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In Search [Episode 31]: Black Hat SEO Beyond the Taboo

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The In Search SEO Podcast Community Question of the Week!

SEO Community Question #31

When sites take on black hat SEO tactics how do you stay competitive and adhere to Google's guidelines at the same time? 


Summary of Episode 31: The In Search SEO Podcast 

In Search SEO Banner 31

Today we speak with Glasgow’s most prominent SEO expert, the straight-talkin' Craig Campbell about the myths of black hat SEO:

  • Can black hat SEO techniques be effective if done properly?
  • Where are the lines between white hat and black hat SEO?
  • Is black hat SEO's bad reputation justified? Is it really "immoral?”

Plus, we look at a new level of customization on the Google SERP!

Are We Seeing the Start of Customizable SERPs? [02:26 - 14:10] 

As spotted by Valentin Pletzer, Google was running a Local Pack test that let you choose which sub-area you wanted Local Pack results for.

That meant you had the ability to select a specific location from an array of areas that were all within a few square miles of each other!

While this may not sound earth-shattering there is a tremendous amount of significance to this because you can expect this sort of thing to be all over the SERP in the future… as Mordy recommended to Google!

A few months ago Mordy wrote a post showing where Google’s super awesome, super specific, multi-targeted intent showing doesn’t always work.

The idea, in a nutshell, is that when the various intents on the SERP are related, Google can’t go wrong with targeting as many intents as it feels is advantageous, but when the intents don’t relate… cry havoc!!!

When the intents that Google tends to target are unrelated there is a certain amount of ‘user disconnect’. For example, Mordy ran a query related to ‘Notebook’ and he had all sorts of results for the movie The Notebook, computer notebooks, and paper notebooks. The results were quite diverse and catered to multiple user profiles…. Except, when that happens, no one user has enough results on the SERP to really satisfy them and the SERP gives off the impression that Google is a bit all over the place.

Mordy, actually, had a recommendation in these cases…. That Google show large cards at the top of the SERP or as an overlay (or whatever other formats would work) that lets the user CHOOSE which intent they are interested in. In this case, a large visual card to let you choose The Notebook movie and see results only about that, and other cards to let you choose to buy a notebook, or buy a notebook computer, and so forth.

This way Google can target multiple intents and not offer diluted results. It’s kind of like the Disambiguation Box on steroids!

So this idea of Mordy’s is very similar to the Local Pack letting you choose your own area test. And that’s big news!

While the formats for both are not exactly parallel the concept is the same: let the user choose their own search direction.

And this makes 100% sense. Why wouldn’t Google do this and go deeper into this "functionality”? What do you lose by letting the user choose their own path? Nothing!

In fact, Bing’s been doing this for a while with their version of Featured Snippets which offer multiple answers from multiple perspectives and where the user can choose what answer they like for themselves.

However, Mordy doesn’t think Google will go this way when it comes to their own Featured Snippets. They could if they wanted. The closest thing they have are the Multi-faceted Featured Snippets where you have one snippet atop a second snippet serving to answer a follow-up question (best way to explain it in the shortest amount of words).

Why wouldn’t Google do this with the Featured Snippet? Mordy thinks Google sees things like Featured Snippets as a way to build authority. We just spoke last week with Alli Berry about how sites can build authority. Google wants to build authority for itself too, very badly in fact. Having a top spot answer, like a Featured Snippet, is a way for them to come off as "Hey, we got this. We know it all. We have the answers for you.” Showing a diverse set of URLs and content within the Featured Snippet doesn’t work from an authority perspective as it’s more of a user empowerment model. And we’re not saying one is better than the other. We’re just saying why we think users choosing what gets onto the SERP will continue, but not vis-a-vis the Featured Snippet.

If Mordy is right, this would have huge implications on the world of SEO. We’re talking about hyper-personalized results where you can rank #1 for a keyword in one case and #100 in another for the same keyword!!! That changes a lot of things from how you approach your content to how to track your progress. It’s enough to make your head explode thinking about it.

The Truths, Myths, and Misconceptions of Black Hat SEO: A Conversation with Craig Campbell [14:10 - 59:32]


[This is a general summary of the interview and not a word for word transcript. You can listen to the podcast for the full interview.]

Mordy: Welcome to the In Search SEO Podcast interview. This is a first on the show as I am sitting, live and in the flesh, with the renowned Craig Campbell of... well, everywhere: Conferences, courses, webinars, and of course his SEO consulting services. Craig, do you sleep?

Craig: Sometimes. Not unless my baby will.

M: He’s four-months-old, correct?

C: Correct.

M: So you don’t sleep. I know how you feel. So I have to ask, do you change diapers?

C: I’ve done one before and it was a #1. I haven’t done #2s.

M: I envy you. As a father of four, I envy you. You are my hero.

