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The dark art of blackhat SEO

MEET Ralph Tegtmeier. He's from Belgium, operates search engine optimisation site Fantomaster.com and wants to get your site to the top of Google – and he doesn't care how he does it.

Showing Google one page and users another, creating thousands of pages with slightly duplicated content and setting up "doorway pages" stuffed with keywords are just some of the methods Tegtmeier uses.

These SEO strategies are all completely against Google's terms of service, but Tegtmeier is unfazed.

"We don't want to get our clients just one number one, or number two, but numbers one through 20 on Google... the search engine is technically a parasite, and really I'm not in the business of creating a good impression with anyone."

This is the dark side of online marketing – this is what is known in the industry as "blackhat" SEO.

Every day, thousands of blackhat SEO experts like Tegtmeier are using techniques designed to trick Google's spider "bots", which constantly crawl over millions of websites for pieces of text, and use a secret and ever-changing algorithm to rank the most relevant, descriptive and popular pages.

The higher your page is ranked, the more traffic it gets, which means most savvy web businesses use typical SEO strategies such as optimising for common keywords and search terms, and regularly updating content.

But some are prepared to go further. While Google severely punishes websites using blackhat techniques, and in some cases actually bans them from the index altogether, the importance of ranking on page one of Google means many sites are prepared to take risks.

Experts say the line between black and "white" SEO is looking increasingly blurry, with many experts and website operators asking whether certain blackhat methods are now just part of doing business.

What is blackhat SEO?

There are dozens of different blackhat techniques sites use to get ahead of the pack, but what are they trying to do?

"Blackhat SEO is all about tricking Google," Stewart Media chief executive Jim Stewart says.

"When people talk about things like comment spam, that isn't blackhat – it's more like rudehat. That's just passing off marketing to someone else. Blackhat SEO is a little more detailed."

"Anything that is done to manipulate the search result, anything you're doing that would basically manipulate the user search experience – that is blackhat SEO."

Jasmine Batra, chief executive of Arrow Marketing, says the big problem with blackhat SEO is the strategies used often annoy other users in the process.

"What you are supposed to be doing is manipulate the search engine to find relevant websites. But if you are doing it in a way that is not helpful, if you are making your site appear for non-relevant search queries, then you're hurting the user experience."

While there are dozens of different blackhat methods, there are three popular techniques most sites use:

    * Keyword stuffing
    * Cloaking and doorway pages
    * Invisible text

The use of invisible text is one of the most basic. This is where a site will use text on a website in the same colour as the background, making it invisible to the naked eye.

A good example is Big Boys Toys, a site which appears to categorise and then link to other types of hobby sites. When users visit the site, they appear to see a normal type of entry page, on which users click a link to enter the site itself.

But when users highlight the page, they'd see the following:

When the Google Bot visits this page, it finds the invisible text, incorporates that into the algorithm and then determines Big Boys as a "relevant" site. While this might be a clever technique, it appears to be against Google's regulations.

"Trying to deceive (spam) our web crawler by means of hidden text... compromises the quality of our results and degrades the search experience for everyone. We think that's a bad thing," Google states on its web developer blog.

But it isn't just obscure sites using this technique. Grabdenim.com.au, the top ranking site for the keywords "women's jeans" and third most popular for "denim" is using a popular blackhat SEO technique known as "cloaking".

The site, designed by SEO marketing firm Exa, shows users a different site to the one actually indexed.

Not only is there invisible text in the top right-hand corner:

When users click on the "text-only" version of the site, this is what they see:

An entirely different page filled with pieces of text clearly optimised for a machine, rather than a human – which is directly against Google's regulations. These types of pages are known as "doorway" pages.

"Google's aim is to give our users the most valuable and relevant search results. Therefore, we frown on practices that are designed to manipulate search engines and deceive users by directing them to sites other than the ones they selected, and that provide content solely for the benefit of search engines," Google's Webmaster Central site states.

