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Google Penguin and Black Hat SEO

May 3rd, 2012

 

By Clifton Tolboe

For our weekly ThoughLab SEO update we are going to focus on a topic that is easily misunderstood and widely abused – black hat SEO, sometimes called negative SEO and its effect (s) in relation to the most recent Google update known as Penguin. Black hat SEO ultimately has a number of descriptions and underpinnings that will be drastically effected in the new Penguin update. What we here at ThoughtLab feel is crucial for any website owner to understand, at a bare minimum, is the basics of what good SEO is, what bad SEO is and how to most effectively utilize SEO for their(read:your!) benefit while taking in to account all the most recent changes from the Penguin update . For anyone who is well versed with social media and into Twitter or search engine optimization (SEO) in general, the fact that there had been a huge deal made lately surrounding negative SEO may not come as a huge surprise, as Google made very clear the fact that they intended to deal with this very problem in the Penguin update. Technically speaking, recently has been a lot of discussion of black hat SEO (negative SEO), particularly the method of using backlinks to bring down sites. “I don’t want my site to be brought down by my evil competition” is an understandable response to this worrisome problem. Alas, I will have some solutions to combat the problem however, it is of the utmost importance that firstly, we develop a basic understanding of what black hat SEO is, its’ different types and how the most recent( April 26) Google update effects it.

The Basics: the idea behind black hat SEO is that rather than doing positive things that will promote signals in the search engines that boost your rankings, there are ways to do negative things that will hurt your results as well. Now, obviously anyone could do these things to their own competitor’s sites, but hopefully after reading this article you’re smart enough to realize the serious consequences that lurk from a black hat derived SEO strategy- especially with the Penguin now running the show. Realize though, that there may be things that other site owners, webmasters, marketers, black hat SEO’ ers, spammers, and even people doing very illegal things (mostly we’re talking about black hat SEO’ers) are doing to take down a websites- even after the Penguin update.

Now since every knowledge base needs context and foundation we will begin with how black hat originated. What we are talking about here are classic types of attacks- malware, hacks, and injections. Firstly, let’s begin with a hypothetical situation: you’ve got your website, it has some pages, and hackers may or may not find security vulnerabilities within your site(probably through FTP logins). It may be a WordPress site, a Joomla template, a low end site like Intuit or One&One or even a high end custom designed project specific CMS (content management system) like we do here at ThoughtLab . For example, we have had hackers essentially come and try to inject spam and malware onto this very blog at: http://www.thoughtlab.com/blog/ the idea for the hacker here is that they inject spam or links into the website granting them access to the CMS- now Google has spoken up and included a defense within Penguin to defeat these types attacks but that is not to say that hackers and black hatters will not figure out a way around these open source defenses soon . Ultimately, what can happen here is unauthorized access to make changes to your site. At ThoughtLab we have designed a proprietary CMS system that thwarts such basic attacks but many sites and their CMS systems could still be vulnerable to this type of hostile takeover. An example of this is someone going and editing the robots.txt file on the pages within your site to block a Google bot from crawling at all or to simply restrict all IPs from a certain IP range. What that’s going to do is take your site out of the search engines results que entirely!

Recently and unfortunately, I was visiting a competitors website, one of which we admire very much and was shocked to discover some spammers had injected some vicious malware on that site. What we saw was an automatic download giving the visitor a bug(virus!) and only sometimes did Microsoft Security Essentials (for PC users)catch and alert users that it happened! This is something that is very dangerous and that must be watched for. The best solution here might be to simply close those security holes all together by investing in a more robust CMS(read:ThoughtLabs;).

Another category of virulent black hat attack that was not addressed in the Penguin update are known as spam reporting attacks. Sometimes in the SEO world SEO’ers will do manipulative kinds of link building; obviously, you would never do anything like this right? Maybe, you would try the common practice of buy a few directory listings. You know when you go on the directory pages (such as Fiverr, or Yahoo Dir) and buy you some cheap links- problem is that the Google algorithm does not like paid links- in fact in the most recent update for Google (Penguin)paid links were further reduced in value! Listen, we understand-basically you wasted all you time doing the mind numbing task of filling out contact form online (yuck!)- maybe next time you should leave heavy lifting to the Pros?.

Really what you’re doing when you are paid link building after the Penguin update is something that is in the grey hat/black hat area borderline (In terms of link acquisition, and sometimes you will see that your competitors report you). What a competitor’s IT guy’s going to do is going to go over to Google and leave a threat at the webmaster forums, or he’ll/she’ll send it through a spam report in his Google Webmaster Tools. A lot of this spam reporting (Google recently said in April that they receives tens of thousands of spam reports each month, which is actually, fewer people than I’d expect) is made up of a lot of people who spend their time reporting spam to Google; these may even be your competitors!