So we’re here to talk about black hat SEO but first a disclaimer. Here at Rank Ranger, we do not endorse any black hat SEO tactics. We are merely talking about it as it is part of the overall SEO conversation and we need to talk about it.

Just so we’re all on the same page, what is black hat SEO and how does it differ from white hat SEO?

C: I’m not a big fan of the term black hat SEO. People say I do black hat SEO because I do a lot of affiliate marketing and I push the boundaries more than I would a client’s website.

Obviously, you’ve got your PR and all the other stuff you do for outreach like building your website, PR, outreach, and link building, but for me who does affiliate marketing, they see my sneaky tricks as black hat. What I am not is some dodgy spammer who puts 20 websites on a shared hosting account and link everything together which will leave massive footprints so Google can slap me. That’s black hat SEO as far as I’m concerned. Very shoddy, automated, and crappy work. I wouldn’t consider myself black hat SEO as I try to cover my footprints and I try to do things with a mixture of legitimacy but people automatically just assume that I’m doing spammy crap work. Black hat SEO is automated tools, getting bots, and all this weird stuff. It’s about doing things and seeing what gets penalties and what doesn’t. It’s about understanding how far you can push Google.

With my affiliate marketing website, I like to play a few games with Google. It’s just like life, it’s one big game. We all like to be Mr. Nice and do white hat but sometimes you would like a beer. It’s no different when you’re doing something that you know is naughty. Maybe you shouldn’t have that beer today, but that wouldn’t be as much fun.

M: So I assume that you think the terms black and white hat don’t do anyone any service.

C: And the reason is because there are so many white hat people out there who do black hat stuff but don’t admit it or they think because of who they are it’s not black hat.

It’s all a matter of opinion. What you call black hat may not be what I call black hat. Who cares what hat you’re wearing? If you’re making money and your sites are ranking well then call it whatever you like. Then you have these guys who are playing the PR card, putting on the white hat, being squeaky clean, and all that stuff, but it’s all a sales pitch. These guys aren’t actually doing white hat SEO.

M: And that’s really the point. It's a conversation that you need to know. You need to know what both sides are. You need to be able to have the intellectual honesty to say, "Okay, this is what works for my site and this doesn’t.”

With that, there is a perception that if you "go black hat” it’s because you’re a disgusting cheater who wants to game the system.

M: Are there legitimate reasons why honest people should take on black hat SEO tactics?

C: 100%. When you’re operating in very competitive niches and your competition are doing these naughty things you have the choice to play the game or don’t play and sit behind those guys.

Everything in life is about competition and if your competition is doing something very well and is making lots of money, whether it’s spending a lot of money like buying links or whatever, you have to follow suit or you won’t be a challenge at the table. At the end of the day, ranking well for your queries is where the money is at. There are a lot of businesses who won’t do it because of all the scaremongering going on online, that you will be penalized for this and that. If you get the metrics right, if you do a little bit of this and that, then the balance will be right that Google won’t come down on you.

When you pay a PR agency about 20 grand a month, the chances that money is all going to be squeaky clean is impossible. What’s more black hat is that agency putting 15 grand of that 20 grand budget and putting it in the back pocket of all the directors and spending 5 grand across content links, cost tools, and research. To me, that’s more black hat than me potentially paying a guy to do some outreach or pay a guy for links.

M: There are some really crappy SEO tactics. How do you separate the bad tactics from the ones that although they go against the Google guidelines can be a reasonable way to act with your site?

C: You’re right, they are some crappy ones out there like doing blog comments where it’s quite easy for them to ban you or ignore them. You can be wasting a lot of time doing that.

You have to basically feed Google what it wants and what it wants is content. Let’s be honest, you can do your site audit, site speed, or clickthrough rate, and they could elevate your positions slightly but to really get up there you need to buy links. For me, most people have to buy links whether that’s niche edits or the painful niche where they believe someone is actually outreaching to websites and going to mommy bloggers. But the real truth is people are paying mommy bloggers 50 quid and getting a 500-word spun article placed on with a link. I don’t see much wrong with that. Getting the spun article is probably not good. What you want is to get it indexed and do it a little better.

At the end of the day, we need links and we need content and good on-page SEO. And investigating isn’t that hard. How you get those links is where you prepare to go to bribe the guy or schmooze him. I’ve had guys take me for beers, I’ve had guys buying me steak. Everything to get a shout out or promote the tool.

M: How were those beers by the way?

C: Those beers were very nice.

M: I want to talk about the effectiveness of black hat SEO. You hear in the white hat community that the effectiveness of black hat doesn’t really work. There is a 2017 Search Engine Land article that stated, "PBNs usually provide little to no long-term value to the websites they are linking to.” However, you don’t think so. Why?

