Some Misconceptions Regarding Black Hat SEO (Guestpost)

Wed 23 December 2009 15:00, Editors

Some Misconceptions Regarding Black Hat SEO (Guestpost)

In the summer we had a unique series of guestposts on Searchcowboys. Many top SEOs were willing to write a blogpost for us about topics they are experts on. The final guestpost of the series was the one who got the most attention. Ralph Tegtmeier, aka 'Fantomaster' wrote his masterpiece "Some Misconceptions Regarding Black Hat SEO". Relive the article, it's fantastic.

Some Misconceptions Regarding Black Hat SEO (Guestpost)
Originally posted on July 9th 2009

It's the final guestpost of this series! It's been a stunning series and we want to close of with a big bang. And if you're looking for a big bang who better to pull the trigger than "Ralph aka fantomaster"? And he will talk about the subject everyone wants to hear about: Black hat.

 

Guestpost_searchcowboys_fantomaster2
fantomaster is the corporate name and forum handle of Ralph Tegtmeier, co-founder and CEO (together with Dr. Dirk Brockhausen) of fantomaster.com GmbH, a privately owned company domiciled in Belgium.

Familiar with IT since his high school days, and having pursued a formal academic background in Comparative Literature and linguistics, Ralph has worked the Web as an active self-employed marketer in various industries, ranging from offshore finance and privacy protection tools to online publishing and book retail, software development and search engine optimization since 1994. His current focus is developing intelligent automated content generation software, titled the fantomas textMachine™ project.

Some Misconceptions Regarding Black Hat SEO

Ever since the mid 90s when the term "search engine optimization" or SEO gradually became all the rage, a major part of the debate on what is proper or effective search marketing has been dominated in many quarters by absurdly moralistic overtones. In the early times it was all about "ethical" or "unethical" SEO. More recently, SEO is generally being seen in terms of "white hat" (aka "ethical") and "black hat" (aka "unethical") approaches towards search. Of course, as its really all about rankings, traffic and conversions in the first place, you might be pardoned for thinking that most of this chatter is actually quite silly and totally beside the point. After all, search engine optimization is essentially a technical, not a moral or ethical issue.

The major search engines themselves can look back on a not-too-glamorous track record of pouring oil into the fire. Sure, to a certain extent this is quite understandable from their point of view: they want to own the index and don't like the idea of webmasters coming up with whatever tricks to manipulate search results. However, as the content they're crawling, indexing and ranking isn't theirs to command in the first place, they still seem to be having a hard time coping with the fact that their unilateral Terms of Service are anything but gospel - and that people will do just about anything that can help them achieve better rankings and traffic, especially if it means money and/or a conduit for securing their livelihood.

Thus, attempting to criminalize black hat SEOs by equating them with hackers and crackers, virus developers and e-mail spammers, in short: with felons, as has been the ongoing policy of Google's Webspam headman Matt Cutts is anything but helpful. Nor does it indicate a particularly sophisticated degree of social competence if you're sneakily trying to convey the impression that Google's TOS are somehow equivalent to the law of the land, tagging everyone who refuses to be subjugated a law breaker by inference. (Quite often you'll see a lot of newbies on forums who have actually fallen for this pitch, fretting about "legal" and "illegal" optimization techniques. So to a degree this nefarious FUD policy is quite effective if only in the short term ...)

The term "spam" itself is a good case in point. Originally, it merely indicated unsolicited (usually commercial) e-mail, no more, no less. Effectively, the search engines and their yeasayers have hijacked the tag to define just about everything that is in violation of their arbitrary, self-serving TOS: and so, the "search engine spammer" was born.

Beyond the search engines' immediate agenda, you'll still find plenty of SEO consultants and "gurus" admonishing everyone willing to listen that "black hat SEO is bad bad bad" and, more importantly, tantamount to corporate suicide. Black hat techniques are presented as being despicable, short lived, only temporarily effective at best and subject to heavy penalization (i.e. a "ban") by the search engines. As pointed out above, this take is anything but new - but is it actually correct?

