Crossing the Line into Black Hat SEO

We all think we know where the line is between black hat and white hat SEO. What is on the other side of the line? And what excuses do black hats give for crossing it? This article takes a look at black hat SEO practices. Your hat might not be as white as you think it is.

“A life unexamined is not worth living”

Seneca

There is a Line

The last two articles I wrote on black hat SEOs make the problem out to be one that can be solved by situational ethics and a defined set of values. In life there is white and black; for there to be good, there must be evil. And it must be absolute.

The world of web design and SEO is one that has severely tested my sense of values since I delved into it, as I learned how to design websites while avoiding amateurish black hat techniques (Keyword stuffing and tiny text), but none took my emotions on a wild ride more than distinguishing between black hat  and white hat techniques.

Defining the Line

Some people came into web design as programmers, others as graphic artists. I came into web design first as a content provider (web copywriter), then brought in graphic skills I had developed as a desk top publisher, and finally added programming and database skills. In defining the line between SEO practices that are unethical and those that are not, I will first say that whether one violates search engine guidelines or not is irrelevant. The most important thing to an SEO adept is what is best for your customer.

Sun Tzu says in his classic military treatise “The Art of War” that the “Sage Commander” is employed by the ruler in order to preserve the state. The SEO professional is hired by the web site owner, not only to increase ranking on the SERPs, but to preserve the site’s integrity (not only to increase his/her profit margin). In placing a site into your hands and giving you extensive control over the design, layout and content of a site, you literally have the fate of the site in your hands.

Anything that compromises that site’s integrity is unethical. Anything that puts the long term value of the site at risk is unethical, and everything that reduces the site user’s browsing experience is unethical.

Now I’d like to look at the people who build sites for personal use. These people optimize on their own, without the aid of an external marketing team. They also build sites to sell their products, sell other people’s products, and provide information, for the sake of an online presence — or just to get revenue off advertisements.

Let me emphasize the point I made before: anything that reduces the site user’s browsing experience is unethical. Any technique that seeks to deceive the user while bringing him/her to your URL, or which seeks to lock the user into a lose-win situation (lose for him/her, win for you) is a black hat technique.

I assert this not because I am some crusading do-gooder (I consider them hypocrites). I’m also not one of the deluded that argue that all advertising is bad (how else will we present choices to the user?). Rather, I assert this because I believe that SEO experts should have some guidelines which are workable and realistic, as they continue in this wild, wild arena of online advertising.

Examine Your Motives

So now that I have made broad and sweeping assertions, let me narrow it down to specific ways in which SEO techniques put web sites at risk or reduce the user’s browsing experience. And I fear that none of us will be found blameless.

“Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find?”

The Book Of Proverbs, 20:6

Cross the Line

No man wakes up and decides to become a black hat, as top ranking black hat irishwonder notes on www.syndk8.co.uk. When he began it was all as “White as snow.”

But the line is crossed when the web designer or SEO decides that “relevant content is hard,” and it is this mindset that brings all the goblins out of your fertile mind’s dark attic, which is full of SEO black hat tricks.

The journey begins at the time a decision is made to optimize a site as an SEO expert. There are some jobs that require a negative. Most sites that require the services of an SEO lack content, and may sometimes insist that they do not need content, requesting that the SEO expert use other means to achieve high rankings.

Any SEO technique that does not seek to deliver relevant and useful content in the form of information or downloadables (free), and intends to achieve ranking only through exploiting inherent flaws in the search engines’ algorithms compromises the long term integrity of that site.

This is because the site is then subject to such vagaries as the search engines changing their algorithms, or any other factor that is a variable. The only thing that stays constant is that search engines consider content important to the browsing experience of the site.

For websites that insist on not adding content, or that refuse to follow the recommendations of the search engines, only one answer can be given to them: a firm no. The results of complying with such a website owner’s wishes could include litigation at one end, and being banned from the SERPs at the other.

Duplicating Content

This trick still draws from the premise that “relevant content is hard.” Imitation is a clear indication of lack of creativity. Imitation in print is plagiarism; nobody seems to have any problems insisting that plagiarism is wrong. But then again, print is a highly regulated media with strong legal protection for copyrighted material (unless said material is online) [And even there, many of the protections are still in place, the hard part is enforcing them --Ed.].

The Internet, on the other hand, is a nightmare morass of billions of sites on millions of servers. Page jacking is old; article duplicating is in. Using software that can convert whole articles into new forms, black hat web masters building dozens of sites a day can duplicate entire sites, replicating the content of dozens of sites and spawning them across the net. Using the numbers game to befuddle the search engines, they stay steps ahead of full detection by destroying their “footprints.”

This behavior is justified by moans of how relevant content is hard to find, or very expensive. The real problem is the “overnight success” mentality, which assumes that success can be achieved literally overnight (or at least in a very short time). This is a fallacy perpetuated by the MTV generation, which wants perfect bodies, lots of money and number one rankings on Google, Yahoo and MSN (sounds like paradise).

This behavior is fueled by sites that are built simply to generate AdSense revenue, and by web masters to whom the user’s search experience is not even on the list of their considerations.

An aggressive linking campaign is the second prong of every organic SEO strategy, and this is the cause of another set of gripes by our black hats to justify their unethical practices. To them “reciprocal linking is impossible” and good inbound links are hard to come by, so they buy text links, join link farms, and do comment spam on “A” blogs. In general, they try to get links without giving any value.

A site with a beautiful linking strategy is www.phpjunkyard.com. The webmaster gives out free scripts and requests that a link back to his site be added anywhere on the web page. Apart from this, almost every page on PHP resources lists PHP Junkyard as a resource for web masters. Combine this with great outgoing links, and you have a site which has close to three pages on page one of almost every major search engine online. All this with no adverts, and no products for sale.

PHP Junkyard is successful because the webmaster has built a valuable online resource, which fits in naturally no matter the algorithm a search engine uses. It attracts links instead of chasing them. The theories behind attracting links are similar to those of attracting moths: shine brightly and watch them come.

User Experience

Any technique that reduces the user’s experience is an unethical practice. One such technique (which I personally despise) is pop up that won’t close, a real mouse trap. These pop ups have no red x button and simply will not go away unless you do the required action.

Another way of reducing the user’s search experience is by placing your links on a totally unrelated site and then luring the user to click through via deceptive means.

The Conclusion of the Whole Matter

The SEO expert must judge him/herself before being sucked up in the current wave of litigation and blacklisting which is flowing across the United States and the search engines.

Lest I have offended any one with my sometimes strong language, I have no apologies; reread the parts that got you riled up and examine yourself closely.

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