The Human Side of Black Hat SEO

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. 

 

day-lewis-black-hat

“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.”

The Money

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.”

Following Orders

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.

Doin’ Time

 

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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  • http://www.alessiomadeyski.com/ Alessio Madeyski

    fascinating reading!
    Black hat…but most the stories Dustin is telling here are really great.

    I do believe at the end of the day every SEO wears the black hat, at least in certain situations.
    Good post, really appreciate it!

    • http://recalibrate.co/ Ryan McLaughlin

      Agreed on all accounts. Really enjoyed this one.

      • http://twitter.com/DustinVerburg Dustin J. Verburg

        Thanks, Ryan and Alessio!

  • Edgar Cerecerez

    This is the equivalent of the banking industry saying “Oh, we just did it for the money… but we’re people too”.

    • RootsWebSol

      Yes – it’s just like the banking industries crippling greed which caused a multi trillion dollar global depression

    • http://twitter.com/ianhowells Ian Howells

      That’s a bit of a leap, don’t you think?
      Making profiles at defunct web forums has yet to get anyone foreclosed on.

  • Grindstone

    “I put on my robe and wizard hat”

    • http://twitter.com/DustinVerburg Dustin J. Verburg

      I cast magic missile at the darkness

    • http://twitter.com/Bofu2U Rob Adler

      Oh do it again.

  • David DeMille

    Great post Dustin. I think there’s a lot of value in being aware of all SEO tactics, whether they’re current, past, white, or black. Understanding the history of SEO is an important precursor to being able to predict future trends. Thanks for the reminder to not judge, and the humanization of the “leppers” of SEO.

    • http://twitter.com/DustinVerburg Dustin J. Verburg

      Thanks, David! I consider my work to be firmly in the ‘white hat’ realm, but opinions are all over the place. People need to take a step back every once in a while. Maybe go on a walk or something.

      I agree that learning every angle is fundamental to understanding the industry and predicting the future of SEO.

  • Jon Wade

    I was asking myself (and others) this question about 5 years ago. No SEO forums would answer me when I asked what black hat seo was – I guess people were afraid to admit knowing! So I joined a black hat forum and started reading and learning. My conclusion that black hat SEO is mostly link acquisition through automation. There may be some illegal stuff, but most people are just using tools to build masses of links at a rate that is impossible to do manually. Some people were creating hundreds of new websites every week (many on free platforms) just to create networks of links, only to burn the lot within 4-8 weeks and start afresh. There was certainly a time when the likes of xrumer were sending people up the SERPs pretty effectively. I guess since Panguin (did I just invent that?) that probably no longer works. But no doubt people are coming up with new ways.

    One question – if emailing bloggers to ask for a link is OK, then so would be emailing millions of people. If that black hat? OK, its illegal spam, but no something that a search engine could ever trace. I am getting more emails these days, which is why I mention it!

    • http://twitter.com/ianhowells Ian Howells

      The issue for most people comes down to scale.

      Send one email about posting your latest infographic and you’re a member of the white hat club. Here, have some moz points and inbound.org karma.

      Automate the same exact email so it goes to 300 people instead? You’re now an unethical, immoral, blackhat spammer and you give the entire industry a bad name.

  • RootsWebSol

    Awesome article Dustin – thanks so much for approaching me with the idea!

    • http://twitter.com/DustinVerburg Dustin J. Verburg

      Thanks for the privilege, Chris. It was a pleasure.

  • http://www.irishwonder.com IrishWonder

    Bullshit, sensationalism and fear mongering.

    • http://twitter.com/DustinVerburg Dustin J. Verburg

      I was trying to do the opposite of those things.

  • http://twitter.com/TimothyAlcock TimothyAlcock

    A hell of a lot of good white hat seos and strategies have been born from or used black hat.

    Black hat seos often have a deeper and better understanding of seo and where the google algo is at than white hat. They know what works and what doesn’t they have tested various strategies and can often pinpoint what google is looking for. The danger lies when a white hat uses a blackhat easy win strategy on a clients main site triggering future penalties.

  • http://twitter.com/BrettASnyder Brett Snyder

    It all really comes down to Risk/Reward but the hard part is the Reward is often easily quantified ($$$) where the Risk is a lot less tangible (chance of penalty, reputation, etc.). One way or another, whether you choose to be white hat, grey hat, darker grey hat, or black hat…you’re competing against other people in the SERPs that are going to wear a slightly different color hat than you. Even if you’re not personally willing to step into the black hat realm you’re doing yourself, your websites, and your clients a disservice to not at least acknowledge the practices and (to one of Dustin’s biggest points) to try and learn from them.

    Thanks for writing Dustin, especially since there’s always the risk the interwebz will rise up against you for bringing to light a different opinion!

  • http://www.facebook.com/adrian.harrod.90 Adrian Harrod

    Us white hatters with our superior mortality and opinions believe we’re worlds apart from the evil black hatters. Whites hating on blacks. We need to put a stop to the discrimination. Good to see a more neutral angle on the seo hats.

  • http://www.facebook.com/adam.boulton.71 Adam Boulton

    Good post. Other than hacking unsuspecting websites, I’ve always been on the line when it comes to White Hat / Black Hat. And I absolutely loathe the white-hatters who sit on a pedestal and strike down lightning on those they deem “black hatters”, you know who you are. Unless you’re committing an actual crime, I think it’s all game. If Google rewards black hat tactics, then so be it. That’s their fault, and they need to adjust their algorithm to compensate. Black hatters keep Google on their game, and that’s a good thing.

    The one thing that does bug me about black hat tactics are the “SEO Consultants” who use them on their client’s websites, without telling them the risks involved. These people (the clients) have no idea what SEO is, and they are giving you their money and trust to perform. At least let them know that what you are doing is risky, and give them alternative options that may take longer but increase stability.

    I’ve dabbled in plenty of black hat tactics in my days, and while I made a lot of money really fast, I decided one day that the risk just wasn’t worth it anymore. The income I was generating was providing for my family, and paying the bills. Getting everything shut down overnight due to a black/white animal update wasn’t an option. But to those that are using black hat tactics, I say bring it on. Competition is not a bad thing =)

  • Bob Gilmour

    Blackhat is not illegal :) Google is just an advertising firm with a cool website, they are not the law or a religion. With that said it’s not hard to stay “clean” these days, lots of ways to get pure whitehat links that move you in the right direction on the search engines.

  • http://blogle.fr/ riko

    Hey thank you for your article ;)

  • Spook SEO

    Awesome post! This certainly gives people a bit more information about blackhat SEO.

    I’d say learning about both white and blackhat SEO will GINORMOUSLY help with your marketing strategy.

  • Spook SEO

    Lets all admit it. Even experts use the so called black hat even if its risky for some instances. Whats good is that they are not afraid to accept the changes even if they have alredy been in this work for years. After all its reality, its a constant change we must embrace.

  • http://www.academicads.ca/ Lorne Fade

    Quality post that I can relate to. Thanks for sharing.