Like most things in life, the entire subject is governed by a slew of different factors, environmental conditions and intentions - a complexity only ill-reflected by simplistic assertions of this ilk. In other words: it depends. So let's take a more sober, less excitatory look at some of the most common misconceptions informing the conversation.

1. "Black Hat SEO Strategies Can Only Achieve Short Lived, Temporary Results"
Some will, some won't. As they say, there's many ways to skin a cat, and black hat SEO techniques and strategies tend to vary wildly. Much of this is determined by the specific niche you're targeting - how competitive and fast moving it is, what kind of resources you are willing and capable of throwing at it, etc. Yes, many black hats will operate on a "churn and burn" basis, deploying what are essentially "throwaway" sites - but that doesn't actually present much of a problem if the process is efficiently automated. (For more on the economic side of this see item #5 below.)

What's more, it's not that black hat SEO'ed sites couldn't be quite persistent. For example, we have had Shadow Domains™ (entirely driven by cloaking or IP delivery) out there that have been merrily monetizing for years without a hitch. So this particular view of things is really entirely beside the mark.

2. "Black Hat SEO Isn't Effective Anymore Because the Search Engines Have Grown Much Smarter Now"
If it really were, why are so many people still getting upset about it? This is quite an easy one to counter: do a Google search e.g. for "cheap viagra" and look at the results. Repeat and rinse over a few days (feek free to check out similar spam prone niches) and you'll get a pretty good indication of what's actually going on behind the scenes.

Fact is that dumb black hat SEO isn't as effective anymore as it used to be - but then, neither is white hat SEO. Ranking algorithms, web site architecture, design standards and the Web environment as a whole are changing all the time (can you say "Web 2.0"?) and search engine optimizers, regardless the flavor, have to adapt accordingly.

If people tell you that black hat SEO has lost its clout because the search engines have become ever so much smarter now (something, incidentally, that the likes of Matt Cutts would sooo love you to believe), you can safely bet the farm that they don't know what they're talking about in the first place. Simply harping on some old and worn techniques no serious black hat worth her salt would deploy these days anyway is plain daft.

No system is perfect and safe from exploits and the search engines are no exception. If there's one group of SEOs eminently aware of this fact, it's the black hats whose daily task is to check and test what will actually work or not. This makes THEM the cutting edge techies, the real avantgarde of search optimization, and not all those wimpy white hats whose sole idea of actionable SEO is abiding by the search engines' whimsical (and more often than not outrageously ambiguous) webmaster guidelines.

3. "Black Hat SEO Will Get You Banned by the Search Engines"
This is essentially correct in theory, but for one it presupposes getting caught out in the first place; and even then you'll want to take a long hard look at what will actually get banned i.e. removed from a search engine index. Alright, if you're spamming the engines to promote your main money site, you may indeed run the risk of seeing it dropped forever, so this is nothing anyone in his right mind would ever recommend.

Banned
However, that's not at all what competent black hat SEOs will actually do. Rather, they'll build and promote massive numbers of web sites that are easily dispensable. Powerful strategic automation makes this both feasible and definitely worth your while. (More on this under item #5 below.)

4. "Black Hat SEO Is Poison to Your Corporate Image"
This is quite true in general terms - but does it actually apply to your specific business model? If you're a super duper Fortune 500 company concerned about branding and your public relations standing, you definitely don't want to be outed for deploying blatant black hat SEO strategies. (That's not to say such corporations are beyond resorting to black hat SEO at all for whichever reason. Indeed there've been quite a few cases of this being heavily publicised in the past. Of course, the standard method of pursuant damage control is to neatly shift the blame onto some "unethical" SEO agency that was supposedly tasked with their campaigns ...)

Most other online businesses, i.e. the vast majority, aren't into branding and corporate image control at all. They want to sell stuff, either their own or via affiliate links, and more often than not they're not into repeat business built on ab immaculate reputation either.

To avoid detection, they can work with an array of different generic sites not tied up in any way to their core business entity - "doing business as" under various names and platforms. And if such a site does get banned, they'll simply create a few more or phase in some fallback replacements. (A classic black hat approach, by the way: lose one site and roll out ten more to replace it - see the scalability potential here? No way your run-of-the-mill white hat setup could ever hope to compete with such an automation driven brute force "mass makes class" approach ...)

