Oct 02 2007

Black Hat Search Engine Tactics

Search engine optimization can have a dark side.

The number one spot in Google’s search results for a competitive search phrase might be more valuable than even the most expensive form of advertising. The appeal of a steady stream of free traffic sometimes lures Webmasters to the dark side: a set of practices that defy the guidelines provided by search engines, often called black-hat search engine optimization.

Through tactics such as deceptive JavaScript redirects, some Webmasters look for ways to make their Web pages more relevant for their targeted search phrases. It’s no surprise that Google is onto this game and has an active Web spam team devoted to modifying search algorithms to prevent abuse — as well as doling out penalties to offenders. The spam squad’s power is mighty; they can make your site disappear from the index in an instant.

BizTech connected with Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Web spam team, to determine some of the Webmaster offenses his crew watches for, such as using hidden text, deceptive links and comment spam:

  • Hidden Text: Imagine loads of keyword-rich white text on a white background, invisible to human eyes but readily processed by the search engine spiders that fetch Web pages for Google’s index. This tactic might have worked years ago, but not today. “We can detect hidden text with our algorithms,” Cutts says.
  • Deceptive Links: The tactic of choice for many of today’s black hat experts is a deceptive link using code, usually JavaScript. The link will be followed by a normal Web browser, but cannot be processed by Googlebot (the automated search spider that retrieves and analyzes pages for Google’s index). When it works as intended, Googlebot indexes one page while the visitor is directed to another page, one that might include quite different content. But the new and improved Googlebot has a leg up on this tactic. “The technique that Google has employed to try and prevent that is to actually be able to process some JavaScript,” Cutts says.
  • Comment Spam: Anyone running a blog or forum will understand the pervasiveness of comment spam, automated agents that scour the Web looking for any open system where they can post a comment with a link promoting their own site (usually concerning Viagra, it seems). Never use an automated method to acquire links from open systems such as blog comments. You risk not only penalties from search engines but also the ill will of bloggers and forum members everywhere.
  • Link Farms: Also known as Free-for-All links, these are networks of low-quality sites that offer automated methods for adding links to other pages. In the rush to acquire inbound links (an important component in search engine rankings), some Webmasters make the mistake of including their untarnished site in one of these networks. In general, you needn’t worry about sites that link to you, but linking to sites with a bad reputation can result in penalties being applied to your site by search engines.

White-Hat SEO

Ruling out these sneaky tactics still leaves you with plenty of rewarding tactics to choose from. Within the white-hat camp, social media tools are considered by many to be the best method for acquiring links. Gaining popularity on user-generated content sites such as Digg or Reddit generally results in not only a nice flow of traffic but also several new inbound links. There’s no simple, easy tactic; it comes down to having a smart strategy for content creation and promotion.

“It’s really just a renaissance of creativity because people think about interesting hooks that will cause people to enjoy the site and return to the site and e-mail their friends about it and bookmark it,” Cutts says. “Rather than try to trick people into getting the links, they’re looking for the creative hooks that will cause people to want to link to a site.”

Not all tactics are clearly black or white. The level of SEO aggressiveness will vary by industry, so what is common practice in one industry may be deemed black hat in another. High-risk and low-risk might be a better way to describe the SEO approaches. “In regards to actual tactics that the search engines like or don’t like, I would say it’s more a question of risk, or risk tolerance, and competition level,” says Todd Malicoat, an SEO consultant in Troy, N.Y.

Paid Links

Some other tactics are subject to lively debate.

Paid text links fit this category. Cutts contends that all paid links should use a mechanism such as a “nofollow” tag so that search engines do not follow the link (and thereby give that site any SEO benefits).

Many SEO experts take the opposite position. “I’m not a link communist; it should be perfectly OK,” Malicoat says. “Optimizers obviously have a somewhat biased point of view there because we all make our living from that sort of thing … but I don’t see it as a manipulative technique.”

One argument against buying or selling text links (without the appropriate measures suggested by Google) is that Google is actively soliciting spam reports on companies that engage in this practice. Google’s spam report is a method for identifying egregious abuses of search results. It is sometimes used for exposing business competitors engaged in risky SEO tactics, a practice Malicoat denounces. “To me, that always felt more unethical than anything, mainly because I’ve learned more from my competitors than I’ve ever learned from search engines.”

If it ever happens that Google penalizes your site, you do have a redress option: You can submit a reconsideration request form to Google. “The criteria for that are essentially to say, ‘Here is why we think the site was penalized. Here’s what we’ve done to correct it, and here are the steps that we’ve taken to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,’ ” Cutts says.

Dan Skeen is the director of search engine marketing at Quarry, an integrated communications agency headquartered in Waterloo, Ontario.