Blackhat or “Grayhat” SEO is doing anything that explicitly violates Google’s Quality Guidelines or the law with the intent of improving organic rankings. It’s controversial and not recommended. It’s also a bit mysterious for many marketers and website owners.
That said, blackhat SEO is something every marketer and website can learn from. This episode explores the spectrum of blackhat SEO and lessons every business can takeaway from it – without adopting the actual tactics.
- The spectrum of blackhat SEO from illegal tactics to unethical to just spammy
- How to understand, monitor and react to blackhat SEO in your industry
- The broad lessons businesses can learn from blackhat SEO
- Google’s fallibility and aligning interests
- Focusing on scale and strategy
- Focusing on investment over cost
Brett Snyder: Hello and welcome to the 19th episode of your Bamboo Chalupa digital marketing podcast. I’m Brett Snyder; I am the president of Knucklepuck, and I am joined by my co-host Nate Shivar, the author of shivarweb.com.
Nate Shivar: Hello hello!
Brett Snyder: So today we’re going to talk about an unfortunate reality in all business, whether online or offline, but one that’s especially prevalent in the world of SEO, and that’s black hat tactics. When we talk about black hat, we’re referring to any spammy, unethical, or even illegal tactics that are used to gain a competitive advantage in your space. In SEO, this typically refers to manipulating Google’s algorithm, or Bing or Yahoo, but manipulating the search engine algorithm against their quality guidelines so that you can secure enhanced visibility or to artificially improve your ranking in their search engines.
Nate Shivar: Black hat, it really has a huge spectrum, and there’s a lot of varying levels that we’ll touch on. It goes from the truly egregious, really the illegal, things like hacking websites that you don’t own in order to put links on that website that will benefit websites that you do own. Even things like doing distributive denial service attacks, which basically means sending a lot of signals to servers to basically take your competitors offline and make their website completely unavailable to their users, which of course will have a cascading impact on their long-term SEO.
Brett Snyder: Right and what we’re talking about here, when we talk about these truly egregious black hat tactics, we’re talking about an attempt to eliminate your competition by illegally compromising their website. They’re going out there and basically taking their site offline. As Nate mentioned, this has an immediate impact whereas users can’t reach the website, but it also … If you start to see these compromising signals associated with the domain, Google is less likely to view that domain and trustworthy and authoritative and your long-term SEO visibility can suffer.
The real focus of our episode here today is talking about … Not that black hat is bad … I think that most marketers with integrity would agree that black hat tactics are not the approach you want to take, but it doesn’t mean that there’s not lessons that we can learn from people who are willing to go down this road. Even when we look at these truly egregious tactics that we would never under any circumstances recommend that you employ, but as far as lessons that we can learn, these types of tactics demonstrate the lengths to which people are willing to go to gain a competitive advantage. The more competitive that your space is … The payday loan space is one that’s kind of a go-to example in SEO where people are willing to go to extreme lengths to be able to gain that advantage. The more competitive your space, the more risks that people are willing to take in order to acquire those top rankings.
Nate Shivar: Yeah but what’s interesting is that a lot of these black, what we categorize as black hat tactics, they’re not necessarily illegal. Even moving farther down the spectrum to tactics that aren’t actually illegal but really just violate Google’s guidelines. There’s things like Negative SEO where people will typically build spammy backlinks to a competitor’s website that violate Google’s guidelines for quality backlinks in hopes of penalizing their competitor’s site which will, of course, move them up farther up the search results for their target keywords. This is a tactic, again, it’s something that Google’s aware of. Matt Cutts said, and this is a quote, “In my experience there’s not a lot of people who talk about Negative SEO, but very few people who actually try it, and fewer people who actually succeed.
It’s the kind of thing where … Google updates, they’ve been designed primarily to devalue spammy backlinks rather than penalize. The fact that you devalue and not penalize them neutralizes a lot of negative SEO, but it’s still important to know that it’s something that’s out there, and that it’s something that Google’s aware of, and it shows again how competitive this SEO space is, and it’s something that you want to learn not only to react and be aware of, but again it’s going to be a lesson that we can learn from black hats on the value of SEO.
