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David Segal of The New York Times published “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search,” detailing how JCPenney.com used black-hat SEO to get incredible rankings.

JCPenney’s SEO firm engaged in anchor-text-based paid links, which are against Google’s terms of service. As many know, paid links can produce significant results, but risking your website rankings may not be worth it. Unfortunately, some SEO firms are clearly using this method to boost their client’s rankings, similar to the JCPenney.com disaster.

Now, the muckraking in this article is completely warranted and should happen to prevent this type of search engine manipulation. Many SEO professionals would agree using paid links to boost your rankings is unethical and can come back to burn you. But this article goes beyond this problem and makes all of SEO in general look spammy and black hat.

I’ll give the author credit, he did state, “[Google] draws a pretty thick line between techniques it considers deceptive and ‘white hat’ approaches, which are offered by hundreds of consulting firms and are legitimate ways to increase a site’s visibility.” After reading this article, however, those who are uneducated might be turned off by our profession and method of achieving search engine success.

There Are Good Guys and Bad Guys Everywhere

Just because it happened to JCPenny, doesn’t mean it’s happening everywhere. And it doesn’t mean that every SEO firm is sneaking around tricking the search engines with unethical, black-hat SEO strategies. Sure JCPenney.com gives SEO a bad name. Similarly, the officer from the classic, “don’t tase me bro” YouTube video gives cops a bad name. And Richard Simmons gives fitness a bad name.

There Are Great SEO Companies Out There

There are credible, trustworthy, exceptional SEO companies out there that participate in ethical, white hat SEO services that don’t violate any search engine rules.

Aiding websites to gain more visibility within the search engines is not deceptive, but it can be. If you’re company is relevant for certain terms, just like JCPenney.com was for all the terms it ranked for since they clearly offered those products, you can benefit from SEO or hiring an SEO firm. But, the problem with JCPenney.com, is it (or its SEO firm) went about it in the wrong way.

Before Hiring an SEO Firm, Question Them

An SEO company worth your while has nothing to hide. There may be some complicated details you simply don’t understand, but if the SEO person/company you’ve hired can’t give examples, explain their processes, or the end result of their efforts, that can be a red flag. Keep in mind some processes many SEO firms have can legitimately be classified as “proprietary information” and they may not tell you.

Not to toot the horn of the company that pays my bills, but SEO.com is and will always provide white hat, quality SEO services to their clients that abide by the rules of the search engines. We don’t take shortcuts, we don’t believe in paid links and we have never had a client receive a penalty as a result of our efforts. Whether it is SEO.com or another firm, make sure you are leaving your website in the hands of proven professionals.