October 18, 2007

SEO gone awry

My wife's church is in the market for a web-based ChMS, so I thought I'd check out Church Community Builder. Imagine my surprise to discover questionable search engine optimization (SEO) on their home page.

First, notice the obvious keyword stuffing on the right side of the page. Then, look in the barely-readable footer and notice more keyword stuffing.

Second, turn off CSS and notice that the keywords are enclosed in h1 tags. Those aren't titles at all and they're being obscured by clever use of CSS. In my view, it's a form of cloaking to put h1 tags around things that aren't titles, making them appear huge and important to search engine crawlers, while using CSS to make those things appear small and unimportant to humans. This is the most concerning thing I see on the page.

Finally, while it's not a bad SEO technique per se, I have a negative impression of any company or organization that tries to optimize for competitors' company names and product names. This is certainly something we wouldn't engage in ourselves. That is, we wouldn't try to optimize our site to capture people searching for another church down the street by name. Similarly, we wouldn't buy search engine advertising related to another church or its programs. Instead, we'd focus on trying to help people find us who are looking for us. If they're looking for another church by name, we'd want them to find that church, not us.

Two days ago I sent an e-mail to Chris Fowler, the president of the company about this. He vigorously defended his company and their SEO practices while saying that he would be open to my point of view. I explained my concern and how to fix it. So far he hasn't responded further or changed the home page.

What do you think? Does it give you a negative impression of the company? How would you advise Chris in this situation?

6 comments:

David S. said...

I would support your position Clif. I don't object to SEO, when it is used to increase the visibility of a normal site by making a few tweaks here and there. Not sure who would; it's always nice to be findable in search engines! However, CCB seems to be misusing SEO techniques, which I believe is against the spirit of the Google guidelines at least, if not other search engines. The misuse of H1 tags and the fact that the competitor terms in the footer link to the CCB website and not to their respective companies (SEO and blogging tips these days recommend not being afraid to link to other sites, even competitors, because people will find them anyway and what are you hiding?).

I didn't pay attention to these issues when I briefly looked at the CCB website a week or two ago when I received a promotional email about them in the form of a Christian Computing Magazine marketing email. I have no problem with them advertising in CCM, but I wonder if Steve Hewitt is aware of their SEO techniques? They are a bit hidden to the casual surfer--which I suppose is the real problem to begin with.

Thanks for bringing this up Clif!

Jerry Weinstock said...

Clif,

Having a little experience in the area of building Internet Strategies for commercial companies ( http://www.ibizinitiatives.com/metcalfbank.asp) I will share with you a few of my thoughts. Although I won’t point out publically several mistakes CCB made which would work to their benefit if they corrected them.

1. I wouldn’t worry too much about the hidden H1 tags at the bottom of the page affecting their search engine positioning (contact me off line and I will tell you why).
2. What I would worry about is the page ranking they have been given by Google (6/10 – a very high ranking) and how they likely ‘earned’ it. Core to Google’s IP is ranking pages based on inbound links – quality and quantity. My laymen’s example of how this works is simple: Imagine you are in a room with 20 IT people and 12 stand up and say ‘Clif Guy is the best baseball player they ever met’. That has some credibility but doesn’t have as much weight as if George Brett stated that he thought you were the best baseball player he ever met. Google puts more emphasis on quality than quantity. So here is where I think (and unless I worked for Google on their technology team and had privy to their IP I wouldn’t let anyone use any other word than ‘think’) they are doing well – they have 485 websites (cor.org has 145) that are providing inbound links to the CCB website. Google gives more weight to sites with .org or .gov when they link to you vs. .com or .net. Since most of the Church websites are .org they are looking good because of it. These links are on the footer of the sites that use their software. What I find interesting about this is the common thinking that links back to a site don’t have credibility (or little) if they originate from the same/similar IP address as the linked to site. In this case the few that are tested are all on the same IP address 205.234.170.164

Possible courses of action:
1. The companies that own the trademarks at the bottom of the CCB site should tell CCB to remove them immediately and if not send a complaint email to Google. From experience I know that contacting Google does work, it just takes a while.
2. Anytime we are uncomfortable with a company’s business practice the best way we can tell them what we think is to not buy from them. I do it all the time.

Even with the tactics they have selected to use, they still are outranked by a half dozen competitors.

David S. said...

That's some good info Jerry!

I think your number 2 about not buying is key, and that's one reason I'm glad Clif posted about this. If people don't realize what's going on and/or why it's bad, they won't even have the knowledge to make the choice not to buy.

Tracy Mazelin said...

Very intersting! I am the webmaster for my church, Lake Center Bible Church and I just finished a class on SEO. However, I found this post because I am researching a Web based Church Management solution for our church. Did you wife ever settle on one??

Clif Guy said...

Tracy: my wife's church is still small so it's been getting along just fine without it. We probably won't start spending money on this until the problem is big enough to demand a solution.

Andreya padty said...
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