Protecting Your Website from Domain Registrar & SEO Scam Artists

It’s important that your company has a website, but once you have one, you will find out there are lots of people out there who are ready to take advantage of you. This article covers some of the topics that you need to know in order to protect your investment in your website, as well as your company’s good name. The two biggest areas that I see customers getting into trouble from scams is Domain Name Registration, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Domain Name Registration

Having your own domain name (such as www.mycompany.com) should be part of your whole brand identity. You should make sure your domain is used on all of your marketing materials and any time you advertise. You should also be sure to use your email addresses from your domain rather than generic sites like Yahoo or AOL. Not only is using your own domain more professional, but you will always have it. Having and using your own domain allows you to switch hosting providers without any disruption to your communications.

Know your registrar

Domains require an annual renewal through companies called registrars. There used to be only one registrar, Network Solutions. But in the spirit of free commerce, the registration process was opened and now many companies are competing for the lucrative registration business. Unfortunately, many of them are unscrupulous and will try to trick you into renewing your domain with them, even though they aren’t your current registar. This is typically done by sending you an official looking letter, or email which makes it appear that they are your registrar. So many of these attempts are made that I’ve had some customers ignore their real renewal notices. So it’s very important that you know who your real registrar is. You can find out by doing a WHOIS on your domain. (http://www.networksolutions.com/whois/index.jsp)

Contact Info

In addition to listing the current registrar, the WHOIS will also list who the registrant (owner) is. Make sure you are the owner of your domains and not your webmaster, your hosting company, or any other third party. Having anyone other than yourself as the owner of your domain gives that party too much leverage should that relationship deteriorate.

You should also make sure that all of the contact information is correct, especially the email address. Make sure it is an email address that you can still receive email from. Renewal notices go out via email, and domains have been lost because the email address wasn’t kept current. Most registrars will not attempt to contact you by phone or email if you fail to renew, although some will for an extra charge.

In addition to the Registrant, there are three other contacts that are attached to the domain, Billing, Administrative, and Technical. These may or may not all be the same, but I recommend that you make the Administrative Contact your webmaster. Renewal notices are typically sent to the Registrant and Administrative Contact email addresses so having your webmaster in the loop gives you added protection when your domain comes up for renewal. The Technical Contact is usually reserved for someone at your hosting company.

Renewal Period

Domains come up for annual renewal, but you can also renew for up to ten years. Some registrars can also set your domain to auto-renew, automatically charging your credit card. Just remember that if you renew your domain for ten years, you better make sure your credit card info and your contact info is kept current. I prefer to renew domains for two years. That way you save some of the headache of renewing every year, but it also keeps the renewal process in my mind.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Once you have a website, you will be contacted by Search Engine Optimization firms. I’m sorry to say, but this industry is starting to make lawyers look ethical. Some SEO firms will simply just take your money and do nothing, others can actually do more harm than good. So it’s important that if you feel you need to hire an SEO firm that you have some understanding of how this whole SEO business works.

First off it doesn’t work by submitting your site to over 500 search engines. That is your first clue to run. There aren’t 500 search engines that matter ( there are really three right now, Google, Bing, and an increasingly fading Yahoo) and the search engines prefer to find the sites they list on their own by following links from other sites. The second clue to run is if they mention metatags. Metatags are old history, search engines don’t use them much anymore. But many SEO firms seem to think they are the answer to all your problems. Just change the keywords in the metatags and resubmit. Sounds easy, but the problem is that it just doesn’t work.

Finally, there are no guarantees in the SEO world. No expert SEO can guarantee you the top ranking in the search engines for any meaningful keyword phrase unless they’re going to buy it. There are just too many variables out of their control. SEO’s that make that kind of promise usually pick keyword phrases like the name of your company (usually not too hard unless it’s real generic) or something so obscure that nobody’s bound to search on it any way. (See my article on Good Sheets for more on that topic.)

Natural Rankings vs. Paid

Most search engines these days offer paid ads in addition to their search engine results (natural rankings). So if your site isn’t doing well in the natural rankings you can always buy your way to the top. But isn’t it better to get good results for free rather than have to pay for them? Sure it is, and here’s how.

