The Human Side of Black Hat SEO
By Dustin Verburg
Editors Note: I thought I would take the day off today and invite a guest author on the blog for you all! Please be nice to Dustin it’s his first time here, he approached me with an epic idea for a post and with recent events in our little “SEO bubble” I couldn’t wait to hit the Publish button on this one…
Author’s Note: Chris helped me out a ton in gathering interviews and giving me ideas. He’s the best. I’m sad I couldn’t use everything that everyone typed, because most of it was brilliant. I’d also like to thank Bill, Ian, Paddy, Paul, Rand, Eric and the folks on Reddit who answered my silly questions. You’re all great.
“Forgive me Matt Cutts, for I have sinned…”
I don’t use some of the same SEO practices I used 8 months ago. I’ve moved on from some ineffective and borderline spammy practices, but I’m still the same person I always was. Some industry dinosaurs label practices I still use as “spammy” or “black hat” even when I wholeheartedly disagree. These prehistoric lizards have seen the SEO world evolve from its Jurassic period to its Cretaceous period and they’re quick to point fingers. And we’re all quick to point fingers at one another—but we’re all people.
Regardless of our experience, our insider knowledge, the size of our cubicles and our psychic search algorithm predictions, we’re all just people. That means those black hat practices we speak of only in hushed whispers are the product of people. People just like us.
People who use black hat tactics aren’t cloaked warlocks reciting ancient incantations in dark towers—they’re our friends, our siblings and our lovers. They’re us. People use black hat practices because they can get away with it, because they disagree with Google’s policies, because the money is good or because white hat strategies just don’t work for them. I think it’s time to examine the human side of black hat SEO.
What is Black Hat SEO?
We usually define black hat SEO as “the tactics other people use” or “the tactics I would never use,” but it goes beyond that.
Bill Sebald of Greenlane SEO offers a thoughtful definition, “Maybe it’s any tactic or strategy, related to natural search, that goes against search engines’ published (vague) guidelines; including (but not limited to) automation tools, webspam, and code based black magic. It’s a quicker way to get ranking results en masse, usually with little concern about the searcher’s experience. I think intent is a big factor – for example, not all cloaking is penalty worthy, but if you’re tricking users or spiders, then you’re black hat cloaking (for example).”
Paddy Moogan is an SEO consultant for Distilled. He adds, “I still think of black hat as being stuff that is either illegal or bordering on illegal. This stems from when I first read about it in the context of hacking / computer security rather than from an SEO point of view. I don’t necessarily feel that black hat means ANYTHING that is outside of search engine guidelines. So to relate it back to SEO, when I think of black hat, I think of hacking sites for links, editing htaccess files, doing nasty server side stuff to kill the rankings of that site or to point links to your own. I know many will not agree but that’s just my perspective.“
Paul Madden, a UK-based SEO, explains it this way, “Blackhat in general means any tactic that could theoretically get you in legal trouble, everything else is just SEO ”
Those first two definitions differ a bit, but they seem to agree on ‘intent’ as a key factor. Intent is the key—even if the intent isn’t specifically to cause damage or game the system. “Everything else is just SEO,” in Paul’s words, takes a less black and white approach. The definition is nebulous, so black hat SEO might just boil down to “the ends justify the means.”
When it comes to black hat, the most obvious answer to the “why?” question is money. Techniques that are now considered spammy used to be normal, and people used those methods because they got higher search rankings. In this business, higher search rankings equal money. Everyone needs money, and SEO is an attractive field for freelancers or folks who just want to make a little cash from home. On a base level, we can all empathize with that.
Anonymous Redditor #1 explained it to me this way, “It’s my main source of income. As a one man army I don’t have the time for white hat methods, outsourcing work is usually unreliable too. I love coming up with new techniques and in return, $$$.” He also stated that it’s “A lot less work than white hat.”
The nature of which practices are acceptable in this industry has changed drastically. Some people, such as Paddy, never gave the color of his hat a second thought in the distant past. “I didn’t really think much about it, I was young and wanted to make money and because I was only doing this for my own websites, I didn’t worry too much. So they didn’t feel like I was doing black / grey hat stuff at all because there were definitely lots of people using those methods and they worked a little too well.”
