How To Tell If Your SEO Will Get You Banned


There’s been a lot written about J.C. Penney’s major SEO drama that erupted over the weekend. If you’re interested in the Five Ws of all that, you can start at Search Engine Land and work your way out. Personally, the drama of another big brand doing bad things to little consequence (consequences that would CRUSH a SMB) doesn’t particularly interest me. What does interest me is how loudly J.C. Penney is claiming they had no clue what their SEO firm was up to. Not because I believe them, but because of all the Fortune 500 executives and SMBs who will believe that J.C. Penney is a victim of yet-another-unscrupulous SEO company. If the SEO reputation management problem wasn’t big enough, well, here we go again.


I supposed I can’t blame them. If I was investing serious money (or, any money) into SEO consulting services, my red flags would certainly be raised after the New York Times coverage. I mean, if J.C. Penney could be “duped”, how do I know my SEO isn’t participating in methodologies that could get my site banned? How do I know what’s being done to my site? How can I even check?

Whether you’re in the process of hiring an SEO or you have one you’re already working with – it’s important you know what’s being done to your site. If you’re not sure, here are some good questions to ask either yourself or the person applying their magic.

How is my SEO getting results?

Do you know what tactics are being employed on your site to increase your rankings and bring in new conversions? It’s okay if you can’t recite, verbatim, your SEO firm’s secret sauce, but have you had this conversation at all? Any SEO worth their salt should be able to explain, in terms you can understand, how it is they’re going to help you meet your goals. If they have their hands in your site, what parts of your site are they touching and why? If they’re engaging in link building, what techniques are they using? Is it natural link building or are paid links involved? It’s not just your Web site they’re touching; it’s your BUSINESS. Make sure you know what someone is doing to it. And if your SEO company can’t explain it to you, find one that can.

How will they NOT be getting results?

Sometimes just as useful as knowing what your SEO vendor is doing is what they’re NOT doing. Just because we don’t practice blackhat SEO at Outspoken Media, doesn’t mean we’re not aware of the tactics that exist or strategies that could get a site banned. Because we are, and it may be worth having a conversation with your current company to see where they draw the line. What tactics won’t they perform on your site and where is their gray area? Does their level of risk match your own or are you uncomfortable with how aggressive they’d be willing to go? If you want the complete picture of what your SEO company is about, ask where they won’t go. It can be pretty revealing.

How is your SEO measuring effectiveness?

Pretty simple question – how are you and your SEO company quantifying “success” in your campaign? Is it pure traffic? Increased rankings for targeted terms? Increase in leads or phone calls? Conversions? Besides just being really important information to know, it will give you some insight into what your SEO is working toward. Are they employing tactics that will simply attract a crap-ton of people to your Web site to dazzle you with traffic…or are they doing something a bit more targeted so they’re attracting a crap-ton of the RIGHT people?

Do the results you’re seeing match the time frame?

Before you start any type of SEO project, you should be given a time frame for when you can expect to see results. That time frame will vary depending on the size of your site, the type of project, and the results you’re seeking. However, if you’re a small site and you’re seemingly overnight ranking for super competitive terms,

Do things smell right?

As discussed earlier, hiring an outside SEO vendor does not dissolve your responsibility to know what’s happening on your Web site. Part of being a responsible SEO client means doing your homework and staying aware of what’s happening. Even if you’re not the one physically making changes to your site or the one doing the work, you should still be monitoring your search traffic, the links coming in, mentions, rankings, etc. If there’s not a process in place to allow you to do that, why isn’t there? It’s really up to you to ask the right questions.  While it’s tempting to just accept that the IRS really does owe you a $50,000 tx refund, sometimes you want to double check before you cash that check.

Bottom line – If you don’t know what your SEO is doing, find out. Today. Because it doesn’t matter who’s in charge of the work or how great your SEO claims to be, this is your business we’re talking about. J.C. Penney can afford to be outed for dodgy SEO techniques because they’re large enough to get the preferred Google treatment. Chances are you’re not and that “oops” won’t work for your business.

Worth noting: If you’re looking social instead of SEO, here are 52 questions worth asking when hiring a social media company.

Your Comments

  • Julie Kosbab

    Buying links is neither black hat or SEO. It requires use of a credit card, which hundreds of millions of people do at Dunkin Donuts on a daily basis.

    I’m a little over the new definition of black hat being ‘anything not permitted by Google guidelines oh nos.’

    • Lisa Barone

      That’s all well and good for you. I imagine most clients would list “high-risk activities that could get you banned” as things they’d like to sign off on first. You can label it whatever you want.

      • JadedTLC

        Absolutely Lisa. If something can potentially hurt a site, risk-wise, it is your SEO responsibility to inform your client/employer. This applies in law. If a lawyer is going to represent you and say that you are crazy so you don’t have to stand trial and go to jail, it is that lawyer’s responsibility to tell you that you could end up in a mental institution (assuming you’re using the Twinkie defense). It is also the responsibility of a mechanic to tell you that your brakes could fail, but that they are still “legal.” Are these experts supposed to just show results, or explain to you what you’re getting? If you choose to buy links, it’s your ETHICAL responsibility to say the ref may not want you juicing before the big game. Even if it’s legal.