When enough stir has been generated (your competition complained loud!) Google might take a closer look at your site backlinks, and this might bring you down in rank. Now there are arguments about the actual ethics of this practice by Google and inside the search engine industry in general. Personally, I think that removing low quality crap from the Internet is all of our jobs, and I like to be part of that. I think that it’s a good thing to make the Internet a better place, and if you’re not making the Internet a better place, then you are not part of the solution-you are part of the problem!

The last negative tactic I want to talk about is actually the most important, the most salient and relevant to what we’ve been talking about today. That is pointing nasty links (XXX) to your website- something that the Penguin update fails to address concisely. Now this has been something that many online marketing experts have been discussing actively over the last couple of weeks, essentially kicked off by a forum thread that is populated by very active SEO’ers, webmasters and by a wide mix of white hat folks, grey hat folks and some pretty dark black hat folks as well.

Recently two professional SEO’ers were in a web forum I have been monitoring on SEO (respectively, known as JLamb and Discrete) discussing recent black SEO attacks on two different websites. One is called SEOFastStart.com, that’s owned by a gentleman named Dan Thies. Dan is an early keyword research guru in the SEO space, and is a big industry mover and shaker. Dan spoke at a lot of the early search engine strategies conferences and seems to be a solid guy. What seems to have happened was that Dan complimented Matt Cutts, the Google web spam Chief- on the search quality team, problem with this was that he complimented him very publically over Twitter (on knocking out some spam)- everyone saw this tweet and re-tweeted it like wild fire. Many people on the forum felt that it was, basically (snitch!), in poor taste. Essentially, they felt that because he was being complimentary to Google for kicking out web spam- specifically on his own site (and being a snitch), he should then be the target(victim?) of black hat SEO. The site was hit by a type of black hat SEO company, which essentially is a website only offering services to get someone banned from the search engine- now that is would definitely put a damper on any business!

Now the thing that’s interesting about the hit on Dan’s site and Dan admitted this about SEOFastStart.com in his own blog was the speed at which ranking were lost. When the word ‘hit’ is used by an SEO’er essentially, what they are saying is that your website may have some nice white hat- editorially given articles, earned links, high quality stuff, and that’s great- but you should be expecting a dark cloud of black hattery; spam, bad links, farmed, porn posts that are going to negatively affecting your search to wipe out any benefit that the white hat SEO may have had. Dan and the experts talked about a number of things regarding black and white hattery in the forum, XRumer blasts (XRumer is a black hat SEO program that is able to successfully register forum spam with the aim of boosting search engine rankings.), buying links on Fiverr( the $5 site), buying links from link networks, pointing links that had been hit on other sites and essentially triggering loss of rank. Now, they didn’t get the sites 100% banned from the index, but they fell far- Dan Thies’ site in particular fell from ranking of #1 to around number 50-60 (REVENUE = fizzle). Again Google has said that in the Penguin update they have addressed this with some counter measures in the algorithm but unfortunately it appears to still be occurring.

Another example of a forum thread regarding a hit website was about the site JustGoodCars.com and was started by a user with the user name, Black hat SEO. The lesson here is that if you play with fire you might be burned- Just Good Cars, unfortunately, were doing things that might be construed as manipulative to search engines, prior to this attack on them by the Black hat SEO guy. Some of the links were of questionable sources or questionable as to how links were acquired. Basically link farming or regurgitating links for the benefit of traffic to a site. This guy took it upon himself to say; well they were trying to sham the system- I will show them! I guess this website had been complaining in the Google webmaster forums about some other sites outranking them. Black hat SEO guy saw this and took it upon themselves to do some pretty nasty stuff. Now we do not support this type of SEO in anyway here at ThoughtLab but we are vigilantly staying abreast of the neer doings of others in the SEO world to insure that these types of attacks are not happening to us or our clients(are you?). It is frustrating that, unfortunately, this is a part of the SEO landscape however; it is important that all website owners are aware of what is going on in this vertical- If only because what they did was certainly creative, almost to the point of ingenuity, but definitely amoral- maybe even borderline illegal ultimately depending on legalities (and who you ask!).

