The Internet is hands down one of the best ways to get customers to come to your business. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process through which a website can move up in search engine results and become more visible. Sadly though, too many people do not understand enough about SEO and either discount it altogether or get taken advantage of by deceptive SEO companies. Deceptive SEO companies use 'black hat' or unethical techniques to get your site to the top of the search engine rankings. The techniques may work well in the short term and bring lots of traffic or great rankings. However, over time they won't produce good, lasting results\u00a0-- or worse\u00a0-- they may get you banned from search engines. And once penalized your site may be practically worthless. The worst part is that many small business owners are not well versed in SEO and may not be aware of the deceptive techniques a company is using. Or they do not examine what their SEO company does to get their site ranked well. First of all, it's important to distinguish between deceptive SEO tactics and tactics that are debated but not necessarily deceptive. Some of these include whether its better to use hyphens, underscores, or no space between keywords in your URLs. Or the best CMS (content management system) and site structure for SEO value. These practices won't prevent your website from being well indexed. Then there are tactics that are clearly deceptive. They usually involve trying to hide or mass-produce something that should happen naturally (or organically) over time. Google has published a lengthy list of deceptive practices. The first sign of a deceptive SEO company is any guarantee of rankings on competitive search keywords. While they may be able to get high rankings for a keyword term that no one searches for (and that is essentially worthless), it is always a red flag when they make guarantees for popular search terms. It's important to remember that SEO companies do not control search results and therefore can't guarantee anything. Instead they can take specific actions to create the best chances of ranking well amongst the hundreds or thousands of other sites. Here is a top five list of some negative or deceptive SEO practices, based on my experience: Putting too many keywords on your web site. If a website repeats words or phrases so often that it's unnatural to read, it's called keyword stuffing and could get the site penalized. Some sites hide keywords in the text or code of the site which have nothing to do with their site. They might use the same words over and over but otherwise give very little information and no news value. You might find web sites that have hundreds of keywords in the footer or bottom of a web page - this is ineffective and your SEO company should not employ these techniques. Overuse of bolded text or too many links. Not only does this look terrible but it also doesn't build trust with people or help your search engine rankings over time. Again, while it's important to create search engine-friendly content, writing for people will be better in the long run. Hidden links. Sometimes these links are hidden in the code of a site or in the footer of a website. They code the site to hide the links or they are the same color as the background so you can't see them. The links are often unrelated to the site but even a huge list of related links that are hidden can hurt you. My blog was recently spammed so that every time it loaded there were links to viagra sites. You couldn't see them but they slowed down my site considerably. I got it cleaned fast because a friend of mine recently had his site banned by Google for the same problem. Complicated link schemes. Google can detect unnatural linking patterns and there are many variations of link schemes. An example is that overnight your site has thousands of links when you did nothing to deserve those links. Some people build programs that add links automatically or that create new web pages or blogs (splogs) full of spam content and links. Multiple domains or subdomains with essentially the same content. These sites or pages have practically the same information but with different keywords. Here's an example I saw when I was looking for a locksmith. When I type in a city name the same site comes up again and again. The only difference is they have a different domain for each city or state. They are not regional but contract out to various cities. The page for Denver is the same as the page for Las Vegas, only with the words "Denver" swapped out for "Las Vegas." There are many variations on this tactic which may work short term but long term they are risky.\u00a0 Example of duplicate content: www.completelocksmith.com/locksmith_city.php?cid=denver www.completelocksmith.com/locksmith_city.php?cid=las vegas The Google webmasters guide says: "In some cases, content is deliberately duplicated across domains in an attempt to manipulate search engine rankings or win more traffic. Deceptive practices like this can result in a poor user experience, when a visitor sees substantially the same content repeated within a set of search results." A good rule of thumb is to create a good experience for your site visitors. This means good, original content or other elements that make people want to link to you. Anything that is artificially creating content or links or interfering with a good user experience on your site should be avoided. In the end, one of the best ways to find out about your SEO company's practices is to ask. Hiring an SEO firm is like hiring any service, you should always take into account what others are saying about them. On my next post I'll go over the traits of a good SEO company. * * * * * About the Author: Janet Meiners Thaeler is an Evangelist for OrangeSoda Inc. and the principal blogger for their corporate blog and Twitter account. She regularly advises clients on blogging and social media strategies. Her own blog is Newspapergrl.com (and Twitter account @newspapergrl). She is passionate about online marketing and is always looking for new insights, resources and trends to help her clients.