Black Hat SEO. It’s easy to dismiss it as a set of tactics long overcome by Google guidelines. But as link farms die, cloaking tactics become more sophisticated. And in the case of our host Ben, a misunderstanding of Google guidelines led to black hat penalties that torpedoed an acquisition.
Topics covered include:
- Google’s use of user-based metrics to counter black hat tactics like link farms
- The next generation of black hat SEO tactics
- The line between black, grey and white hat SEO tactics and how to navigate them
GUESTS & RESOURCES:
- Schedule your free Digital Diagnostic
- Jordon Koene: LinkedIn // Twitter
- Benjamin Shapiro: Bio // Podcast Network // Twitter // LinkedIn
Ben: Welcome to Gray Hat SEO month on the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro, and this month, we’re talking to some great SEOs to learn what separates best practices from bad behavior in search.
Joining us today is Jordan Koene, who is the lead SEO strategist and CEO of Searchmetrics, Inc. Today we’re going to talk about what we consider to be Black Hat SEO practices.
But before we hear from Jordan, 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. And 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 searchmetrics.com/diagnostic.
Okay. On with the show. Here is my conversation with Jordan Koene, lead SEO strategist and CEO of Searchmetrics, Inc.
Ben: Jordan. Welcome back to the Voices of Search podcast.
Jordan: Hey, Ben. Let’s get our hands dirty.
Ben: I’m excited to share some stories. Yesterday we talked about our White Hat SEO practices, and I started off by telling the sad tale of how I was trying to be a good SEO, but I don’t know what I’m doing. And Google penalized me, and it cost me an acquisition of my company.
Ben: Apparently, I was doing something that was a Black Hat SEO strategy, and I got my butt kicked. Let’s talk a little bit about, what are Black Hat SEO strategies and how do we break them down? What are the ways you can get in trouble?
Jordan: Yeah. I just want to start off with a disclaimer here. By no means are we promoting or endorsing any of these practices or behaviors. Obviously Google doesn’t see these in a positive light, but I think it’s fair to talk about them, so that we can all learn, and be more prepared, as we encounter certain changes, adaptations that we might apply to our websites.
Ben: Jordan, you’re going to be the angel here, and I’m going to be the devil.
Jordan: Is that how this is going to go?
Ben: There is a reason why people are trying these strategies, right?
Jordan: Oh yeah, they work.
Ben: Exactly. These strategies are risky, and not something that you should do, but the reason they exist is because they can drive traffic. So let’s talk a little bit about what the stuff that can, and eventually will, get you in trouble. Why you should and shouldn’t do it, and what the potential impact is.
Jordan: There’s a lot of practices that have been written about quite extensively. Probably the most notable ones are things like link farms, or link networks, PBNs or private blog networks, link buying, comment spam. All of these are tactics in order to secure a link, or a link placement, for exposure to your website.
Jordan: Just as a cautionary tale, the value of a backlink has deteriorated significantly over the last half decade, so I don’t advise you to do these things, but this has been one of the areas that has been the most manipulated and sought after Black Hat practice for the last, I’d say 15 or so years, in the SEO world. Entire businesses have been built around this stuff.
Ben: The concept here is that people were trying to show Google that they were getting external signals, from other domains, that had authority, that were showing that their content was valuable. That it should be ranked, because look at how many people are writing about me. Look how many people are linking to my domain.
Ben: Why is that less important now? And is it just purely because people were breaking the rules, and Google couldn’t police it? Or do they have other signals that show that domain authority?
Jordan: There’s a variety of other signals that show that domain authority. Google has also become much more sophisticated at looking at user-based metrics.
Ben: What do you mean by user-based metrics?
Jordan: Essentially, looking at how users engage with brands, users engage with the branded term, and then replicating a formula to understand how authoritative or useful is that particular website.
Jordan: Instead of having to have a bunch of mentions in the media, I can see how users are interacting or engaging with this website or application. But the concept here is similar, which is, what Google is trying to identify is how important or how useful is this website?
Jordan: They used to use backlinks to determine that. If people are talking about a website, it must mean that they’re very important. What happened was that, for the last 15 years, it’s been highly manipulated.
Ben: Okay, so linking.
Ben: The easiest way to get in trouble. You’re buying links, you’re buying blog posts. You’re not doing best practices, you’re not letting links happen organically. It’s less valuable than it’s ever been. Don’t go buy links.
Jordan: Right. There’s been a variety of brands that have been hit by this. Ones that are very notable. JC Penney’s, Forbes. I even think, correct me if I’m wrong, but maybe the community could correct me here. I even think Google got in trouble for this, because some subdivision of Google purchased backlinks, or purchased comment links.
Jordan: It’s not like this has been a small challenge in the web space. This has been a big challenge for Google, and I think it’s one of the main reasons why Google’s slowly migrating away from backlinks as an indicator.
Ben: Outside of backlinks, which even Google has done, but you can get in trouble for, what are some of the other things that will get you in trouble? You’ve got your keyword stuffing. What else can you do?
