google's Webmaster Guidelines." Interestingly, however, this basic claim might be something you should look for.
Earlier this week, I wrote about the Daily Kos' attempt to manipulate Google's SERPs for political purposes. I wrote that the Daily Kos' actions were a fairly obvious violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines.
A couple of commenters, however, both of whom apparently offer SEO services to clients, disagreed. One wrote:
These are natural links, the fact that Daily Kos asked for them is NOT out of the norm. No money is being exchanged for these links and their [sic] isn't anything being exchanged in the transaction. That's what Google cares about.
The commenter goes on to highlight one part of Google's Webmaster Guidelines as evidence that the Daily Kos' activity is well within what Google would find acceptable. In doing so, he provided the perfect example of how even 'professional' SEOs (read: those who charge money for their services) can have a flawed understanding of what Google's real expectations are.
Google has an entire page dedicated to a discussion of "link schemes" that violate its Guidelines. This page states in part:
Examples of link schemes can include:
* Links intended to manipulate PageRank
* Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web
* Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging ("Link to me and I'll link to you.")
* Buying or selling links that pass PageRank
The Daily Kos' Grassroots SEO campaign, of course, is transparent about its aims to manipulate PageRank. But this isn't about the Daily Kos. It's about Google's Webmaster Guidelines. Guidelines, which are, as Google itself notes, not written with black and white clarity:
It's not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn't included on this page, Google approves of it. Webmasters who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes they can exploit.
Translation: our Guidelines don't constitute hard and fast 'rules'. Implication: anybody who says X is okay because it isn't explicitly forbidden simply doesn't get the fact that Google's interest is in providing quality, relevant search results. Those who seek to manipulate the SERPs, when the 'manipulation' produces a result inconsistent with Google's goal of providing quality and relevance, are operating in a manner inconsistent with the spirit of Google's Webmaster Guidelines.
Obviously, given the subjective nature of Google's Guidelines, SEOs and their clients have to determine how far is too far. And that's the way it should be. One client's risk tolerance may be higher than another's. Some clients, for instance, may find that the benefits of purchasing links outweigh the risks. Others may not. To be sure, Google isn't going to penalize -- let alone spot -- every violation of its Guidelines, and there are plenty of violations Google seems either helpless or unwilling to stop. In some cases, as one commenter pointed out, Google may choose to filter out pollution rather than apply a penalty to the websites who are doing the polluting.
But at the end of the day, it all comes back to risk. Risk management is a big part of successful SEO, but it's hard to assess risk when you don't really know Google's Guidelines, and more importantly, don't understand the principles behind them. Before hiring your next SEO, be sure to ask them about their understanding of the Guidelines. The response you get or don't get just might surprise you.