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Grey hat CRO and experience optimization — Joe Sinkwitz // Digital Heretix

Episode Overview

When viewed through the right lens, hyper-personalization, user testing and conversion rate optimization are tactics that savvy SEO’s can use to boost performance. Learn how with Joe Sinkwitz from Digital Heretix.

Topics covered include:

  • How clever user testing design that can boost SEO results
  • The good, the bad and the ugly of hyper-personalization


Episode Transcript

Ben:                 Welcome Gray Hat Week on the Voices of Search Podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro, and this week we’re going to discuss the balance of ranking optimization and risking your domain’s reputation.

Joining us for Gray Hat SEO week is Joe Sinkwitz, who is the principal at Digital Heretix, which is a brand reputation management agency. Joe is also the co-owner of the Advanced Search Summit and a co-founder and CEO of Intellifluence, which is a SaaS tool that helps brands discover the right influencers for their products, pitch them, and get honest reviews. He’s got a wide variety of experiences related to SEO, content optimization, and helping brands get out of trouble. And today Joe and I are going to talk about Gray Hat strategies related to misleading users using cloaking and JavaScript.

But before we hear from Joe, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise-scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data-driven decisions. To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complimentary digital diagnostic where a member of our digital strategies group will provide you with a consultation that reviews how your website, content, and SEO strategies can all be optimized. To schedule your free digital diagnostic, go to

Okay. On with the show. Here’s my conversation with Joe Sinkwitz, principal at Digital Heritix. Joe, welcome back to Gray Hat SEO Week on the Voices of Search Podcast.

Joe:                  Thank you for having me back.

Ben:                 We’re covering a lot of ground this week. We’ve talked about what Gray Hat SEO is, some of the different categories, how people are using SEO, including backlinks and their content strategies. And today we’re going to talk about a topic that’s probably more black hat than it is Gray Hat, which is misleading users.

I think there’s a lot of nuance to what you’re saying your content represents in Google and then what you actually deliver on the page. Talk to me about the practice of actually showing users what they expect to get and where SEO is getting in trouble by misrepresenting what they’re having shown in Google.

Joe:                  Sure. So I’m actually a big proponent of trying to align the landing page experience to the expected experience on click. So there was a period of time, let’s go back like a decade and even more than a decade ago, where you could rank for Disney princess and send them to a porn site. Now, it sounds kind of funny in retrospect, but what was their sales on this? Like did they get a great amount of sales with that misleading clicking into something completely irrelevant?

Ben:                 They were selling on a CPM basis. They just wanted the impressions.

Joe:                  Yeah. Yeah, so there’s that, yes. Nowadays it’s not quite as solid. The problem was they would have made more money ranking for Disney princess and sending them to a Disney princess store landing page. In terms of like a CPA basis. I still do believe, I’ve tried to be cultivating this belief for a while, that the closer you align the expectation to the delivery, the experience, the more money you’re going to make.

Now, I do see a lot of dynamic results where it’s essentially the same page, it’s just swapped out based on variables. And what you might see a little bit more on AdWords or Bing Ads where you’re changing out elements on the landing page similar to what we talked about the other day with regards to an influencer coming in and seeing that psychological trigger of, “Hey, it’s just like me, I’m coming from YouTube. You have a YouTube embed on your site.”

In this particular case, they might swap out different elements based on where they think a person is on a buying cycle or where they think the person is based on usage interests. If I click on an iPhone landing page versus an Android, I’m sorry, an Android query versus an iPhone query, and I click on an iPhone one, it would make sense to show me more content related to the iPhone.

Now some of this can be considered cloaking, because you could have a very deep page about cellular phones and you could be trying to hide information on the DOM, a shadow DOM, with regards to all the breakouts, different types of phones. Now for the user experience, did they find that misleading, though? You’re really only technically misleading Google.

Does the user find it misleading that they clicked on something iPhone-related, landed on the iPhone landing page, and maybe they’re purchasing a product related to your iPhone. I would argue that it’s not misleading to the user. You’re just essentially sidestepping what Google probably wants to see because not everything is visible content.

