Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

Legit SEO: Embrace Your Inner Scammer to Make an Honest Living

It’s said that crime doesn’t pay… but apparently, it does.

Because scammer strategies work.

Whether it’s straight up fraud or technically-legal-but-still-shady black hat SEO tricks, taking short cuts has traditionally positioned short term bumps as an attractive trade-off for long term business growth.

Even J.C. Penney got away with it for a time.

But all gravy trains have a station, and even the mighty J.C. Penney was slapped down by Google. So how do you resist the allure of short term gains in favor of long term business growth and avoid the mighty smackdown of a Google search engine algorithm update?

If you want to run a legit business but have a hard time resisting the black hat, here are some strategies scammers and lazy marketers use to reel in the unsuspecting and improve a site’s standing in search results — with tips on how to “launder” them to use for good instead of evil.

I wonder what they sell.

Keyword Stuffing

Shady Strategy

Back when search engines were only a few steps above card catalogs, rankings were determined by simple formulas that placed heavy emphasis on keyword volume and incoming links. Based on these algorithms, keyword stuffing became a popular strategy: stick the keyword or phrase that would bring in the most targeted users into your content as often as possible.

Google has its big boy pants on now and has changed its algorithm many times over the years in an attempt to bring searchers relevant and trusted content. No longer does repeating the word “wedding dress” 874 times in a row give you the top spot.

Laundered Version

Keyword stuffing – as in unreadable, worthless content with a high percentage of target keyword or phrase mentions – does not boost rankings the way it used to. The new hotness is keyword rich content. That means that if you want people looking for “Superman wedding cake toppers”, you’d better include keywords and phrases related to that topic along with that key phrase itself, such as “wedding figurines” and “cake topper ideas.” Good SEO helps people find what they need instead of annoying them.

No points for spelling either.

Public Relations

Shady Strategy

Once too many poor reviews hit the complaint boards and too many formal complaints are made against a specific scam “company” (Quotation marks are included, because many of these “companies” are likely operating under one umbrella company), the referrals slow down, and the URL mysteriously disappears… only to set up shop somewhere else.

However, to buy time, the scammers respond to publicly posted complaints with the apparent attempt to work things out. If they respond at all to private contacts, it’s often to ask for pictures or direct the customer to have the mistakes taken care of locally with promise of reimbursement. Issues are rarely, if ever, resolved, and the already defrauded customer may be cheated out of even more money in “processing” fees.

Laundered Version

If you are addressed publicly by an unsatisfied customer, respond publicly (even if it’s just to direct that person to contact you privately). You show other customers that you aren’t ignoring negative feedback, and you show the complainer you’re willing to draw even more attention to it in order to affirm trust in your brand.

When a customer contacts you privately, it makes sense to ask for evidence when appropriate (e.g., photos of damage), but drawing out the returns process into an episode of Law & Order is only going to turn an annoyed customer whose brand loyalty may be salvageable into a raving, anti-your-company activist. Be thorough, but keep the process quick and easy like Victoria’s Secret and Amazon.

Hang out with me?

Buying Friends and Followers

Shady Strategy

Which brand seems more reputable – the one with 176 Facebook fans or the one with 3,485 Facebook fans? Customers love jumping on a bandwagon and feel safer trusting a company that appears to have a lot of support already. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter show nice, clear numbers of fans and followers which means that a company’s support is on display. Scammers know this, and, like on Pinterest, create fake accounts or hire others to do it for them to boost the numbers. Since profiles can be locked for privacy, all they really need is a name and a picture.

Laundered Version

Buying friends on Facebook is just about the same as buying friends in real life. You may get boosts in superficial parameters, but that doesn’t mean those friends are potential customers who will engage with or promote your content. Plus, these friend farms are often scams themselves.

Taking an entirely “organic” approach (i.e., waiting around for potential customers to stumble across your page by happy accident) isn’t the answer either. Invest time and resources in some of the strategies below to increase your fan base and, more importantly, fan engagement, on social media sites.

  • Create contests that require fans to post pictures of your products in use.
  • Include questions and fill-in-the-blank prompts as a call to action.
  • Post at the right time of day, and not too often.
  • Switch to Facebook Timeline.
  • Share industry-relevant content that your ideal customer would benefit from.

For more info on how to increase fan engagement on social media, check out the articles at PR Daily, Milestone Insights, and Social Media Examiner.

I just need your social security number and brains.

Wrap Up

Scammers are the zombies to the legit business’s colony of survivors in the early days after the apocalypse; the focus is on managing the threat and living to see the next day rather than total defeat of the undead. With these simple tips, you’ll be taking head shots left and right and clearing a path to a more fortified location.

Have you learned anything else from taking notes on the scammers’ tactics? Will there ever be a way to get rid of scamming for good? Sound off in the comments below!

Until next time, keep expanding your brand!

Zombie photo by Josh Jensen from Toronto, Ontario, Canada (Blue Eyed Zombie) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Bubba is the Quality Logo Products mascot. He may have started out as "just a stress ball," but he's come a long way since the company's launch in 2003. Bubba has been immortalized in numerous vector artwork designs for internal and external promotions, and you can see him change outfits on the Quality Logo Products homepage whenever a holiday rolls around. Oh, and he thinks pants are for the birds. You can connect with Bubba on


  1. Jeff Porretto

    What an excellent summary of great SEO practices Jana! I’ve read that Google itself has encourage people to optimize their pages with this type of info for no other reason than it typically makes great sites! It might feel like you’re gaming the system, but really you’re just making your site what people searching google WANT it to be! It’s a WIN-WIN!

