This post originally appeared as a feature story in Mini Storage Messenger, where StorageAhead regularly contributes advice pieces on marketing self storage.

Any time unpaid search traffic is artificially driven to a website – rather than through intrinsic means like relevant text, regular updates, and reputation among consumers – it is known as “black hat” search engine optimization (SEO).

Black hat tactics are originally conjured up by clever hackers who figure out how to game a search engine’s system. Then, SEO “specialists” around the world quickly catch on and trace the hackers’ steps in droves. To-date, more than a dozen black hat tactics have come to light, including:

  • Link buying or farming

  • Hidden text or links

  • Duplicate content

  • Tag spamming or stuffing

  • Doorway pages

  • Cloaking

  • Article spinning

  • Purchasing expired domains

  • Spamming comments

  • Mirror websites

  • URL redirects

  • Hitting trackbacks

I guess it’s understandable why companies “cheat” on SEO. It can be tough – darn near impossible even – for a small or new business to compete against big established brands with huge budgets and consumer awareness. The Internet is no longer the level playing field it once was. And black hat SEO looks enormously effective for boosting the little guy’s website listing—fast.

Regrettably, a prominent search listing achieved by way of black hat won’t last; it’s a high-risk solution. That’s because reputable search engines like Google work hard to detect black hat techniques as fast as they’re invented. It’s in Google’s best interest to provide its users with the most relevant results every time; otherwise search traffic will swirl down the proverbial toilet, along with gazillions in ad revenue.

“We cannot tolerate Web sites trying to manipulate search results as we aim to provide users with the relevant and objective search results.” – Google spokeswoman

Once Google catches a website climbing toward page one of its search engine by using black hat SEO techniques, punishment is swift and sometimes severe. Google’s “spam cops” either push down an offender’s listing via universal changes to its search algorithm, or manually drop the offender from the search index altogether. Yipe!

“Google may temporarily or permanently ban any site or site authors that engage in tactics designed to distort their rankings or mislead users in order to preserve the accuracy and quality of our search results.” – Google spokeswoman

In SEO circles, this is called the “death penalty.” No company – regardless of its size or ad spend on Google – is immune. And losses to a business can be devastating.

For example, Gourmet Gift Baskets lost 80% of its web traffic when it was penalized by Google; owner Ryan Abood estimated sales losses at $4 million as a result. In another notable case, BMW.de was kicked off for three days and lost at least 10% of its traffic. And most recently, retail giant JC Penney got a big Google spanking. In just one day, many of JC Penney’s natural (unpaid) Google listings fell by sixty pages!

Even though there are over 200 million domains out there to contend with, Google’s spam chief Matt Cutts says Google’s Webspam team is getting better and better at battling spammers; it’s only a matter of time before black hatters are caught.

“Is Google going to take strong corrective action? We absolutely will.” – Matt Cutts, the famous head of Google’s Webspam team

The fact of the matter is, “white hat” SEO is the only way to guarantee that a website can climb to page one while also staying on Google’s good side.

But unlike black hat, sustainable white hat SEO requires a big investment of time and effort to catch up – and keep up – with evolving search algorithms. It takes a steady application of study, common sense, and unyielding ethics to climb to Google’s first page (which gets more than 95% of total search clicks).

“Get the on-page stuff right—that’s easy. Target the right keywords—again, easy. Earn large numbers of links from diverse, high quality sources with descriptive anchor text— that’s crazy hard .”  – Rand Fishkin, CEO of SEOmoz

That’s why many self storage owners turn to established web agencies and platforms for help—like the dozen “directories” that have hit the self storage scene in the past few years: StorageFront, US Storage Search, Sparefoot, Self Storage Finders, I Need Storage, Storitz, Find Storage Fast… Ugh, I need a nap just thinking about them all. And I get the sinking feeling they’ll keep coming.

In truth, it’s a smart choice to subscribe to an industry platform. Any one of these directories probably has better odds of getting a self storage facility to the top of Google than a facility has on its own.

