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Life in Grey Hat SEO — Joe Sinkwitz // Digital Heretix

Episode Overview

Join us for the kick-off of grey hat week with Joe Sinkowitz of Digital Heretix as he and Ben explore the landscape of back linking, keyword stuffing and cloaking with a little brand reputation management thrown in for good measure.

Topics covered include:

  • Joe singlehandedly forcing the Pay Day Loan update in 2012
  • How poor site maintenance and grey hat tactics can degrade search performance and brand reputation


Episode Transcript

Ben:                 Welcome to the 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 a gray hat SEO week is Joe Sinkwitz, who is the principal at Digital Heretix, which is a brand reputation management agency. Joe was 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 had a wide variety of experiences related to SEO, content optimization and helping brands get out of trouble.

And we’re excited to talk to him today about what he thinks gray hat SEO is and what are some of the dangers of running a gray hat SEO practice. 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 the man, the myth, the legend, Joe Sinkwitz principal of Digital Heretix. Joe, welcome to the Voices of Search podcast.

Joe:                  Good to be chatting with you today, Ben.

Ben:                 Excited to have the conversation, and honestly, I have to say excited to have somebody like you to come on the show. We’ve had a hard time finding SEOs being willing to come on and talk about gray hat SEO practices. Why don’t people want to talk about what the line is between what’s right and wrong in the SEO community? What are you doing here?

Joe:                  I think that mostly we’re just allergic to losing money. If you really break it down like that. I mean, the biggest problem that we ever saw, and you know I call it the black hat community, frankly, gray is seen as black by Google. Is as soon as a tactic is understood a little bit better, it’s outed and then it’s dead. So I think in a lot of cases people just want to shut up and make money.

Ben:                 I think there’s a personal branding element to this as well where if Google thinks that gray hat is black hat and your name shows up next to gray hat, people might start to think that you’re being a little shady. In reality, we don’t really know where the line is in between white and black hat SEO. It’s a constantly changing environment. So talk to me about what you think gray hat SEO is. What’s the difference between white and black and where’s the middle ground?

Joe:                  Sure. So, I’ll first start by defining white hat. And so I always view in terms of hacker terms, white hat is by going through the listed rules of the system by adhering to the TOS (terms of service), to the letter and spirit of the law. Black hat is adhering to the rules of the system that are not stated. So it’s essentially finding out what variables you might change influences the overall ranking. Gray hat therefore would be somewhere in the middle where you’re pretty close to potentially adhering to maybe the letter of the TOS but not the spirit of the TOS. Maybe just being like slightly underhanded, slightly misleading.

Unfortunately I still view gray hat as being a non-existent thing because in Google’s view it’s very binary. You either are adhering by the rules today before they change them on you or you’re not. So anything that I say like, okay, you know, this tactic kind of works in a gray way. They’re going to view it as black hat.

Ben:                 It’s interesting because I think of black hat being knowingly breaking the rules and gray hat being, well, the rule isn’t very clear so I’m going to try these tactics and hope that Google doesn’t get upset and penalize me. But something that you’re uncertain about. You’ve worked in this area, Digital Heretix are helping brands get out of trouble. We call it a brand reputation management agency, but really when a brand works with you, a lot of the times they’ve got themselves into some deep shit and they need some help getting out.

You’ve seen a fair amount of, let’s call it gray hat or black hat SEO, where are our brands getting in trouble? You know, why are people coming to you and what are some of the common themes that you run into helping brands rebuild their reputation?

Joe:                  There’s a lot of different reasons why, and I know that I’m not alone in this, but the main reason tends to be they knowingly screwed something up. You know, maybe they made a mistake in their normal business practice that cascaded into a search problem. Sometimes it is more innocent where they had a technical mishap where it might be blocking robots and robot txt, you know for the Google bot. And sometimes there might be deploying and no index across the domain. There’s lots of things like that where while we come in it’s a very easy fix, but usually it’s related to a problem where they knew that they were being a little aggressive or they were moving down a path that wasn’t so great and they got caught. And so our rule’s to basically just unwind that.

Ben:                 I’m thinking of car metaphor to describe that. There’s one where somebody comes to you and is like, I’m not sure why my car is working and your job is to take the banana peel, the banana out of the tailpipe and that’s a, you know, oops, you didn’t realize you couldn’t do that. All right, it’s fixed. And the other one is, Hey, you tried to use diesel gas instead of regular fuel and now we’ve got to flush out the engine and start it over.