5. "Black Hat SEO Is No Viable Business Model"
That's like saying "a brick and mortar store is not a defensible business concept anymore": even the most perfunctory reality check will expose this for the load of bull it actually is.

A while back I've addressed this issue in my blog article "The Economics of Cloaking", using IP delivery as a practical example. Of course all of this applies to whichever black hat SEO strategies you may choose to adopt. Because the basic rationale and the maths it prescribes are always the same: conduct a realistic risk-to-gain analysis, measure it against the resources actually at your disposal and work it out from there.

By way of an admittedly somewhat simplistic summary: if it costs you $10 to register a domain, roll out a web site and promote it, and if this sites makes you $20 before it gets banned by the search engines, say within a couple of weeks, that's a 100% ROI total or 50% per week. Scale this up by factor 100 or even 1000 by rolling out ever more monetizable web sites of this type, and we're talking serious money and an eminently viable business model to boot.

6. "Black Hat SEO Can Only Fool Dumb Machines But Not Highly Trained Human Search Engine Staff"
Here's where it gets really interesting in my view. All major search engines have ramped up their editorial staff, having learned the hard way that fending off "search engine spam" cannot be done effectively in any reliable manner via automated algorithms alone. And while all such human labor intense efforts do not scale easily, making for a lot of un-monitored niches even now, today's search engine optimizer does have to factor in manual reviews by human editorial staff nevertheless.
Black_hat_money

The most obvious solution here is automated generation of quality content: content that is human readable and grammatically correct, that is 100% unique, that makes sense to read and that features no footprints shouting "autogenned". In short, it must be able to pass human editorial muster. These requirements will rule out markoved or scraped-and-shuffled content which has indeed lost a lot of its efficacy, even though it can still be deployed to great advantage within specific scenarios. It also precludes the use of automatic synonymizers and similar commonly available automatic article rewriting software, none of which has mastered the required degree of linguistic sophistication to date.

This is what we've been focusing on at fantomaster.com with our proprietary fantomas textMachine™ project. Based on what we have developed already, we're on the verge of launching a commercial service titled "Customized Content Creation" (CCC) which will offer clients just that: 100% unique customized content created to their specifications in terms of topics, targeted keyword phrases, links etc. in any conceivable volume. Moreover, this is content that is not detectable in any way as having been autogenned. CCC will also be available in multiple languages which should lend international SEO a very powerful new twist.

What this effectively does is finally dissolve the artifically imposed borders between "white hat" and "black hat" SEO again. Rather than solely exploiting the quirks and weak spots of automated ranking algorithms, this approach will produce web sites that even highly qualified human search engine editors won't find fault with. In this manner it essentially merges the automation and scalability power of black hat SEO with the quality requirements of white hat SEO tradecraft, making the two quite indistinguishable from one another.


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Comments (35)

 

    • Dennis

    Amen!

    Do 9 jul 2009, 11:00


  • I'd agree with most things said in this article... There is no totally white hat SEO (especially as Google is concerned - Whoever is editing Google webmaster central disagrees with Matt Cutts on a regular basis as to what is approved policy!). All SEO is a bit 'grey'...
    I'd however be very surprised if dynamic text creation could be implemented which would compete with well written copy by a real copywriter. Not something I would ever advise our clients to get into... production of copy relevant to client websites has to take into consideration a lot of factors, not least the customers products, competitors website copy and of course any information from the customer which is not already displayed on the web. Not easy to get an algorithm to do all that... plus isn't the web all about providing useful, relevant content?

    Do 9 jul 2009, 12:42


  • Very nice article, and very insightful as well.

    Do 9 jul 2009, 13:56


  • Just imagine if we could doupe the search engines most of the time quite easily and at low cost.

    Search engines would become a lot less usable. Advertising would become more credible again. Soon this whole new media malarky will resemble - old media.

