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7 Red Flags that Reveal to Google You’re an SEO Criminal – Avoid These!

If you label yourself as an SEO or openly engage in aggressive link building tactics, watch out. Google will treat you harshly and judge you on a different standard, similar to the way the law deals with known criminals.

Don’t believe me? Learn more about how Google profiles SEOs and treats them like criminals. For example, well-known SEOs Michael Gray and Rae Hoffman were both profiled and had their links taken from them – not because they were marketing any differently than other webmasters, but because Google thought they were doing it just for the links.

The reality is that Google is a company that makes billions of dollars in revenue each year by selling advertisements around its organic search listings. While Google’s business is to return highly relevant search results that provide value to users, SEOs seek to reverse engineer the algorithm and manipulate rankings for their own gain (in varying degrees). You can see why there’s such a big disconnect here.

As a result, Google considers SEOs as “high risk” and does everything in its power to neutralize SEO efforts and smack them down, even if the associated sites offer real value and are truly deserving of their rankings. Google understands that there will be collateral damage, but honestly they don’t care unless you’re a big brand. There are thousands of similar small sites ready to take your place in the rankings without putting a dent in Google’s quality.

Is this fair for anyone practicing SEO? No, not at all. But you can’t blame Google for protecting its business. The minute it gives SEOs a free pass is the minute that Google’s search results fill with spam and irrelevant pages made for profit.

Red-Flag Look at it this way. SEOs disrupt Google’s algorithm like criminals disrupt society. Much like the government has laws and policies in place to minimize the effects of criminal activity and maintain peace, Google has many systems and filters in place to profile SEOs, neutralize the offensive tactics, and maintain quality.

So what are some of these filters and SEO profiling practices employed by Google? I’ll cover some of them in this article. If you’re an SEO or webmaster who’s working to rise up in the rankings, I highly recommend you stay under the radar and avoid these red flags. Life will be a lot easier for you if Google thinks you’re an innocent and ignorant webmaster who knows nothing about how SEO works. ;)

7 Red Flags to Avoid – Google Profiling SEOs
The last thing you want to do is draw attention to yourself and have Google profile you as an SEO. If this were to happen, Google engineers would scrutinize your site more than others and hold you to a different standard. Avoid at all costs! Here are some red flags to watch out for so you can stay under the radar.

1. You have a big mouth about your SEO tactics
loud mouthA sure-fire way to get the attention of a Google engineer and potentially have your rankings manually reviewed, is to blabber away about all of the SEO tactics and tricks you’re using to get ahead.

For example, John Chow, the infamous make money online blogger, openly exchanged links with his readers on his blog to rank for “make money online”. While it did work initially, Google quickly made an example of him and penalized him hard. John recently got his rankings back after cleaning up his act, but for over a year, he didn’t even rank for his own name.

Similarly, a very well-known SEO mentioned to his readers that his affiliate links were designed in a way to pass weight back to his site. For whatever reason, someone decided to report this to Google spam king Matt Cutts, and unsurprisingly, those links no longer pass any weight.

If you have an SEO blog or are involved in the Internet marketing community, be careful what you tell others – either privately or in public. It could come back to haunt you.

2. Your sites are all tied together = easy target
network targetLike it or not, the big G has a lot of information about you and your sites. Google runs the most popular contextual advertising platform, owns a free analytics package that’s better than most paid versions, has access to all WHOIS information and IP addresses, and can analyze sites that you interlink. Not only that, but Google has access to your email, documents, and browsing history. Sound scary? That’s what I thought.

If you can, it’s best to separate your sites as much as possible (e.g. different IP addresses, no interlinking, etc). Why? If Google suspects something about one of your sites, they’ll probably look into your network for other sites you’re involved with as well. That’s definitely not something you want. If I can find your network of sites using a free tool like, you can bet Google can easily do it too.

Unfortunately, completely separating your sites isn’t always possible especially with Google’s growing dominance in so many verticals. This makes avoiding the other red flags even more important.