    • Zach

      I’m all for buying links and do so regularly on a large scale. At the same time I realize the risk in doing so. If your reward out weighs your risk, it’s a no brainer for me. I should disclose I am in in-house SEO, so the ‘could I show my client this?’ dilemma is something I generally don’t have to deal with.

      That being said, I don’t think a strategy that relies SOLELY on a process of paid links is sustainable either.

  • Josh

    Great piece Lisa. When clients don’t ask questions or get involved it’s their loss, and on the flip side the agencies should also be proactive to explain to the clients what’s going on. Even if the client says, “Eh, well, we don’t really get SEO” an effort should still be made to teach said client. And you’re right, both parties should be on the same page when it comes to how far to push the envelope.

    • Lisa Barone

      An educated client is always a better client. It’s up to the client to take the initiative to want to learn and the SEO to help them gain the knowledge their looking. When the client just wants to write checks, they open themselves up for a whole world of hurt when its outed their SEO was up to something they weren’t aware of. You wouldn’t give a stranger on the street the key to your cash register, probably shouldn’t do the same with your SEO company.

  • netmeg

    One word. ANALYTICS. Get to know them. Even if numbers make your eyes glaze over.

    • Lisa Barone

      Word, dude. It’s amazing, though, the number of clients who wanted nothing to do with their analytics and simply want someone to “take care of it”. Then they look dumbstruck when their ass gets handed to them.

  • Michael Dorausch

    I learned something new today… Five Ws. On the SMB, I suppose it would crush them but the story wouldn’t necessarily get NYT press. I suspect big brands are more exciting for the media.

    • Lisa Barone

      Point wasn’t really the size of the press, but the amount of Google ass (and time needed to go by) before their site was properly ranking again. J.C Penney can get caught with their pants down and be back in Google in a few days. That local chiropractor found doing the same dirty deeds, not so much. :)

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    I agree that site owners need to take responsibility for asking the right questions, understanding the issues. Where there’s a big problem in that though still resides on the side of unscrupulous SEO firms. In the case of JCPs SEO firm, they make all sorts of outrageous “we don’t do evil” claims on their site.

    If we’re to believe JCPs VP of communications, the SEO firm did what they did without being honest about it. given their site’s spin, it’s easy for me to believe they would have lied to their client as well.

  • Nick LeRoy

    The cruel reality is that in the end the SEO ‘company’ still has your money and your left with a lighter wallet and banned domain name. Because of this it’s absolutely important that the business take a role in their SEO.

  • Daniel Dessinger

    This is not directed at any particular individual or company…. Coming down hard on buying links is lame. There are four primary ways to build links to your site:

    1. Publish semi-frequent/frequent fresh content on your site and share.

    2. Publish semi-frequent/frequent fresh content on other sites w/links.

    3. Buy links.

    4. Offer frequent deals on products or services that, once publicized, will get people talking and sharing.

    If you have a client with a static, unchanging website who refuses to publish frequent content on their website, you have even fewer options.

    SEO gets a bad rap partly because of vague blog posts that talk about problems but never offer specific solutions or recommendations. There is far too little specificity in the SEO blogosphere. Leaves too much room for smoke and mirrors.

  • Cory

    While JCPenney may take a small hit, there are hundreds of other retailers just waiting to take their spot.

    I honestly think the entire basis of ranking sites on the # & quality of incoming links (as a major factor) is too far gone to repair. SEOs, spammers and others have figured out so many ways to build links that they are infiltrated everywhere.

    Aside from starting completely over, I don’t see these problems about paid/spam links ending anytime soon.

  • Justin

    I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with buying links, but I’d be crystal clear to my clients about what may happen to them.

    I hate seeing the negative impact on the reputation of the SEO industry. As if we weren’t hated enough. I like scrappy grayhat/blackhat SEO, but I won’t pretend it’s real marketing.

    An SEO should be clear on their tactics. I’ve worked along with agencies who are hesitant to share with our client where they’re getting links. I, on the other hand, show every link I acquire and denote how I got it. If the client wants to push the limits, explain the risks and report back every junk link as well, so they know what they’re doing.

  • Phil Buckley

    I agree that buying links isn’t really what I would call “blackhat”, but doing so does jeopardize your client and they need to be in the loop. With that said, the average SMB isn’t going to sign off on anything putting their money domain at risk – JCP probably knew and was willing to do it anyway. Grabbing an extra $100 million over the Christmas rush makes it seem like a good idea compared to losing a weeks worth of traffic around February.

  • Phil Buckley

    Oh, and one more thing, if I start doing more black-hattery, can I have a link from the NY Times?