Brett Snyder: It’s interesting, Google has actually also released … It was a couple of years ago now, but they released what was called a disavow tool. This is when Negative SEO was much more prevalent, where people were starting to say, “Hey I now have 10,000 links to my site that I didn’t build; my rankings are dropping because I think Google is looking at these links and saying you’re trying to manipulate our algorithm, we’re going to penalize you for that”. Everybody’s like, “Well I didn’t build those links. That was Joe Schmo down the street that’s just building the links to me as opposed to his site”. They came out with this disavow tool, and this is in Webmaster Tools, and essentially you can say to Google, “Hey look, I didn’t create this link; this is not something that I want. I want you to disavow that”.
There’s a lot of different opinions on the value of this disavow tool. I actually participated in a content roundup in February of this year, where we’re talking about can you actually recover from a link penalty without using the disavow tool. I was kinda surprised: I was actually very much in the minority.
Nate Shivar: You were a radical.
Brett Snyder: Yeah. I don’t believe that the disavow tool really … I have seen no direct evidence that supports the fact that the disavow tool adds any … It actually helps improve the way that Google looks at your site. My approach is always to say you can’t really do anything about what other people are going to do to your site. If you spend all this time disavowing these other links that are clearly spamming or clearly low value, that is time that is not being spent to go and create legitimate signals, to go out there and say, “I want to go and build real links; I want to start building relationships with key influencers in my space”.
What we can learn from the fact that people are willing to pursue this Negative SEO is that it’s important to at least monitor what’s going on with your website. It’s almost like monitoring your credit. Even if you didn’t open that credit card at Guilty Pleasures Incorporated and run up a six-digit tab, you can still be negatively impacted in the short and the long term. Your credit score can still be negatively impacted. It’s important to monitor this. It’s important to try to take steps to be able to say, “All right, what is it that people are doing to me? Is it something where I can see the impact on our rankings, and do I need to increase my link acquisition strategies so that I can offset some of these negative penalties?”.
There’s a couple of tools that we can use for this. Webmaster Tools provides email updates and alerts straight from Google if they feel as though you are in a position where your links could create an issue for you. They will actually send you an email saying, “We’ve detected an unnatural spike in links”. By monitoring these you can start to understand, “All right, is somebody potentially going out there and building links back to my site? Or alternatively … Or maybe my SEO company or my SEO team actually going out there and flirting with that line between white and black hat where we could be in a position where these links could be devalued”.
You could look at Google Analytics and look for faulty referrers, look for these spam sites that might be referring a ton of traffic that will show you that, “Hey we’ve actually got links on these sites that we may want to reach out to and have those removed”.
You could use something like Copyscape, and this is more for the on-page content, but to find people who are scraping your content, people who are stealing your content in an attempt to outrank you with your own content. You may consider Cease and Desist Letters, consider other legal action to get this removed. A lot of times if you just reach out and call them out on it they realize that, “Oh crap, we’ve been found out. This is not something what we want to have to fight this legally”. A lot of times, all it takes is a threat of action and people will remove any of this duplicate content.
The other one which is a tool where … Nate, I’m not sure if you’ve had much experience with this, but I’ve heard a lot of great things and in the limited experience I have has been positive. It’s a tool called monitorbacklinks.com, and this actually allows … It monitors the new backlinks that are generated to your site so that you can look at it and say, “All right, this is something that I did; this is a natural, organic link; this is something that I consider to be a validation of my brand as opposed to a contradiction of my brand”. So monitorbacklinks.com is a tool that I definitely recommend that you check out if you feel as though there are unnatural links that are being generated to your site that are outside of your control.
Really, we’re kind of talking about some of the things that are outside of your control. We can learn from these types of black hat tactics, but really we want to talk of almost a little bit more about where black hat blurs into what we’ll call these grey hat tactics. Where we start talking about things that aren’t necessarily illegal, kind of to Nate’s point, but also are ones that are outside of the realm of what would be considered an ethical approach or outside of the realm of what Google’s guidelines actually are.
