12 Gray Hat SEO Tips for Small BusinessSprout Social: Insights is pleased to introduce a new guest poster this week – Sean Enns aka HarbourcitySEO.

Sean is an intelligent, reputable expert in the field of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for small business. Find out more about Sean by following the links in his bio below.

Over to you Sean…

“Build great content and people will link to you”

I’ve heard it, seen it, read it a thousand times over the last 6 years. When I started doing SEO, I even believed it.

I believed that having good, original content to “feed” search engines actually made my site more likely to rank well. Like Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams”, if I built it – they would come.

So I built it. And I waited. And I waited some more.

And nothing happened.

The White Hat Myth

That’s when I realized that building good content just wasn’t enough. Like a preacher I had to evangelize and pound my proverbial fist on the pulpit. Like a pimp I had to push it and make it work for me. Google’s “White Hat” ethical guidelines be damned, I would go as far to the dark side as I could without risking penalization in the hopes of making something stick.

Today, I rank very well for a significant number of keyphrases because I know how to work the system and make it work for me. And now I’m going to share that wisdom with you in what I’ll call my “Dirty Dozen” Gray Hat SEO Tips.

1. Google can’t (always) tell paid links

Google tells us not to ‘buy’ links, or that paid links should be no-followed. I’m not convinced that they can tell the difference. If you can get links organically, good for you – but don’t be afraid to buy a link if a good opportunity arises. This might include a feature piece on a blog, text link on a high profile site or a link from a local directory.

2. Google won’t show you all the links it sees

Google doesn’t display all the links pointing to your site, only a sample. Trust the process of building links, track submissions manually and watch your analytics for results.

3. Syndicate everything

If you write an article, syndicate it to multiple article sites. If you have a media release, do the same. Duplicate content is a reality, but syndication is a gray area that doesn’t have the same rules.

4. Link to yourself as much as possible

There are lots of ways to link to yourself. Create a microblog about a specific topic on Tumblr, Squidoo, WordPress or blogspot. Post photos on Flickr and link back in the descriptions. Link on your Facebook page and via your Twitter profile.

5. Link exchanging still works

The schemes don’t work, but the old adage of “I link to you and you link to me” still works. If you know people you can swap links with, do it – just don’t overdo it (and NEVER use a service, they’re almost always a scam)

6. Buy expired domains

Watch for sites in your niche that are lapsing. Often, there are businesses that don’t make it – but the links pointing to their site are still valuable If you can get a good deal on an expired domain through an auction service like Namejet, buy it and 301 redirect it to a splash page on your website.

7. Go fishing for trackbacks

If you have a blog, spend some time combing the blogs of “A-Listers” in your niche. Instead of commenting on their blog, write your thoughts on your own with a link to the original article. You may get a trackback link, and a link like that from a high-profile blogger is worth its weight in gold.

8. Internal links count

Links on your own site still carry weight, just not as much. Instead of linking to your homepage with index.html or the equivalent, link with the absolute URL of your domain (www.yoursite.com). Additionally, use anchors (ie: the ‘a href’ tag ) to split up long pages and create additional link juice within the page.

9. Be a sheep

My rule of thumb is to do whatever the competitors are doing “plus one”. A quick and dirty “linkdomain:mycompetitorssite.com” query in Yahoo will tell you who’s linking to them, and who you could be getting links from.

10. Non-commercial links are better than commercial links

It used to be all the rage to get links from edu and .gov sites. That got manipulated, so it’s less the rage now. I still think links from non-commercial sites are better, so if you can get a link from a purely informational site or popular not for profit site, do it.

11. Have a lifestream

A lifestream is an aggregate of your social activity and a great way to have a constant stream of fresh content hooked into your website without doing any extra work. It takes less than a day to set one up.

12. Canonical URLs matter

I choose to think that canonical, in the context on SEO, means “the ruling URL”.

Most sites have at least four versions of their home page (with and without the www, with and without the index.html). But good SEO dictates that you create one ‘canonical’ page to rule them all.

Google offers some degree of canonicalization through their webmaster console, but I wouldn’t trust their system to handle it. It’s a five minute job to write up an .htaccess file of your own to manage rogue URLs and well worth the effort.

Gray is OK!

If you think that the above strategies seem perfectly reasonable, then believe it or not, you’re part of the ‘shades of gray’ SEO camp. But that’s OK.

After all, wouldn’t you rather have a top three ranking on Google and a hat that’s a little bit dirty than a clean white hat and business listing that never gets found?

Let me know by leaving a comment below and the good folks at Sprout Social: Insights may feature you on an upcoming Fan Friday post.