    In short, I hope the Search engines stay on top of this - so that the best information, services etc can be found easily, by virtue of being the best - and that we all can take part in the democratization of media power and not just big corporates & governments with spending power.

    Search engines are the original social media engines and foundation of social media, as they effectively counts the votes, via links to what is the best stuff out there.

    Some of these techniques are anti-social in the extreme, and some of them deserve penalties.

    Do 9 jul 2009, 15:02


  • PS: You should get your URL's to be more search engine friendly. Some white-hat advice for you.

    Do 9 jul 2009, 15:27


  • Great article, Ralph, on so many fronts. I particularly agreed with your concern that the word 'spam' has been so misused now to give it a completely negative connotation. I guess only Hormel is the winner since it's now on everyone's lips. :)

    Do 9 jul 2009, 15:40


  • Personally, my disagreement with "Black Hat" SEO is that it violates what I see as the basic principles of internet architecture. My humble point of view, and I believe that many others agree, is that content should be created for users first, search engines second.

    In my experience, Black Hat SEO neglects this principle. I'm a believer that SEO should focus on optimizing content for crawlability and promoting it in such a way that is beneficial to the end user.

    Vr 10 jul 2009, 19:13


  • Fantomaster haunts my dreams at night. Seriously, I wake up in a cold sweat and everything!

    Vr 10 jul 2009, 20:14


  • Great post once again!...
    One good point to remember is don't do anything directly on your main website.
    Do the experiment on a website that is build for this purpose. Once you satisfied with the results only then implement this technique to main website.

    And yeah...BLACK HAT STILL ROCKS....

    just a mix of bad links (e.g. profiles *hint)
    and some good links..(paid links *hint)
    with some content(dupe + original *hint) + updation frequency..(auto update *hint)
    The very basic black hat formula ... :P

    Za 11 jul 2009, 05:46


  • I'm happy you wrote this - I feel like as a link broker I am constantly labled a "black hat". In truth there is no 100% white hat and the majority of people who have heard of the term should read this post to break down many of the common misconceptions floating around.

    Ma 13 jul 2009, 08:27


  • Thank you a very well and clearly experienced piece. I am not a believing too in the white/black/good/bad debate. Its a competitive world and within reason you need to do what you need to do to meet your objectives.
    Point 4 on the corporate image is my daily concern on my day job. No matter what my personal beliefs are, I, and my employer need to be clean and defensible against any allegations. But at the same time with huge stretch targets moving into Grey is often needed, but not in their interest to know fully.

    Ma 13 jul 2009, 11:11


  • Interesting article, it's an interesting point that as "black hat" techniques become more refined, especially in the content generation field, the results they achieve in fact tend towards white hat. If an application can generate unique, informative and useful content then this so called black hat software is meeting the goal of white hat seo, so in turn becomes white hat.

    Food for thought!

    Ma 13 jul 2009, 13:39


    • hotis49

    @Sean Weigold Ferguson - Who is to decide what content is valuable to the user? I doubt there is any web master who thinks his site is invaluable to a user unless the site is designed to scam or rip someone off. Therefore every regular website is designed for the user, and then the webmaster uses SEO to promote that site. There is not black hat SEO. It's not an ethical dilemna. SEO is no different than a towing company naming itself AAA towing so that it shows up first in the yellow pages.

    Ma 13 jul 2009, 18:47


  • Some blackhat techniques, like comment spamming, annoy me.

    Ma 13 jul 2009, 19:04


    • Angry webmaster

    CCC
    Great. Creating a new tool so that criminals can steal my copyrighted material to make easy money off my hard efforts and not get caught by the search engines, thus stealing traffic (and revenue) from me as well.

    Gee... what's so unethical about that?!

    Ma 13 jul 2009, 19:40


  • "Who is to decide what content is valuable to the user?"
    I'm pretty sure the user decides what content is valuable, not the webmaster. Search engines use algorithms to guess what content users will find valuable. The creators of these algorithms have created and enforce rules to ensure that on a macro-scale, over a long enough time frame, users will find what they are looking for. Breaking these rules does not benefit the user and whether it actually benefits the webmaster is debatable.