Jordan: Yeah. The oldest of the old, in terms of SEO hacks, is really around content. And it will continue to be, in my opinion, forevermore around content. And this will be the space that’ll be the most Black Hatted, if that’s a word, space in our industry. And it’s because keywords in content is a very difficult asset to manage, and it’s a constantly growing asset. You constantly need to get more and more content, in order to become bigger and bigger websites. But the old school stuff, like keyword stuffing, or-
Ben: My favorite, white text on a white background.
Jordan: White text on white background. Now people are getting really clever. You can do blue text on blue background. It’s really remarkable.
Jordan: The reality is that-
Ben: Get out.
Jordan: These tactics don’t work anymore, obviously, but they’re some of the oldest. They’re some of the original areas that Google created guidelines around. These are some of the first policies that Google placed.
Jordan: The crazy thing is that today, these are some of the most manipulated areas, and probably … I don’t have this data, but probably the most violent penalty that people receive has to do around content and content manipulation. Whether it is foreign websites ripping off content and re-syndicating it, or websites flooding the index with search result pages. The gamut goes on, of areas unintentionally or intentionally, where websites have been penalized for this.
Ben: Okay. These all seem like basic blocking and tackling, you know, having an authentic links ripping off somebody else’s content. Yeah, okay, that’s not good.
Ben: There are more sophisticated ways that SEOs are potentially being a little shady. What are they doing?
Jordan: I’d say that the other big area is around user expectation. I use that word specifically because there’s a lot of different ways to describe this, but ultimately it’s the kind of the bait and switch. You go to the website, you expect one thing, you expect one experience and you show up, and it’s completely different.
Jordan: In some cases, they call this cloaking, especially when you’re talking about content. You showcase one title, you end up on the page, and it’s a completely different topic. But the concept of user manipulation is one that happens all the time and it happens across categories. You’d be surprised how many categories this happens in. In many cases, the most traditional categories, but this is another practice that Google is very leery of, because of all of the tactics that are used in Black Hat, this is the one that has the most severe consequence to Google’s customer, the searcher.
Jordan: I think, when I look at many of the penalties, and the ramifications of those, usually the most damning.
Ben: Going back to yesterday’s topic about the poor digital marketer, who was running the guitar lesson website, and wanted to gate his content, show the piece of content, but then have a subscription pop up. This seems like the reason why that poor digital marketer was penalized, and that digital marketer, for those people who aren’t listening, was me trying to have a content site that was gated, with the exception of one piece of content that was searchable.
Ben: The reason why is it wasn’t living up to the user’s expectation. They thought they were getting to a webpage, and instead of seeing the piece of content they were getting to, the bug I had was, the gate was being shown right away.
Ben: I think the big question here is, okay, first off, don’t do any of these things. They’re going to get you in trouble. Trust me, I lost an entire acquisition because of Black Hat SEO strategies, and I’m not even a dyed-in-the-wool SEO. So just don’t do them. But if you get into a situation where you are penalized by Google for some of these tactics, what do you do?
Jordan: In many cases things that are considered Black Hat are activities that are done unintentional. You didn’t intend to do that.
Jordan: One of the first things is, obviously, to be very direct with Google. Follow the processes of a reconsideration request, which is an activity that you can take place in Google search console, and take the proper steps to remedy the action. Go through the painstaking process of either the cleanup, if it’s backlinks, or the removal of content, if it’s some sort of content challenge, or the technical hurdles. But do what’s necessary to clean it up, to the perfect detail, because you oftentimes only get one or two chances to get reconsidered by Google.
Jordan: I think that that’s the important thing. A lot of people try to do a real half-ass job of the fix and that leads to more friction than anything else. It’s better to take your time, get it solved right, get advice, get another set of eyes on the solution, before you approach Google for your forgiveness.
Ben: Roll it back. Roll it all back. That’s the trick when you get penalized. Go fix the problem. Make sure you’ve got it 100% corrected, get on your knees, and beg for forgiveness.
Jordan: Exactly. Exactly.
Ben: All right. Jordan, we’ve talked a little bit about what White Hat SEO is, following the best practice, being the angel, doing everything the way that Google wants you to, and building this beautiful website.
Ben: And we talked about Black Hats, doing things that aren’t right. Doing your backlinks, buying your backlinks, stuffing your content, ripping other people off, and creating experiences that the users don’t want. And tomorrow we’re going to get into the topic of everything that’s in between. The things that you’re not sure about, which is Gray Hat SEO.
Ben: That wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Jordan Koene, lead SEO strategist and CEO of Searchmetrics, Inc.
Ben: We’d love to continue this conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Jordan, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can send him a tweet. His handle is @jtkoene, J-T-K-O-E-N-E. Or you can visit his company’s website. That’s searchmetrics.com.
Ben: If you’d like to be a guest on the show, or if you’d like to talk to me about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes, or you could send me a tweet at @benjshap, that’s B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P.
Ben: If you’re interested in learning about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team.
Ben: 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 we consider it to be Gray Hat SEO practices.
Ben: All right. That’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.