It all comes down to SEO expertise and economies of scale. Competing against big players with sophisticated marketing departments like Public Storage and Extra Space is virtually impossible for a little fish in the self storage search pond. Directories have the advantage of pooling facilities together to entice Google.

The question is, which directory has the best odds of quality, long term visibility for a self storage facility?

By all outward appearances, these platforms each look like they each provide self storage clients with a quality combination of code, content, layout and links for better Google visibility—which is worth every penny, frankly; analytics show that a good, natural page-one listing is worth at least three times that of an ad, and ads can run thousands of dollars per month. Ka-ching!

But look closer.

Marketing platforms and directories are just as desperate as their self storage clients to reach the top of Google quickly, and some will do just about anything to get there—including “cheat.”

It’s a huge risk for both them and their clients—just ask Gift Baskets, BMW and JC Penney. If a self storage operator is counting on a shifty directory to improve visibility and Google finds out, that operator’s listings could disappear indefinitely. And with search engines commanding the virtual world of local search – including up to 90% of prospective renters – it could put a sizable dent in a storage business.

In recent years, the black hat scheme that has been at the top of Google’s poop-list is phony linkbuilding. There are several methods of artificially boosting inbound links, from buying links to exchanging links to building vast mazes of extraneous link-packed websites. The lengths that black hatters will go to boost rank can be awe-inspiring.

Black hat linkbuilding isn’t “illegal” but it ticks off Google something fierce—so says a recent article published in the New York Times, “Dirty Little Secrets of Search.” That’s because inbound links from other reputable websites have become a major piece of Google’s search puzzle. In other words, Google rank is now largely determined by what other sites are saying about a website—up to 75%.

What influences PageRank pie chart

Even if Google doesn’t catch an individual company cheating, it has stipulations in its algorithm to automatically detect black hat linkbuilding. For example, if a website suddenly has hundreds of inbound links where it previously had zero, Google’s bots know something isn’t right. Its detection techniques are a mystery, but according to Google there are over 200 signals that impact a search result.

“We tried buying a link package once, for an A/B test back during the construction of StorageFront. We’ll never do it again,” said Lesley Latham, Web Visibility Manager at StorageFront.

“The results surprised – and scared – us. Google didn’t call, didn’t write us threatening emails—but analytics showed us that the pages on our site with paid inbound links actually fared worse in Google than the pages with zero links. Lesson learned? Cheating on links is just asking for trouble. Sure, white hat linkbuilding is slow and painful and everybody hates it. But it’s necessary if you want lasting results.”

“Think SEO when you’re designing your business, not after.”  – Rand Fishkin

The wrath of Google is real. It’s important to understand the risks and rewards when choosing to sign up with an industry directory to boost a facility’s rank. To play it safe, operators should stick with classy SEO services and self storage directories with a history of white hat work. Credible, publicly accessible web tools like OpenSiteExplorer.com enable anyone to double-check.

Here are a few more attributes to look for in a white hat directory or SEO resource:

  1. Links come from topically-related sites with solid fan bases, decent traffic, and good rank. Links can be researched using a checker like Compu-rx.com; rank can be checked on PRChecker.com.

  2. Links appear with varied anchor text—i.e. the text that’s hyperlinked should be a range of keywords, like “self storage,” “mini storage,” “self storage in Houston,” etc.

  3. Links have increased slowly and seem appropriate in number for self storage and related industries (this looks more natural and ethical to Google).

website authority for self storage

Number of external followed links vs. Relative mean link quality

The number of years you've been online can help with SEO

SEO and web visibility are long-term investments.  No matter how a self storage operator approaches web or which directories he/she chooses to work with, it’s important not to expect the world overnight.  When it comes to search engines, slow and steady wins the race.

This story was coauthored by Carrie Royce and Robert Zhou. Major sources for this story include SEOmoz.com, OpenSiteExplorer.com, NewYorkTimes.com, SearchEngineLand.com, Inc.com, CNN.com and Google.com.