Paul was fully aware of what he was doing. “I always tried to remain morally clean as far as the things we did, but I also always enjoyed the competition… I was always fully aware of what I was doing and what the risks were, I always felt I was one of the more mature heads in the [Syndk8 forum].” As far as the money goes, Paul adds, “I have no mortgage now.”
Since time is money, time is also a big factor in Black hat SEO. Ian Howells of Halo18 (and Bill’s early mentor) knew exactly what he was doing. “They were commonly used, effective, and blatantly “black hat”. The risk was assessed before starting, the overhead was extremely low, and the potential return was significant.
“I’ve had plenty of projects where the intent was purely to make money. I wasn’t trying to change the world, or make the internet a better place, or even (frankly) help people. The goal was, simply, to earn money. With that stated purpose, black hat was the fastest, most efficient way to accomplish my goal. If I was going to put the “white hat” time and effort into something, it wouldn’t be able to get rolling as fast as I wanted.”
Working in the SEO industry also means that you’re under the client’s whip. Even if you don’t approve of a tactic your client wants you to use, if you ignore their request you’re going to lose a paycheck.
Anonymous Redditor #2 explains, “I deal with a lot of Lawyers as clients, and they generally insist on black hat techniques for some reason… It’s actually quite frustrating. Locally, they want to rank for every damn city in their state. I had a new client recently that had set up 24 P.O. boxes in every city in California, with local listings for every one of them. I advised the client that this was black hat and that Google did not like this type of thing… so I did what I was told, but I knew that this was not best practice… Long story short, Google caught onto it, and penalized them. BIG TIME. I now refuse to do this type of work because it’s unethical and unwise to do.”
Life in the Trenches
SEO Conferences in the 90′s were tough places
SEO Conferences in the 90′s were tough places
Practicing black hat techniques often works as a learning experience, as well. Some people use black hat tactics and hacking to gain a deeper understanding of search engines and the internet as a whole, while others have simply learned from their black-or-grey hat adventures.
Even SEOmoz founder/CEO Rand Fishkin has put on a non-white hat. Rand explains, “Generally speaking, [the practices I used] were considered less dubious than they are today, but I still knew that what I was doing wasn’t entirely within Google’s guidelines – if not the letter, at least the spirit.”
His robots.txt encounter has been well documented, and he sees his time engaging in those tactics as time he’d like to get back. It’s doubtful to me, however, that he’d be the search marketing powerhouse he is without making a few mistakes. Rand elaborates, “The worst part, though, is how little those techniques actually move the needle when it comes to growing a real business or a real brand. I wish I’d invested that time doing, as Wil Reynolds like to call it, #RCS (Real Company Shit), not manipulative junk. The latter has long-term, ongoing value, and that’s what a growing company needs.”
Bill Sebald learned the dark arts from Ian Howells. Bill explains his learning experience this way, “If I had to be labeled one or the other, I’m easily a white hat. But on the side I ran affiliate sites that experimented in the dark arts. I’ve always owned a bunch of test sites to experiment with, so it seemed like a good opportunity to learn the other side of search. This was about 4 years ago. I figured it was important to see what I was up against, so I would occasionally visit Wickedfire and Warrior type forums…”
Ian Howells gave Bill a tour of SEnuke, TweetAttacks, Drip Feed Blasts, ALN, Article Marketing tools, WP-Robot, BMR, commenters, etc. He learned from all of them. Bill then a found a tool he was a little more comfortable with, “Build My Rank was one I felt a little safer with. Because they had slightly higher standards on uniqueness, and because not all of the domains looked like total trash, I would actually write my own original content for that network. The results were amazing. This was a real Google crowbar. Eventually I got lazy and let the staff write the articles (shifting from gray to pure black), even though the quality was garbage. But as the rankings came, I turned a blind eye, eventually put all my eggs in that basket, and as expected, it all came to a screeching halt. The whole thing was an awesome learning experience, but looking back I realized how much I didn’t know about SEO until I learned the black hat side of it.”
Paddy started at a young age. “I messed about with learning to hack when I was 14-15 years old but it never got further than trying to crack people’s passwords to various things. I soon learnt that this wasn’t a great use of my time and turned my attention to learning better stuff instead!
