Network Solutions: Unethical SEO

Network Solutions displays a real talent for tripping itself up with unethical behavior. Sometimes it gets caught and called on the conduct quickly, as happened when it engaged in domain name tasting. Other times, though, it can continue for months before enough people catch on to make a real stink.

Ordinarily, we’d publish a story about Network Solutions on our Web Hosters web site. As a domain name seller and registry, the company goes back to the early days of the web, before the US government bowed to the pressure to allow competition in domain name registration. This move drove down the price of domain names from $35 per year per name to as little as $6 or less.

You can read about one of the ways that Network Solutions unethically tried to gain greater control of the market here. Basically, every time you visited NetSol’s web site and performed a domain name search using its Whois tool, the company bought the domain name itself if it wasn’t already owned. If you didn’t buy the domain name immediately, you would come back later to discover that Network Solutions was the owner of record. You could only buy the domain from NetSol – and the company’s prices for domain names were and are significantly higher than many other registrars’ prices. NetSol gave the dubious justification that it was trying to protect its customers from domain tasters – but the fact that it was doing so by domain tasting itself escaped no one.

You can read the rest of the story at the link I provided; this article is not about that lovely debacle. It’s about a matter that is even closer to the hearts of the SEOs and web site owners: ethical SEO practices. Or more precisely, it’s about the unethical SEO practices in which Network Solutions is engaging.

If you haven’t received a letter from them yet, this may come as a surprise to you; I only heard about it myself in early March, and Network Solutions has been offering SEO services at least since the middle of last year (and probably longer). In this article, I’m going to look at Network Solution’s apparent guarantee, the fine print on the promise, and the ways in which it violates the principles of ethical SEO. By the time I’m finished, you’ll be well-armed whether the company makes the offer directly to you, or a client tells you that they’ve heard “Network Solutions will do the same thing for me that you’re promising to do – and for less money.”

I can guess what you’re thinking: first Sam’s Club gets into the SEO business, and now this. Network Solutions’ packages look a little different from those Sam’s Club offers, however; at the very least, they’re more expensive. Here’s a bulleted list of their packages and pricing:

  • For 10 keywords and no guarantee, you pay $1800.
  • For 20 keywords and a guarantee for five listings, you pay $2800.
  • For 30 keywords and a guarantee for 10 listings, you pay $3800.
  • For 50 keywords and a guarantee for 20 listings, you pay $5800.

So what is this “guarantee” to which I’m alluding? Here is an image taken from Network Solutions’ own web site:

 

If you look just under the orange bar, even with my having to reduce this image, you can clearly see the headline “Top 10 Search Results” and just below it “Get your site on the first page of search engines guaranteed.” That’s a pretty remarkable guarantee for a relatively low price!

It’s also the kind of guarantee to make anyone knowledgeable about SEO rather suspicious. Chris Silver Smith recently blogged about a letter he received from Network Solutions that promised “Guaranteed Top 10 Rankings on Major Search Engines.” Here’s part of the problem: despite its standing as a registrar, Network Solutions does not have an “in” with any of the major search engines; no SEO does. In fact, NetSol’s behavior raises at least two flags on the list of guidelines that Google gives for choosing an SEO: “Be wary of SEO firms and web consultants or agencies that send you email out of the blue” and “Beware of SEOs that claim to guarantee rankings.”

Network Solutions makes certain specific exceptions to its guarantee. It doesn’t cover web sites that are all Flash, contain frames/layers or adult content. Web sites with downtime of more than a day void the guarantee; so do web sites that have been altered after NetSol has optimized them or that do not use 301 redirects.

Here’s the specific text of the guarantee, taken from Network Solutions’ web site: “For optimization packages (“To 10 Search Results service”), Network Solutions guarantees a minimum number of top 10 listings in one or more of 12 search engines within 10 months from completion date…Network Solutions will only submit keywords to search engines in the United States. The search engines included are: AOL, Alltheweb, AltaVista, Ask.com (formerly known as AskJeeves.com), Google, Hotbot, Looksmart, Lycos, MSN, Netscape, and Yahoo!.”

Does anyone want to make any guesses as to what percentage of search traffic Hotbot receives these days? Or Looksmart? It can’t be very much. In early March, Hitwise reported the percentage of US searches among the leading search engine providers (remember, Network Solutions only submits keywords to search engines in the US). At that time, Google saw a little over 66 percent of this traffic. Yahoo saw close to 21 percent. MSN saw nearly seven percent. Ask was down to four percent. When you add up these figures, you get 98 percent.