C: I’ve made a lot of money from PBNs. Look, there are PBNs and then there are PBNs. There are guys with PBNs on shared servers at a real low cost and I wouldn’t call that a PBN. As far as I’m concerned a PBN is a real website whether I use it for link generation, AdSense, or Amazon affiliate. That’s what my PBN consists of: real website, real traffic, real metrics, that have their own backlink profile, that’s not some shady domain name that’s expired that’s been fired up by the way back machine and slapped on to some crazy hosting account alongside 20 other websites.

So there’s a PBN and a real PBN and that’s the difference.

M: And that’s exactly why I wanted to do this interview because there are so many taboos about this and there really shouldn’t be to a certain extent.

Let me ask a strategic question. How do you keep the costs down if you’re doing this at mass scale?

C: Before we recorded, we were just talking about using a site like rev.com to transcribe this podcast and I can then turn it into a blog and that would only cost me $30. Now I have 5000 words of great quality content. Scaling can be done in a million ways. Using sites like rev.com, or you can outsource work to the Philippines. There’s a lot of cheap labor out there. I won’t say to scale up your content by going to the Philippines because English isn’t their first language and it’s going to be crappy content. But certain parts of the process can be outsourced for $200-300 a month. Personally, I have two Armenian content writers and the cost of labor is a lot cheaper than the UK. I can have five staff in Armenia for the price of two or three staff in the UK. To work at scale you have to think of alternative opportunities.

M: I wouldn’t even call this a black hat topic as many major companies do outsourcing.

C: Yeah, I mean the price of living in Thailand is so cheap.

M: Yeah, and you’re helping them out for doing this.

C: Exactly. That’s how you got to see it.

M: This is a question I have to ask. Won’t Google penalize if you take on black hat SEO tactics?

C: No. If you avoid leaving massive footprints whether you’re building PBNs, you’re buying domain names, you’re hiding your WHOIS, mixing that stuff up with fake personas, you’re buying hosting accounts with prepaid credit cards, or whatever steps you do to avoid any kind of trace back to you will go a long way to helping you evade Google.

I guess they may catch me one day but so far they haven’t. I may not be big enough to be on their radar because I think there are other guys who are doing this on a more serious level.

M: Well after this podcast who knows?

C: Yeah, right. For me, the biggest way people make mistakes is cost. I’d rather pay for a shared hosting account than for ten individual hosting accounts as I’d be saving money. You have to speculate and spend the money in the right places. To do these types of tactics you have to pay for the right stuff which is where people make mistakes.

M: Let’s jump to SEO morality. If there is such a thing as SEO morality, where does black hat SEO fit in that? And I’m not talking about buying 100 links for $100, that’s just stupid. I mean actual tactics. Do you think that’s fair? Should there be a moral stigma when breaking Google’s guidelines?

C: I think it’s absurd. When you’re talking about morality I could tell you some of the tricks guys I know play and these guys have no morals whatsoever. I think the dirtier it gets the more chances of success you get. The fewer morals you have the more chances you have of winning. That’s just my honest opinion. If you want to be moral you should do white hat SEO.

M: Okay, so some people say that doing black hat SEO is fine because pragmatically that’s just what you have to do. If I understand correctly, what you’re saying is that Google’s guidelines are not a moral compass at all. It’s your site and you can do whatever you want.

C: Right. I have my own affiliate website. I’m not going to bow down to what Google says on what I should or shouldn’t do. I’m sure we have all heard of examples of where Google said one thing and they contradicted themselves on something they said previously.

You have guys out there who are A/B testing all the time, who leak that stuff out all the time, that’s just an outrageous lie.

Google doesn’t want us to game their system and will try to stop people here and there to stop the masses from gaming the system.

I’m going to make this clear that tagging your images probably doesn’t have much of an impact but Google will probably say it doesn’t because they don’t want everyone to tag their images if that was going to be the next big thing that will get people to rank well.

You have to think in Google’s shoes. Use your common sense. Would you use guys to try and throw people off the track? You need to take a step back and ask if that makes sense and if you should be testing as well. And speak to other people in the industry who will tell you what works and what doesn’t.

M: You’re right. People forget that Google’s guidelines aren’t for the whole web, it’s for their search engine, yet there are many other search engines out there. Google’s guidelines are for your site to show up in their results and your site is YOURS. How you choose to go about practices on your site is your business. Google’s guidelines and your site structure should be two different things. Remember that Google will want x,y, and z because it’s good for Google, but the question is whether that is good for your site.

C: Let me put this question to you. Say I make money as an Amazon affiliate doing some sketchy tactics. Does anyone think for a second that I only want to make money for one or two months by doing something dodgy to get myself penalized? Absolutely not. I’m in my thirties and I need money for my family and kids’ education so I’m not going to do anything that’s going to jeopardize my income. But what I will do is do more than the next guy who is killing that niche. That’s the game we have to play and that’s the thing I’m prepared to put on the line.

