Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: Black Hat PPC Tactics

It’s time for my final session at SES New York and the words “black hat” are in the title. I’m thinking there’s some more juice to squeeze out of the conference before the doors close, and I’m here to drink it up. Lisa Barone is across the aisle from me. What are the chances she’ll be offering up some editorial as part of her coverage? I’d recommend her Outspoken Media post as a companion piece to my reporting.

Our moderator Richard Zwicky, founder and CEO of Enquisite, is introducing the session. There has always been interest in black hat SEO but the crazy things that happen in PPC are rarely discussed. Our speakers are: Jamie Smith, CEO of Engine Ready (who I interviewed before the conference — check it out), Kevin Lee, co-founder and executive chairman of Didit, David Szetela, CEO of Clix Marketing, and Bill Leake, president and CEO of Apogee Search.

Black Hat PPC at SES NY

Bill is first. He says that there are more people who are willing to talk to you from Google on the paid search side than the organic. He counsels you to work with your Google reps because they will likely help you since this is where their money comes from. And instead of white hat/black hat he’ll be talking about low risk/high risk.

Some folks think that SpyFu is black hat. While the volumes are off, the ability to make comparisons is usually accurate. There’s a debate over what is black hat in PPC but he doesn’t think SpyFu is it.

Owning more shelf-space

Doesn’t Google have a strong policy against double serving and don’t they enforce it? A few years ago you’d get emails showing that offending accounts were narrowed down to one or completely blocked from AdWords. They changed it in January to say that the way to get an exception for double serving is if the pricing difference offered by each site is significant and based on the same criteria (for example, if one site includes pricing with tax, the other site must include pricing with tax). From an affiliate/lead generation perspective, this opens the door.

Triple serving can be seen on SERPs as well. So, work with your friends at Google to have them happily take your money so that you have a disproportionate amount of shelf space. Agencies are good at covering your tracks in this practice, which he considers grey and not black.

If you don’t like it because it’s happening to you, use the Contact Us link from within AdWords. This usually gets the bad ads removed for a day or so. It’s kind of like whack-a-mole.

Messing with the competition

If you’re running ads you think the competition might not appreciate, geo-target OUTSIDE of their geo or exclude their IP address. This works for affiliates too. It’s easy to exclude IP addresses for the brand keywords.

How about trademarks?

What if your manufacturers can’t finish giving forms back to Google to make Google happy that you can use their marks in ad copy? That’s where dynamic keyword insertion comes in. DKI circumvents the approval process and can also help those that don’t have authorization to sell the product.

Here’s just down and dirty nasty competitive practices. Have your competitors ever had bad press? Would you be doing a civic duty to help that information get and stay out there?

Or what about messing with their positive reputation management campaigns? For instance, if site one is using, you can try to trump their ad with a better quality score and a higher bid for

Black hat PPC for the conscientious is the next presentation by David. He’s going to cover what is white, black and gray. He’ll share his favorite gray hat techniques and he’ll share the ones he thinks are black and should be avoided.

White: Everybody does it
White: Clever things I discover
Gray: Might get you wrist-slapped but not de-listed
Black: Will definitely get you de-listed

Gray Hat Trick 1

He published this in his SEW column and says that it’s possible to publish more symbols than Google gives you access to. It’s tough for Google to police because of non-English ads. He says PPC Hero is the best blog on PPC. They had an article on how to get trademark and copyright symbols in an ad through copy/paste. Then bgTheory followed up with a method for inserting those symbols with keys. His company hasn’t done extensive testing with the special symbols use by some clients have seen good results from using them. Sometime using symbols can save you extra characters.

Symbol guidelines:

  • Use only one per line
  • A few may not work (like #)
  • Test lots of variations (and these guidelines)
  • Use AdWords Editor to create ads because you may be able to get more through

Gray Hat Trick 2

There are some tactics that don’t get noticed right away. When you do get the disapproval notice, change the ad.

  • Capitalize words every now and then. Try “FREE”. They’ve gone months without Google saying anything about it.
  • Superlatives: “Top”, “leading” and even “best”
  • Hyphenated trademark terms: Ep-son, S e i k o
  • Trademarks in ad copy via DKI: Could be on the cusp of the illegal
  • Pay close attention to catch disapprovals

Way Black Tactics

  • Violating rules via day-parting — for example, only when Mountain View is asleep
  • Geo-targeting where competitors won’t see trademark violations or IP exclusion
  • Shell companies and different accounts

He says, “I’m glad you guys are laughing; it’s clear that you probably won’t be doing these black hat things.”