Nate Shivar: What’s interesting is that Google’s guidelines are often super vague, and leave a lot open to interpretation. These are three bullets straight from Google’s guidelines that we’ll link to in the show notes: 1) Google says to “Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines”, 2) They say “Don’t deceive your users”, 3) They say “Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings”.
These guidelines, they’re helpful, but I think they’re deliberately vague. They’re open to interpretation. Therein lies the rub. It opens up this vast grey area where people who … They often get lumped in with black hats even though a lot of the time, actually all the time, they’re not necessarily doing illegal things like hacking, and they’re not … They’re not even doing things like Negative SEO that are really not only deliberately against Google’s guidelines, they’re also in many ways unethical. Even though what we call black hat, grey hat are doing things that we would not necessarily recommend, I want to dive in to some of the lessons that you can learn, that you can take away from them and apply to your own SEO strategies.
Brett Snyder: Sure, and like you said there’s so much that we can learn from these black and these grey hat tactics that we can use to understand what we’ll call the search engine’s pain tolerance, or their threshold for these types of activities. Essentially, what we’re able to learn here is … We’re learning from a larger testing ground where some of our competitors, some of our maybe more of our ethically loose competitors, are willing to incur the risk associated with these black hat tactics. We still have an opportunity to reap some of the rewards by recognizing “Okay, in my space, in my vertical, maybe Google has a little bit more of a looser pain threshold in terms of what they’re willing to accept as SEO tactics”. Meaning … What types of backlinks are ones that will actually start to devalue? Or is it something where these backlinks are actually still contributing to their ability to secure those top rankings.
The great thing, we’ve said this many times before … The great thing about SEO and what appeals to, I know appeals to Nate and appeals to me and to most folks that I talk about or talk to SEO about, is that it’s a very public scoreboard. We know what wins. We know what has been successful. We can look at the types of things that search engines are rewarding for our competitors that are outranking us. Looking at what black hats are willing to pursue, as far as tactics, really helps us get a better understanding of the search engine’s pain threshold for some of these different types of tactics.
Nate Shivar: Yeah and I love how you mentioned the pain threshold, because I think that’s the first broader lesson, or principle, that we can learn from people who sort of dabble in grey hat tactics. That’s that Google’s algorithm is not human. It’s not on mission; it’s not a government institution. It’s simply the best piece of software that humans have currently come up with for search that can also serve the interest of a profit-making company.
Brett Snyder: That’s such a key component to remember with everything related to SEO is that Google doesn’t care about your business. They don’t. Google cares about their business. They care about their users. They make these algorithm changes to be able to close loopholes that black hats are abusing. Now sometimes there is … You know, they throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes you are collateral damage in their campaign, or their crusade, against these black hats. Frankly, they want to do right by the businesses that are listed there, but ultimately they care about the users and the experience that that user has and they don’t care about the business. That’s a very important point to remember, and it gets down to kind of that key premise that Google and these other search engines are massively influential.
Nate and I are staunch proponents of the fact that your marketing efforts will go farther if you align with these best practices. As Nate also mentioned, these best practices are almost deliberately vague. I’m married to an attorney, so I have now kind of gotten a good sense of what Google is trying to do here, and they’re just setting precedent. If they put something very vague in there, like “Don’t deceive your users”, it gives them the opportunity to say down the line, “We believe that this tactic is being used to deceive users” or “Make pages primarily for users … We believe that this page is being created for search engines and not for users”. It establishes that precedent that they can then go and say, “We’re making our update because of this. You can’t be upset with us because it’s within our guidelines and we’re making our updates to align with those guidelines”.
These search engines are massively influential. There are rules and structure that, if you want to play in their ballpark, that you have to respect. Now these rules may be flexible, but you have to respect the confines and the constructs of the search engine guidelines.
