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Why Black Hat SEO isn’t so Black (even by Google’s silent admission)

Why Black Hat SEO isn’t so Black (even by Google’s silent admission)

Why Black Hat SEO isn’t so Black (even by Google’s silent admission)

The digital revolution has been an excellent opportunity for businesses to reap the rewards of search engine marketing, especially in the field of SEO & PPC where being at the top of SERPs is the name of the game.

Whereas PPC is a strategy that requires a lot of calibrating, SEO has long been a field of speculation, as Google has never directly disclosed how you can get a website to rank at the top of their organic placements.

They have provided some guidelines about how websites should be optimised. It discusses various do’s and don’ts. Any tactic that’s used to manipulate how Google ranks a website is deemed “black hat”. We are led to believe that Google will penalise webmasters who are caught optimising websites this way.

In reality though, Google is very lenient towards webmasters who indulge in black hat SEO, as long as it’s done so in moderation.

So why is this the case?

Well for Google to remain the best search engine and distinguish itself amongst its competitors, it needs to ensure it displays the most relevant results to its users.

The two biggest indicators of relevance are:

  • Average User Duration / Onsite SEO: Measured by how long the average user stays on a website before clicking back to arrive on the SERPs (if at all they click back). The longer a user stays on your website over a competitors for the same keyword, the more relevant your listing appears to Google. This signal becomes particularly important as sites approach page one for their ranking keywords and fundamentally why you must give your website design, content and user-experience some love and care.
  • Quality and quantity of inbound backlinks / Offsite SEO: Backlinks drive the majority of a websites ranks, though its effectiveness begins to diminish as you approach the top of Google for your ranking keywords (where user engagement signals begin taking precedence).

Because user engagement signals have become such an integral part of the algorithm that powers Google, it’s important to have a website that appeals to users and search engines alike.

This is why black hat SEO in the context of onsite changes just doesn’t work. The most obvious example is when webmasters spam their landing pages with keywords left, right and centre. It hinders a good user experience and Google will subsequently penalise you for this (even if you try and cloak it).

In fact, the infamous Panda / Penguin algorithm updates years ago happened in light of this (and still continue to this day). Businesses found solace in outsourcing their SEO for cheap (mostly to non-English native speaking countries like India and the Philippines, where it was enough to climb up the SERPs by spamming their websites with keywords).

In the context of link building, Google is definitely lenient. Their guidelines echo that fact that links should be acquired naturally by featuring and promoting quality content. They strictly forbid webmasters paying for links, or using automated tools to build links.

For commercial reasons, Google is not being entirely honest about their Guidelines.

The probability of securing a quality link from a site that you’ve paid to get a listing on is much greater than a site that’s free to the public. I’m sure any SEOer has disavowed a few free directory listings in their time. In most circumstances, even a ‘white hat’ strategy of outreaching to site owners usually involves a momentary transaction to ensure a link placement.

So why forbid paid links if they are generally coming from more authoritative and trust worthy websites? There are two main reasons.

  1. Google knows that the key players of any industry hoard most of the money in circulation. It would make it incredibly easy for them to rank with very little effort and gives small businesses no chance to compete if they can readily purchase quality links.
  2. Google would prefer any sort of advertising to occur on their own platform i.e. Adwords.  If corporate giants are rinsing the rewards of SEO which draws the majority of clicks (at a much lower CPA which isn’t being paid to Google), then it would only make sense for those companies to invest far less into their PPC campaigns.

Going back to the first point, Google also needs to have variation in its listings to give small businesses a chance to compete with the head honchos, for several reasons:

  • It’s exciting: To give an example, if you go to search for any item of clothing and consistently see the top three results given to ASOS, John Lewis, Debenhams, then users will start growing bored and seek out other search engines.
  • Relevance: If a user searches for “red t-shirts”, then a company that specialises in exactly that would make a better listing than your classic established “white hat” website.
  • Profit: Smaller businesses that see an ROI from SEO often invest some of the profits back into other areas of marketing, including Adwords. Not only does this draw a new line of income for Google but also increases the level of competition for existing Adwords customers, forcing each user to pay slightly more for each click than they were before.

If Google were really so stringent on black hat link building practises, then they could’ve easily clamped down on this strategy a long time ago.

An experienced SEOer can look at a link profile through whatever preferred backlink tool they use and tell you almost instantly if the site has undergone black hat SEO to propel its ranks. Rest assured Google’s algorithm can come to the same conclusion, especially if the site has Google Analytics / Search Console to further track all aspects of its web activity.

Moreover, the black hat community continues to thrive on Google, with many online marketing black hat sensations making great revenue through YouTube off the back of their ‘strictly prohibited’ tutorials.

Essentially then, the guidelines were created to deter corporate giants from dominating organic SERPs by forcing them down a “white hat” link building strategy where it requires much more resources and time to rank (also the reason why the algorithm reduces the power of backlinks as you approach page one and looks more at UX signals).  Naturally the guidelines can’t be seen to discriminate against established companies and small businesses but in reality, what Google says and what Google means are two completely different things.

So the take home point is this.  Have a nice website, create engaging content, build quality links, but don’t be scared to play it a bit dirty too if it means you need to have that competitive edge.

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Amir Zarandouz

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