Kevin is at the podium next. He says that unless you are an affiliate and willing to piss people off, forget black hat PPC. Grey hat PPC is okay. There are loopholes, ambiguous policies and under the radar competitive stuff that falls into gray.


  • DKI and broad match
  • Domain names (particularly misspellings) through a broad match
  • Layer-style popups (that accomplish much of the same things)

Ambiguous policies:

  • Geo
  • Time of day
  • Cookie and ISP custom serving — not really gray hat, it’s good marketing
  • HTTP referrer

Landing page personalization is likely to increase conversion rates.

Under the competitive radar:

Want to grab some of your competition’s traffic?

  • Geo-segmentation
  • Day parting
  • Day of week
  • Retargeting (through display — a new development in some engines)
  • Synched buying based on media expenditures: Monitor heavy areas of home page takeovers. A spike in search can be utilized.

Stay educated on best practices. Pick the right partners for technology strategy. Be willing to take the occasional slap on the wrist. Never stop testing and never stop monitoring.

Jamie Smith is going to close us off strong. He’s going to cover how to gain a competitive edge using secret strategies; the importance of planning and strategy organization; using visitor behavior for conversion inspiration; and the X-factor, what your Web analytics don’t tell you.

Be aware of direct competitors. How do you win the battle against the people you don’t know? Operation camouflage is a tactic to keep your best performing ads private and hidden from competition and click fraud. When you find winning ad strategy, you can block them from seeing that ad you can win the battle.

Operation camouflage:

  • Find the location of your top three to five competitors.
  • Set up geo-targeted campaigns for their locations.
  • Lower your bids in those locations.

Problem with this exist if your competition is located in a major city or if you’re a local business or using an agency.

So, they changed the strategy a bit by doing IP exclusion. This is the best strategy for operation camouflage. To find the IP address look at multiple clicks with no action. You can also send the competition an email asking about pricing or something exciting that they will respond to. In the reply you can identify their IP address. Win this battle before they do this to you.

Strategy organization:

Visibility –> Creative –> Continuity (keyword and ad creative, creative and conversion)

How to keep the in-laws from visiting:

  • Impressions: Why pay for visitors you don’t want?
  • Evolution of match type (exact vs. negative keywords): Sometimes the broad match with negative keywords outperforms the exact match.
  • Geo-targeting and day parting.

Ad Creative Tips

The art of writing compelling ads:

  • Take a look at organic rankings. Those have been proven as click-worthy.
  • Click through rate is not the only measurement. Take into account the data sample. If it’s insignificant (less than 100) it could lead you to wrong conclusions.

Continuity and conversion:

When you’re shopping in the mall and you think from the outside it’s a toy store and it’s actually a liquor store, you’ll walk right out.

X Factor: What Your Web Analytics Won’t Tell You!

  • Web site conversion rate vs. call in conversion rate
  • Which ad group and keywords are making my phone ring?
  • Which keywords are driving assist conversion?
  • Test poor performing keywords for call ins before you get rid of them. It may be driving call ins even though there aren’t Web conversions.

Call analytics work by serving different phone numbers when someone comes from an ad. Over 10 percent of their 16,500 sales in Q4 2008 had an assist keyword. A lot of the time the conversion comes after someone has searched many times with different queries.


What tools can you use to track assists?

Maestro and Enquisite are both mentioned.

Jamie: Sort by IP address.

Kevin: Cookies can track with HTTP referrers filtered or not.

I have a competitor that is doing double and triple serving. I don’t want to report them but is there anything I can do?

Kevin: Google wants to see different user experiences — pricing is only one of those options. But it’s a moving line that can vary depending on who is reviewing the ad.

Jamie: While double serving sounds good, it could result in higher cost per acquisition.

Kevin: If you’re going to do that, do it a controlled environment, like an agency, not the wild affiliate space.

Bill: This hurts you the most with your brand. Multiple sites can perform very well. The key is to avoid complaints from an end user that thinks they’ve been hoodwinked. The end user, not the advertiser, is Google’s main concern. Another point that multiple results help with is the ability to serve different landing pages to different personas.

My clients are hesitant to get more than one 800 number.

