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August 20, 2008

Black Hat, White Hat: Playing Dirty with SEO

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One of my most-anticipated sessions is here and the room is now standing-room only. Where will the debate over black hat tactics go today? Moderator Matthew Bailey, President of SiteLogic, tells the panelists to say their name, their company, and the color they represent.

Bruce Clay, President of Bruce Clay, Inc., is representing the rainbow.

David Naylor, SEO at Bronco, doesn’t wear a hat.

Jill Whalen, CEO of High Rankings, is representing white hat.

Greg Boser, President of Three Dog Media, says he plays on both sides of the fence.

Todd Friesen, Director of Search Engine Optimization of Range Online, having only been in SEO since 1999, wears a green hat.

Bailey says that because none of the panelists admitted what hat they wore, he wants Whalen and Clay to define white hat SEO and the rest of the panel the define black hat SEO…

Clay says that the real definition has more to do with the search engines’ definitions than the clients. He says most SEOs play in the middle. In his opinion, people that play out of bounds only hurt themselves. An SEO that causes pain to a client is truly black hat. It’s an ethics thing. If you spam in the middle of the forest is it really a bad thing? A big part of the question is how you play the game.

Whalen says that black hat is attempting to deceive the search engines rather than getting results because you’re really the most relevant. For most business Web sites, they don’t need to use deceitful techniques. It’s hard work but the search-engine-approved techniques will generally work. In a space like pills or gambling, that’s a different ball game and a space she doesn’t play in.

Friesen says there isn’t really black or white hat. Things that hurt a client would be black. Read the Google guidelines, worship them every night, and you’re a white hat. But in the different verticals, there are different things necessary to compete. Black or white, it doesn’t matter if you’re willing to be competitive.

Boser says white hat is a code name for SEOs with no game.

Naylor says white hat is trying to catch the monkey, while black hat is, “Weehee! We’ve got a Porsche.” In other words, black hats have no-holds bar, while white hats take each step slowly.

Bailey says that we know there are risks to black hat techniques, but are there also risks to white hat techniques? Jill says that under her definition, the technique is to make a great Web site.

Clay says that if Matt Cutts comes up behind you and your first thought is to close your notebook computer, then you’re probably not playing in bounds. He agrees with the concept of deception. If you do something knowing the search engine would fight what you’re doing, that’s black hat. The people that practice white hat try their best not to color outside the lines so that they don’t inflict any harm to their site. Because search engines don’t publish rules, even a white hat can find themselves outside of the lines. He uses cloaking an HTML equivalent of an all-Flash site as an example of that.

Friesen asks if cloaking is black hat. A few people raise their hand. Same question for white hat and again a few people. He asks if it’s a neutral tactic, more people raise their hand and he says, “Bingo!” It comes down to how it’s being used.

Boser says that when he and most SEOs test aggressive techniques it’s only for his own sites. The things he learns can be used for the benefit of clients. Anyone who does something without the client’s knowledge or participation should be strung up and shot – it’s inappropriate.

Whalen says that incompetent SEOs is another category and is worse than all the others. The audience erupts in laughter. Boser says that in this industry there’s a whole lot of people that bite off more than they can chew and don’t have the skill set to keep the promises they made. He said it happens a lot in the agency world because agencies tend to make promises before they know what the space is like. He says that a lot of companies play on both sides of the fence. He says that he’d love for it to work the way the search engines say. But there are plenty of sites that are equally as good as yours, and the one’s that rank are the one’s that put in the most effort. Boser has a client that everyone in his space buys links. He could either ask Google to punish everyone and just hope they move up, or they can roll up their sleeves and compete.

Naylor says that there’s nothing like working your butt off for a client and then you find out that another SEO is working on the site. History shows that the most common mistakes are done by someone inside the company that’s saying, “I’m going to buy links” without knowing what they’re doing. The thing that’s good about black hats is that they know where the boundaries are. There’s many get links quick schemes, but they don’t really work. It’s a long, hard haul. The link side is the worst side. He can’t think of any black hat that when you take away the link side of it is considered black anymore.

Clay says that if you play by the rules it takes three years to get as many links as someone willing to be more aggressive can get in weeks. Before Google, there were no rules so there was no breaking them, no black hat. Whalen says that she doesn’t think there needs to be rules. It’s common sense what’s within or outside of the rules. You know when you’re doing something wrong or right. Friesen says he disagrees that it’s common sense. If it was common sense there wouldn’t be SEO because no one needs to teach common sense. Whalen says that they look at competitors spamming so they think it’s what they’re supposed to do. In that sense, it’s not common sense. There’s a problem with the industry that we think that’s OK.

Boser says that he takes a two-step approach. Telling the client that a result can be achieved in three years, that’s unacceptable. And he can’t tell on all the competitors. So he takes a middle-ground approach. If Google ever catches up and can take down the deceptive sites, they’ll be on top. But in the short term, paid links can get the client climbing, get the company on board, and then get the buy-in to start doing the harder stuff.

Naylor asks who works on white hat sites and black hat sites. White hats outnumber black hats. He says, obviously black hats aren’t winning, so since there’s nothing more to talk about let’s go to the pub now. Not yet, Naylor, not yet.

Audience Q&A

When you do RSS links, is there any link benefit to links in a reader?

Boser says that in that issue it’s more about the scrapers that will come through. Other sites will re-publish your content and you’re actually dealing with a high-risk strategy. A more authority site may pick it up and you lose the value. If you’re going to syndicate content, put in a single link, keep it simple.