Ben:                 Yeah. I think this really runs in the area of conversion rate optimization. And I’m surprised that more brands haven’t had trouble using tools like Optemizely and VWO and all of the CRO and experience optimization tools. Where you have a page that’s submitted and it’s constantly evolving and constantly changing. How’s Google evaluating those pages? I’m surprised there hasn’t been more pushback in the search community for how those pages are dynamic and what’s being optimized.

Joe:                  Well, I think maybe some of the pushback from the SEO community is the difficulty working with the dev community. In a lot of cases, they should be working hand in hand, but sometimes it becomes an adversarial relationship where if an SEO comes in and says, “Hey, we’re going to completely overhaul this entire experience. Here’s how it’s all going to be dynamically-driven.” And the developer looks at and says, “It’s working just fine. What are you trying to do?” That comes up all the time.

I had a request from a developer at a client that said, “Hey, we want to take out this text that’s plain text and we just want to make it the same as the backroom text.” I said, “Don’t do that, please.” There’s a give and take that happens with SEO and dev, and you know some SEOs are really not that technical and some devs are not that marketing-centric. So there can be kind of a disconnect there.

You mentioned Optimizely. One of the tools I use is, and so they do simple user testing. And we did essentially a test on having people go through Google and to click on certain results. And then jumble around the site, make them do a little user video of them navigating the site and say like, “what was your favorite word on the page?” They come back and they say a phrase or whatever it might be. And the whole point of pushing them through these tests is you’re manipulating the user signals. Because you basically just got a branded query, a click, some decent dwell, they’re scrolling around the site, and then they took an action for you. That doesn’t necessarily relate so much to cloaking and user experiencing the delivery. I just thought it was funny little hack people do.

Ben:                 So, are you using the user testing to basically boost the performance of a page to drive the signal up through Google?

Joe:                  Yes.

Ben:                 Oh, so Gray Hat, Joe. So Gray Hat.

Joe:                  Whenever possible, I like to work in multiple dimensions if I can. And so we actually needed to use user testing to test out some conversion issues. And so we thought well while we’re doing it, we might as well have them start in Google to get to the page we needed to work on. So it just happened to have that dual benefit.

Ben:                 Well, let’s just keep that one a secret between you and me. I’m sure Google would probably frown on that practice. Well now that everybody knows about it, it’s going from Gray Hat to black hat. I guess the cat’s out of the bag.

So when it comes to misleading the users and talking about the user experience, you’re a big advocate of trying to replicate what the pre-search experience is or the pre-click experience is on the page, right? Understanding the context of what drove somebody to the page and then changing the page to be able to reflect that. Making a cohesive message last across the entire buying journey.

Joe:                  Absolutely.

Ben:                 What are some of the ways where that is, obviously, effective? But what are some of the ways where you’ve seen that get people into trouble when they’re modifying the page too much?

Joe:                  Yeah, so like I’ve seen it, and I know it’s going to be part of a presentation coming up in a couple of weeks. Simon is going to be talking about this. And where we’ve seen it go off the rails is if you’re always using dynamic text, and someone puts in really garbage information as part of their query, and you create a page, you could end up creating a landing page about Ben Shapiro naked in the bathtub. And unfortunately that person’s going to see a landing page that keeps mentioning this phrase in various places. And yes, it’s very relevant to the query. But that’s like a bad query for the domain to be relevant to.

Ben:                 Trust me folks, it’s a bad query. Don’t search it.

Joe:                  So that’s where like the over-automation and dynamic experience is bad. But I thought of something else, too. There is a time when you want the landing page to not be aligned. And that’s if your entire goal is to get them to click out of that landing page somewhere else.

