1. Participate in link schemes
Anything that violates the PageRank algorithm or a site’s ranking in Google search results like buying or selling links in any way that pass PageRank is not allowed. This includes sending someone a seemingly free product in exchange for them linking to you, exchanging links with someone excessively, using automated link creating programs and requiring an unqualified link as part of Terms of Service. Links should be added because a person genuinely believes in the quality of a website and wants to vouch for them – that’s why it’s a ranking factor in the first place.
2. Create unnatural links
Unnatural links are links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner. They’re not as bad as link schemes, but may violate guidelines, so be extra careful. These are sneakily added through other means including text advertisements, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets, links in footers and templates, forum comments and signatures and optimised anchor text in articles distributed on other websites. Unnatural links deceive the very person who is linking to another website without giving them a say.
3. Sneak in redirects
Redirects are by no means evil. However, some redirects are designed to deceive, taking a user or search engine to a page or content that is different from what was made available to crawlers, meaning that a search engine may index the original page so their ranking doesn’t fairly reflect that destination page. Consider it taking your users and Googlebot for a not-so-joyful joyride against their will, or a bus driver not letting you off at your stop – no one wants that. Poor Googlebot.
4. Hide links or text
5. Create doorway pages
If you don’t know what a doorway page is, it’s a page on your website which has been created for the sole purpose of ranking for specific search queries. Examples of this include having a page filled with keywords that isn’t visible to users as they’re automatically redirected to the intended page and having multiple domains targeted at specific geographical locations that funnel the users to one specific page. Needless to say, Google doesn’t like this as it creates multiple similar pages in the SERPs making it more difficult to find the real, valuable content.
6. Include thin or no original content
Your content should provide value, otherwise what’s the point? Google will flag any low-quality or shallow pages on your site that don’t add anything to a user’s experience. This usually includes duplicate content found elsewhere, content taken from other sources, doorway pages, automatically generated content and thin affiliate pages. For content to rank and, even better, rank well, it needs to be greatly unique or genuinely valuable.
7. Stuff in irrelevant keywords
Keywords may be at the heart of SEO, but keyword stuffing will only bring heartbreak for you and your KPIs. Keyword stuffing is pretty self-explanatory: overloading your pages with out-of-context words added purely for the sake of ranking. If you notice the same phrases repeating over and over again in an unnatural way, it’s probably keyword stuffing. The issue is that this can often affect the clarity of your content and lower overall user experience, which is why it is penalised by Google.
8. Rely on automatically generated content
Auto-generated content is program-made, often to manipulate search rankings, and unintentionally confuses users. You’ve probably seen it before and suspected it used an automated tool: text that makes absolutely no sense but seems packed with keywords, or content that is clearly poorly stitched together from various websites with no original value. This is not to say that content automation is inherently bad – especially when it’s intelligently AI-driven – as scaling is a legitimate difficulty that companies face. You don’t need to rewrite every product page every time, simply prioritise intelligent, reusable content.
9. Scrape content from elsewhere
Scraped content is content taken from other websites usually more reputable than themselves, without permission or attribution to use as their own content. This is a clear no-no and is at risk of copyright infringement, and yet, some website owners think this is a good strategy. No matter how high quality the content is if your services and existing content aren’t equally high quality it simply won’t work. The solution is simple: create original content – not something users can find somewhere better.
10. Conduct cloaking
The practice of cloaking is a bit like doorway pages where it presents different content to actual users and search engines. It’ll give search engines one impression of the content that will be better for indexing (e.g: a page of HTML text), whereas users may see a page of images. Since users are getting something different from what they expected and being misled, Google considers cloaking a violation of its guidelines.
11. Have carbon-copy affiliate content
Affiliate websites often suffer in Google’s search rankings due to unoriginal content. You’ve probably experienced it as a user and it makes sense – many of these sites use similar templates and look near identical, all with the same content and products. Google wants everything in those top spots to add value, with meaningful content and features. If you are primarily an affiliate website, find ways to differentiate yourself by not simply copying the original merchants’ descriptions and detail, adding where you can.
12. Engage in malicious behaviour
In terms of things you know you shouldn’t do, this easily tops the list. Google isn’t all about search results, it wants to keep its users safe first and foremost. This means no phishing, viruses, trojans, spyware, malware or ads – if it downloads, changes or executes a user’s files or settings without permission, it’s against the guidelines. Ads and pop-ups are something we’re all used to, especially when you click something and something else entirely unwanted appears, but these are manipulative tactics that will damage both your reputation and your rankings.
13. Abuse structured data
Structured data (or Schema) is great. In terms of SEO, it provides Google information about a web page so it can better understand what your content is about. The problem is that it can easily go wrong and become spammy, and with a simple misunderstanding, you may receive a spam penalty without ever intending that. It’s most common with Rich Snippets, particularly the stars, which is often abused with multiple items being marked up as one single one. Mostly this is a violation of Google’s structured data guidelines, so the best way to avoid this is to read and familiarise yourself with those guidelines.
14. Send automated queries to Google
Automatic queries, otherwise known as unusual traffic, are searches conducted by robots, computer programs, search scrapers or other automated services (the reasons.reCAPTCHA exists to prove you’re human). Google doesn’t allow this method of requesting information on how a website ranks without permission.
Feeling a little overwhelmed? Don’t be. There may seem like more things you can’t do than things you can, but it’s really not as difficult as it seems to follow the guidelines. As a good way to stay on track, ask yourself if you’d be doing whatever it is if it wasn’t for SEO. If the answer is no, is it really the best thing for your website? Always keep your users at the forefront of your decisions – remember: make it unique and valuable.
Read the full version of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines for yourself here.