Black Hat SEO, part two: SEOwN3d!!1

As search engine optimizers played fast and loose, a reaction from the search engine companies became inevitable. Now SEOs are forced to choose hats: black or white. (Part two in a series.)

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Even Linkmoses held no illusions that Google's crackdown would eliminate black-hat SEO. "Enforcement means higher rankings will go to creators of truly awesome content, and bad guys," he says. "It's been a game of leapfrog since day one. There won't ever be a time when people won't game the system."

David Naylor believes that black-hat SEO has gotten so good that search itself is being devalued. Trust has eroded. "You type a search into Google and believe what comes back in the number-one slot is the truth, and it's not," he says. "It's often some version of the truth engineered by very clever people trying to make a lot of money."

The SEOwN3d!!1 Effect

Just as auguries' decisions about the observed flight patterns of birds reverberated through Rome, affecting religion, the outcomes of wars and the fate of rulers, so too do the effects of SEO schemes ripple across the Internet--affecting how SEO is used, what it's good for and what it will look like in the future.

As SEO migrates to illegal activity, the primary effect is the collateral damage it creates. A report from Websense, the Internet filtering company, estimated that 51 percent of sites hosting malware now are legitimate sites that have been compromised, and many of those are compromised for SEO and search marketing schemes.

A simple cookie-stuffing program illustrates the havoc SEOs and search marketers can create. Cookie stuffing involves the illegal access of an innocent site, which is then used to serve illicit code to customers without their knowledge, based on their arriving there through a search engine. Meanwhile, a company is paying referral fees to search marketers who haven't earned that fee while possibly taking those fees away from people who had earned them but whose legitimate referrals were overwritten by the cookie stuffer.

So those who run the hacked site are mad at the hacking SEO. Customers are mad at the hacked site and at the search engine for bringing them to a hacked site. A company is mad about paying money to someone who didn't earn it, while someone who should have earned it is mad at the company and the other hacking SEO.

Where there's collateral damage, there's litigation. A few lawyers have started looking at the space as possible fertile ground.

"It's quite possible that the next few years will see some lawsuits against providers that allege the use of SEO tactics," writes James Grimmelmann in an Iowa Law Review article from last November about the ambiguous state of search engine law. While he notes some challenges of suing based on SEO, he also notes, "Courts have recognized that some techniques of content design are deceptively manipulative and cause harm to legitimate providers, and it is possible that innovative pleading could properly state other business torts against manipulators. Similarly, luring users to one's content through SEO raises significant false-advertising concerns. In these cases, competitors, users and consumer-protection agencies might all be proper plaintiffs."

But that's speculation. Naylor, among others, says that aggressive and illegal forms of SEO have already had more tangible effects on the Internet and what it's good for--or rather what it's no longer good for.

"One of the things black-hat SEOs did, and did very, very well, was to go into Web landscapes and just destroy them," says Naylor. "I mean, at one time people liked having guest books on their sites, and SEOs just filled them with all these links to the point they became unusable. Now why would you have a guest book? It's asking for trouble. Why would you let people put comments on your blog? Are you crazy?"

The optimizers are changing what's valuable online, by changing what looks valuable because it ranks high in a search. Black-hat SEOs, and now hacking SEOs, are so good at their craft that they force search companies to constantly change the algorithms and filters. The factors that give a site juice are in some ways the ones that SEOs haven't yet exploited.

Some SEOs argue that no online feature exists that they won't be able to game. What black-hat SEO demonstrates, they say, is that the search algorithm isn't magic at all. It's just software that, once understood, is easily outwitted by humans.

The Men Behind the Curtain

To deal with this, the SEOs believe that the search companies have deployed humans of their own--rooms full of them--whose job is to essentially buttress the algorithms' decisions with human ones. "They have to keep this mystery algorithm looking like it's working correctly," says Schoemaker. "So they have all these places around the country where they hire humans to hand-edit results" that have been affected by black-hat and hacking SEO, he says.

"They don't say it openly but I've read enough from Matt Cutts and others to know that this algorithm they purport does everything magically, it's all a bunch of nonsense," says Dave Dellanave, Schoemaker's partner. "The reality is they have probably thousands and thousands of filters that they manually create. And there's no doubt in my mind that increasingly they're using people, the 'human signal,' for rankings."

Critical SEOs contend that this is the only way the search companies can protect their indexes from widespread abuse by black-hat and hacking SEOs. "They're trying to protect their index," says SEO Michael Gray, "because if it's clean, people want to use it, and if people want to use it they can sell advertising. The lower value the search results, the less valuable to users and advertisers."

Cutts says that the "vast majority" of ranking (and of reconsideration requests when a site is delisted) is "algorithmically done." He also contends that "Google is returning more relevant search results in the last year or two."

But critics argue that "relevant" is in the eye of the beholder. The phrase used in the industry for the new direction of search companies is a focus on "trusted and authoritative links." But what makes something trustworthy or authoritative, especially when the search engine can't intuit what a person is looking for to begin with?

Many SEOs say that "trusted and authoritative" is code for "big, well-known company."

"The real direction of search," says SEO Wall, "is that large corporations will dominate search results, and they'll get away with more aggressive SEO because the search engines can't afford to look bad by not having them at the top of results. You're more likely to get enforced against if you use aggressive SEO if you're smaller, not bigger. Small companies will not be able to compete through search."

Many of the SEOs compared this to big-box stores driving locally owned independent stores out of business in small towns. Search results would become dominated by large brands that can afford to keep themselves atop the rankings and that the search companies consider trusted and authoritative, because they're well-known.

This, the SEOs say, is finally where black-hat SEO is driving general search, and now hacking SEO is as well. It's turning the Web into a big strip mall.

Scott Berinato is former executive editor of CSO. Send feedback to Derek Slater at dslater@cxo.com.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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