And this is for my personal website but a client may not want to play that game and that’s perfectly their choice. As far as I’m concerned I will push, push, and push until I win.

As an SEO who does black hat SEO my job is not to see how quickly I can get penalized. It’s how long can I make this money because I want to live a good and easy life.

M: Let me ask a controversial question then. Do you feel that Google is the one pushing for this? If Google were a little more dynamic in their understanding of what an SEO needs in order to survive, would it be a little less rigid and would it ease up on rigidity by creating an environment where black hat SEO wasn’t needed or as taboo as it is in the current construct? In other words, is Google causing their own problems?

C: Yeah. They should wide-release patents or guidelines and tell people how it works if you don’t want people to game the system. At the end of the day, whether we play a game online on PlayStation or whatever, someone wants to game that thing to win. Whether it is getting the most coins or being the number 1 ranked on the game you’re playing. I play Fifa, and you can waste your time getting coins in the game or you can buy them off some hooky guy off the internet. It’s more fun to just buy the coins and have all the base players.

There’s always going to be a way to get around things. If I told you that you can’t have another beer tonight you will find a way to get another beer. Similarly, with Google, they tell us that you can’t do this and then you do it. I think Google is causing their own problems by saying you can’t do this. As a human being, we don’t like being told what to do so people will try to break the system.

M: Wow. I do want the audience to think for a second that the way things are, and no fault to Google themselves, is due to the way Google constructs things and due to the way human nature is. There shouldn’t be that stigma or taboo of doing x,y, and z in order to survive. There shouldn’t be any judgment about it. There is no reason to be aggressively argumentative with someone who disagrees with you on this.

C: Yeah. People have been aggressively in my face at conferences. There’s no need for it in the world. We can disagree with each other and if you do disagree let’s have the debate online. At least back up what you’re saying with stats and facts. That way I can learn from it and you can learn from it.

M: Right, as I said, Rank Ranger doesn’t agree with black hat SEO but it is a conversation that’s important to have.

C: Yeah. People have to learn, make their own decisions, and implement. Even if it’s a small bit of black hat strategy or nothing at all.

M: This brings me to my last question. Doesn’t everyone game the system? For example, on this very podcast we’re going to link to your website in our post. We don’t have to. I could just mention it, or I could leave it out entirely, but we are going to because it’s common courtesy. We’re setting up an exchange: I get a great guest, you get some exposure and a link or two. And that’s normal, everyone does it… but is it 100% legit?

C: Yes, Google’s guidelines will say that building any links is against their terms of service, but the number one ranking factor out there is link building. It’s a contradiction. You can’t tell me to drink water instead of beer because it’s bad for you and then start pouring beer down my throat. It’s insane.

As I say, do what you feel is right and take insights from what I say or whatever anyone else says, including Google, and do what you want with it. Try it out. And if you make some money you may come back to me and say, "You know what. I think I should have bent a few rules here and there.”

M: Where does "gray hat SEO” fit into all of this for you?

C: No one cares. Again, it’s up to personal opinion. If you want a "PC” answer, it’s somewhere between black hat and white hat where you’re doing a few hooky tricks. But that’s all bull as we’re always doing tricks and you can call it whatever you want. As long as I’m making money.

Optimize It or Disavow It

M: Assuming you need to do one or the other, would you stuff a page with keywords or write a really slick click-bait title? Which is the lesser of the two evils?

C: As far as I’m concerned click-through rate is a ranking factor so I would choose the click-bait title. Keyword stuffing ain’t happening. Click-bait titles work for the general public as most guys out there aren’t computer literate or web-savvy.

M: Thank you, Craig, for coming on to the podcast. That was beyond entertaining, interesting, and insightful.

C: Thank you. Been a pleasure.

SEO News [01:01:28 -  01:04:57]

Google Bug on AMP Pages: There was another Google bug. This time, when on an AMP page, the link to go to the site itself did not work.

Google Bug in Maps: Another bug seems to be resulting in users seeing a redirect notice when clicking on the site within the Local Panel.

Search Console Adds More Days of Data: Search Console’s overview report now shows 90 days worth of data by default, not 28.

New Google Search Bar Menu: After extensive testing, Google has officially changed the menu bar on the desktop SERP. The menu now contains heading names next to icons.

Fun SEO Send-Off Question [01:04:57 - 01:07:44]

If Google had their own breakfast cereal, what would it be called?

Sapir suggested Google Crunch as she loves Captain Crunch. Mordy thought Alg-O’s would be a clever cereal name. Get it? Alg-O’s, like algorithms?

Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast.

About The Author
In Search is a weekly SEO podcast featuring some of the biggest names in the search marketing industry.

Tune in to hear pure SEO insights with a ton of personality!

New episodes are released each Tuesday!

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