Search engine optimization (SEO) usually involves using different techniques to manipulate the organic, unpaid, position, and visibility, of pages in the search engine result pages (SERP). There are many websites dedicated to this subject, but most of them do not mention the legal and ethical aspect of SEO. It is important that you carefully consider the different techniques, and their possible consequences, before you decide on using them.
While there are things you can do to improve visibility in search, it is mostly limited to on-page optimizations. The rest of the different techniques are either illegal, or in best-case, highly questionable. The temptation for website owners to engage in these off-page activities is huge, and they will sometimes try to make up complex excuses to justify what they are doing.
A commonly used technique is link-building, which may involve illegal activities, such as hacking, or spamming other websites. But even when the techniques are not illegal, the only purpose of using them is to get a higher search engine ranking, and as such, they will usually be very dubious.
Black-hat vs White-hat SEO
In general, the SEO process can be divided into two camps. One consisting of, mostly good, on-page techniques. And one consisting of bad off-page techniques. This is very broadly speaking, as there are also on-page techniques which could be considered black-hat, and vise-versa.
On-page techniques involves things like, making sure that keywords and keyphrases are mentioned in the body text of your pages. Use of HTML tags such as title, and heading elements. And ensuring that you have a good, accessible, site-structure. These are all good, and recommended ways to improve your site.
Off-page techniques are usually black-hat, and focused on link-building. Common ways to build links include posting on forums and blogs, or even outright buying of links on other websites. In the past, directories, or so called link farms, were also very popular ways to build links.
In general, link-building should be avoided. However, it is not always illegal to build links. Some ways to build links are obviously not legal. I.e. Hacking or spamming. Other ways, such as buying the links, might be legal, but they are still highly questionable.
If in doubt on a topic, read what the search engines has to say about it. While Google is likely the current authority when it comes to quality information on search, Yahoo has also released information on SEO. So, have a look around, and try to read as much official information as possible.
Do indirect SEO
The goal is not to gain links, but to get better search engine rankings. The basic idea is, if you are building a high-quality site, your ranking will also improve over time. After all, the position of your pages in the SERPs is determined by much more than just links. According to Google, they have just over 200 different ranking factors!
Spending the extra time citing your sources, doing original research, or inventing something new is well worth it. If you do this, then you are almost guaranteed to get good search engine rankings, and competitors will be non-existent. In fact, your future competitors might even work to boost your sites reputation, as they will be forced to link back to you as the original source.
Sadly, the above is not always the case, as some websites are just stealing information, rewriting it, and re-posting it as their own. But the majority of reputable sites will likely be on your site. So, be unique! and work on your reputation!
Search engines are not perfect
In highly competitive areas, it will be impossible to decide which pages deserve to rank the highest. The fact that a given page has more links or more visitors, does not necessarily make it the best choice. This problem calls for a compromise. People simply has to agree on letting the algorithm do what it does, without trying to manipulate it. An algorithmic decision can be much more fair than a human decision (no conflict of interest).
A possible way to overcome ranking difficulties, is to be original. So rather than trying to change your current position, simply put more of an effort into being original. When you are the first to write about something, you will also find it easier to rank for said subject. An obvious way to be original is to invent something new, and then start writing about it.
Obviously, this is not a viable solution for all types of websites. Internet shops may face great ranking difficulties, and there are no obvious solution. Perhaps in the future, if search engines start ranking items in internet shops based on price or reviews rather than using the general ranking factors.
Be careful when hiring SEO experts
Normally, it should not be necessary to hire an SEO expert. If you already got a decent site-structure, the potential for white-hat improvements will be very limited, and not worth the investment.
If you are contacted by an SEO expert, then you should be extra skeptical about the services they offer. Some SEOs might also incorrectly categorize the techniques they are using as white-hat, when in fact they are black-hat.
Be very skeptical if techniques include off-page activities, such as link-building. Paid links should be no-followed, but may still provide you with traffic and publicity.
Also, simply ignore e-mails from SEO experts, as they are known to send out spam messages to website owners. Those who are marketing their services this way, are most likely not very skilled, and can not be trusted.