Does Dark SEO still exist? Black hats, dead links, and tricks from the grave…

SEO has matured, but there’s no deny­ing the industry’s dark past. For Hal­loween, we explore where dark SEO still exists. Hold on to your (black) hats, the fol­low­ing post includes dirty tricks that will make your skin crawl.

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 0 comments

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.”

Gray Hat

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?

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

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