What does this mean? By simple math, it means that the rest of the search engine market is wrestling over the remaining two percent of search traffic. So Network Solutions could get you top listings on Looksmart, Hotbot, and Lycos, where the link to your web site would see less than two percent of search traffic, and still have fulfilled its “guarantee.” Maybe it isn’t so unethical after all; that’s not exactly much of a guarantee.

There is something else to note about NetSol’s guarantee: “This service(s) does not guarantee any sales or traffic to your web site.” Additionally, there is no mention in Network Solutions’ guarantee of how long your site will stay in the top 10 results. So in theory, the company could take 10 months to get your site listed in the top 10 search results on Lycos (for example) and if the listing stayed there for one month, it would have fulfilled its end of the contract – regardless of whether you received more traffic or conversions from the listing.

Network Solutions explains the process it goes through to optimize a web site. It seems to understand that 10 months is a long time for some people, and notes that “many of our customers see their sites listed within the top 10 results within 3 months.” However, it adds that “To accelerate the process, you may want to consider a Link Building Service Package in conjunction with a Top 10 Search Results package.” Right up front, it admits that link building is not part of its SEO package.

I don’t need to tell anyone who makes their living doing SEO just how vital link building is. You can technically separate SEO into on-page and off-page optimization, and classify link building as part of off-page SEO optimization. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that it isn’t already a part of a package that guarantees top 10 results. Links play a very important role in many search engines’ algorithms (especially Google’s!).

Let’s take a look at what you DO get. The first step is keyword analysis. Netsol reviews your site and conducts research to develop a list that is relevant to your site, your business, and your industry. The keywords will be terms that are frequently used and specific enough to your web site “that clicks from the search engines will be highly targeted leads.” You get to approve the list, and the company will revise its list up to three times to ensure it has focused on the right ones.

In the second step, site analysis, NetSol looks at your site’s code, text, and links to make sure they are up to snuff. These are important checks that any site owner and/or SEO should perform regularly in any case. NetSol checks for broken links, problems with your site’s server status, and may make minor adjustments to your home page’s code to make it easier for the search engines to crawl your site’s content.

In the third step, content development, NetSol’s professional writers/editors create additional content for your site based on the final list of keywords from step one. The content is then integrated into your optimized pages. Again, there’s nothing here that’s particularly controversial, though one wonders how much content can be bought – and of what quality – for the prices listed on the packages. Some really good writers will charge as much as $300 or more for an article of a decent length. Additionally, search engines love new content; will Network Solutions spread out the new content over the entire period so the spiders will keep coming back?

For the fourth step, search engine submission and reporting, Network Solutions will submit your domain name to major search engines and directories. I have to wonder why NetSol is doing this, since it hasn’t been a meaningful practice for quite some time (with the possible exception of the DMOZ directory). I could see building a site map, which is one of the things NetSol says it does in this step, but submission? It’s interesting to note here that the company says in its guarantee that its services for this package “do not include the paid submission fees that some engines charge for inclusion…Additional fees may apply for changes, modifications, updates, and optimization alterations that exceed the scope of these optimization services.”

The final step, reporting, provides the customer with “submission reports, ranking reports, and additional tips for keeping your site optimized for search engines.” You receive a final report when your site reaches the guaranteed number of listings (which could be as early as three months). As previously noted, though, the packages don’t include any kind of maintenance; in fact, Network Solutions engages in a bit of up-selling at this point in its explanation of what it does by suggesting a maintenance package to “help extend the life of your site’s high rankings.”

So is this a scam, or is it worth the money? The package arrangements come with enough loopholes to make one wonder. It seems to be slightly less of a scam than the typical SEO spam email, simply because Network Solutions is relatively up front about what it is and isn’t offering. But how many of their prospective customers are going to read the fine print? I mean that metaphorically, by the way; when I clicked through to the links the company provided to its guarantee and explanations of what it did for the packages, the font was all in a normal size.

Even so, the SEO deals offered by Network Solutions seem like the kind of thing you’d see from someone trying to take advantage of not-too-knowledgeable customers. As with any service, if you’re thinking of signing up for what they offer, I’d suggest you check with other customers who bought the same package and find out what their experience was like. Good luck!

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