Should You Be Tricking Search Engines to Improve Your Site Ranking?

By Peter Kent

Before getting down to the nitty-gritty details about tricking search engines, you need to consider two topics: why you need to understand the dangers of using dirty tricks and what the overriding principles behind tricking the search engines are based on.

Deciding whether to trick

Should you use tricks, and if not, why not? You’ll hear several reasons for not using tricks. The first one is ethics. You’ll hear from many people that tricks are unethical, that those who use them are cheating and are one step on the evolutionary ladder above pond scum.

Self-righteousness is in ample supply on the Internet. Maybe these people are right, maybe not. Many people who try such tricks are simply trying to put their best foot forward in a difficult technical environment.

Many people have tried search engine tricks because they invested a lot of money in websites that turn out to be invisible to search engines. These folks can’t afford to abandon their sites and start again. You can, and rightly so, point out that these folks can deal with the problem in other ways, but that just means the people involved are misinformed, not evil. The argument made by these tricksters might go something like this: Who gave search engines the right to set the rules, anyway?

One could argue that doing pretty much anything beyond the basics is cheating. Over the past few years, lots of people have put into action many simple ideas with great results. So if smart webmasters armed with a little knowledge can push their websites up in the ranks above sites that may be more appropriate for a particular keyword phrase, yet are owned by folks with less knowledge … is that fair?

Also, consider that the search engines have actually encouraged the use of some dirty tricks. For example, the search engines don’t like people to buy links. Yet the search engines have encouraged the purchasing of links, by rewarding the purchasing of links. Buying links worked!

So business man X looks at competitor Y and sees how well Y’s website is ranking, and then discovers that Y ranked the site by purchasing links. Well, what is business man X supposed to think?

Ethics aside, the really good reason for avoiding egregious trickery is that it may have the opposite effect and harm your search engine position.

Figuring out the tricks

The idea behind most search engine tricks is simple: to confuse the search engines into thinking that your site is more appropriate for certain keyword phrases than they would otherwise believe. You do this generally by showing the search engine something that the site visitor doesn’t see.

Search engines want to see what site visitors see, yet they know they can’t. It will be a long time before search engines will be able to see and understand the images in a web page, for instance. Right now, they can’t even read text in the images, although that could be possible at some point. (Recent patents suggest that this is something Google is working on now.) But to view and understand the images as a real person sees them? Britney Spears could well be president of the United States before that happens.

The search engine designers have started with this basic principle:

What the search engine sees should be what the user sees except for certain things it’s not interested in — images, for instance — and certain technical issues that are not important to the visitor (such as the DESCRIPTION meta tag and so on).

Here’s one other important principle: The text on the page should be there for the benefit of the site visitor, not the search engines.

Ideally, search engine designers want web designers to act as though search engines don’t exist. Search engine designers want their programs to determine which pages are the most relevant for a particular search query.

They want you to focus on creating a site that serves your visitors’ needs and let search engines determine which site is most appropriate for which searcher. At least that was the original theory. Over the years, the search engines realized that total ignorance of SEO simply wasn’t going to happen. Now they provide basic SEO advice.

Still, what search engines definitely don’t want is for you to show one version of a page to visitors and another version to search engines because you feel that version is what the search engine will like most.

Do these tricks work?

Tricks do work, at least in some circumstances for some search engines. On the other hand, over time, search engines have become better and better at spotting the more obvious tricks; you don’t find crudely keyword-stuffed pages and pages with hidden text ranking well very often these days, for instance, though only a few years ago you did.

Could you use sophisticated tricks and rank first for your keywords? Perhaps, but your rank may not last long, and the penalty it could incur can last for a long time.

These tricks can be dangerous. You may get caught in one of several ways:

  • A search engine algorithm may discover your trickery, and your page or your entire site could be dropped from the search engine.

  • A competitor might discover what you’re doing and report you to the search engines. Google has stated that it prefers to let its algorithms track down cheaters and uses reports of search engine spamming to tune these algorithms, but Google will take direct action in some cases; in fact, it does employ a team of people to examine suspected “spam” sites.

  • Your trick may work well for a while, until a major search engine changes its algorithm to block the trickery — at which point your site’s ranking will drop like a rock.

If you follow the sound advice from experts, you’ll surpass 80 percent of your competitors. You don’t need tricks.