The Difference Between Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Manipulation


Anyone with an online business understands the importance of search engine rankings and that the best way to boost your ranking is to use search engine optimization (SEO) tactics. While you’re probably familiar with the idea of SEO, you may be hearing more and more about another, more worrisome, concept: search engine manipulation.

Unfortunately, these two terms are sometimes confused and can make some reluctant to use any tactics to boost their ranking because they don’t want to risk being penalized by Google. But there is no reason to abandon SEO for your website. So, let’s clear up any confusion and separate myth from the real story.

Optimization vs. Manipulation

Search engine optimization can be defined as “the legitimate marketing practice of building web pages that get more visitor referrals from search engines.” This set of accepted, white-hat practices includes:

  • Researching common keyword phrases used to search for your products or services
  • Writing optimized content
  • Improving a website’s technology so that it performs better for users

Adhering to these best practices won’t just bring more traffic to your website, it will also improve the quality of that traffic. Good SEO helps people find what they’re looking for and that leads to more sales and a better reputation for your business.

Search engine manipulation, on the other hand, is the darker side of SEO. It involves tactics that add nothing to the user experience and frequently make it worse. Manipulative tactics include:

  • Keyword stuffing
  • Creating huge numbers of poor-quality pages
  • Building artificial link networks
  • Creating misleading web pages that appear differently to search engines and users

The Gray Area

SEO best practices and black-hat manipulation techniques seem to be worlds apart, so what’s all the confusion about? In real life, the differences between these two sets of tactics aren’t always so clear-cut. Let’s take keywords as an example. Used in moderation, keywords can be a powerful way to optimize your content so that the right users find your website. However, keyword stuffing is nothing more than a manipulative technique that ends up turning people away. Where’s the line drawn between optimizing with keywords and stuffing them?

The fear of a possible Google penalty also fuels the confusion. Black-hat SEO has existed since the advent of search engines, but the definition of “search engine manipulation” has become a hot topic more recently due to a lawsuit involving Google. The suit was filed by e-ventures Worldwide, a company which has had multiple sites banned by Google and is now seeking damages. One document in the lawsuit includes a declaration by Brandon Falls, a search-quality analyst for Google. Falls makes a couple of statements that leave ample room for interpretation:

  • “An important part of providing valuable search results to users is Google’s protection of the integrity of its search results from those who seek to manipulate them for their own gain.”
  • “Accordingly, Google considers search engine manipulation to be extremely serious and expends substantial resources to try to identify and eliminate it.”

These statements have had the SEO community buzzing: What does Google mean by manipulation? Is Google saying that accepted SEO tactics can get you penalized or even banned? A thorough reading of Falls’ full testimony makes it pretty obvious that the term “search engine manipulation” refers to spammy tactics and doesn’t include traditional SEO best practices. Still, the fear-mongering continues. Google could have been a little clearer in the wording of their declaration, but as long as you’re sticking to SEO best practices, there’s really no cause for alarm.

The Last Word

So, what’s the final verdict on white-hat optimization techniques vs. black-hat manipulation tactics? The biggest difference is intent. Optimization focuses on improving the user experience and delivering the most valuable search results. Manipulation relies on deception – misleading both search engines and users in order to achieve success. If you stick with accepted SEO best practices and Google’s own guidelines for your website and your content, you can rise to the top of the search results without any fear of repercussions.


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