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks, Jeff. Google does its best to keep its algorithm secret, but they will always have someone trying to figure them out and take a short cut. As annoyed as I am at getting smacked down (occasionally) with their updates, I understand the updates are designed to weed out the cheaters.

  2. amy

    Great post, Jana! I’m still a n00b when it comes to SEO and Google practices, so this was extremely helpful!! Thank you!

    Ps. I had no idea JC Penney got in trouble with their web practices, hmmm…. interesting.

    • Jana Quinn

      J.C. Penney is definitely shady. They’re all like, “What? The separate marketing consultant firm did it!” But you know they noticed they were getting ridiculous rankings and weren’t exactly going to turn themselves in. I’m sure as soon as they got the smackdown, they were all about “setting an example” with that company.

  3. Eric

    In my experience, keyword stuffing is sometimes a very valuable tool to use when, say, listing items on Ebay. Especially if they’re more unique than most, and people wouldn’t search for them directly. However, in order to maintain the fact your item is legitimate, you do want to use words directly related to your item.

    Interesting post, Jana!

    • Jana Quinn

      I can definitely see how keyword stuffing on eBay is successful. However, it’s an entirely different animal than “real” content. For eBay, the goal is to purchase a specific item. For content marketing/blogging, it’s to create a relationship with prospects and aim for return visits.

      Great point, though. I didn’t think of the eBay angle.

  4. Alex Brodsky

    Cool post, Jana! I understood about half the things covered by it.

    It’s hard to believe that switching over to Facebook Timeline has such a huge effect on fan engagement. I’ve yet to switch to Timeline, so maybe that’s why I haven’t gotten any new Facebook friends lately *sniffle* :’-(

    P.S. If there’s one thing life has taught me, it’s that crime DOES pay, as long as you’re not an idiot about it. Now who wants to go rob a bank with me?

    • Jana Quinn

      You’re doing better than me, Alex. I only understood about 1/3 of it. 😉

  5. Mandy Kilinskis

    Excellent post, Jana! It’s nice to know that those bottom-feeder scammers can teach us something about legitimate business.

    As for something else we can learn from scammers – many of their deals are too good to be true. You can also price or package in an attractive manner. Keep your deals fair, but maybe toss in a lifetime guarantee or extended warranties. 🙂

    • Jana Quinn

      Too good to be true indeed. A lot of folksy sayings are pretty useless, but maintaining the realistic viewpoint that things that seem too good to be true probably are is pretty safe bet.

  6. Rachel

    Great idea for a post, Jana! It hadn’t ever occurred to me how much legit companies can learn from the shady ones. I’m enjoying that screengrab of fishinthesky’s lame attempts at responding to complaints … such eloquence. Anyway, thanks for the tips! 🙂

    • Jana Quinn

      Yeah, they suck pretty bad.

      In terms of learning things, I’ve always thought that anything temporarily or partly successful has a spark of inspiration that caused the idea/company to catch fire, so if there’s a way to fan it productively, you can turn it into an inferno of marketing power.

      Okay, that metaphor spiraled out of control. But the point is that underlying any success is something you can pull out for your own ends. Just make sure Google and the authorities are on your side.

  7. Cybernetic SAM

    I have never been scammed. In fact I am so good I am going to get $1 million just for lending my bank account number to the PRINCE OF NIGERIA! 😛 Just kidding, this was a really informative post, a lot of this stuff I had no idea how good companies were at doing this! I am always sooooo hesitant when I receive an offer I can’t refuse and seems too good to be true. In fact, I just won a prize package from a radio station that I did enter so I hope everything is as it seems. Unlike those random phone calls where companies are like, “heeeeeey friend guess what? You won a cruise and a car, but all you have to do is blah blah blah….” Or those Penny Mailers where you can get five CDs for a penny! I hated the temptation they create and the frustration of knowing better. I almost feel like I have lost absolute faith in anything being legit any more because of companies like this.

    • Jana Quinn

      I think this sums up the scammers’ advantage perfectly: “I hated the temptation they create and the frustration of knowing better.”

      Scammers create temptation that overrules that “knowing better” part, making people who think they even have the tiniest chance of getting that amazing deal weigh the risks and go against their gut instincts.

      Great points, Sam.

  8. Jenna Markowski

    This is an excellent, informative post, Jana! That article about J.C. Penney was insane. I can’t believe they tried to shlep the blame onto their SEO company and then act like they reaped no benefit whatsoever from being ranked #1 for so many keywords. It’s a shame that so many scammers can get away with those same shenanigans. However, I love how you turned their shady practices into useful practices for real brands. Very nice work!

    PS. I love the caption on that last photo. 🙂

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks, Jenna. What big corporations get away with is a whole different blog post. But if the positive contributing factor can be identified and a legit way to reach it can be found, then their shadiness is a bonus for honest companies.

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