Black Hat SEO: The dark side of online marketing

As search engine optimisers played fast and loose, a reaction from Google became inevitable. In this second part of a two part series, we look at hacking SEOs and the SEOwN3d!!1 effect.

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In part one of our series on the collision of search engine optimisation and black hat hacking (see "Black Hat SEOs: Is This the Future of Search?"), we explored how search engine optimisers, or SEOs, have learned tricks that change the search results that drive much of the traffic to successful websites. Many of these upstart entrepreneurs have made small fortunes as SEO consultants. Many also use SEO to drive traffic to their own sites that sell products, ads or referrals--a business known as search marketing.

We explored how the tactics of SEO include some unsavoury ones that range from digital ffibs to aggressive deception. The tricks are called black hat SEO, though that's something of a misnomer since, as SEOs like to say, they don't break the law, just the search companies' terms of service. The search companies tried to stay ahead of black hat SEO by tweaking their algorithms and adding filters that penalise sites for questionable tactics. Increasingly, though, it looked as if the combined forces of SEO and black hat hacking would be too much for any algorithm....

As search companies have tried to contain the more aggressive techniques that SEOs were using to manipulate search engine rankings, black hat SEOs have responded by circumventing the rules. Rather than just using loopholes, they began actively abusing the algorithms used to determine search engine results. The tactics became so aggressive that the SEOs started to make the search engines look bad: Search results started to reflect the SEO's reality, rather than a reality that rewarded good sites. Like all arms races, this one eventually escalated to an untenable level. The game had to change again. And it did, about 18 months ago.

Suddenly and without much warning, search companies - Google especially, the SEOs say - decided to enforce its terms of service, and severely. The algorithms wised up some, but more than that, it appeared that Google was buttressing its algorithm with filters and manual labour. If enough complaints came in about a site using black hat tactics, Google would manually adjust the rankings or simply blacklist the site - a process SEOs call a "hand job."

Some SEOs and search marketers were surprised. The top SEOs generally maintained good lines of communication with Google and other search companies. Some, like Jeremy Schoemaker - a search marketer known online as Shoemoney - would even periodically ask for advice on SEO techniques and whether they'd get him in trouble.

But now the search companies were matching the SEOs' aggressiveness. The effect could be devastating. A site that was blacklisted lost its traffic, and therefore its business, overnight. Usually targeted sites clearly violated search terms of service. But some weren't doing anything differently than they'd been doing for months or years. "When people are ranking for a phrase and supporting their family, and then the next day they're off the map, that's really vicious," says Schoemaker. "You can literally ruin someone's life."

Of course, Google could make the argument that turnabout is fair play. Perhaps enforcement was brusque and arbitrary, but so is black-hat SEO. Nothing Google was doing was illegal, which was an argument the black hat SEOs had made for years. Plus, as early as 2006, Matt Cutts, Google's chief liaison to the SEO community, had blogged about the ramp-up in enforcement against overly aggressive SEO.

Even before that, the veteran SEO Eric Ward warned others that eventually the free ride would end. Ward was notorious for his cautious, by-the-book approach to link-building strategies. Some called him "a poser," "arrogant" and "retarded," and bestowed him with the nickname "Linkmoses".

"I understand why [the search engines] are doing it, but their enforcement has become a little heavy-handed," says SEO Michael Gray. Says Aaron Wall, another SEO: "Google went on a crusade."

The Aftermath of the Crusade

As frustrating as delisting was for companies suddenly punished by SEO enforcement, getting relisted proved to be a much worse problem. SEOs and site owners found themselves stuck with little communication from the search companies about what they had done wrong or how to fix it to get back in the good graces of the algorithms. Schoemaker himself lost the top spot for ring-tone searches.

"I was making thousands of dollars a day, and then one day I was out of Google," he says. "I inquired why and never really got an answer. They said it was normal search engine fluctuation"--fluctuation, he notes, that also can be caused by black-hat SEOs. "I probably got gamed out," he suggests. He currently ranks about tenth in ring tones.

Google also partnered with Stopbadware.org to blacklist sites that were potentially infected with malware. Last September, a web-hosting company in Thailand was hacked and several sites that used the host were flagged on Google, so that if users clicked on a link to the site, an intermediate screen popped up warning them that the site they were about to visit was potentially infected.

Obviously, people rarely visit a site after that kind of warning. The owner of the hosting company, Daniel Peterson, says that after he had cleaned up the sites, nothing had been done to get those blocked sites relisted in Google search results. "No one seems to want to do anything, and the blacklisting is now seriously damaging our businesses," Peterson wrote in an email.

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