Now on the other side of that, they’re massively influential but they’re also massively influenced, meaning that the search engine has to react to changes in our landscape. This is why Google and Yahoo and Bing make literally hundreds of changes to their algorithm every year. They are closing these loopholes that black hat have exposed. In a lot of ways, they rely on these black hats to expose the weaknesses for them, to show them what loopholes need to be closed, to show them where their search results are being compromised or where their rankings are manipulating. Google and Yahoo and Bing, they’re an ecosystem. It’s an ecosystem that requires constant moderation and constant iteration to respond to the evolving needs of that landscape.
Nate Shivar: I think the main lesson here is that just because Google says to do something doesn’t make it literally the law of the land, or even in your business’ best interest. You know, you can’t just hand your business off to the Google god, so to speak. In the same way, there’s no one size fits all. Search engines have a different pain tolerance by industry. If you’re in the industrial space, or if you’re in the local space, you’re going to be dealing with a very very different set of parameters than you would be if you were in the travel space, which receives a ton of attention both from Google on the organic side but then also on the Ad Words, the paid side. We want to take the same approach to reverse engineering as we would for all the SEO strategies, but making sure that your business is first.
I think the difference here for doing what we would call white hat, versus grey hat or black hat, is that instead of seeing an algorithm to outsmart for the sake of outsmarting it, we approach Google’s algorithm as simply the third party that we have to work with to talk to the human on the other side. If you’ve ever played the childhood game Telephone, where you have to get a message to someone else with someone else in the middle … Instead of trying to outsmart and play games with the person in the middle just for the sake of doing that, and trying to trick the other person on the other side in the process, we approach it by acknowledging that that third person is there and that that third person has their own experience, their own rules, their own ideas. We try to figure out what that is and work with them to make sure that we can communicate effectively with the person on the other side that we actually want to get in contact with.
Brett Snyder: Consider it like filing your taxes. You can file them yourself, and you’ll be just fine. You can attempt to beat the system, and although you might slip through the cracks for a year, two years, five years, eventually you will be found out and you will pay the consequences, and these consequences may be severe. If you take the time to understand and to learn the intricacies of the tax code, to identify some of those uncommon deductions that you wouldn’t necessarily know as a layperson but are still well within the constructs of the law, that’s where you can improve your business. That’s where you’re able to say, “All right, I’ve done this the right way, but I’m also not just settling for the basic, standard deductions here. I want to understand everything that is available to me. I want to turn over every stone, and again make sure that I align within the constructs of the law, but that I’m taking advantage of every possible legal deduction that I have”.
That’s what as SEOs. We want to be able to look at this and say, “We want to know the intricacies of the Google code so that we can go out there and we can get our uncommon deductions and our uncommon competitive advantages, so that we can put our business in the highest possible ranking when it comes to people searching for related queries to our product or service.
Nate Shivar: Yeah, and the second big lesson, the big principle, that I like to draw from grey hats, black hats, is their relentless focus on doing things at scale. If you ever read about what black hats are doing or come across some of their work, you’ll notice that they really talk about in terms of what can they do. They talk about doing big things, starting up giant private blog networks with thousands and thousands of websites. They don’t talk about getting a link here or a link there, they talk about getting thousands of links; they talk about developing thousands of pages.
Here, I think it’s important to remember to … Just as Brett noted with finding uncommon deductions, is to go beyond the best practices that everyone knows about to implement things that will actually matter. There’s significantly more risk in pursuing some of the black hat, grey hat tactics like article spinning or mass link acquisition or just saturating the search results with duplicate or near-duplicate content, cloaking link wills, everything else that they come up with. What’s interesting is that black hats, they have to focus on scale in the short term because they’re not doing anything that’s sustainable. They’re building something for quick wins right now.
Brett Snyder: Nothing kills a bad idea quite like scale. When we say this, we don’t say that nothing kills a black hat strategy like scale. We’re saying when you have to think in terms of the overall strategy beyond just the simple tactics, you understand whether or not this idea is really feasible for you, and whether it’s something that is worth pursuing as a goal to accomplish your business objectives. Black hat will focus on these unethical tactics. We don’t want you to replicate those tactics, but we can learn from their focus on strategy. To give you a little sound byte here on how to remember this: “Strategy is tactics at scale”. We don’t want to focus on just the tactics, but on the scalable execution of that strategy. We want to think big. We can think about scale in terms of how that helps focus your planning.