  • Dev Basu

    I definitely agree that an educated client is a better client. SEO isn’t voodoo and shame on those that sell based on fear or what many companies call ‘proprietary’ knowledge.

    With regard to JCP I think they knew EXACTLY what was going on. They’ve worked with SearchDex since 2007 (or even earlier) and I highly doubt a large retailer like that would have no clue about link building tactics.

    Here’s the dilemma that Google faces with re-instating big sites vs kicking out the small guys – If you can’t find JC Penney on Google, does that reflect poorly on JCP, or does it just mean that Google isn’t very good at delivering relevant search results? By the same token, the local chiropractor won’t be missed in the same way.

  • medianet

    if you look like spammer or trying to post any duplicate content, web master find it and they can ban your IP address. so don’t use any bad practices.

  • Rufus Dogg

    Facebook is leaking private information; ban it. Website building is easy; slash fees to developers. Ads don’t get click-thoughs; quit paying for ads, demand free placement. Blogging is easy; hire an unpaid intern to write. MySpace causes suicides; ban it all, lock up the children. SEO destroys JCPenney; Quit the Internet!

    You’re right, the business world has these knee-jerk reactions and many times, the news that causes the horses to bolt is generated by know-nothings in the Internet world with no skin in the game who have somehow gotten the media to listen to them. And now we have twitter where one person with a big gauge shotgun can startle the crap out of CNN, FOX and CNBC, rippling the misinformation throughout the community faster than solid advice ever could. The end result is good, honest people who know what they are doing get their contracts held up, hauled into board rooms and forced to explain the ROI or the blah, blah, blah results of this tech or that.

    Why do we keep doing this? I should have become a doctor… never mind…

  • Jim Rudnick

    @Lisa – great blog piece here girl! Can’t remember where, but I also read that SearchDex sells their own proprietary linking sumthin, that clients know full well provides JUST THIS kind of linkfarm irrelevant serp spam….which again IMHO points the fickle-finger-of-fate directly back at JCP!

    “they didn’t know?” hogwash, eh!



  • SEO Freak Show

    It’s all about risk, no white hat, no black hat. Even some (so-called) white hat techniques have high risk.

    Which is why TESTING is important. If you wanna do something mid/high risk, test it first (not on your main site); monitor results, modify your technique and in the end if you feel nice and cozy with the results move forward on a large scale – fully aware of the potential outcome.

    This is where the craft/skill of a real SEO come into play.

  • Arrow Creek Homes

    I think if JC penney really wanted to know they could’ve. But it was too good for the bottom line esp. at the Holiday Season. Seeing those terms and how it was ranking (57 terms for the #1 position? 1.4 on average on some of the most competitive retails terms) I really can’t blame them.

  • Michael

    At the end of the day it’s a game of cat vs. mouse where the cat eventually catches on and punishes/changes accordingly. Not saying it’s absolutely right -or ideal- but certainly something for any site owner and SEO to be aware of.

  • Kenny

    Let’s not pretend like any company spending five figures or more on their SEO doesn’t know exactly what’s going on with their campaign. They knew, end of story.

  • Sergey

    What I’d like to know is how can Google trace the source of black-hat link building? Let’s face it – they can’t. So what’s stopping from a someone spending a month using various black-hat SEO tools such as ScrapeBox in order to knock out their competition by simply performing a massive amount of black-hat link building? That’s the question I want Google to answer. After all, these recent events have shown us that what someone else does outside of your control can influence your site.

    If I set up an e-commerce site I do not want my competitors to be able to get Google to penalize me. Unfortunately, it seems that this is exactly what will be happening quite soon (if it’s not happening already).

    • Daniel Dessinger

      Good point, Sergey. I’m writing a post that essentially says the same thing. Google CAN’T prove who purchased links, or that they were indeed purchased. It’s an entirely different level of assumption. Like when “miserable failure” links caused President Bush’s name and gov website to rank. Other people can link to whatever they choose. This judgment on Google’s part is very suspect.

  • shades of grey

    “Do the results you’re seeing match the time frame?

    Before you start any type of SEO project, you should be given a time frame for when you can expect to see results. That time frame will vary depending on the size of your site, the type of project, and the results you’re seeking. However, if you’re a small site and you’re seemingly overnight ranking for super competitive terms,”

    That’s just quality writing there, nicely done.

    Here’s the thing. SearchDex shouldn’t get flamed for ranking that site using less than approved google methods (considering the entire google algo is obviously broken and easily gamed by those who know how) but should be eviscerated for taking the easy way out and buying crap links on horrible sites with little to no relevancy. The very fact that this works just shows how poorly the google algo handles inbound links. They could have very easily accomplished the same thing with no chance of repercussions on their client if they had half a clue.

  • Sherlyn

    Is Purchasing more links a black hat SEO ???? but we are paying for that links ………do let me know ?????

  • Stuart

    Great write up Lisa – all you say is very true, if SEO is working why is it working? If it isn’t then why not? Looking at these questions will help improve any SEO efforts in the long run :)