Coming up with content for your site can be difficult at times, so it’s not uncommon to ask ourselves if there was a quicker and better way to do it. With content being the core of your site’s very identity, it’s important to get it right. However, many site owners are tempted with doing things the fast and easy way, especially when there’s a need to build a site’s content quickly.
As a result, many Black Hat SEO techniques have cropped up throughout the years in an attempt to amass some quick gains by gaming the system. One of the most prevalent (and still used) types of Black Hat tactics are those related to content.
How Google Panda Works Against Content Scammers
Much of the penalties tied to online content are controlled by Google’s Panda update. Since its release in back in 2011, it has undergone many changes with the ultimate goal of favoring content-rich and relevant sites over those that are considered “low-quality” or “thin”.
This update was rolled out to push back against the many types of content scams that were prevalent during the time. This included content scrapers, duplicate content from other sites, and many others. Things were so bad at one point that even the original authors or publishers of a piece of content were ranking much lower than those who simply copied their content.
Google Panda uses a complex algorithm of ranking factors which helps it rank a particular site. The exact ranking factors have always been obscured by Google, but things like creating page authority and high quality content have always been top priority in terms of ranking signals. These two elements are closely tied together since a site that specializes in high quality content for a particular topic or field can turn it into a very authoritative site in the eyes of Google.
With this in mind, it’s a good idea to be aware of the types of Black Hat SEO content scams that are still being used today.
Types of Content Scams
- Duplicate Content
Duplicating content is a quick way to generate instant content on a site. By copying an already pre-existing page, it’s easy to fill whatever missing content you have for your own site. Take note, however, that there are dire ramifications from such actions that could affect your site’s visibility on the search engines.
When Google finds two pieces of content that are duplicates of one another, it has to choose which one to display on the SERPs. The exact algorithm on how it chooses the original content isn’t clear (page authority seems to play a big part, though), but Google identifies any redundant pages it finds after crawling the Net and completely removes them from the SERPs. Matt Cutts, former head of Google’s web spam team, has a short video explaining how Google handles duplicate content.
If you happen to prefer the quick and easy route of populating your site, just know that you might be compromising your page’s visibility by doing so. A safe way to get around the trap of duplicated content is to use proper citation if you happen to be lifting specific text from another site. Another good practice is to use specialized tools like Copyscape to check if there’s already text content that’s similar to your own existing on the Web.
- Content Automation
Constantly coming up with new ideas for your site can get difficult, especially when you’ve been at it for a while. Longtime site owners may begin struggling to find new ways to push out content and might be tempted to look to content automation as a solution. This means using tools or scripts to automatically generate content based on a given topic.
While being able to come up with a lot of content in a short amount of time may sound appealing, content generation of this sort can compromise the readability of a page by ignoring user elements like headers, images, paragraph alignment, etc. Similarly, some automation tools tend to over optimize SEO elements, like inserting dangerous levels of keyword stuffing, that it runs the risk of being penalized by Google.
As difficult as it is finding new content ideas, there are actually some simple solutions to give you that little push that you need to create some nice content topics for your site. Try plugging in your target keyword on Google and you’ll notice that there’s usually a list of suggested or related searches at the bottom of the page. You can easily use these to come up with related topics to write some new content for your site.
The Google Adwords Keyword Planner tool is another great way to get some content ideas. Similar to a Google search, you just need to enter your target keyword to search for other related keywords as well as get their estimated search volume. This should give you an idea of what are the popular search terms that users look for that are related to your main keyword. Once you have this data, you can plan your content ideas around this and come up with a lot of new things to write about.
- Content Spinning
Content spinning is similar to content automation, where you take your existing content and rewrite it to pass it off as something completely new. There are many tools out there that can paraphrase existing text just to avoid the “new” content being considered as duplicate content by the search engines. However, doing so doesn’t add any intrinsic value to the article nor the user. Many of these tools are also far from perfect, so “spinning” an article using them might compromise its readability and lower the user’s overall experience.
A viable solution for this is the same as with content automation – being able to use tools that can give you more content ideas is always better than generating them through artificial means.