    If I don't like the rules of the game, it doesn't mean I get to break them and not be held accountable. If I don't like when the other team calls fouls, I can go play with in a league that doesn't. If I don't like the rules it doesn't mean I just get to cheat my way to winning. Not only is it unethical, it ruins the game for everyone else.

    Ma 13 jul 2009, 19:53


  • I don't think "black hat" or unethical seo will ever go away, but there has been improvements recently that make search engines better than they ever have been. It ultimately is up to the user of google or other search engines to use the engine effectively to find what they need.

    Ma 13 jul 2009, 21:11


  • Blackhat SEO just sounds a lot cooler than middle manager at a call center.

    Di 14 jul 2009, 10:14


  • @Sean Weigold Ferguson
    "If I don't like the rules of the game, it doesn't mean I get to break them and not be held accountable. If I don't like when the other team calls fouls, I can go play with in a league that doesn't. If I don't like the rules it doesn't mean I just get to cheat my way to winning. Not only is it unethical, it ruins the game for everyone else."

    Search engine aren't the game creators and thus don't make the rules (although they try to make you believe that).
    Rules are created by governments and are called laws. Anything that doesn't breaks the law is simply part of the game. BlackHat is simply a different strategy from WhiteHat.

    Di 14 jul 2009, 16:24


  • That such bright people can sprout such nonsense. Like @Bartjan

    "Rules are created by governments and are called laws. Anything that doesn't breaks the law is simply part of the game."

    Ha ha? You really think that. Use you head. Think.

    The first lesson in law is the distinction between, morals, ethics, and laws. No society - except for police states (but not even then) are 'controlled' by laws alone.

    Let me explain you dimwit. South Africa has a complex legal system and the most progressive legal system in the world. (Gay rights are completely recognised). Yet is has one of the highest crime rates. Gays and lesbians are regularly killed.

    Why? Because the law does not gel with the vast majority of the countries citizens morals or ethics.

    When you stop late at night at a traffic light its not because you think if you drive over you will be caught. Its because its the right thing to do.

    Lastly your comment is silly and ill informed. Just this week on Techcrunch there is a post about the need of government regulation to apply to search engines. The stock response from the tech industry has always been, no. Things like reputation & user behaviour, and market forces will make sure that people act in the common good. This is an appeal to our ethics.

    Search engines is a really positive force. Black hat techniques are like pissing in a public square, no worse - its like going into a public library and miss indexing the books.



    Di 14 jul 2009, 17:10


  • @Wessel van Rensburg

    Couldn't agree more. The systems currently in place are designed to maintain order and benefit internet society as a whole (at least we would hope so). Breaking the rules creates chaos and disturbs the equilibrium maintained by these systems.

    If one believes that a rule or law is injust out of altruistic rather than selfish reasons, by all means I encourage them to repudiate those rules. The issue I take with Black Hat SEO is that, generally speaking, most of its proponents' motivation stems from selfishness publicly rationalized as moral relativism or nihilism.

    To use a vastly oversimplified metaphor, my experience has been to see Black Hats engaging in Black Panther attacks as opposed to MLK Jr. or Gandhi passive resistance.

    Do 16 jul 2009, 19:26


  • I didn't say there wasn't a need for more regulations.
    Some black hat techniques are criminal, like hacking other websites to include links.

    However some are not, like setting up a lot of automated websites to strengthen a few primary websites would be seen as blackhat. Ofcourse when you manually create these sites it's whitehat.
    Now what happens when those automatically generated sites are more usefull to the visitors then their WH counterparts?
    Blackhat? yes
    Unethical? no
    A problem for the normal people? no
    A problem for search engine? maybe

    There are many shades of 'black', some are plainly stealing money which ofcourse is bad and some are simply automated whitehat methods.

    Having a strong opinion about BlackHat doesn't change that not all blackhat methods are unethical.

    Another example: you can use lots of automated blackhat sites to test what works for your whitehat site. Unethical?

    Vr 17 jul 2009, 10:24


  • Hey Ralph,

    awesome post - looking forward to our panel in Berlin!