If you build a widget for Facebook will links be picked up?

Naylor says no. Make it for WordPress instead.

When I talk to a client I have a strategy for explaining the difference between a one-month (buying links) and a three-year plan. What’s your strategy for explaining it to a client?

Boser says he always starts with competitive research. The first month is spent learning the space and who their competitors are. Then they explain their risk tolerance and the risks of what might help them compete.

Clay says that links, even paid links, aren’t evil. Commerce is the Web. If you can justify buying a link as legitimate for traffic, you’re not doing anything wrong. If the intent is to buy PageRank and not to buy for commerce, that’s when things get crazy. Anyone have a problem getting a link on the front page of Google? Is anyone doing pay per click? Commerce is commerce. Buying links isn’t inherently evil. If you sneak under the radar, it probably won’t last forever.

Friesen says that the goal is link acquisition. If you’re paying for links that can be a short-term kick start. Yahoo Paid Inclusion, Google AdWords, and other middle-ground ways of getting your message out will help you with getting more natural links.

I’ve heard of affiliates being grouped with spammers.

Friesen says there’s a difference between the value-add affiliate and the basement spammer. Boser says that even the spammers think they add value. There’s probably no safe way to be an affiliate, but look at the footprint of the space and use that to compete.

Clay says that many of the audience are dealing with major properties where the domain name itself is worth millions and there are lots of links coming in. Doing risky tactics in that sense is much more costly. No established, major brand should ever black hat.

Boser disagrees and says that there’s no repercussion for a big brand to spam. When BMW did it they recovered in less than two days. No one walked onto a BMW lot and said “I’m not going to buy your car because you used JavaScript redirects in Germany!” Little guys will pay more for aggressive tactics. You can get torched and no one will know because know one cares.

Friesen says that when BMW did what they did they got tons of bloggers linking to them. If you have a site that you think can handle three days out, then go hard.

Matt Cutts disagrees and want to add a disclaimer. Google takes a lot of sites out, but people don’t always notice. He says that there was a very large newspaper that was cloaking and they’ve been out for a while. They absolutely take action on big sites, they just don’t always talk about it. Do you want to take that risk? In-house SEOs are even more at risk because they may lose their jobs.

In response, Boser said that the work done at BMW was amateur. The biggest mistake they made was not doing what they did well.

I thought the difference between black hat and white hat revolved around the searcher, but none of you mentioned the user.

Friesen says that in the early days, lots of deception worked because it was all about the impression, not the conversion. Now, it doesn’t matter about the user because people can convert on spammy sites.

Boser says that he looks at a project not wanting the user to have a bad experience, but the user isn’t going to look at the source code. Users can still click “buy” and get the product on a spammy site.

Bailey wants to bring up the value of Made for AdSense networks.

Boser says that they’re crap. Everyone’s trying to make get the content so now there’s a lot of junk out there. Friesen says that the Made for AdSense networks are just encouraging scraped content.

What’s the best way of going about getting links?

Naylor says that Google knows links is a war. If they can get around that, why wouldn’t they want to? Content is one way to get around the linking dilemma. Boser says that if you’re paying someone to pay for content and paying the right person to share that content on Digg, aren’t you still paying for the link?

Boser says the slippery slope is that Google is trying to devalue the people offering the paid links. Now we’re seeing the people who bought the links also getting hit. No one makes you prove you own the site you’re buying a link for. This could be used as a weapon.

What’s your take on white hat/black hat in the semantic world, given you’re not looking at links they way they’re used now?

Boser says semantic analysis is something to look at, though he’s not sure how much they’ll be used now. It’s far too link driven to ignore it.

In AJAX sites, the question is what’s cloaking and what’s not?

Friesen says that the user-experience is again the consideration. The user experience can be really cool, but once you get where you want to go, you can’t tell anyone else how to get there. And, while AJAX is cool, there will only be one listing in the SERPs.

Boser says that for these reasons, he doesn’t think solving these problems is wrong. Problem-solving cloaking may be the answer there. He used a technical solution to solve a problem.

Whalen says that she doesn’t thing that Google would really have a problem with that. Friesen says that the search engines are engaged with Adobe to solve the problem of Flash. The search engines want to figure it out, but it will take time. So you have to figure out what to do in the meantime.

If you take over a client that is using brokers, how do you clean it up?

Naylor says that you should look at link history to find the problem pages. Dump the backlinks on the pages with PageRank 0, because you know they’re bad. Go for the “I don’t know” links in the re-inclusion request, and explain that you are still working to figure them out.

So now you know!

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3 responses to “Black Hat, White Hat: Playing Dirty with SEO”

  1. Doug Heil writes:

    I’m not getting this session at all. Was this more of a debate between them? Was it Matt asking them questions? Did the attendees ask them as well? I’m really not getting the scene.

    Some answers were kind of lame, don’t you think? I would have laid into some of them in a big way. If this is what this session consisted of, it appears it needs a huge dose of “stop being so damn nice”. LOL

  2. Matt Cutts writes:

    Doug, I wasn’t on the panel–I was in the audience. I just couldn’t let the “Google doesn’t take action on some sites” misconception slip by.

  3. Doug Heil writes:

    Oh, I know Matt Cutts. I was referring to Matt Bailey.. the moderator of it asking questions. LOL My bad; I should have stuck in the last name as well. I noticed you spoke up about the penalty thing.

    I think if there is a debate; there really needs to be a debate. :) A real one.



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