How to build web traffic without turning to the dark side

You can buy links and likes, but they won’t do you any favours in the long-run

Every web startup faces the same challenge: how do you get noticed amongst all that competition and build traffic? The clever money says leave all that search engine optimisation (SEO) stuff to the professionals. Yet money, clever or not, is the one luxury most startups don't have. This can often lead to a DIY approach to both SEO and online marketing, which is no bad thing if done properly.

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The temptation to cheat and follow the dark side when building traffic is strong. Yet, grey- or black-hat SEO, along with social media follower farming, isn't the panacea you may have hoped for. So, what's the alternative to either investing in SEO expertise or becoming the Darth Vader of ecommerce? Well, you could ask SEO and digital marketing experts to pass their knowledge on for free which is precisely what we've done.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

Let's start with how not to do things, even if it does look like an easy and relatively cheap way to build your traffic in no time at all. Some call it "black hat" SEO, while others try to disguise the underhand nature by labelling it as "grey hat" instead. Whatever you call it, if you try to game the system using dodgy techniques, you will likely end up on the naughty step with Google, Facebook and Twitter plus all the other services that you need to push traffic in your direction. So how do you know what is an illegitimate marketing technique to begin with?

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Joe Linford is the head of SEO at ISP price comparison site Broadband Genie, and warns that Google has cracked down on websites "seeking to gain an advantage in the SERPs [search engine result pages] and will penalise sites for building unnatural links".

Links were the lifeblood of the Google algorithm for many years. Who you link to, and the backlinks your site gets from others, are still important; but link signals are not the sole determiner of strong SERP ratings. "Google has moved towards relying more on human opinions such as search quality raters, Chrome browser activity and Analytics data," Linford told PC Pro.

The trouble is that those Google algorithms are impenetrable to mere mortals. Which is why so many businesses still turn to high volume and low cost link-acquisition strategies, such as placing links into generic directories or link networks. These are a group of websites, more commonly than not owned by the network operator, that generate huge volumes of what are essentially fake links. They will offer the unwitting customer a bundle of, say, 250 or 500 new links to their site for a fee. Trouble is, not only are those links of very low quality, as they provide nothing of any real value to someone who clicks on them, but Google has become a Jedi Master at spotting link networks and blacklisting them. That's hardly surprising: if there are no "footprints" linking these disparate sites together, chances are the network is fake. By buying into such a link-farming network, your traffic could suffer as Google penalises you for being associated with a black hat operation.

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It's not only link-farming that will get you into negative equity with the search supremo either. Jake Ramon-Capon is senior SEO consultant at Greenlight Digital, a digital marketing agency that counts eBay and Dixons Carphone (whose brands include PC World and Carphone Warehouse) among its clients. "Google has a long list of well documented tactics that could negatively impact your brand," Ramon-Capon explained, before pointing in the direction of cloaking. This is where you serve up different content to search engines than actual users, the former designed to be uber-SERPs-friendly of course. "Google spots this as its crawlers parse the source code of the page to find irregularities in the code that suggest cloaking," he said, "and then a member of the web spam team will manually check the affected pages." If they're served up something completely different, the site will be penalised.

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