Now here is a small sample of what a typical conversation looks like in one of these SEO centric forums- now I cannot prove that they actually did these things(I bet they did!) however, here’s what they said they did. “Manipulative, nasty back linking to the website from a lot of terrible businesses that 99.9% of people would not want their businesses or themselves linked to. They posted a lot of bad duplicate content. They set up fake Word Press blogs, essentially a spam blog, and then they re-posted the content that existed on JustGoodCars.com on tens of thousands of pages across the Web so that Google would undermine the search results drastically” This is only some of what was actually perpetrated on this website by the black hat SEO’ers (they were also attacked by fake review posts, which ultimately led Google to simply remove the site from results all together)This is a prime example of a strategy that could cost your business tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue and you should be earnest in your effort to insure that it does not happen to you.

Even more terrifying, is the action they took to send fake emails. Fake email accounts were set up by the hundreds with email addresses that looked like they came from Just Good Cars. These fake email accounts sent fake emails to websites that had posted good, solid editorial, saying “Hey, you should stop linking to this site. There are these problems with it and we’re requesting a DMCA take down action against it. Our attorneys will be in touch if you don’t remove your links.” Ouch!

Now, it’s very tough to verify anonymous users on an anonymous forum posting and whether all of this stuff actually happened, but certainly the ideas behind it are very concerning to say the least. What I want to express today is that there are some things you can do on your site that will make you higher risk and lower risk to these kinds of attacks.
So how can you and your sites avoid all this trouble? Simple really-high risk SEO is something you should stay away from altogether. The black hat techniques many other sites utilize will eventually be punished by Google, Bing and the like. If you’ve already done a little bit of manipulative linking-stop it! If you’ve already done some spam stuff-stop it! If you have manipulative on-site stuff- again stop it! For example, Just Good Cars had the kind of footer where all these links were pointing to it and other spam (link farms) places. This fact was mentioned in the forum thread that began the war on Just Good Cars.

So lower risk is going to be the opposite-right? Not so fast, low risk does not mean that there is no risk- and really what is going on here is that you are flirting with fire. Don’t forget, everyone’s going to have some spam links- even if you’ve never done any manipulative linking or spamming. Keep in mind that marketing of any kind will lead you to have some bad back links- it’s the nature of the web. You see with the architecture of the web, there are all sorts of web crawler bots which basically automatically host links all over the place. Don’t worry-It’s fine those are not the ones you should be worried about; that is normal volume and even associated with sites that have a beautiful, elegant, high quality user experience. A great user experience is a fantastic defense against a lot of spam and manipulation (It’s also smart for peeps who are trying to do economic SEO). Having a great user experience is a plus for more conversions and more people using your site. Anyone who is browsing your website, say, from the Google Search Quality team or the web spam team, or from Bing are going to say, “Wow- that’s a cools website we want to make sure that this is soundly ranked in our index”

Finally, the other positive white hat SEO technique you should pay attention to is having those strong brand signals- or branded searches. Basically, lots of people searching for your company brand name specifically. This provides good links, good mentions, good press, good user and usage metrics, really all the best stuff that can be put out to benefit your website in the search results!

This is not to scare any entrepreneurs awry but to inform them of the potentially nasty stuff that other people and competitors can do to an existing site. Want to stay on top? Follow these 3 rules:

1.Keep your eyes wide open.

2.Make sure you’re registered with Google Webmaster Tools so you can get any of these warnings ahead of time. If you see, “Hey, we don’t know where these came from and we have nothing to do with this.” Take action! We just want you guys to know that this is not our activity. Please feel free to disregard or not count these links.”

3. Keep in mind that 99% of the time Google is not going to say, “Oh these bad links that are pointing to you, we’re going to count those as reducing your SEO and bringing you down in the rankings.” They’re instead going to say, “Oh well, we’re going to ignore these. We’re going to remove the value that these pass.” They’re not going to pass PageRank or anchor text value or link trust, or whatever it is. We’re just going to count the good stuff.

I remember being in a session a while back with one an SEO grandmasters who was well connected with at Google. He viewed a website on his old PC and showed it to all of us in the room (one person had asked about their website), and he said, “I see, 14,000 odd links pointing to this site, but Google’s actually only counting about 30 of them. That’s why you’re not ranking very well.” Most of those links have removed any value that they could pass. So it’s not that having those bad links hurt the site. It’s just that they’re saying, “Oh these are not going to pass any link value”- which hurt the site!

Now, what I would suggest here is, if you see stuff that looks like manipulative and black hat SEO, you just steer clear. We are in the process here at ThoughtLab of developing some in house proprietary things to help with this. One of the things is a system to simplify conducting truly white hat SEO- generating high quality content, media and releasing that content to high quality channels. Another is to flag areas that we’re pretty sure are spam nation. We are even running experiments on our own blog to see just what we can learn to put into our clients business SEO strategies- now that’s what I would call a well Thought(Lab) strategy!