Black Hat SEO: Is this the future of search?
How hackers got interested in search engine rankings
By Scott Berinato | CSO | Published: 12:50, 28 July 2010
Still, clever types who've studied how the search engines behave can approximate what pleases the algorithms and then alter a site in ways that improve the site's ranking. Some alterations are as simple as adding verbiage to match the kinds of words people type into search engines. Change the phrase "cell phone rings" on your page to "ring tones," for example, and your traffic goes up, because while virtually no one searches on the former term, many type in the latter. Other techniques are complicated linking schemes that involve getting other sites to link back to your own site.
The hundreds of techniques like these, that used to boost a site's ranking, comprise SEO.
In ancient Rome, prior to important events, a college of priests called augurs would "take the auspices," meaning they would study the flight patterns of birds to understand the will of the gods. SEO is not so different from that.
In the hands of a good SEO, optimisation works outrageously well. Naylor likens it to turning on a tap. He remembers a mattress company in England that hired him to get the top ranking for searches about beds. Naylor knew the company wouldn't be able to handle the bump in traffic he would provide, but the owner sloughed off his concerns. So Naylor delivered the number one ranking, and about 25,000 new visitors per day. The company's 15 trucks and meager customer service collapsed under the demand.
SEO is flourishing also because many companies shifted revenue strategies to their websites without understanding that websites that don't get noticed by search engines don't get noticed. They underestimated search's dominion over their success, a grievous miscalculation. In order to reach their often aggressive revenue goals, companies found themselves in the awkward position of having to worship search algorithms that they neither understood nor controlled.
Desperate, they turned to SEOs and paid immoderate fortunes for their help. One SEO, Eric Ward, charges $1,000 for two one-hour phone conversations and a written report that details what your site needs to do to get juice - SEO slang for any tactic that boosts page rankings. Jeremy Schoemaker, known in the search marketing world as Shoemoney, hosts the Elite Retreat, an invitation-only weekend of SEO and marketing consulting. Neil Patel was making six figures as an SEO consultant by the time he enrolled in college, and he says his company, Advanced Consulting Services, cleared $1 million in revenue last year. His clients include HP and Samsung. "If I wanted to," Patel says with typical bravado, "I could go give a car dealership an hour of SEO advice in exchange for a free, leased car."
A whole community of upstart entrepreneurs has emerged. Guys like Michael Gray, QuadsZilla, Naylor, Ward, Patel, Shoemoney and Aaron Wall, among others. They are the augurs, priests interpreting the will of the search engines, and they're cashing in. On his blog, Shoemoney posted a photo of himself, with one of his SEO cheques splayed across his face, leaving only two things to see - his eyes and the cheque's sum: $132,994.97.
Patel, meanwhile, has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal and is also a regular conference speaker. Last year at BlogWorld Expo, after he gave a presentation on SEO and search marketing, someone said to him, "I can't believe you can look at yourself in the mirror in the morning."
The grey business of gaming the system
It turns out that in ancient Rome, those augurs' divinations weren't always divine. The will of the gods sometimes depended on earthly influences like political favors and bribery.
SEO is not so different from this, either. Pay the right price, and SEOs can game the system for you by telling the algorithms little digital fibs, or sometimes deceiving them outright. This is black-hat SEO, which is a misnomer. In general, these practices aren't illegal, just dishonest, as Naylor notes when distinguishing between black-hat hacking and black-hat SEO. (Some SEOs do call this gray-hat SEO; the nomenclature is muddied.)
Black hat SEO is based on a simple fact: No matter how clever one makes an algorithm, it's still just a narrow set of rules. Like all binary machines, it struggles to intuit even basic human intent. Software struggles to detect duplicity. In a way, the algorithms are like robotic consumers, who are incapable of being skeptical about aggressive, deceptive marketing practices.
Black hat SEO techniques include misleading forms of link bait - for example, fabricating a salacious news story ("Britney Spears Dead!") that spurs prurient curiosity traffic. It's clearly a ruse to generate clickthroughs, but the algorithms see a popular link that deserves juice. Also there's blogspam: links planted in the comments fields of blogs despite the fact they have nothing to do with the blog's content or the present conversation. The algorithms once counted up those links and gave juice to the site they linked to. Automation of this process allowed an SEO to plant thousands of links a day and vault to the top of the search rankings.
Another favourite technique of black hat SEOs is cloaking - making the search spiders see content that the public can't see, thus tricking the algorithm into giving too much juice. Cloaking is like saying one million people read this story because that's how many people were in the stores that sold the magazine that the story appeared in.
Black hat SEO is even more wildly effective than the more legitimate forms of SEO because it is not restrained by truthfulness. If you're willing to bend or break the search companies' terms of service, you can get serious juice unavailable to someone who plays by the rules. The bartender who skims the till always makes more than the one who doesn't. (Unless, of course, he gets caught.)