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Are Your Search Engine Rankings At Risk?

By Scott Buresh
Posted Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Ever since there have been search engines, there have been techniques that unscrupulous webmasters and shady search engine optimization firms have used to artificially boost rankings. As search engines caught on to these techniques, they devised ways to detect them without having someone physically look at each site (a practical impossibility, considering that several individual engines now index well over a billion pages).

While most engines are becoming more adept at detecting "spam" pages and penalizing or removing them, there is an unfortunate side effect to this efficiency - some companies that are innocent of intentional wrongdoing unknowingly have sites that fall into the "spam" category. What follows is a list of some of the issues that can hurt such sites, followed by suggestions of how to prevent penalization or removal.

Issue #1: Bad Links

Much of the internet is founded on sites linking to one another (a search engine itself is really just a very large collection of links). However, with the relatively recent emphasis placed upon a site's links as part of the ranking formula (commonly called "link popularity"), it has become crucial to carefully select and closely monitor the sites with which you exchange links.

Google, the pioneer of this ranking methodology, often penalizes sites that provide links to what they call "bad neighborhoods"- sites that Google determines serve no purpose save for artificially boosting link popularity. It is important to note that sites are only penalized when they actively link to another site, not when a site links to them (which is only fair, as webmasters have no real control over what sites choose to link to theirs).

If any page of your site contains links to outside sites, it is important to make certain that these outside sites are not being penalized. The easiest way to do this on Google is to download the Google toolbar.

Most pages that you find on the internet have been assigned a "Pagerank", which is represented by a sliding green scale on the toolbar (visit the link to see an example). To be safe, avoid linking to any site that does not show any green on this scale (most importantly when this scale is grayed out). Such sites may be penalized, and linking to them may get your site penalized in turn (do not, however, refrain from exchanging links with sites simply because they show just a sliver of green- these sites are not being penalized and links from them may become more valuable over time). It is also very important to monitor the sites that you link to periodically to make certain that they have not been penalized since you originally added their link to your site.

Issue #2: Hidden Text

Almost all search engines use the words on the pages of web sites as one factor in their ranking equation. This means that if the text on your pages includes your keyphrases, you have a better chance of ranking highly for those phrases than a competing page that does not include them.

Some webmasters, aware of this but not wanting their visitors to actually see the text (usually for "aesthetic" reasons), began taking keyphrase-rich text and making it the same color as the page background. For example, if a page had a white background, they would add text to the page, loaded with keyphrases, in the same shade of white. A human visitor would not be able to see the text, but the search engine "spider" (the programs that search engines use to go out and index web pages) would, and it would get a ranking boost accordingly.

However, engines soon caught on and began penalizing pages that used this tactic. Unfortunately, some innocent sites are still penalized for this, even though the text on their pages is visible. Say, for example, that the background of a page is white. On this white background is a large blue box that has white text within it. Even though the text is clearly visible to the visitor, the search engine is not smart enough to realize that the white text appears in a blue box- it just assumes that the white text has been placed on a white background. To avoid any potential problems, it is important that you let your webmaster know that the text on your pages should never be the same color as the assigned background color.


Search engines are becoming increasingly cognizant of the techniques used to try to fool them, and they are also becoming better at detecting and removing pages that violate their terms of service.

It's important to remember that search engines make decisions on how to rank pages based upon extensive studies of their users and their preferences, and any webmaster or optimization firm that claims to know better (and subsequently uses underhanded techniques) is doing a disservice to their client. Unfortunately, however, sometimes the spam detection methods that the engines use target good sites that inadvertently meet the criteria for removal or penalization. By paying attention to the four issues above, you can help ensure that your site isn't one of them.

About The Author
Scott Buresh is Co-founder and Principal of Medium Blue Internet Marketing. For monthly tips on how to get the most out of your internet presence, sign up for their Internet Marketing Newsletter at (


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