We are getting into that part of the year where you're bound to run into some version of "A Christmas Carol". While it's certainly unlucky to be haunted by a dead business partner, all we can say is that Scrooge is lucky he didn't live in the digital marketing age – for no amount of begging or repenting would have helped him now.

SEO pitfalls to avoid

Don't believe me? Just ask a business owner who has seen his or her search engine traffic go into a deep tailspin after the most recent Google algorithm updates. They'll tell you that the world's largest search portal has a very long memory, and that it knows how to hold a grudge.

In fact, we are finding it isn't unusual for business websites to suddenly lose their search rankings for seemingly common and petty sins, even a number of years after the fact. If you've ever had a less-than-scrupulous SEO "consultant" generating content and links on your behalf, you probably have a few (or more) damaging items in your own search profile.

How can you get rid of them without making things worse, or losing ground to your competitors? Here are the four best ways to shrug off the ghosts of SEO consultants past:

1. First, look for vulnerabilities. In most cases, the "damage" from bad SEO advice amounts to copied or scraped content on your pages, keyword stuffing, and some irrelevant links that point back to your website with repetitive anchor text. You don't have to be a search expert to find these. Just look for anything that seems unnatural or that doesn't fit; chances are, you'll have identified something that was meant to manipulate search engines, not enhance your marketing profile.

2. Replace any troublesome content. If you're lucky, Google will simply ignore any duplicate content on your business website (recognizing the first instance and ignoring the rest) and assume that you are providing information that is available elsewhere. If you're unlucky, you'll have been recognized by the search engine as being an untrustworthy site, and might be actively ignored or penalized. Either way, your most important first step is to get rid of any content that doesn't belong – either because it was copied from someone else or doesn't fit your website – and replace it with better copywriting.

3. Don't be too quick to use the disavow tool from Google. Google now allows you to report links that you don't want to be associated with any more and have them "disavowed", provided you've made all possible attempts to remove or improve it yourself. Contrary to popular wisdom, we don't necessarily think this is a great idea. For one thing, there isn't any automatic process in place for removing these links from your search profile. That means you're counting on an individual Googler to get it right without making any mistakes. And for another, disavowing links is essentially the same as alerting Google that you've been using spamming tactics. That doesn't seem like a great plan, especially when newer, better links have an opportunity to "outweigh" the effects of those low-quality links (unless, of course, you and your SEO team went spam crazy in the past).

4. Move forward with a new outlook (or start over again). Once you've done what you can to repair the old damage, the best thing you can do in the future is to avoid the same mistakes. That is, build your search engine profile on lots of unique content and attract relevant links back to your site. Depending on how severe the effects of the old "black hat" techniques have been, you might even consider starting over with a brand-new domain. But, don't let that hold you back – if you start building a new site the right way (or rebuilding your old one with fresh content and links), it won't take long for Google to take notice and start rewarding you again.

Although the ghosts of SEO consultants past can still catch up with you many years later, the good news is that, like old Scrooge, there is still plenty of time for you to turn a new leaf and take a smarter approach to search engine optimization.

Be glad for your second chance and make the most of it – ditch the gimmicky techniques and focus on creating and sharing lots of great, relevant content with your prospects!

By Randy Milanovic