Joe:                  Let’s stick with this car analogy because I like this.

Ben:                 All right.

Joe:                  I’d say like one of the issues would be more like they didn’t bother changing their oil when they were supposed to and they tried to go another three to five years after that never changing the oil. So sludge is built up and things are just starting to break down normally because they didn’t have any of that maintenance, that set of eyes to look at and say, Hey, this is now incorrect because you kept building the site and it’s no longer coherent. So there’s some of that issue. And then yes, there is the issue of, hey, your problem is you tried to run your car entirely on nitro and you just blew up the engine.

And so like well, what’s going to be a cheaper fix? You know, that depends on the type of car. So there’s the negligence aspect of it where people are trying to punt the costs of prevention down the road. And then there’s the, hey, they knew exactly what they were doing, but it still ended up having a negative outcome. Either way they need it to be fixed.

Ben:                 So let’s talk about the first two examples, which really has to do with monitoring. When you’re talking to brands that have had some problems, they’re seeing deterioration in their brand’s reputation, they’re seeing their rankings dip. How are you evaluating a brand’s health? How are you discovering what some of the problems are when it’s not necessarily somebody that’s knowingly being negligent and got caught?

Joe:                  Well, really, I fire up a bunch of different tools just because I’ve never been satisfied with the one particular one to give me everything, right? So I might just start looking into Google search console to see are there any listed warnings or messages from Google? Are they seeing a drastic dip in the impression rates and the click through data? Go into analytics, same sort of situation. Are they seeing weird traffic patterns that can’t be explained? Are there strange browser user agent setups where you know, maybe there’s funny traffic coming in. So, I look at that, I look at AHrefs to see, you know more on the link side of things, are they seeing a big spike of links at some point in time that my correspondence has no dropped? Are they getting links that are from hacked pages, is it, or just they purchased less?

So I have to like make that evaluation and then I start looking at, you know, plugging in the tools like rights to determine, okay, is there issues that are crawling the site? Are they having problems with their header tags? Like is there technical components that are very easy to fix that might be wrong. So I’m plugging into various tools to see like what is likely the problem. And then it’s just a lot of eyeballing and cognitive feedback. You’re saying, okay, well it looks like if I run the site command it’s got way too many pages than I expect. Why is this? Oh, they did not configure this plugin correctly and therefore they have 17 versions of different content.

Well, welcome to Panda. So like there’s paths that looking at this data leads you down. I’ve never liked to come in and try to prescribe a solution before going through the process of examination because that’s like medical malpractice for an SEO. So I like to really dig in and say they think they have a problem, what is their actual problem? Discuss it with them, you know, come up with the appropriate pricing and then fix the problem.

Ben:                 I know it doesn’t necessarily help the Digital Heretix business, but give us a couple of tips on how you can do the evaluation and understand what’s happening before you get into a situation where your domain is being penalized? Are there evaluation tools outside of the ones that you mentioned where you can do monitoring and check the overall health of your domain? Basically like how do you check the oil when no one has time?

Joe:                  Sure. So, I mean, I understand that the entire series is actually sponsored by Searchmetrics and they’re a really valuable tool to use just on like-

Ben:                 Stop, stop. Okay, go on.

Joe:                  Okay. I’d say like they’re actually a valuable tool from a ranking perspective. Because sometimes the first bit of information that you receive that you’d have a problem is because you’re ranking steps. So looking at the overall visibility, but something changed. What changed? And then you know you can start digging into the deeper analysis. So that is fairly handy. And you could throw out things like Nagios for just uptime monitoring because one of those sneaky little things that can jump on you is your site having issues resolving.

Now maybe you look at it and everything looks fine, but for whatever reason it’s gone down 17 times a night. This is the second time I’ve used 17 randomly. So that number is on my mind. But when you have uptime monitoring services that might say like, Hey, maybe when Google’s hitting us it’s going down and therefore they have less trust that your site’s going to be available for a user later on in the future.