David: Here’s a well-kept secret. Every AdWords advertiser has free call tracking. It’s associated with audio ads. You can secure an unlimited number of toll free numbers and associate them one-to-one with keywords, ad groups, and so on. This won’t be available much longer. When they tested phone numbers in ads, clicks went down but calls went up. In display ads click through went up and they got more calls. Intuition would say that the number makes the ad seem more reputable.

Kevin wants David to test 800 vs. 877 numbers. Bill thinks it might be because the people who are calling skew older and the older group may not realize that 877 is free.

Jamie: Local numbers outperformed 800 numbers for a local merchant in a test against 800, 866, 877 and 888 numbers.

My competitor uses false advertising and Google doesn’t do anything about it.

Bill: Is there a published source that would back up what you’re saying? There are a lot of things you can do to publicize someone’s false statement. A credible third-party study can be shared on AdWords — “learn the truth about” ads. Google doesn’t want to be in the position of policing truth.

Buying trademark terms seems to be growing as an issue as more people start policing their trademarks.

Kevin: Google’s policy may be more lax because they’re more searcher-focused. The pure consumer advocates will make the argument for consumer choice. At the same time it is driving up the bid landscape.

My competitor bids on trademarks but also uses it in ad copy.

David: You should be able to shut them down through the proper channels; it takes filling out forms and some time.

Bill: It’s the best case for a scary legal letter. It’s very settled case law.

Kevin: He studied the brand of the client, the brand of the competitor and generic terms. The clients brand performed best but the competitor brand was second best by a wide margin.

We need to scale up our PPC in the millions this year. We have an agency doing an okay job. My boss wants to set up affiliates or black hat PPC guys. Where do we find them?

Kevin: Why? You won’t be able to regulate those people. If they share the same shopping cart, you’re going to have a huge nightmare on your hands. It needs to be a common environment where there’s no internal competition. Caution your boss.

You mentioned DKI as a way of getting around trademark. I’ve tried DKI and been shut down that way as well. Does this have to do with the fact that my account was started by someone who violated trademark laws a lot?

Bill: That’s a good assumption. If you’re going to try out creative tactics, try it on another account. Use a different street address and credit card if you can.

Kevin: It wouldn’t surprise him if there is special code used by Google to manage special cases that are on their radar. Given the level of trademark enforcement that some companies engage in, it wouldn’t surprise him.

Bill: Some tactics are trying to fool the Quality Score algorithm with SEO-like tactics. There are people that are masking affiliate links with certain programs. Another potential black hat PPC technique is that there are a certain number of impressions that you need to get before you’re given a Quality Score and minimum bid. That leaves you room to test.

If you utilize geo-targeting and IP blocking, if they are reasonably savvy, wouldn’t they be able to see what you’re doing?

Bill: There are a lot of ways to search outside of your IP address, so if they’re savvy than there’s a good chance of that.

David: He thinks that a lot of advertisers feel they don’t have the time to look into that.

Is there a way to do that as an alternate to cloaking to improve your quality score?

Kevin: The portion of the Quality Score that’s attributable to landing page analysis is fairly small when compared to other factors. They already do personalization like routing based on different parameters. This is done for the benefit of the consumer instead of the value of the Quality Score.

Bill: There are a few landing page elements that set off alarm bells to Google. A number of affiliate links is one of those things. There are ways to confuse the spider to they don’t really notice and wander away.

And that wraps up the final day of SES New York. See you back on the West Coast!

Virginia Nussey is the director of content marketing at MobileMonkey. Prior to joining this startup in 2018, Virginia was the operations and content manager at Bruce Clay Inc., having joined the company in 2008 as a writer and blogger.

See Virginia's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (7)
Filed under: PPC/Pay-Per-Click
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7 Replies to “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: Black Hat PPC Tactics”

These are some great tips. I actually learned a few things this time around. Usually I read whole articles about ppc tips and come away empty handed. Not this time,Thanks!

Hi Virginia, Thank you for summing it up… It was rather an exciting session and nice to see it together here.
This session gave an insight into the darker side of ppc. However, ppc plays an important and on the target job if its utilized effectively and efficiently.

Wow, SEO and death threats! I gotta read this blog more often.

Great post,
A lot of good stuff … should have attended SESNY. GEO segmentation is very interesting for some clients, and could give good results.
Write some more before Lisa Barone get to you *LOL*

I’ll kill you both. :)

Susan Esparza

She means you get mouthy sometimes, Outspoken. ;)

Lisa Barone is across the aisle from me. What are the chances she’ll be offering up some editorial as part of her coverage?

What is *that* supposed to mean?! :)


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