Its unethical “only” because Google says it is. Ever since the mid 90s when the term “search engine optimization” or SEO gradually became all the rage, a major part of the debate on what is proper or effective search marketing has been dominated in many quarters by absurdly moralistic overtones. In the early times it was all about “ethical” or “unethical” SEO. More recently, SEO is generally being seen in terms of “white hat” (aka “ethical”) and “black hat” (aka “unethical”) approaches towards search. Of course, as its really all about rankings, traffic and conversions in the first place, you might be pardoned for thinking that most of this chatter is actually quite silly and totally beside the point. After all, search engine optimization is essentially a technical, not a moral or ethical issue.
The major search engines themselves can look back on a not-too-glamorous track record of pouring oil into the fire. Sure, to a certain extent this is quite understandable from their point of view: they want to own the index and don’t like the idea of webmasters coming up with whatever tricks to manipulate search results. However, as the content they’re crawling, indexing and ranking isn’t theirs to command in the first place, they still seem to be having a hard time coping with the fact that their unilateral Terms of Service are anything but gospel – and that people will do just about anything that can help them achieve better rankings and traffic, especially if it means money and/or a conduit for securing their livelihood.
Thus, attempting to criminalize black hat SEOs by equating them with hackers and crackers, virus developers and e-mail spammers, in short: with felons, as has been the ongoing policy of Google’s Webspam headman Matt Cutts is anything but helpful. Nor does it indicate a particularly sophisticated degree of social competence if you’re sneakily trying to convey the impression that Google’s TOS are somehow equivalent to the law of the land, tagging everyone who refuses to be subjugated a law breaker by inference. (Quite often you’ll see a lot of newbies on forums who have actually fallen for this pitch, fretting about “legal” and “illegal” optimization techniques. So to a degree this nefarious FUD policy is quite effective if only in the short term …)
The term “spam” itself is a good case in point. Originally, it merely indicated unsolicited (usually commercial) e-mail, no more, no less. Effectively, the search engines and their yeasayers have hijacked the tag to define just about everything that is in violation of their arbitrary, self-serving TOS: and so, the “search engine spammer” was born.
Beyond the search engines’ immediate agenda, you’ll still find plenty of SEO consultants and “gurus” admonishing everyone willing to listen that “black hat SEO is bad bad bad” and, more importantly, tantamount to corporate suicide. Black hat techniques are presented as being despicable, short lived, only temporarily effective at best and subject to heavy penalization (i.e. a “ban”) by the search engines. As pointed out above, this take is anything but new – but is it actually correct?
Like most things in life, the entire subject is governed by a slew of different factors, environmental conditions and intentions – a complexity only ill-reflected by simplistic assertions of this ilk. In other words: it depends. So let’s take a more sober, less excitatory look at some of the most common misconceptions informing the conversation.
Some will, some won’t. As they say, there’s many ways to skin a cat, and black hat SEO techniques and strategies tend to vary wildly.
Much of this is determined by the specific niche you’re targeting – how competitive and fast moving it is, what kind of resources you are willing and capable of throwing at it, etc.
Yes, many black hats will operate on a “churn and burn” basis, deploying what are essentially “throwaway” sites – but that doesn’t actually present much of a problem if the process is efficiently automated.
We have had Shadow Domains™ (entirely driven by cloaking or IP delivery) out there that have been merrily monetizing for many years without a single hitch. So this particular view of things is really entirely beside the mark.
If it really were, why are so many people still getting upset about it? This is quite an easy one to counter: do a Google search e.g. for “cheap viagra” and look at the results. Repeat and rinse over a few days (feel free to check out similar spam prone niches) and you’ll get a pretty good indication of what’s actually going on behind the scenes.
Fact is that dumb black hat SEO isn’t as effective anymore as it used to be – but then, neither is white hat SEO. Ranking algorithms, web site architecture, design standards and the Web environment as a whole are changing all the time and search engine optimizers, regardless the flavor, have to adapt accordingly.
If people tell you that black hat SEO has lost its clout because the search engines have become ever so much smarter now (something, incidentally, that the likes of Matt Cutts would sooo love you to believe), you can safely bet the farm that they don’t know what they’re talking about in the first place. Simply harping on some old and worn techniques no serious black hat worth her salt would deploy these days anyway is plain daft.
No system is perfect and safe from exploits and the search engines are no exception. If there’s one group of SEOs eminently aware of this fact, it’s the black hats whose daily task is to check and test what will actually work or not. This makes THEM the cutting edge techies, the real avantgarde of search optimization, and not all those wimpy white hats whose sole idea of actionable SEO is abiding by the search engines’ whimsical (and more often than not outrageously ambiguous) webmaster guidelines.
This is essentially correct in theory, but for one it presupposes getting caught out in the first place; and even then you’ll want to take a long hard look at what will actually get banned i.e. removed from a search engine index.
Alright, if you’re deliberately and maliciously spamming the engines to promote your main money site, you may indeed run the risk of seeing it dropped forever, so spamming is nothing anyone in his right mind would ever recommend. However, that’s not at all what competent black hat SEOs will actually do. Rather, they’ll build and promote massive numbers of web sites, each highly optimized for specific key phrases.
This is quite true in general terms – but does it actually apply to your specific business model? If you’re a super duper Fortune 500 company concerned about branding and your public relations standing, you definitely don’t want to be outed for deploying blatant black hat SEO strategies.
(That’s not to say such corporations are beyond resorting to black hat SEO at all for whichever reason. Indeed there’ve been quite a few cases of this being heavily publicized in the past. Of course, the standard method of pursuant damage control is to neatly shift the blame onto some “unethical” SEO agency that was supposedly tasked with their campaigns …)
Most other online businesses, i.e. the vast majority, aren’t into branding and corporate image control at all.
They want to sell products or services, either their own or via affiliate links, and more often than not they’re not into repeat business built on ab immaculate reputation either.
To avoid detection, they can work with an array of different generic sites not tied up in any way to their core business entity – “doing business as” under various names and platforms.
And if such a site does get banned, they’ll simply create a few more or phase in some fallback replacements. (A classic black hat approach, by the way: lose one site and roll out ten more to replace it – see the scalability potential here? No way your run-of-the-mill white hat setup could ever hope to compete with such an automation driven brute force “mass makes class” approach …)
That’s like saying “a brick and mortar store is not a defensible business concept anymore”: even the most perfunctory reality check will expose this for the load of bull it actually is.
Because the basic rationale and the maths it prescribes are always the same: conduct a realistic risk-to-gain analysis, measure it against the resources actually at your disposal and work it out from there.
Here’s where it gets really interesting in our view. All major search engines have ramped up their editorial staff, having learned the hard way that fending off “search engine spam” cannot be done effectively in any reliable manner via automated algorithms alone. And while all such human labor intense efforts do not scale easily, making for a lot of un-monitored niches even now, today’s search engine optimizer does have to factor in manual reviews by human editorial staff nevertheless.
The most obvious solution here is automated generation of quality content: content that is human readable and grammatically correct, that is 100% unique, that makes sense to read and that features no footprints shouting “autogenned”. In short, it must be able to pass human editorial muster. These requirements will rule out markoved or scraped-and-shuffled content which has indeed lost a lot of its efficacy, even though it can still be deployed to great advantage within specific scenarios. It also precludes the use of automatic synonymizers and similar commonly available automatic article rewriting software, none of which has mastered the required degree of linguistic sophistication to date.