We talk about this idea: everybody says you should have a blog. It’s like, “Well that cool. I can write this post; I can write that post”. But you don’t think about things like all right, what do you do when you’ve exhausted those three ideas. Who is ultimately going to be responsible for producing the content, for editing the content, for researching that content? What are we doing in terms of being able to make sure that the content is pushed out on a regular interval so that our clients can expect content every week, every two weeks, every three days. What are we doing in terms of not just saying “I have an idea I can write” but “This is something that I can use this blogging strategy to … I know that I can produce an editorial calendar that will typically follow this format because that format resonates most strongly with our users”. That we’re able to bring in key influencers and create content that appeals not only to the consumer, but to journalists, media publications, other influencers that would be willing to share.
Really, how does this content strategy balance the on-page considerations of what is actually published to the website with the off-page considerations in terms of how can we use this to generate links or to enhance our, what we’ll call our digital footprint. That’s going to help us determine the feasibility of our strategy. When you have to think about something that … Anybody can do something once. Most people can do something twice. A lot of people can do something three times. Very few people can do something consistently over an extended period of time. That’s when we talk about this focus on strategy and not tactics.
Black hat are what is getting people … Black hat tactics are what causes penalties. It’s what causes these websites to disappear from the search results and Google just completely torpedo these sites and remove them completely. But the strategy, making sure we always have a rigorous adherence to this idea of scale, that if something does not scale then it is, more often than not, not worth pursuing for us. Because the time and the effort … The up front time and effort it takes to be able to get that strategy going needs to be something that we can sustain over the long term if we want to take this more white hat approach to SEO.
Nate Shivar: Being forced to focus on scale, it makes you realize things that are actually going to matter. Google recently just rolled out a update specifically focused on doorway pages, which was basically a grayish hat way of getting thousands or millions of visitors without actually creating any content. They’ll throw up a page with a few keywords on it but they’re posted with the purpose of just funneling people to another page that people were actually wanting in the first place. Obviously that tactic isn’t very respectful of the user because you want them to go to another place, but the thinking of “How do we get visits on the scale of thousands or millions?” and “How do we get the user what we want?”, I think is the two main takeaways of this.
If you look at some of the bigger people that are doing SEO scale right: Pinterest, Houzz, AirBnB. What they’ve been able to do is break out this idea of “How do we get millions of organic visitors?”. Well, to be able to do that you have to be able to provide content that speaks to all million users almost individually, or at least accordingly to very very specific segments based on what they’re looking for. What that means is ruthless testing and figuring out how to create pages that aren’t just sending people over to another website, but are pages that people actually want to find and to actually use that you can generate on the scale of thousands and millions to be able to get that type of visitor level.
Brett Snyder: Going back to the lean startup, which we reference on, I think, every second or third episode, it seems like. This idea that build-measure-learn feedback loop, that we have to have this rigorous adherence to iteration. That we want to make sure that we’re going out there and we’re testing every little element so that we know as we’re going to scale this out further, let’s make sure that we’re doing this in an optimal way. That we’re not investing our time and our resources in trying to scale a sub-par strategy. Make sure that you’re always testing; you’re always iterating. That you have real hypotheses that you are creating tests around so you can come down to legitimate conclusions about how your website is responding, or how the search engine is responding, to these changes in your strategy.
Nate Shivar: Yeah the third, the last big principle/lesson that I think we can take away from people doing black hat, grey hat is their ruthless focus on investment. If you read anything online, especially right now that the buzz is about private blog networks, you’ll see sort of a ruthless focus on economics at work. It’s basically taking this formula of, “I can pay people to generate content with target keywords for X dollar amount. It’s going to cost me X dollar amount to build out a private blog network that will generate this number of links, which is how many I’ll need to rank for target keywords”. The expected return for #1 or first page ranking is going to be Z; it’s going to be another dollar amount. As long as you’re expected return is greater than the cost that it takes to create the content and build out the links that you need, then it makes sense to just keep pouring resources into more of the spun content and more of the links from the private blog network.
