Black Hat SEOs: Is This the Future of Search?
Search Engine Optimization is the trick to winning online revenue. What happens when hackers start going after the prize? Part one of a two-part series.
David Naylor has been a search engine optimizer (SEO) for a decade, as long as almost anyone. About a year ago he received an unexpected phone call. "Apparently, you're one of the best black-hat SEOs in the world," a stranger said. Naylor laughed modestly, but it was true. Naylor's business was to game search engines using aggressive, some would say dubious, tactics in order to goose websites' rankings on search engines such as Google and thereby increase traffic to the sites. And he was extremely good at it.
Apparently, the caller was one of the best black-hat hackers in the world. He told Naylor that he was interested in the search engine optimization (also abbreviated SEO) business, and the related search marketing business, which can be thought of as applied SEO, using it to drive traffic to a site where one sells ads and products.
Specifically, the hacker was interested in the money. The income is precariously unstable, but $10,000 months aren't uncommon for SEOs and search marketers. Six-figure months aren't unheard of, either.
The hacker also seemed deeply intrigued by the culture of openness, even pride, that inhabits the SEO community. Hackers are recruited by crime syndicates and labor to mask their identities; SEOs are hired by Fortune 500 companies and blog about the size of their checks from Google. The caller seemed interested in that kind of freedom.
So Naylor invited the hacker to meet him and 30 or so more SEOs at one of their informal conclaves. The next one was in Manchester, England (Naylor's from Yorkshire). They met up and slipped into a dim booth with full pints.
They talked for two hours. What Naylor remembers most from the conversation is this: "I said, "I don't know how you guys monetize without getting caught.' And he said to me, "That's why I came to you. You know how to monetize. I know how to not get caught.'"
Naylor had already been thinking about that. He had seen what could happen--what has now started to happen--to SEO. The hacker's interest in SEO would be reciprocated, and the worlds would cross over. Naylor himself was cautiously curious about hacking tools that could cut down on the considerable grunt work SEO requires. What's more, at that time, SEOs had noticed that search companies were cracking down on black-hat SEO tactics. Hacking tools could help sidestep that problem, too. "In some ways," Naylor says, "it would have been easier to say, "Yeah, let's secretly break into servers, leverage cross-site scripting vulnerabilities to improve our rankings'" rather than do SEO the traditional way.