When a company undertakes a search engine optimization program, whether it is performed in-house or outsourced to an SEO service, most of the attention (and rightly so) is focused on the company website. This is the one aspect where there is a feeling of control--once a website is released into the wild, the company will have to see how its site fares against all the other websites out there, whether the other sites are using ethical SEO tactics or not.
Apart from changes made to the company website, the assumption is often that the company and, if it is using one, its SEO service, has zero control over what appears in search engine results. However, this is not usually the case. Often, you or your SEO service can have a direct effect on search engine results by monitoring your competitors and reporting them to the major search engines when the SEO techniques used on their site fall outside what is popularly referred to as ethical SEO. (Please note that while I believe that the word "ethical" is tossed around too often, "ethical SEO" has become the standard phrase to describe white hat techniques, and so it is the phrase I use throughout the article.)
To start with, let's define competitors. Almost every company has at least a handful of other companies that it considers to be primary competitors--the ones that sell the same products and services, that are of similar size, and so on. It is important that the SEO efforts (or lack thereof) of these competitors, whether they are using ethical SEO techniques or not, be monitored on a routine basis. If they have not hired an SEO service of their own, or if they have not started doing SEO in-house at all, you will have peace of mind knowing that the use of this channel, for the moment, is yours. If your competitors begin an SEO campaign, with or without an outside SEO service, you can learn much about their sales and marketing tactics by evaluating the keyphrases that they target. And you can also investigate whether they are using ethical SEO practices in their campaign.
Your Online Competitors
It's important to keep in mind that it is unlikely that searchers are going to decide only between you and the primary competitors you have listed. They are going to consider any company that matches their particular needs and that shows up for their search term. This is why your criteria for a competitor online should broaden to encompass any company that offers products or services like yours that outranks you for any of your targeted keyphrases. If your in-house staff or your SEO service not only continually monitors your search engine positions but also analyzes the companies that appear above you in search results, you can often identify forward-looking competitors of which you were previously unaware--your primary competitors of tomorrow.
This brings us to the key issue of ethical SEO. Search engine optimization is still a very new concept to most companies. Even the most respected companies can make mistakes in this arena, either by choosing the wrong SEO service, or by trying to avoid hiring an SEO service altogether by bringing it in house with well-intentioned but unqualified people. For example, BMW's German site was recently removed temporarily from the Google index for using doorway pages--something that is not considered an ethical SEO practice. It stands to reason that your competitors are also not immune to violations.
There are very notable examples of otherwise smart and established companies hiring an SEO service that put them in a worse situation than before they pursued SEO--by getting their site removed from major search engines for violating the engine's terms of service, for example. Not long ago, there was a well-publicized example where most of the clients of a Las Vegas SEO service were penalized. Almost all of the clients claimed that they were not informed that the firm was not practicing ethical SEO and that they were therefore at risk.
SEO firms are generally divided into two camps--those called "White Hats" (those that use ethical SEO practices and will never knowingly violate a search engine's terms of service) and those called "Black Hats" (those that do not use ethical SEO practices and that will attempt to unravel the latest algorithms and exploit any loopholes to achieve rankings at any cost). Neither approach is invalid--it is not against the law to violate the terms of service of a search engine. Moreover, black hat techniques can be quite effective. However, the tactics are risky, and anyone hiring an SEO service that wears a black hat and does not use ethical SEO practices should definitely be apprised of this risk up front.
Firms are often tempted to avoid hiring an SEO service by performing SEO in-house, and the project almost always falls onto an already overburdened IT department. The problem with approaching SEO from a strictly technical mindset is that the strategies employed, such as the keyphrases targeted, will not necessarily be in line with the goals of the marketing and sales departments. In addition, an IT resource will usually approach SEO from a purely technical standpoint, without being aware of ethical SEO practices, and this can lead to trouble. Penalization is a very real possibility, and it is hard to get back onto an index once your site has been removed.
A thorough SEO service will monitor not only the handful of competitors that you deem crucial but also the sites that appear higher than you for any of your chosen search phrases. This may be somewhat controversial, especially to any SEO service or webmaster that uses tactics forbidden by the search engines' terms of service. However, many white hat SEO service firms consider it an obligation to their clients to routinely monitor the sites of any competitor found on the engines to be sure it is using ethical SEO techniques.
There is a reason that every major search engine has a form to report sites who do not use ethical SEO tactics and who violate the terms of service so that these sites can be subsequently penalized or removed. Spam filters cannot catch all violations without also removing a large number of good sites. Search engines rely on their users to help them to keep their indexes clean and free of sites not using ethical SEO tactics. There are many techniques to spam an engine--far too many to list. However, a good SEO service not only knows what all of these techniques are but knows how to identify them when it sees them so they can be reported to the engine accurately.
The End Result
Business is business, and your interests often run directly counter to that of your competitors. When you report a website that is not using ethical SEO, it is very likely that it will be removed. This means there is one less company that you need to worry about in the online arena, at least for the time being. If the site in question outranked yours, you also get the added benefit of seeing your rankings improve as the violating pages are removed--provided, of course, that you are using ethical SEO techniques and steering clear of violations yourself, or you may be reported by a competitor of yours or its SEO service!
The engine also benefits from users reporting violations. Engines do not like people trying to trick their indexes, since there might then be pages showing up for particular search terms that are not actually relevant to those terms. Clearly, search engines understand this benefit--if the engines thought they could weed out all the spam themselves, they would not provide a reporting system. Supporting such a system, after all, is not free. Real people employed by the engine have to visit the offending pages to confirm that they are not using ethical SEO tactics.
In the notable example cited earlier of the firm that got most of its clients penalized, the owner of the SEO service in question was quoted as saying, "Google can kiss my ass. This is the Wild Wild West." He may be right--maybe it is the Wild Wild West. But there are a whole bunch of new sheriffs in town--and they are wearing white hats.