    BTW - like that crazy monkey :)

    cheers,christoph

    Vr 24 jul 2009, 10:37


  • Very nice article! It was written very well and I learned a lot from it. It seems that as long as Black Hat is out there you are going to have to use it to dominate your niche.

    Vr 31 jul 2009, 23:03


  • This is a great article and a must read for all new SEO wannabes. Blackhat, Greyhat or whitehat you make your choice and run with it. It is like anything in life, everyone will have a different opinion to what is right or wrong.

    Ma 10 aug 2009, 15:44


  • How is auto update possibol ?
    www.tex-tryk.dk b. Hat link or ?

    Ma 10 aug 2009, 23:56


  • Great post Ralph. It provides a very logical perspective on black hat techniques and fuels my temptation further. I am one of those annoying, wimpy, white hats, but I have had my head turned more in the last few months than in the last 5 years.
    I can't help agreeing with you because I have reached a point where it seems you either need HUGE budgets for good quality content and PR or you have to bend the rules to compete in competitive sectors like travel.

    I share Wessels's perspective on "the right thing" to do, but I feel the motor in my boat is struggling to swim upstream sometimes.

    Wo 19 aug 2009, 17:14


  • ALL SEO IS SPAM - article "marketing", PR submissions, directory submissions are all ways of gaming Google that they haven't dinged you for yet... They will. Ask yourselves, what is the difference between sending out "keyword rich/anchor text embedded" articles really relevant content and blog comments/forum sigs or profiles - it is all the same. Google isn't stupid. I cannot wait for G to ban all juice going to/coming from article submission sites - Cheers and good luck!

    Do 27 aug 2009, 02:17


  • Bravo! Ralph, Bravo! The web started out belonging to the people. There were no "search engines". Webmasters performed web optimization to get traffic via smart engineering of links and directories, and smart engineering has always been about what works. Along came Google and others who saw an opportunity to corral the Wild Web, incorporate its indexed content and start barking orders as to what can and can't be done. Engineers tell you what you can do, lawyers tell you what you can't. White hat SEO is like a paint by the numbers set (don't go out of the lines), not useless, but nothing new will ever come of it. To be innovative and break new ground creativity cannot thrive if its hovered over by an iron fist waiting to be judged as Black Hat or Illegal or anything else not in line with the official party handbook. That's why certain bots have to be blocked because it is THEY who damage a websites reputation.

    I've been waiting for this software Fantomaster has been putting together for a good while. With your formal academic background in Comparative Literature, linguistics and years in software development I know this is going to be the best thing yet to hit the market. I've looked at all the other automated content generation software out there and said "you know what? I'm waiting for Ralph's". Thanks for helping keep the art of the people alive. We need more like you.

    Vr 4 sep 2009, 18:56


  • Great article Ralph, really love the style and tone of the post throughout, and I have to say it does bring the argument of 'hat based SEO' into a more rationale line

    Zo 4 okt 2009, 20:50


  • As an SEO, I agree with most of what you're saying here.

    I do some SEO consulting for smaller local businesses and newspaper sites. Neither news companies or local businesses really need any blackhat help. They're just doing a whole lot of basic stuff really really wrong.

    Fixing the stupid stuff they've done is really all they need. Newspaper sites get enough inbound links naturally that they don't need any help there, and local businesses often have laughable competition.

    And so yes, I tell them VERY STRONGLY, do not break the rules. It just isn't worth the risk.

    Za 10 okt 2009, 17:43


  • Great article totally agree with what you are saying.

    It can be so difficult to convince clients that black hat SEO techniques won't work in the long term because they often do work in the short term!

    Vr 15 jan 2010, 11:48


  • Great article , i love the blackhat part :-)

    Vr 19 feb 2010, 20:35


  • well, best black hatter are using methods that no one knows about.. and thats what makes then black hat

    Ma 19 jul 2010, 09:03


  • I totally agree with your opinion in this article. Black hat SEO is Spam and makes us SEO look bad...

    Grtz from holland!

    Vr 17 jun 2011, 11:30

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