Obtaining good natural rankings

Unless you’re going to pay your way to the top there are four things to consider when planning your site or making changes to it in the hopes of improving your search engine rankings, Keywords, Titles, Content, and Links.

Keywords – Hopefully, before your webmaster even started building your site you had a discussion about keywords. Keywords are what your targeted customers are going to type in at a search engine in order to solve their problem, whether that is to find a bed and breakfast inn in their next vacation destination, or to find a local plumber to fix their over flowing toilet. It is important to choose keywords that are specific enough to make sense for your business, but still general enough that people are actually searching for it. Rarely is your main keyword the name of your business. Your webmaster should be able to help you research the right keywords.

Titles – Do a search at Google or any other search engine, and you’ll see that the search term you typed in most likely appears in the title of the pages returned. That’s because the title of the page is one of the best places to put your keywords. So your home page should not be titled “Home Page”. Instead it should use 2-3 of your most important keyword phrases. However, not only is the title field limited, but the more words in the title tends to diminish the importance of all the others.

Content – The pages listed at the top of your search engine results are also likely to have the keyword phrase you entered used through out the text. Pages that have the keyword phrase with the words in the exact order entered will usually rank above other pages that have the same words but in a different order. For example “Ferndale Lodging” returns different results than “Lodging Ferndale”.

So if you have lots of keywords that you want to rank highly for, guess what, you need to have lots of pages in your website so that you can concentrate on only one or two main phrases on each page. Search engines want to direct their customers to good content. That means actual text and not just pretty pictures or whiz-bang animation. It also means you need to have a skillful copywriter who can weave your keywords into your text and have it read intelligently. Don’t think you can get away with just listing all your keywords at the bottom either. Having lots of well written content will improve your search engine rankings and your site traffic more than all the tricks that unscrupulous SEO’s use.

Links (and link exchanges) -A website is an island in a sea of information. You need to help build bridges so people can find their way to your island. One way is to do well in search engine rankings. Another is to build the quantity of quality links from other sites to your site. Let me stress quality links. This doesn’t mean you reply to every email you get requesting reciprocal links. People are going overboard on this whole link exchange thing. When looking at sites to exchange links with, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the other site somehow related in content to mine? Are we likely to share the same customers? You don’t want to trade links with a competitor, but you should have some kind of symbiotic relationship between the two sites.
  • Is it a quality site? Remember when you trade links you’re making a recommendation to your site’s visitors. Send them to a poorly designed site, or a shady business, and it could reflect on your business.
  • Is the other site going to link back to you? Is their links page easy to find from their home page? Many sites that I get link requests from have huge link farms built into their site but you can’t get to them from their home page. Which means you’ll be sending them traffic but they won’t be sending any back your way.
  • Does the request to add a reciprocal link sound like a form letter? Best avoid it, they’re probably link farming.

Google’s Guidelines

Google and other search engines would like everyone to play fairly. Google has even spelled out what they consider the rules to be on their website. You and your webmaster should read the entire page and understand it, but here are the rules in a nutshell. Breaking any of these guidelines could get your website bounced out of the search engines’ databases completely, a risk not worth taking.

http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=35769

Quality guidelines – basic principles

  • Make pages for users, not for search engines. Don’t deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as “cloaking.”
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
  • Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or “bad neighborhoods” on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.
  • Don’t use unauthorized computer programs to submit pages, check rankings, etc. Such programs consume computing resources and violate our Terms of Service. Google does not recommend the use of products such as WebPosition Gold™ that send automatic or programmatic queries to Google.

Quality guidelines – specific guidelines

  • Avoid hidden text or hidden links.
  • Don’t employ cloaking or sneaky redirects.
  • Don’t send automated queries to Google.
  • Don’t load pages with irrelevant words.
  • Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.
  • Don’t create pages that install viruses, trojans, or other badware.
  • Avoid “doorway” pages created just for search engines, or other “cookie cutter” approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content.
  • If your site participates in an affiliate program, make sure that your site adds value. Provide unique and relevant content that gives users a reason to visit your site first.