With all of the breaking news about censorship of search engines and blogs lately, I’ve been thinking about how this could impact SEO. Although I didn’t find a lot of information directly addressing this question, I found a very interesting blog post by Nick Lewis which covered a related issue.

What he talks about is censorship through black-hat SEO. Black-hat SEO is a common term in the search engine industry, meaning unethical techniques to artificially inflate the importance of your site to search engines. I’ve thought about this before as something which any search engine optimization professional or consumer should be aware of, but never felt any need to investigate the principles in depth.

Of course, it had never occurred to me that somebody might use those techniques to maliciously damage your site’s reputation!

How could this work? Well, Nick Lewis talks about his own experience as a victim of SEO spam, in which he received comments on a blog article which simply used a main keyword of his post repeated hundreds of times. The same term also existed in the three most important locations in the page – in the page TITLE, in the article HEADER, and frequently in the article content. When placed in such a manner in a comment, it is not possible for Google to differentiate the page from an unethical attempt to trick the search engines.

Had his page not contained the keyword in those three prominent locations, it’s possible that Google would have realized that this was not an attempt at SEO spam. However, as it was, the page was quickly dropped from search engines.

This particular method of malicious SEO can easily be prevented. If you monitor your comments closely, or preferably preview all comments before allowing them to be posted, you can always remove questionable comments. However, there are other techniques that can be as damaging and harder to deal with.

One common black-hat technique is the use of link farms – free for all websites which provide unquestioning outbound links. This can easily be used maliciously against a competitor. If you submit your competitors website to dozens of link farms, perhaps using automated submission tools, search engines will quickly identify that change, damaging the site’s position.

What can be done about this? Well, unfortunately, it’s not clear that there is any way to prevent it. All you can do is be vigilant. Nick concludes his article very effectively, which I’ll quote here:

The Internet is free, but like a democracy, a free Internet requires
vigalince [sic]. My personal view is that protecting our right to be listed high
on a google search is as important, to virtual world, as protecting our
freedom of speech is to the physical world. To be listed on some google
search is to be heard, to be delisted is to be silenced. When you’ve been
silenced, you’ve been censored. Its as simple as that.

The techniques described in this post are unethical and use of them could result in legal consequences. This post should be construed as condemning these techniques, and is in no way a recommendation of them.