Jon Fletcher 2021-03-03

SEO misses, fails, and backfires

With Core Web Vitals about to become a direct ranking factor, publishers have already begun to change and optimize their sites to get good scores. 

Core Web Vitals have generally been received as a positive step. They focus on simple, quantifiable metrics that really affect the user experience. It makes SEO, and the process of optimizing page performance for a better ranking, more accessible. 

But, what is good for SEO ranking is not always good for the web as a whole. Some techniques that work to boost page rankings have had a pronounced negative effect on content quality as webmasters try to 'game' the SEO system. Some of these techniques give off second-hand damage to the quality of the content and search accuracy and eventually get sanded away through Google core updates. Some are downright blackhat SEO techniques that had to be identified and stamped out. 

There is a possibility that focusing on Core Web Vitals will have unintended consequences. By giving publishers scores to meet, they may end up cutting out some of the soul and beauty of their sites because it's too hard to optimize these elements to meet Core Web Vital standards. Core web vitals may lead to a more generic and soulless web landscape. 

SEO: Making content less readable 

Many well-intended SEO initiatives have created 'backdoors' that get exploited. Probably one of the most recognizable techniques has been keyword stuffing. Search engines used to rely more heavily on matching the keywords of the search with the page content.

This leads to pages stuffing pages with as many high-volume keywords as possible to get the biggest share of clicks from searches that could be linked to their page in any way.

Google quickly refined its search algorithm to push down sites that use keyword stuffing. This led to a refinement in which Google looked where high profile keywords were, like in H1 or H2 headings. The aim was to better understand the real content of the article and how it relates to the search query.

But, once this was worked out, pages would stuff additional headings into content and make sure the keyword was included. This meant that quality content could be pushed down the ranking, beaten out by junk content that ticked some of the right boxes.

Cause and effect: Gaming the SEO system 

Search ranking algorithms are sophisticated but they can't judge if an article is interesting or compelling. 

This means that the results algorithm has to combine user engagement statistics with the content and reputation of the author and publisher but it doesn't necessarily promote the best, it promotes the popular and the understandable. 

Moves designed to add more nuance to crawling search results have had unintended, negative consequences as 'black hat' SEO tactics are discovered. A good initiative can have real-world applications that could never be predicted. Ironically, by aiming to make SERPs more of a meritocracy, SEO has ushered in many of the worst elements of navigating online content.

User moderation: Negative SEO 

User moderation: Negative SEO Due to the complexity of ranking billions of pages of content, search engines have systems to detect or give users ways to report ‘black hat’ (intentionally negative tactics). This can include posting fake negative reviews about the website, building toxic backlinks with spammy links or creating duplicates of a website.

Webmasters can use these techniques to push down other sites or even intentionally attack their own sites to make it look like a competing site is engaging in black hat SEO. If successful, it gets competitors penalized by search engines. 

Webmasters can use these techniques to push down other sites or even intentionally attack their own sites to make it look like a competing site is engaging in black hat SEO. If successful, it gets competitors penalized by search engines. A final, low-tech option is to falsely claim that another site is attaching them and reporting it to the search engine to get them delisted, even temporarily. By giving sites a way to protect themselves, it gave others the means to attack them.

Link Building = Spamming Blog Comments 

Another sign used by search engines to assess how useful content is, how many links there are to this content, and where they appear. The more links, appearing in more reputable websites, the better for search ranking. 

The more people link back to an article, the higher their chances are of moving up the rankings and driving a ton of traffic. Even if barely anyone clicks on those links, they are gold to search engines. One quality link has the potential to blast a piece from page three to page one. 

This built an industry of black hat practices that spam the comment sections on blog posts with links back to their website.

Rather than getting links because other writers want to reference this content, they can plug links into any pages that have a good reputation.


Part of the reason pages are able to beat the SEO system is that it relies on automated crawlers. These crawlers can easily spot malicious content that are normally blocked by search engines but they don’t have the nuance of a real human quality check. 

Cloaking is a technique that tricks search engines into ranking content for a specific search term that has nothing to do with the real content of the webpage. Cloaked content shows one version to search engines, then another to users. This can be done by serving a page of HTML text to search engines while showing a page of images to users. 

Pages can also be set to inserting text or keywords into a page only when the page is requested by a search crawler rather than a real user. This allows sites with malicious content to get clicks from honest search queries. 

Quality, authority, time, and good fortune 

As search engines evolve, it is becoming harder to prosper from these negative and ‘black hat’ techniques. Good SEO relies on the long game. It takes deep keyword research, gradually building links, optimizing, promoting, and testing. Google also offers a 200-page guide to the factors it takes into account when discerning content quality. 

Unknown factors, call it luck, can also play a major part. Any SEO expert or content writer will tell you they have successes that they can’t explain and articles that seemed to tick all the right boxes that sink without a trace. SEO is evolving to consistently serve up ‘awesome’ content. 

Developments like Core Web Vitals should help webmasters meet this definition and cut down the reliance on tricks and hacks to get up the rankings. 

Read our predictions for some of the unexpected side effects from Core Web Vitals here.

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