“I have messed about with a lot of shady SEO techniques when I was learning the ropes and just working on my own websites whilst I was at University and trying to earn some extra money. It was mainly to do with scaling the production of websites without having to write and register each one manually, so I’d try to build 20 websites at a time rather than 1 at a time and each one would have Google AdSense all over it. A step on from that, I’d mess about with autogenerating free blogs such as Blogger blogs or WordPress with the goal of pointing a load of backlinks to my own sites.”
Anonymous Redditor #2 mentioned that s/he loves coming up with new techniques as well, and s/he treats it as a learning experience.
“I’m reminded of the end of SLC Punk, where Stevo leaves the anarchist lifestyle behind in favor of Harvard law school. The two come together, his worldly knowledge and his impending legal education. As Matthew Lillard’s character famously said, “We can do a hell of a lot more damage in the system than outside of it.”
Define the term damage as you will. I like to think of it in positive terms.
Good Guys Don’t Wear White
Some people have been burned by using white hat tactics. They put in the time and hard work, but their SEO campaigns just didn’t pay off. At that point, it becomes a matter of defeating the system. It’s a different kind of damage.
French webmaster Eric Belet told me his story, “I’ve been a webmaster for 10 years, and I started looking into SEO 5 years ago. I started out doing white hat. Unfortunately I started to earn money only 3 years later, I earned almost € 3,500 per month. I was really proud to finally earn my living. In April 2012, during the release of Google Penguin, my main site was severely downgraded. It went from the first page to the last one.” Eric didn’t know that he was engaging in white hat tactics, but once he was penalized for “doing the right thing,” he created a different strategy. “… in anger, I’ve started doing Black Hat SEO. I saw that using a lot of BH could earn money quickly. Indeed, in three months I have managed to make a few sites that brought me a little money. Unfortunately, at the beginning of November 2012, I received a message from Google declaring that they’ve blacklisted 11 websites.”
Eric continues, “Now I work harder every day, and I do not think I will ever use White Hat tactics… I have used the Google Disavow Link Tool for all of my bad links, and requested reconsideration of my sites 12 times. It’s still a waste of time because Google does not want to help. Today I really hate Google, you know.”
Eric is a normal guy, and his reaction is pretty understandable. It’s not hard to imagine myself in his shoes.
The repeated use of black hat SEO practices results in penalties. Sometimes there are legal implications, but that’s not usually the case. Most of the time sites are blacklisted, their search rankings or toppled or they’re banned for AdSense.
Ian Howells talks about black hat penalties, “Oh, [I’ve been penalized] tons. But that’s the point. If you weren’t penalized, you weren’t pushing hard enough and you left money on the table.”
Bill Sebald has been penalized as well, “In the end all my test sites that I pushed black hat tactics into got nuked. I pushed too hard in nearly every incident. Now the only thing that stands is the shattered remains of some pretty crappy websites.”
Paul Madden has also suffered the wrath of Google, “I have burnt more of my own sites than most people. At one time I had somewhere in the region of 20,000-25,000 .info scraper sites in play at any one time… they are ALL now burnt.”
Ian, Bill and Paul aren’t alone. Plenty of normal people have been penalized for black hat practices, especially when they didn’t differentiate between hat colors in the first place. Some people didn’t understand the difference, some people wanted to push the boundaries between black and white and some people just didn’t care about hats. There are some great SEOs who aren’t even repentant.
Every single person who’s used black hat SEO tactics has used them for a reason. They’re just people trying to make a living. They’ve taken their beatings and learned their lessons. Some continue practicing the dark arts, and some of them bleach their hats on a daily basis.
We’re quick to put on a judge’s wig and bang the gavel, but one person’s white hat tactics are another person’s black hat tactics. We wouldn’t have many of the industry’s thought leaders today if they hadn’t engaged in black hat practices. It’s all a matter of history, perspective and favoring an actual conversation over pointing a virtual finger.
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About Dustin Verburg
Dustin Verburg is a writer and musician based in Boise, ID. When he’s not playing in one of his two crummy punk bands, he writes about internet ethics, content strategy and his own SEO misadventures. Dustin writes for Page One Power Twitter: @dustinverburg
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