attorney-SEOWhen it comes time to make decisions about who is going to handle SEO (search engine optimization) for your law firm’s website, it’s extremely important to make sure that you’re dealing with a reputable person or agency. The wrong choice can lead to not just poor results, but actual damage, up to and including getting your site completely — and permanently — removed from search results.

If you do a little digging, you’ll find two common terms that come up over and over in discussions about SEO companies and techniques. Some are referred to as “White Hat” and others as “Black Hat.” The terms can be used to describe individual techniques used to manipulate search rankings, or they may be applied to the reputation of an entire SEO agency.

The Difference Between White Hat and Black Hat SEO

Those referred to as white hat are considered safe and “by the book.” They don’t break any of the known rules set forth by the search engines. Their attempts to gain better search rankings are looked at as honest and legitimate.

Those referred to as black hat, as you might have guessed, are considered a bit shady at best, and downright criminal at worst. Their methods are considered unethical, often using loopholes discovered in programming and search algorithms to achieve better results. When sites using these methods are discovered by the search engines, they are usually penalized, sometimes severely.

Short-Term Results, Long-Term Damage

While black hat methods might achieve good results at first, they don’t last. Eventually the good rankings disappear due to direct or indirect action by the search engines.

In the best-case scenario, search engines make adjustments in their ranking algorithm that nullifies the methods used to get the good rankings in the first place. The site’s position naturally falls, and all the previous work to reach that rank is rendered useless.

In the worst-case scenario, the techniques used set off triggers that cause a direct investigation and action against the site in question. In this case, the site will be directly penalized by the search engine. Depending on how severe the breach of terms is, penalties can range from lowered result rankings to temporary removal from search indexes, and even a permanent ban of the offending domain.

How to Spot Black Hat SEO Techniques

The first thing you should do when considering a new SEO company is run some searches using the name of the company and the names of any employees you know. You should search for the names themselves and the names with the words “black hat” attached.

Look for third-party reviews of their work, and pay special attention to any posts in forums that you find. The terms white and black hat tend to come up most often in forum discussions. Obviously, if you find any mentions of the company using black hat techniques, you should look for someone else to work with.

In addition to doing a quick online background check, there are also some individual techniques that are easy to spot. If your SEO company suggests that your law firm use any of the following methods on your site, you should sever relations immediately and look for another company to work with.

Cloaking – This involves setting up two different versions of the same web site, one for humans and one for search engines. Humans get a clean, readable site, while search engines see pages stuffed with keywords, phrases and links. If your SEO company ever says, “Don’t worry, this is just for the search engines.,” it should raise red flags.

Hidden text – This technique puts text on a page that is invisible to human readers. It can be achieved by making the text the same color as the background, or by using style attributes to prevent the text from displaying in the browser. In either case, the search engines will see the text because they read the source code of the page, not what is displayed in a browser.

Doorway pages – Somewhat similar to cloaking, doorway pages are designed specifically for search engines. They are often stuffed with keywords and links in an attempt to achieve better ranking. When a human clicks through to the page, it will quickly redirect them to a legitimate page, bypassing the garbled doorway page.

Buying and selling links – There’s a difference between advertising and buying links. If your SEO company suggests buying links on other sites to help increase page rank or authority, you’re putting your firm’s site at serious risk. You may think this is impossible to track, but Google will detect it and penalize your site.

Article spinning – This shady practice involves taking articles or text from high ranking pages and “spinning” it for use on another site. Titles and headers are changed, along with rearranging various words and phrases. The idea is to keep the basic meaning, but create just enough difference from the stolen article to make the content look original. This practice eventually results in lower rankings because of duplicate content penalties.

When in Doubt, Ask

These are just some of the most common black hat techniques you might run across, but certainly not all of them. The key to making sure your law firm’s site and reputation are safe is to stay informed and ask questions. You should never be afraid to ask your SEO company to explain something you don’t understand. Any reputable company will be able to tell you exactly why they use a certain technique and how it will benefit your law practice.