"Google may take action on doorway sites and other sites making use of these deceptive practice, including removing these sites from the Google index."

The other most popular technique is known as keyword stuffing. This is where a site will try and print as many keywords as possible into a page, even though those keywords may not be relevant to the text at all.

A good example is acornclean.com, a Melbourne-based window cleaning company. Just last year, this site was using dozens of pages to construct backlinks to its own site by stuffing hundreds of keywords onto a single page.

Those pages are still up and running:

In this example, the SEO firm constructing this page, has taken passages from the Bible and inserted keywords relating to window cleaning at random. This would make no sense to a human user, but to a Google robot it makes complete sense and would rank the linked site accordingly.

All of these sites, and their accompanying SEO developers, were contacted by SmartCompany for comment, but none replied before publication.

The benefits of blackhat SEO

The benefits of using blackhat SEO are obvious – your site will spring to the top page of Google. You can rank highly for any number of topics, and your methods are usually guaranteed to work if you disguise them well enough.

And the popularity of these techniques is growing. Batra says she regularly receives requests from businesses wanting to use whatever methods necessary. Even though the site might be shut down after a few weeks, the boost in revenue will be worth the cost.

"It'll give them a short-term benefit. I get calls from people asking me to do anything, saying 'I just want to get to the top for a while even if it eventually gets banned'. That's pretty drastic, but there are certainly businesses in that league."

Stewart says that although there are risks, many businesses don't care. These methods aren't illegal, and as long as some businesses receive a financial benefit, the risk of being penalised by Google is worth taking.

However, small businesses aren't the only ones using blackhat techniques to their advantage. There is also a market for software companies actually providing these blackhat services.

Tegtmeier provides software designed to assist with "cloaking" techniques, and sells lists of known search engine bot IP addresses.

These are useful because businesses can design their sites to show the search engine bot one page, filled with pieces of text, and users another, which would be filled with well-designed images.

"These regulations are just terms of service." Tegtmeier says. "And they are just that – terms of service. It gives the impression that blackhat SEO is illegal. It isn't."

Tegtmeier also says there is a solid financial benefit when looking for a quick fix.

"If your site gets ranked, you can make about $20 a day in 14 days. Now, that's only $20 a day, but if you invest that in the thousands, you can be making some serious money."

"This is what blackhat SEO gets you. It's a quick fix, designed to get in and get out. This is what a lot of sites do because they don't care what techniques they use and can get a profit out of a few weeks' work, then push it all into the next website."

So if it's not illegal, why shouldn't I do it?

It's correct that blackhat SEO techniques are perfectly legal and it's also true that many don't degrade a user's experience of a site or "trick" them.

But many experts say you should avoid them for the simple reason that Google will punish you. It wants the websites on its index to use appropriate SEO techniques that fit naturally into the site's look and feel, rather than use artificial marketing methods.

Essentially, it says websites need to design their sites for users, not a robot.

As a result, these SEO experts are extremely wary of even dabbling in blackhat. Four years ago, the BMW.de site was temporarily removed from the Google index entirely as a result of several doorway pages. While it is now rare for Google to completely remove a site from the Google index, sites are now given "point" penalties to reduce their rankings.

It is uncertain how the point system works, as Google doesn't specify anywhere on its website. But Schebesta says users generally associate one point to every ranking position lost.

"You generally work it out by finding out how many places you've dropped. Fifty points is pretty intensive. The amount of points given in a penalty really depends on the situation. In America, it's very specific, but in Australia the penalties are a lot more automated."

Of course, dropping even few Google rankings could mean a big difference in sales and the experts say that a smaller business may not have been able to survive such a punishment.

"I'm very conservative when it comes to getting search results. Anything where you might even get into trouble I stay away from. It's simple – the one reason why you shouldn't do this is because if you get caught, your site could be penalised," Batra says.