- Content Scraping
There’s already a lot of good content out there on the Net and incorporating this content as your own is the basis of content scraping. Instead of producing your own content, content scrapers search for already existing content and try to pass it off as their own. This allows site owners to boost their own existing content, especially when the scraped content is ranking quite well on its own.
There are various methods and tools to utilize this technique, and one of them includes searching for expired domains that used to host quality content. This allows for easy acquisition of old content that is no longer being indexed and can give your site additional keywords to rank for.
This, however, presents a very slippery slope in terms of Google guidelines and copyright infringement. There are many states that consider this act illegal and can get you in trouble with the law as well as penalizing your site’s rankings. Similar to other content scams, content scraping is just a quick way to acquire new content without adding any value to the original page – something that Google doesn’t take lightly.
- Content Switching
Repurposing old content is a great way to expand on your current content gallery. However, making sure that you add something new to the mix is important. Content scammers, who want to do things the quick and dirty way, usually resort to content switching in order to take advantage of their existing high quality content pages.
This is done by creating and optimizing a page with a certain set of keywords. Once it ranks, the content is then switched out with another page that talks about a completely different topic and set of keywords that you want to rank. Not only is this misleading, but this can be seen as false advertising, especially if you’re trying to lead users to a product page that is different from what is being shown on the SERPs.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with creating eye-catching headlines for your articles, the danger here is when a clickbait title is completely different from what the actual article is about. Sensationalized article titles can get you a lot of initial traffic, but other mitigating analytics data can quickly pull you as well. Even if you get a high click through rate (CTR) with the initial flood of visitors, once they notice that the title doesn’t match the content, they’re more likely to leave the site and increase your page’s bounce rate.
Other type of clickbait includes offers of free products or “prizes” in exchange for signing up to their site or purchasing their specialized currency.
This method heavily games the system by presenting content that is different when the site is visited by a search engine bot and when it is visited by a regular user. Cloaking is a deceptive way to fool search engines into giving a site better rankings. For example, a pornographic site, which is normally more difficult to rank, can serve non-pornographic content to search engine spiders for easier ranking.
This used to be a legitimate technique for sites that had little to no text content and heavily relied on video elements. However, modern SEO methods quickly antiquated this type of site optimization. Cloaking has now been considered as a clear violation of Google’s guidelines and heavily penalizes sites that are caught using it. The long and the short of it: don’t use cloaking on your site.
Recovering from a Panda-Related Penalty
There’s never a hard and fast way to come back from a Google penalty. Panda in particular enforces some strict guidelines when it comes to making sure that your site maintains a high quality standard and avoid the penalty strike zone. As such, it’s always easier to stick to these guidelines rather than fall into the trap of going the quick and easy route with the list of content scams listed above.
However, should your site ever get slapped with a Panda penalty, a good way to get back on your feet is to dive into Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools to do an analysis of your top performing landing pages. This will help pinpoint when and where your traffic and rankings started to dip because of the penalty. Also, making sure that your pages line up with your target keywords is of utmost importance. If your users aren’t happy with the content that you’re serving because it’s thin, misleading, or ambiguous, then Google might not look too kindly on this.
You’ll also want to trace the user’s path down into these pages. Try getting a focus group to do this and record their experience. This should serve as a good baseline as to whether or not your site is proving visitors with a good user experience. What’s important is that your content is always relevant to what your site is all about and not just serving a half-baked version of someone else’s site.
In summary, here are some of the important factors you need to check your site for:
- Thin content
- Poor user experience
- Soft 404s
- Ambiguous content that doesn’t match up with your site or target keywords
- Misleading ads
Once you’re done scouring for these things, it’s also a good idea to do a post-recovery crawl analysis to make sure that you’ve done everything to rectify everything. A useful tool you can use to do this is the fetch and render tool in Google Webmaster Tools. It basically simulates a crawl through your site as a Googlebot. This should give you a firsthand look at how the search engine views your site. You can even pick up on serious rendering problems that a user review might miss.
Black Hat SEO tactics have always been a risky endeavor for those looking for short-term gains. Understanding how these content scams work is a solid way for you to protect your own site from getting penalized and avoiding the pains of recovering from one.