Ben:                 So Joe, when people are setting up their monitoring and they’re doing their best to optimize their websites and trying to understand what white hat SEO is and not necessarily take on black hat practices, but they’re trying to push the agenda. And trying to optimize their domain and be aggressive, what are some of the ways where people are getting in trouble? Give me the themes of gray hat where you’re finding people are pushing the agenda and it turns into black hat.

Joe:                  Definitely. So on the content side of things, one of the issues that I run into is when people try to create a content plan for a specific keyword for specific page. So they tend to go extremely broad with hundreds if not thousands of pages that are all minutely focused. In the past this was okay, but now that there’s better awareness and understanding by Google of understanding the relational aspect of phrases to a key topic, it’s no longer a valid strategy. So sometimes I run into issues where they just try to spit out thousands of pieces of content that are all, for all practical purposes, answering the same question, but they’re trying to attack it slightly differently for the keyword purposes. So that’s one reason.

Ben:                 So content optimization and what’s called keyword stuffing?

Joe:                  Yeah, they’re trying to be, they’re trying to be way too nuanced in their approach. And the net effect of shooting themselves in the foot. The other side of it is on links and a lot of people filings because we do this in the industry, whether we say we do or not, everyone buys links, but sometimes they buy essentially the wrong links and they’re just too focused on those phrases once again. I don’t even bother with the anchor phrases anymore. If we get it, great, but for the most part I no longer do it because that’s been dialed up so much in terms of you’re more likely to hurt yourself than help yourself by going crazy with anchor text if when you’re working on client’s sites especially.

Now, the quality of the link comes into play too. There was a period of time where it was typical to say, I’m just going to go get a link from Forbes and Inc and it’s going to be great because those are high and trusted authorities. Those days are kind of passed, so like again, as I mentioned when we sort of kicked off this interview, was as soon as the strategy’s really known it’s pretty much dead. And so by only attacking a certain specific subset of sites trying to get that authority transfer, they end up hurting themselves. So, it’s not hard to see where people end up doing it. You can almost look in like a random back link profile and within a couple seconds say this guy is an old school SEO, this guy is new, this guy doesn’t have an SEO. I think it becomes that easy.

Ben:                 It’s interesting, your description of what some of the ways that SEOs get in trouble is very similar to Jordan Koene from our interview last week where we were talking about the difference between gray, black and white hat SEO. And he segmented gray hat SEO into three buckets: keywords and content, back links and generating social proof and then misleading the users cloaking and JavaScript and experiences where the user might think they’re getting one thing and they’re getting sent to either another domain or another piece of content. Have you run into any of the user misleading practices or are companies, that to me seems like the real black hat stuff.

Joe:                  We actually ran into it a lot in early 2012. So, right before Penguin ran. You may remember something called the payday loan update. The payday loan update was my fault. And so what happens is our primary competition was organized crime and they were mass hacking sites and then redirecting all Google bot traffic to their next site in the chain. So they’re basically, they’re hacking thousands and thousands of sites and they’re just chaining it along. The effect was all these weird pages to start showing up in search. So you do a query for payday loan, and like seven of the top ten would be hacked sites. Junk pages that you know, that had nothing to do with payday loans.

And how if a user clicked on it, then it would flip and show like JavaScript cloaking to Google bot so that it looks like it’s a normal site and throw him a squeeze page with the information. So there is a lot of that really nasty stuff that was going on extremely heavily in those days. The only way that I got it to stop was I did a live hacking demonstration on stage in Salzburg for a search conference. I did that to show, Hey, here’s how bad things have gotten. And thankfully they released their cradling update, which was not algorithmic, it was manual. I started scrubbing this stuff out.

Now, I still do see a decent amount of sophisticated job script cloaking and spam your searches. If you go on a lot of the pharmaceutical or crypto stuff right now, you could see the redirects take place for the most part in the more boring niches or in more brand centric stuff, that’s less the case unless of course there’s like coupons associated.

Ben:                 So, it sounds like the overall takeaway is the, you know, the segmentation we had of what’s happening with gray hat SEO from last week is pretty accurate, so we’re going to spend a little bit more time going over those three categories. The back linking, the keyword stuffing and misleading your users over the rest of the week as Joe explains some of the ways that people have done gray hat SEO successfully and some of the practices that are going to get you in trouble. 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.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 at 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. And 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 when we discuss gray hat tactics for back linking and generating social proof. All right, that’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.