"While Google has relaxed some of its punishment, you could still receive a 30-50 point penalty. It's not a risk worth taking."

Stewart says that although he doesn't have any ethical problems with using blackhat SEO techniques, it's not worth the hassle and says "businesses using normal techniques to get good results shouldn't change their strategy".

"I don't have any ethical problems with it, it's just something that takes a lot of work and it's not necessarily the most efficient way to do things."

Even Tegtmeier, who makes a profit by selling blackhat software to SMEs, says businesses should only consider using blackhat SEO techniques if they can afford suffering the consequences. Mostly, he says, they're good for a short-term benefit.

"It does depend on your business model, demographic and skill, and it's certainly not for everybody. If you achieve good rankings with the methods you're using now, then that's fine. Go ahead."

The grey area

Steering clear of blackhat SEO is all well and good, but with so many businesses using legitimate techniques and finding interesting ways to tweak the algorithm, where is the line between acceptable and unacceptable optimisation?

While some of these experts say blackhat SEO should be ignored altogether, others say the issue isn't that simple and the lines are blurred.

After all, blackhat SEO isn't illegal.

Schebesta says a lot of the techniques categorised as blackhat aren't actually blackhat SEO at all, and the difference lies in the quality of the techniques.

For example, he argues the lines are particularly blurred around techniques such as microsites and invisible text. Schebesta disputes whether "cloaking", the practice where a site shows users one page and the search engine another, is actually all that bad.

"If you're showing Google one page and then another to users, that's cloaking, but sites like the New York Times use cloaking. They have paywalls, but still want to be visible. But they've spoken to Google about this because they have so much content and provide views."

"Something like invisible text would be more of a stupid thing to do. That's not valid, that's just bad web design. A blackhat SEO guy is going to hack into a site, use a line of code and then suddenly they're ranking number one or two in Google."

However, the Google terms of service state users must "make pages primarily for users, not for search engines".

"Don't deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as "cloaking"."

Nevertheless, Schebesta says the line between these techniques is beginning to blur.

"There are some SEO companies that if you look at them, you might consider them using slight blackhat techniques but they're certainly getting results. I think a lot of the problem has to do with the perception of these techniques, rather than the intent of just going around creating sites that don't provide anything."

Additionally, the probability of getting caught is also up in the air. One SEO source told SmartCompany he has submitted a number of websites to Google for review, but they are still up online continuing with the same tactics.

Tegtmeier says that sometimes, blackhat SEO techniques are even necessary to stay ahead of the competition. With so many new websites popping up, and so many businesses now using SEO, he says businesses need to use a blackhat technique or two to even rank on page one.

"This is not about search, it is about money. It's about money being generated through organic search traffic. You need decent rankings, and in many industries it's highly competitive and if you don't use these techniques, then you're toast."

"I'm not talking about comment spam on stuff like Facebook and Twitter, that's too obvious. But using some of the sophisticated techniques like cloaking are actually required to get ahead."

On the straight and narrow

Using blackhat is definitely going to get you penalised if Google finds you out. But these experts say businesses need to decide for themselves whether it's worth the risk.

Blackhat can deliver you a solid short-term benefit, but Google will probably find you out if you push too far, and then you might find all your work has been for nothing.

Batra also says blackhat isn't worth the risk. She opts to be on Google's good side, and says going against their regulations won't help you in the long run.

"I always think you need to be in the good books. I don't think Google has become the police, but just as you don't want to breach a law you don't want to breach a search engine. That's why the guidelines are there, so that you don't run into trouble."

Even Tegtmeier, who makes a living through distributing software designed to trick Google bots, says businesses with a solid reputation shouldn't risk using blackhat and having their sites blocked from the index.

"If you have a well-known brand, you shouldn't be doing this. You'll be caught out, and shamed, and that's really the opposite of branding a good reputation."

This article first appeared on SmartCompany.com.au, Australia’s premier site for business advice, news, forums and blogs.

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