Did you know?

Your com­pa­ny is pay­ing to be on the first page of Google search results.

Let me explain.

You’re either pay­ing up to $65+ a click for AdWords ads (PPC). Or you’re pay­ing some­one to cre­ate con­tent and opti­mize your web­site for search (SEO). Or you’re pay­ing in terms of lost sales to com­peti­tors who are doing the first two.

In any case, there’s a cost to rank­ing high­ly in Google. You either pay direct­ly or indi­rect­ly.

Here’s one rea­son: In Feb­ru­ary 2016, Google elim­i­nat­ed paid list­ings on the right side of search results. Ads now occu­py up to four of the top search results and anoth­er two or three at the bot­tom. That means unpaid “organ­ic” search list­ings are being squeezed out.

Which makes sense, when you real­ize that approx­i­mate­ly 97% of the rev­enue Google needs to build self-dri­ving cars and vir­tu­al real­i­ty gad­gets still comes from pay-per-click ads.

But it’s get­ting even hard­er to appear in organ­ic search results.

For exam­ple, do a Google search for “water dam­age Min­neapo­lis” and you’ll find four paid list­ings up top, fol­lowed by a “map pack” with three local list­ings, which push­es organ­ic list­ings even far­ther down the page.

And right below the map are list­ings from direc­to­ries like Thumb­tack, Angie’s List, and the Bet­ter Busi­ness Bureau – all of which you have to pay to be fea­tured in.

What this means: Giv­en the intense com­pe­ti­tion to appear in Google search, nobody ranks high­ly for free. It was true once. But not any­more. And the faster you get your head around that con­cept, the bet­ter.

Now here’s anoth­er harsh truth about search: There’s no sin­gle recipe to fol­low if you want your web­site to rank high­ly in Google.

For exam­ple, there’s no for­mu­la for how many words your web page should have … how many times a key­word should appear on a web page … or how many links to include on a web page. None of that mat­ters. No any­more.

When decid­ing which pages to rank high­ly for search, Google uses mul­ti­ple sets of rules, or algo­rithms. One of those is called Latent Seman­tic Index­ing (LSI), which mim­ics the human mind to find pat­terns and mean­ings in web pages.

Exam­ple: a Google search for “shop for apples” could mean you want to buy fruit … but it prob­a­bly means you’re in the mar­ket for a com­put­er. That’s why you’ll see search list­ings point­ing to the near­est Apple Store.

LSI is great for Google users because it picks up on sub­tle dif­fer­ences and shows you rel­e­vant results.

That means LSI is bad for any­one try­ing to game the sys­tem. Because you can only write “lock­smith” or “Chica­go ortho­don­tist” on a web page so many times before Google real­izes that you’re cre­at­ing arti­fi­cial con­tent. And your web­site can be penal­ized as a result.

Cre­at­ing con­tent for Google is real­ly not about Google. It’s about peo­ple — your audi­ence. Who are they? Where are they? What are they search­ing for help with? What do they want? When the con­tent on your web­site answers those ques­tions — and inbound links from oth­er web­sites rec­og­nize that val­ue — Google can rank you high­er.

(A word of warn­ing: Once upon a time, you could rank high­er in Google by pay­ing for inbound links to your web­site. But this end­ed in 2011, when a Google algo­rithm change, code named Pen­guin, penal­ized sites with high num­bers of sus­pi­cious links. Today, mul­ti­ple links to your site from sim­i­lar sources will hurt your rank­ings in Google.)

Speak­ing of sus­pi­cious links, there’s a dark side to search that could effec­tive­ly take your web­site offline by mak­ing it impos­si­ble to find in Google. It’s called neg­a­tive SEO. As the name implies, it’s the exact oppo­site of SEO.

Neg­a­tive SEO is an attack on you by hack­ers, com­peti­tors, or oth­er bad actors. And all they need to do is link to your site from unsa­vory sources. That’s a red flag for Google, which may push your web­site way down in search results or remove it entire­ly.

 That sad part about neg­a­tive SEO is how easy it can be to pull off. Attack­ers don’t need access to your com­put­er net­work or web serv­er. It’s as sim­ple as build­ing back links to your web­site from non­sen­si­cal blog posts, irrel­e­vant for­eign web­sites, or “bad neigh­bor­hoods” like gam­bling, porn, and pay­day loan web­sites.

Yes, Google says it takes steps to pre­vent neg­a­tive SEO from hap­pen­ing. But they can’t catch every­thing. (A Google search for the phrase neg­a­tive seo returns more than 18 mil­lion results, so it is an issue for some peo­ple.)

As easy as neg­a­tive SEO may be to car­ry out, it can be hard to undo. While it’s a sim­ple mat­ter to tell Google that you want to dis­avow 500 link from porn sites, get­ting back to where you ranked in search can take time.

Neg­a­tive SEO is a lot like iden­ti­ty theft: Fill­ing out the forms and dis­avow­ing fraud­u­lent activ­i­ties may take a few hours, but get­ting your cred­it back may take an eter­ni­ty. And this is not a predica­ment any busi­ness own­er can rea­son­ably expect to get out of alone.

Now, more than ever, SEO is a dou­ble-edged sword. Used against you, neg­a­tive SEO can vir­tu­al­ly destroy your busi­ness.

But SEO can help you exploit the fact that 70% of the clicks in Google list­ings are organ­ic, not paid ads, accord­ing to Search Engine Jour­nal. And up to 95.85% of all traf­fic to ecom­merce sites comes from organ­ic search, accord­ing to a 2016 study by Sim­i­lar Web. The chal­lenge, of course, is rank­ing high in organ­ic search.

If you decide to part­ner with an SEO expert, due dili­gence is key.

Look for client case stud­ies, although you should be sus­pi­cious of any exam­ple that men­tions names and spe­cif­ic num­bers. In SEO, con­fi­den­tial­i­ty is a sign of com­pe­tence.

Think about it: If you sud­den­ly ranked high­er in organ­ic search and start­ed get­ting your com­peti­tors’ web traf­fic, would you want to tell the world? That’s why the best case stud­ies are often avail­able only dur­ing a con­fi­den­tial con­sul­ta­tion with an SEO firm.

Also, any good SEO team should run con­tin­u­al exper­i­ments in Google to see what works and what doesn’t. Over The Top SEO exec­u­tives told me they pur­pose­ly try to get their own test web­sites penal­ized, to find out where the lim­its are for eth­i­cal SEO in Google. Then get those sites de-penal­ized and re-list­ed in as lit­tle as five days, to prac­tice recov­er­ing from neg­a­tive SEO.

In oth­er words, sit­u­a­tions that are mys­te­ri­ous or trau­ma­tiz­ing to the aver­age busi­ness own­er should be rou­tine for an SEO expert.

Their cor­po­rate clients find that we can get them very com­pet­i­tive results in organ­ic search. They don’t rank on page one of Google search every­where. No eth­i­cal SEO firm does. But they rarely fall short of any­thing we go after.

Here’s the bot­tom line: Nobody who ranks high­ly in Google got there for free. There’s just too much com­pe­ti­tion. And nobody who gets penal­ized by neg­a­tive SEO can be expect­ed to climb out of that hole by them­selves. Not with­out sophis­ti­cat­ed track­ing tech­niques.

Those are the real­i­ties of search in Google today. Once you rec­og­nize them, you can use them to grow your web­site traf­fic — and your busi­ness.