In the early days of AdSense, you would want a really crappy design so you could have an ad block and just have them to click the ad block to leave your page. Now that’s not something that happens too much because you end up getting your AdSense funds rescinded. But that strategy worked pretty well. And it also worked in like the last click style, I’m trying to think of the phrase, like Outbrain and those guys. Like they would have those juicy-looking images and headline of you won’t believe what they did next on real garbage articles. Because people would skip the garbage articles and go to the clickbait instead.

So there is a time when you’d want to not have it aligned. It’s just, I think those days are ending pretty fast and I think it’s going to be more closer to you need them aligned but don’t automate for automation’s sake. And be careful about what you swap out. Maybe you need to have a specific list of here’s the type of elements we’ll swap out. Here’s the degree to which we’ll personalize this page. To prevent over personalization in a direction that is going to get you into hot water.

Ben:                 So how do you evaluate what is appropriate personalization? Obviously you’re looking at your throughput for your webpage, but how do you figure out what is, from a search perspective, too much personalization? What’s actually hurting your domain?

Joe:                  Yeah, I think it’s a case-by-case basis. So you might have like a list of stop words where if you see these particular phrases you do not swap out an element. Maybe you ignore it. And you could also do it in like a bucket situation. Where search the phrases, if they exist within the query when it comes in through the referrer, that you’ll swap out, it’s like I’ll show cash advance because they mentioned cash somewhere in the query.

But I’m not going to put it in cash advance near me, I need meth now. No, I don’t think we want to go to quite that level. I think cash advance is going to be sufficient here. So you can do it where you trim down the amount of personalization. That’s probably going to be the best strategy. And if you’re working on something that’s just overly-broad. Like you mentioned, like if I put an office chair [inaudible 00:11:35] cash advance page, I probably don’t want it to change. I’d question why they landed on that page to begin with. But c’est la vie. I think just trimming down how those elements get swapped out and creating almost like a safe list is probably the better method.

Ben:                 I think anything that has the term “need meth now” should probably be blacklisted. Just general rule of thumb. As you think about the evolution of user expectations and how Google has thought about personalization, what do you think is the future? Where are people going to be optimizing their pages and how is that going to affect the domain authority?

Joe:                  Well, that’s a good question. Because I think some of that domain authority might shift if they go into like the hyper personalization of singular landing page, right? And they have very, very few pages. They can kind of hoard that overall authority on that page-level basis. If they decide to not go on the hyper personalization end up having quite a few landing pages that they could spread out.

Now I think part of my concern with the hyper personalization is, because it can go off the rails, a guy like me might approach it saying, “Okay, let’s make this go off the rails for my client.” That’s my concern. I see still that this is a way bigger issue in paid traffic than organic traffic. But even still, the way that Google’s been making their changes with how ad targeting even works, sometimes the personalization’s simply breaking down. Where you might even have your negatives associated where you say, “Hey, I don’t want any phrases that mentioned Ben Shapiro,” but for whatever reason it’s still getting through because of some sort of broad entity match associated with Martech Podcast as a query that it shows the Ben Shapiro query instead.

Ben:                 I’d be happy if the keyword “Ben Shapiro” was related to The Martech Podcast as opposed to the political commentator.

Joe:                  Yeah, I guess ultimately no one really knows where the personalization game is going to end. And how that’s going to impact, I think, the overall size of sites. I think we might be in an accordion where we might see it expand, contract, expand, contract for a period of time.

Ben:                 Interesting thoughts. And that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search Podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Joe Sinkwitz, the founder of Digital Heretix. We’d love to continue this conversation with you. So if you’re interested in contacting Joe, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes.

You can contact him on Twitter. His handle is CygnusSEO, C-Y-G-N-U-S-S-E-O. Or you can visit his company’s website, which is, D-I-G-I-T-A-L H-E-R-E-T-I-X dot com. If you have general marketing questions, or if you’d like to be a guest on this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes. Or you can send me a tweet @BenJShap, B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team.

If you like this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and we’ll be back in your feed tomorrow morning to discuss what are some of the penalties for using Gray Hat and black hat SEO practices.

Okay, that’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.