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.

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But for his black-hat SEO work, the rules are different. For example, according to search engine terms of service, one is supposed to disclose when links are paid for. Paid links give less juice than "organic" links--ones that exist because someone decided that there's something valuable behind them. It's the difference between a deejay playing a song because he likes it and playing a song because the record company paid him to. Patel, though, like many black-hat SEOs, will conceal the fact he's bought links. At BlogWorld Expo, "I said, "Not only do I not disclose when I pay for links, I'll pay you double if you don't disclose the fact it's a bought link.'" It was this comment that spurred someone in the audience to question Patel's self-worth. It didn't bother Patel. "Everyone has their own bottom line," he says. "I'm making good money and not getting in trouble."

Of his black-hat SEO and search marketing days, Naylor says, "it was anything goes. Was blogspamming illegal? "I don't know' is the honest answer. There's a form that says leave a comment. It doesn't say, "Don't leave an irrelevant or automated comment.'"

"Look at it this way," says Dellanave. "Who is making these rules that say you can't buy links? Are you breaking a law, or are you breaking a law of a free market that someone has created? If you get caught, you get banned and that's your punishment. Sure, ethics bells go off sometimes. But at the same time, the search companies' business model is flawed. It enables this. Even encourages it. So who's the fool, the guy who takes advantage of that or the guy who doesn't? There are hedge funds on Wall Street based on arbitrage. Is that unethical or is it exploiting a flaw in the market?" "The problem is, there's quick and easy money," says Patel. "If you know you can't get caught, you'll do it all day long. If people don't like it, they can try to stop it."

Cat and Mouse

For a long time, SEOs say, the search companies' attitude toward black-hat SEO was best described as clement. One SEO called Google's former position on enforcing its terms of service a "rhetorical stance." Matt Cutts, Google's chief liaison to the SEO and search marketing community, says enforcement against "high-risk SEO" was neither lax nor selective for any reason other than the obvious one: "As you get larger as a company, you have more resources to pursue what you always wanted to enforce."

So while the search companies would suss out the most blatant scams, careful black-hat SEOs could thrive. The key was restraint. "Game the system, just not so forcefully that you're noticed." Naylor says that was a good rule of thumb.

And periodically, the search companies were stirred to action by the effect SEO was having on search results. Sometimes, for example, SEOs could knock a company out of the top result for searches on that company's name. One day in late 2006, the top result for searches on the term "trump" suddenly changed from that company's site to a site selling erectile dysfunction drugs.

Search companies know this makes their product look bad and "that threatens their business model, which relies on advertisers paying them to deliver quality search results that many people will continue to use," says Schoemaker. "So they react when it happens, but they don't seem to care until people notice."

The first time search companies tried to neutralize black-hat SEO came soon after search started to flourish, almost a decade ago. Back then, the algorithms focused on the page itself and what was on it, specifically keywords that would match what people searched for. To boost their rankings, sites manipulated keywords forcefully. "They had 40 or 50 techniques they used to do this," says SEO Eric Ward. (Ward says he does not use black-hat SEO techniques.) Sometimes site owners would just spill a sea of keywords at the bottom of a page. Sometimes they'd hide them behind images or make them the same color as the page's background. The principle was to include as many keywords on the page as possible, to increase the likelihood any given search would match the keywords and draw the site into search results.

When this got out of hand, the search companies tweaked the algorithms and shifted the rules from trusting keywords the most to trusting links the most. (The presumption, of course, is that website owners and content producers will try to cheat. They are trusted the least.) This made link building the center of all SEO strategies.

In principle, the idea is sound. A site can be judged by the company it keeps. But there were problems. At first, the algorithms seemed to value link volume the most, and that spurred link farms--pages full of nothing but links that the SEOs tricked people into visiting to create a self-sustaining constellation of juice. In response, the search companies altered the algorithms to value "authoritative links"--those from other sites who were already considered valuable themselves.

That helped to block off the link farms and other egregious link-building techniques, but it did little to stem black-hat SEO. Bringing peers into the equation encouraged people to manipulate not only their own sites but their peers' sites too. It pushed SEOs into tactics like blog spamming, which proved so effective that links in comments fields and on online guestbooks essentially have been dejuiced all together. SEOs also targeted .edu domains. Because of their academic focus, the algorithms assume they're more credible than commercial sites, and therefore .edus pass more juice than .coms. SEOs would borrow students' unused Web space (sometimes they'd pay the students for it) and fill it with links. It was like lying on your resume. The algorithm didn't know that your links didn't really go to Harvard.

The more search companies tried to contain them, the more aggressively SEOs circumvented the rules. The game changed from using loopholes to actively abusing the algorithms. They deployed bait-and-switch schemes--using a phrase like "Click Here to Learn More" to get a user to click on what is actually a hidden link to boost someone's ranking. Cloaking emerged. Patel and others paid premiums for links, spawning link brokers, who streamlined the link-buying process. Good coders created complex schemes that sent users through several pages of links before they arrived at the content they're looking for.

The schemes are endless, like the imagination. And like all arms races, this one escalated to an untenable level. The game had to change again....

Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part series. For Part Two: See SEOwNn3d!!1

(This story was originally published in print with the headline "Gaming the System.")

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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