3. Your site is over-optimized for certain keywords
yellow flag refereeOptimizing the content of a page for SEO has always been pretty simple – target 2 to 3 keywords per page and place them in title tags (preferable the beginning), header tags, URLs, and on-page body content. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy anymore as Google automatically filters and penalizes sites that it thinks are “over-optimized”. This isn’t an exact science, but Aaron Wall of SEO Book explains how he got a ranking filter removed by mixing up the keywords and being less aggressive.

If you’ve tried optimizing a page for a keyword without much success in rankings, try taking this approach. Shift the focus away from your targeted keywords and don’t be so overly aggressive in your on-page efforts (i.e. forget about things like keyword density). Google actively tries to neutralize SEO, so this sort of filter is no surprise. You just need to be able to adapt to improve your rankings.

4. Your link profile is unnatural
link to meIn the same way that you can over-optimize for on-page SEO, you can also over-optimize for off-page link building. I wrote about this topic in my article, The Secret to Making Every Link Count For Your SEO Rankings, so be sure to read it before you move on.

In a nutshell, Google filters out sites in the rankings when it thinks the sites’ link profiles seem unnatural. Some examples include:

* too many links too fast
* link anchor text too similar
* not enough deep links to other pages
* too many links from low quality or unrelated sites
* too many reciprocal links
* all links are from the sidebar or footer of a page

Again, it’s Google’s goal to neutralize any sort of manipulation. If you want to be a successful SEO, you have to take this into consideration and appear natural in everything you do. Ask yourself the following question – how would normal webmasters with big sites obtain links? Then seek to emulate their links.

5. You use the nofollow link attribute to sculpt PageRank
rel nofollowThe change in the way Google treats nofollow links has stirred a lot of debate over the past month. As it stands now, the use of the nofollow link attribute as a way to sculpt PageRank and funnel link equity to the most important pages is no longer a best practice.

Regardless, the important question here is whether or not nofollow is an SEO red flag. It’s definitely a valid concern. If you think about it, only webmasters involved in the SEO community know about the nofollow tag at all – and it could easily be used by Google to determine who’s an SEO and who’s not. Hm…

What you do with nofollow is up to you, but I will be removing it from all of my sites, other than the links in the comments section – which comes default in packages like Wordpress. Apparently link consolidation is the new PageRank sculpting.

6. You buy or sell obvious paid links
paid linksBack in late 2007, Google declared war on paid links and claimed that any site buying or selling links would be penalized. The paid links issue is a major flaw in Google’s algorithm and is relatively easy to exploit as long as you know what you’re doing.

That being said, you should always buy links under the radar if you plan on buying. Going through some of the link brokers is not recommended (what’s stopping a Google engineer from signing up and seeing all the sites participating?) and obvious paid links should be avoided (e.g. footer/sidebar links, unrelated links) – especially because your competitors can easily report paid links to Google through this form.
7. You use SEO and links to get a spammy site to the top of the rankings
purple fur coatIn SEO, quality matters. If you avoid the previous 6 red flags, but miss this one, you’ll still end up in the Google dog house. What do I mean?

Google engineers constantly monitor and QA the rankings. If you manage to get a useless money site to the top of Google, it probably won’t stay there for long – even if you did your SEO under the radar. After all, it isn’t natural for a sub-par website to rank high for a competitive keyword and there usually has to be manipulative SEO practices and artificial link building going on for that to happen. Sure you may think that you did everything right, but Google could still profile you as an SEO and look into your network of other sites.

Don’t do anything that draws unnecessary attention to yourself and warrants a manual review. For example, in the movie American Gangster, Denzel Washington’s character is a low key drug dealer who profits big under the radar. However, it’s not until he wears an expensive fur coat (a gift from his wife) to a public sporting event that the authorities take notice of him and eventually figure him out. Don’t make the same mistake!

Final notes
SEO is getting harder and the days of tricks and manipulation to obtain top rankings are almost over. In fact, you now have to trick the search engines into thinking you’re not using any tricks (i.e. by being as natural as possible). Provide value to the your users and stay under the radar with your SEO efforts. Sure you might not get the same attention from the SEO crowd, but you’ll make up for it with more sales, conversions, and money.

Have you encountered any of these SEO criminal red flags? How has Google profiled you as an SEO with your sites?