7 Small Business SEO Tips to Avoid Google Penalties

By James A. Martin | Posted March 21, 2014

"SEO isn't dead," said Rhea Drysdale, CEO of search engine optimization consulting firm Outspoken Media. "It's evolving and maturing, and the wrong choice can result in a costly mistake."

Drysdale was one of three speakers in a recent Search Marketing Expo West conference session, "Long Term SEO: How to Win for Years, Not Days." The session focused on how online marketers can optimize websites for search in ways that won't backfire later.

SEO strategy is an important topic these days, given that some businesses, both large and small, saw their search rankings drop unexpectedly in the wake of Google algorithm updates. Two updates were especially damaging: Panda, which penalizes low-quality content—and Penguin, which punishes sites engaged in dubious link-building schemes.

We gathered SEO tips and best practices from experts including Drysdale; Mark Munroe, director of SEO for real-estate site Trulia; and Eric Enge, CEO of digital marketing agency Stone Temple Consulting. Here's what you need to know to avoid Google penalties today and in the future.

Top SEO Tips and Best Practices

1. Don't pursue vanity goals

According to Drysdale, some businesses pursue "vanity goals" without regard for the consequences. For example, a client she worked with decided to break the company website into seven microsites, each with a different focus, which went against Drysdale's advice. The client believed that seven microsites would help spread the company's brand further, among other benefits.

The result: The business's search rankings tanked because they went from having a single domain that Google trusted to seven new domains that Google didn't yet trust. Trust is an important factor in Google search rankings; if Google doesn't trust a site, it's less likely to display it high in search results.

Drysdale said a better strategy is to stay focused on true business goals, not vanity goals.

2. Be cautious about links

Google uses links pointing to a site as one way to determine the value of that site. Over the years, however, countless sites have engaged in "black-hat" link acquisition such as paying for links from other sites. Google's Penguin algorithm update, which has been updated frequently since it was first announced in April 2012, effectively punishes sites known to engage in questionable link acquisition tactics.

"Link building is where we see businesses getting hurt the most," Drysdale said. Expedia, an online travel agency, is a recent high-profile example, she added.

In January, Expedia lost 25 percent of its search visibility in Google, according to Search Metrics. (You can see the drop yourself by visiting the Search Metrics site.) It appears that Google penalized Expedia for "a large number of unusual keyword-rich links pointing to Expedia from blogs and sites across the Internet," according to Search Engine Land. (Neither Google nor Expedia commented on the search engine rankings decline.)

To avoid penalties, then, focus on your SEO strategy and be careful about your tactics, especially those involving links, Drysdale advised.

Munroe added that today, the safest strategy is to earn links. But how do you earn links? "By creating a reason someone will link to you; through compelling content," he said. Your site should "organically generate links" on its own, without you having to go after them."

3. Get everyone in your company involved in SEO

Strive to "embed SEO intelligence" throughout your organization, said Munroe. Work closely with people in other departments or with other responsibilities, filling them in on the company's SEO goals and how they relate to its business goals. By getting everyone involved, a business can more easily preserve the traffic coming to its site from Google as well as sustain its growth in search rankings.

"Over-communicate at every step," he said. "Explain why something is important. Over time, they'll start to learn," and they can be your ally. "When everyone works together, the progress can be staggering."

4. Always keep an eye out for technical issues

"Technical problems can crack your finely crafted SEO program," Munroe said. They can be "an SEO disaster waiting to happen." Among the technical issues that can negatively impact your search rankings include broken 301 redirects; a noindex tag that applies to the entire site; broken rel=canonical; and problems with your robots.txt file.

Google Webmaster tools can help small businesses check for technical issues with their websites.

5. Drop the spammy anchor text

Anchor text is text that appears in highlighting within a hypertext link. A classic example is the anchor text phrase click here, which in this case takes you to the Adobe Reader free download page.

For years, marketers have often put their desired keywords in anchor text as a way to tell Google what the page being linked to is about and to help that page rank well in search results for the anchor text phrase. But recent Google algorithm updates have put the kibosh on anchor text manipulation, and overdoing it -- such as getting tons of sites to link to yours using your desired keyword phrase—can actually put your site at risk for decreased search rankings, said Munroe.

Anchor text abuse "signals to Google your reputation is not earned," Munroe noted. When asking for links from other sites, leave it up to them to decide how to link to you, he advised. Also, anchor text diversity is more important, as an over-reliance on one keyword phrase can negatively impact your rankings for that phrase.

6. Build a strong online reputation

To protect your company from future Google algorithm changes, it will be increasingly important to earn an authoritative and trusted online reputation, noted Enge. One way to do this is through "extreme differentiation"—being the proverbial purple cow that stands out after someone has driven past field after field of regular cows.

You can accomplish extreme differentiation by not creating "the same old content," Enge explained. For example, if you're planning to write a blog post offering mortgage tips, you might do a Google search on the phrase mortgage tips to see what shows up in the search results. If you did, you'd see there are thousands of results with which you must compete. To stand out, then, you must bring something new to the conversation, which will help you earn links through social media and blogs. Those links will help you build your online reputation and will drive traffic to your site.

7. Solve your target customers' problems

A good defense against future Google algorithm changes is to focus on creating content that answers your target customers' problems or questions, said Enge. Act as a trustworthy resource. Give back to your community. Interact with others, so that you're seen as open and available. All of this will help you build your online brand in a positive way, which is not only good for Google rankings, it's good for your business.

James A. Martin is an SEO and content marketing specialist based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter, @james_a_martin.

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