By Lee Barnathan, California Business Journal.
Remember old time melodramas? Those silent-era moving pictures in which the hero in the white hat rescues the maiden from the train tracks, having been tied there by the villainous man in the black hat?
In the world of search engine optimization, Jesse Witham wears a white hat. As the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Search Marketing Agency, Witham engages in “white hat SEO,” meaning everything he does is legal, standard and above-board.
Witham handles all aspects of digital marketing, from designing websites that get found to optimizing each aspect of that page to managing a company’s social-media presence. SMA’s manages $300 million for a client list that includes such global behemoths as Aflac, Black + Decker, Playboy, American Idol, and StubHub.
And it’s all done in according to Google’s terms of service, which is white hat SEO. According to Search Engine Journal, this type of SEO includes creating content for a target audience that is worthy of shares and links, and effectively using keywords and links.
Contrast that with “black hat SEO,” which features include adding keywords that aren’t related to the web page’s content, having fake web pages stuffed with keywords that redirect to a different site, and hiding links in the content. This type of SEO still exists in shadier industries.
“There are ways you can spam your way to good rankings, but they’re not going to last forever and if any one of those links are against Google’s terms and conditions, you risk getting your site banned down the road or having your site penalized down the road,” he says.
Even SEO’s early days were like the Wild West – and Witham was there.
“When I started doing this back in 2001, it wasn’t really much of an industry. People didn’t know how it worked, what to expect, how much it cost,” he says.
Indeed. According to Search Engine Journal, on-page activity was the only way to do SEO. This included having updated content, enough text, and accurate HTML tags and links, among other factors.
To rank well, one needed to repeat keywords enough times. If a site used a keyword 100 times, the idea was to use that same keyword more. Today, this is called spamming.
There were plenty of search engines in the early days: AltaVista, Ask Jeeves (later Ask.com), Excite, Infoseek, Lycos, and Yahoo! Then came Google. Its web crawler and algorithm revolutionized online searches by including not just on-page factors such as keywords but also off-page factors such as the quantity and quality of links. This led to an entire sub-industry of link building.
The next evolutionary step was Google AdSense, which gave rise to spamming, and Witham recalls China and India flooding the American market with offers such as “$200 guaranteed first-place ranking.” Today, everyone knows that’s impossible. Back then, everyone didn’t.
“Lots of companies that had no money to invest in SEO finally started hiring all of these outsourced companies to do the work, and it really skewed people’s perceptions,” Witham says. “In the mid-2000s, you were either going to hire an American company and pay tens of thousands of dollars, or you were going to hire a cheap Indian or Chinese company and pay a fraction of that, but it never really got results.”
People soured on SEO, thinking it was one big scam. It took a lot of time and a lot of education for people to recognize the value of not only SEO, but also white hat SEO.
“People can watch a YouTube video or read somebody’s blog and OK, SEO means you have to have good copywriting,” he says. “It means you have to have your title tags and your meta tags. It means you have to optimize your images; you have to get links from other sites. It means you have to get news articles written about you. Once people started to get educated, expectations became realistic, and now I feel like the industry is so much more stable than it was in the first five or 10 years.”
Eighty percent of SMA’s business is website design and SEO. Either someone will contract to design a new website, update an existing one or improve their page rankings on Google. Witham has a masterful team of site designers. Once the design is complete, he offers SEO services, too, because what good is a site if no one sees it?
Sometimes, a person has a website that isn’t getting found. Witham and his team analyzes what’s wrong – usually it’s poorly coded – and they fix it.
“Google doesn’t like long source code,” he explains. “A smaller file size means two things to Google: It can be read and indexed really quickly, and it’s also going to load fast for the user. Those are the two things that Google considers important. We make sure all the sites we design have that.”
Sometimes, negatives about a person or business make news. One service Witham offers is the ability to have that bad news buried online. A real estate-client once got arrested for DUI, and the mug shot made its way to Google.
“How detrimental would that be to your business?” Witham says. “People will pay ungodly amounts to have that stuff removed.”
In fact, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that an Illinois man paid $15,000 to have his mug shot removed from a website; the same website required a Maryland man to pay $399 per day, according to the Guardian (a 2014 California law prohibits such companies from charging).
Cease-and-desist letters sometimes work against the site posting the mug shot, but sometimes a little manipulation is needed.
“Let’s say your mug shot ranks No. 7 on the first page of Google. Most people – actually, just 10% — never go past the first page,” he says. “All we have to do is get three articles to rank above that. That’s where the impact of SEO comes in. People ask why can’t you just hire a lawyer to do that? You can and you should. But it’s not going to work most of the time, so we start creating dozens and dozens of pages, and we optimize those pages to outrank the bad thing. That’s where we benefit people, the ability to create optimized pages that push bad rankings out.”
In other words, Witham rides to the rescue, white hat and all.
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