Do black hat SEO tactics still exist in our industry? Are they on the decline? Will they eventually die out? Or are they like cockroaches and Cher?
Are there ethically questionable individual who profit from tactics at the expense of consumers online experiences? Or are they simply exposing gaps in a flawed system?
We asked ten marketing experts for their takes on dark SEO after Penguin 4.0. Here’s why they say we probably haven’t seen the last of it – and why Penguin might have inadvertently helped black hat SEOs.
Black Hat… RIP.
According to Henry Butler, SEO consultant at agency CanIRank, black hat SEO is a thing of the past.
“Google is becoming increasingly better at connecting online searches with the correct sources of information,” he said. “While you still might be able to get away with keyword stuffing or buying links, these are risky tactics that will likely have your website punished down the road. Black hat SEO is like stealing food from a grocery store. Sure, you might not get caught the first time, but eventually, you will be found and get in trouble.”
Like Google, It Evolves…
Eric Brantner of Scribblrs.com, however, noted black hat techniques are evolving right along with Google’s algorithm.
In fact, some of the latest manifestations in black hat are in local search, which is perhaps because it is easier to cheat “as you go down towards ever smaller subsets of data,” said Marcus Miller, head of SEO and digital marketing at agency Bowler Hat. Spam listings in local search are a great example, Miller said.
Adam Broetje, CEO of SEO, design and strategy firm Odd Dog Media agreed.
Broetje said one of the black hat tactics he has seen lately includes using fake locations to optimize for Google’s local 3-pack and using online review services to generate fake Google reviews and boost a Google My Business Page. These are tactics frequently associated with home service businesses, law firms, and SEO companies, he said.
For example, a company decides that rather than actually performing garage door repair services, it wants to generate leads and sell them to local businesses, so it uses a fake address to register and verify a Google My Business Page. Further, it tries to get the fake address as close to the city center as possible, which many garage door repair services don’t have, Broetje said.
“They then pump a bunch of fake reviews to the page and conduct a small local SEO campaign,” Broetje said. “Because the location of the fake address is closer to the city center, when you search for a ‘Seattle garage door repair service,’ these fake listings often show up ahead of the legitimate businesses who are typically further from the city’s [center].”
Further, Broetje said the tactic works until an SEO firm representing a legitimate business realizes the only way to outrank the spam is to eliminate it and then it’s a long, arduous process to dig up evidence of the fake location, report it to Google and follow through to ensure Google takes appropriate action.
“The reason this is so rampant is that it’s easy, it works and the penalty is just having that Google My Business page removed,” Broetje said. “They simply create a different website with a different business name and do the same process with a new Gmail account.”
And until Google implements harsher penalties for spamming the local pack, this will continue to be a problem, Broetje said.
However, Miller noted Google is zeroing in on this with advanced verification for some local business categories.
“This game of algorithmic cops and robbers will likely go on for many years yet – there will always be those looking to cheat and there will always be those looking to sell low-priced and ultimately harmful SEO tactics for profit,” Miller said. “Likewise, there are some industries where paid search clicks are running towards $99 and visibility in the organic results will always have a strong financial reward, so people will keep playing the system.”
On a related note, John Nesler, lead writer and researcher at web development and online marketing firm Post Modern Marketing, said a new development he’s seeing is fake review schema.
“You know how when you do a Google search for a business or product, occasionally search results will show a star rating?” he asked. “Typically, these are sourced from some sort of verified third party, such as Amazon or Yelp. But what the black hatters have been doing is just putting some fake schema in place to give themselves a 5-star rating that isn’t actually based on real reviews. It’s a neat little trick and it’s one that the majority of online users will do the research necessary to catch. The lesson here is never trust the search result ratings. Always go directly to Yelp, Google, Amazon, Facebook, or some other third-party site and directly view their ratings for a service or product.”
Per Leigh Wendinger, inbound marketing manager at Fun.com, the evolution of black hat tactics also includes hidden content, invisible text, article spinning and different forms of paid links.
“Marketers using black hat techniques are sneaky and will continue to be sneaky because they don’t think they can or will get caught,” Wendinger said. “I liken them to worms – they secretively appear when they think no one is watching and despite being chopped in half they still find a way to stay alive.”
However, Wendinger noted machine learning will eventually eliminate manual manipulation of the algorithm and black hat marketers will have to figure out how to evolve from there, too.
Could Black Hat Become Too Complicated for the Typical Marketer?
Jeremy Knauff, CEO of digital marketing firm Spartan Media, agreed that as Google’s algorithm has grown more complex, black hat tactics have had to adapt at a faster pace.
“New black hat [tactics] will continue to spring up [and] then get smashed by Google in a dark but exciting game of Whac-A-Mole. That’s just the nature of the beast,” Knauff added, likening black hat tactics to “the digital equivalent [of] a stock market pump and dump, where they launch a website, use tactics that violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines to get it ranked and profit from it until the site gets penalized and drops ranking.”
And then they start all over again from scratch.
However, Knauff posited evolving black hat tactics will eventually become too complex for the average marketer.
“It’s already pretty close,” he said. “Outside of link spam, most of the tactics that still work today require a fair amount of programming skill and even link spam is getting closer to being rendered useless [for] most marketers.”
Why Penguin 4.0 Might Be Good for Black Hat…
For his part, Micah Bond of digital marketing firm Geek Powered Studios said there have been discussions about whether Penguin’s refresh can remove all value from spammy links entirely, protecting sites from negative link-building and punishing spammers simultaneously. This, he said, means we’ll hopefully hear less about black hat tactics than we have in the past.
But, somewhat controversially perhaps, Brock Murray, COO of digital marketing agency seoplus+, said the recent implementation of a rolling Google Penguin update and the looming real-time Panda update might actually be what he called a lifesaver for black hatters.
“Previously, you would have to wait for an algorithm refresh to escape a Google penalty or deindexing. This could take hours, or it could take years – consider the epic 705 days between Penguin updates,” Murray said. “With real-time updates, you can walk on a tightrope of legitimacy. If you happen to push a step too far in the black hat world and get flagged, you can bounce back the next time search bots crawl your site. Even though the updates are meant to prioritize quality, the real-time nature of algorithms will let black hat SEOs perfect their tactics via trial and error. The new Penguin update is also more granular. It penalizes and treats spam signals on a page-by-page basis, rather than penalizing the entire domain. If your backlink tactics fail, only the targeted page will be penalized.”
Indeed, Bill Rowland, SEO director for e-commerce SEO firm Trinity Insight, said black hat tactics could theoretically bear some fruit for firms that adequately weigh the risks and rewards.
That’s because any contemporary SEO needs to understand black hat tactics to adequately guide his or her clients, even if pursuing these methods does not typically yield a good ROI – except maybe for JC Penney in 2011, he said.
“Black hat tactics can be useful, however, site operators need to be made fully aware of the risks and benefits,” Rowland added. “One company with which I’m familiar has developed a business case around buying links and developing sites that could get banned at any time. They have made a careful risk assessment and have found that this strategy is acceptable.”
For his part, Dan Goldstein, president of digital marketing agency Page 1 Solutions, said it’s important to remember that even the worst black hat practices stem from fundamentals that still guide ethical optimization, like keyword research, matching meta titles and descriptions to desirable queries, robust backlink catalogs and structuring sites to speak to human users and search crawlers.
“Most of the SEO hats I see are gray, not just black or white,” Goldstein added. “Like any educational process, it’s a matter of embracing and refining the useful knowledge and scrutinizing and abandoning misconceptions.”
Do you think dark, or black hat SEO is still a problem in the industry?