They see SEO as an investment: the more money you put in, the more money you get out. Not simply as a cost that you might incur for simply owning a website. What’s interesting is that it’s sort of the same model that you see in the offline world with pop-up stores. People think, “Oh, there’s a ton of foot traffic that goes through this park. If I just throw up a stand and I have a thousand people walk by, and a hundred of those buy from me, and I make $10 profit, then as long as that is more than the fines that I’ll incur, then it makes money”. You can compare this to, say, someone who actually plans out a proper chain of stores and does all the permits and licensing in the process that they have. Even though, obviously, the part that you end up with, the type of store that you end up with … The process of thinking through “What is my investment and what is my return?” is the key takeaway here.
Brett Snyder: You could also think about people who sell knock-off Louis Vuitton bags, or I know I was in New York and I bought a Lionel Messi Barcelona jersey from a vendor on the street. I would bet dollars to donuts that that vendor did not have the appropriate trademark licensing to be able to sell those products, but he understood, “Hey, if I can sell some of these, if they shut down my store so be it; if the fines I’m going to get so be it, if I’m able to create that profit in the short term”.
When we think about it, what we can learn from this is, this idea of SEO as an investment not a cost of having a website, it’s exactly the same way that white hats should approach SEO. The only difference is that we have slightly different variables in terms of our equation. You’ll remember that Nate’s equation was, building the content is an investment of X, generating the links an investment of Y, the expected return is Z. As long as X plus Y is greater than Z, it’s worth it for black hats. Now, we have a lot of those same variables from a white hat approach.
We have to understand what it’s going to cost to invest in promotional campaigns or generating links that will support our SEO, but we have a couple of other variables that we have to consider. We do have to consider the time that it’s going to take us to do this the right way; we’ll call that T. We also want to look at … We’re not just looking at the expected return of that #1 ranking; we’re looking at the lifetime value of that #1 ranking, and so we’ll call that Z-sub-1. If you think about it, whereas the black hat approach is X + Y > Z, the cost of content plus cost of links greater than the expected return, or less than, rather, the expected return on the rankings, then we do it from a black hat perspective.
From a white hat perspective, if we know that the cost of content plus the cost of the link building plus the inherent or intangible cost of the time it’s going to take you to be able to do this effectively. As long as the lifetime value, the sustainable value, of that visibility is more than the investment of time and resources from content links and, again, time. As long as the lifetime value and the lifetime return is greater than that investment, it makes sense from a white hat perspective.
That’s what we can learn with these economics of black hat: they look at it very kind of objectively, very coldhearted in terms of, “I don’t care if my site disappears as long as Z is greater than X plus Y”. We need to be conscious of the investments that we’re making in link building and off-page and in content, but the difference is the velocity at which we’re building these signals, which is our time element, and the criteria that we use to qualify and disqualify strategies. It’s not just the cost of those strategies: it’s the risk value in them. It’s how does that impact the lifetime value of our strategies, or of our approach, because if we’re putting ourselves in a highly risky situation where the site could disappear, maybe yeah we would have the investment as greater for just this channel, but now we no longer have a website. For primarily internet businesses, no website means essentially no business.
The same principles apply, where the SEO is an investment not a cost, but the way that we determine our return on that investment is much different from a white hat versus a black hat approach. That understanding of investment and return is something that’s extremely important for everybody that wishes to pursue SEO as a marketing channel.
Nate Shivar: Yeah and so, again, the main takeaways here are going to be … Focus on the fact that Google is fallible, that Google’s interests don’t always align with your business’. Focus on scale, do things that matter, think in terms of getting thousands, what would it take to get millions of visitors. Focus on treating SEO as the investment that it is and the cost that it is not.
You can find previous episodes, links to things that we mentioned, and our contact information at bamboochalupa.com. If you don’t want to miss another episode, please go subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or your favorite podcast app, and do leave a comment and rating while you’re there. We learn a lot from your feedback, and your ratings help others discover the show. So for Brett Snyder, I’m Nate Shivar, thank you for listening.