Google has launched a website called How Search Works, which takes users through the process of search from crawling and indexing to displaying results. From a purely design standpoint, the site is a beautiful example of how modern coding techniques can create a completely interactive, animated and Flash-free website. It uses plenty of white space, large text and simple graphics to explain the indexing and search process.
The information contained on the site's landing page is pretty basic; anyone who spends a lot of time online is probably already familiar with the concepts. However, each of the steps has its own dedicated, in-depth page that explains the process more thoroughly. The site also offers plenty of links to more comprehensive information, including a download of their search quality evaluation precision guidelines, links to answers in their knowledge base, a video that describes ways in which they try to improve search and guides to identifying spam.
Google may not be crystal clear about what goes into producing what it considers to be “quality” content, but the company is very willing to define what it believes to be spam. The site's fighting spam page lists and describes ten forms of spam and offers live spam screen shots. You can scroll through a selection of real sites that Google has manually identified as spam and removed from search results within the last hour. It is a cornucopia of bad grammar and uncomprehensive sentences clearly thrown together or auto-generated to showcase a certain keyword. If you are interested in knowing what tactics will hurt rather than help your ranking, this site is a good resource.
Search marketing sometimes gets a bad reputation from companies that use shady tactics (or no tactics) to essentially steal from well-intentioned business owners. Danny Sullivan at marketingland.com calls some of these tactics “no-hat” and “crap-hat” SEO, playing off the commonly used terms black-hat (unscrupulous and spammy) and white-hat (supposedly reputable and safe). Crap-hat is what Google refers to as pure spam. These are sites that do not pretend to do anything but exist as spam. They may contain pages full of nonsensical, automatically generated content filled with poor grammar and jumbled words that no sane person could misconstrue as representing a legitimate business.
The tactics Sullivan refers to as no-hat are more pernicious. They are not decidedly unethical (we might disagree) or explicitly banned by Google and could technically be described as white-hat. They are simply worthless. These are people who offer spectacular results for unbelievable prices that will inevitably fail (yes, they are unbelievable for a reason), or companies that send contact form submissions lamenting how your site is not ranking well for its “popular keywords” and promising to fix your search woes. Anyone who owns or manages a website has seen their share of these emails, which can be instantly discounted. How could they possibly know what you are optimizing for? These companies like to throw around a lot of good-sounding industry jargon in an attempt to fool people unfamiliar with the process into thinking that they actually know what they are doing.
Designers see the same downward pressure from places like cheap logo houses that promise results for $50 or $100 – prices that should not even cover a fraction of the time that goes into creating a quality design. Organic search marketing, design, content writing – these are things that take time. And they should. If you were to promise clients a guaranteed fast win for a price that won't even cover an hour of your time, they are certain to be disappointed in the results.
Search marketing is not magical or mysterious. It cannot miraculously work in a week or even a month. It is a process that will continue to evolve as Google tweaks and re-tweaks its algorithm. Understanding the search process and knowing what Google considers to be spam will help you avoid shady practitioners and no-hat, no-results services.