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The Difference Between Black Hat SEO and Bad SEO

Mark Jackson
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With all the recent fuss over what went down with JCPenney's search engine optimization (SEO) initiatives, people are freaking out.

Not too long after the news broke, a Forbes blogger posted "One CEO's Experience: Yes, You Can Accidentally Hire a Black Hat SEO". Wow, that's a scary title. Should be good for driving some pageviews and ad revenue.

Here's an excerpt:

Thus Joe Silverman, CEO of New York Computer Help, an IT outsourced service company, found himself several years ago embroiled with a black hat SEO firm that, unbeknownst to him, exchanged links with non-related websites. "There were sports and apparel company websites that had our website link on it, boosting our ranking in a non-Google policy-like fashion," he tells Selling It. "At the time, we had no clue what the black hat SEO company was doing until one day, our ranking dropped significantly." Silverman then hired an SEO company that used white hat techniques to untangle the unrelated links and the subsequent damage it caused. The process, he says, took years.

Wow! They exchanged links with non-related Web sites.

Ouch. That's some pretty wicked black hat going on there.

Sense any sarcasm there? You should. Black hat to me is cloaking, hidden text, hacking sites for links, and redirecting traffic via hacks.

There's a difference between black hat SEO and what I believe happened with JCPenney, which is just bad SEO.

The History of Link Exchanges

When I first started in the search space (February 2000), everyone was exchanging links (this stuff is still going on today). "I linked to your Web site, now you link to mine."

Some would try and exchange links with folks who were in complementary business, and some would even exchange links with direct competitors.

Some were link whores (pardon me; no other word seemed descriptive enough) who would exchange links with all-comers. "You have a website with a links page? I'll link to you, and hope that you'll link back to me."

And on it went. Until the search engines got smarter.

Their algorithms started accounting for this. They could see that the relationship here was a system whose only meaning in existence was to further someone's search engine rankings.

There was virtually no value to the visitor. In many cases, these links pages were buried within the site architecture, and it was patently obvious that the only purpose was to try and grow inbound links so that their Web site would eventually rank better.

For several years now, good SEOs have been working toward creating compelling reasons/methods to generate one-way (not "reciprocal") links to a website to advance their search rankings/traffic.

Link Schemes

Some of these "perfectly acceptable methods" of generating one-way links seem a little "iffy" to me, if you read Google's guidelines on link schemes closely enough.

My take away is that the "link scheme" from the Forbes blog post isn't something that will get your site banned. However, if the link building effort is poor (exchanging links is, generally speaking, not a great approach to building your link profile), it's certainly not helpful.

However, the one thing that is hotly discussed among SEOs is the "buying or selling links that pass PageRank."

Time to Take a Poll

I want every SEO reading this to take the 10 seconds and answer this:

Who here has ever recommended to a client, or to a Web site owner, that they buy a directory listing?

Poll:

I recommended a directory listing because:

  • It's a good link for SEO purposes.

  • The traffic value for the money was a good investment.

  • Both.

Be honest. Have you reviewed your analytics to see how much traffic you get from a directory listing? Have you compared this with what you might pay on a per-click basis for traffic from your "best performing keyword" on AdWords?

I can't think of a single case when a directory listing generated -- by itself -- a direct positive ROI. Without the link value, I wouldn't be recommending it. The nice thing about directory listings is that you can always find a relevant page to get a link from (that's what it's all about after all, right?).

I understand that what went down with JCPenney's link "scheme" was over the top. And, I'm not telling you to go out and buy links (though there are many companies doing this and generating a ton of traffic because they are).

But, many would argue that even "acceptable" means of generating links are "paid links," such as directories, press release writing/distribution, widget development/social promotion (time is money), and on and on.

Overstock: Extra 10% Off for EDU Links

Just this week, Overstock was penalized for extending discounts of up to 10 percent to universities/students/faculty who wrote posts that "happen to contain keywords in the anchor text of links." Not only is this against Google's guidelines, but it's also against the Federal Trade Commission's Guidelines; this link will take you to an article regarding a company which is helping with FTC disclosure issues.

Some might say that, so long as there's disclosure as to what's going on, this should be perfectly legit. Google's rules say we should "create unique, relevant content that can quickly gain popularity in the Internet community."

So, is promotion of "product discount opportunities" what is defined as "unique, relevant content"? It's obvious that the Internet community believed this to be "popular" and hence drove a ton of links to Overstock.

Good marketing? Or, bad/too aggressive link building?

Win Links the "White Hat" Way

Perhaps the best rule here is "slow and steady wins the race" (even though that's not always the case, at least you won't get busted). Perhaps another rule is "if it seems too easy, it's probably black hat" (except for those "paid directory links," right?).

For now, the safest way to build up trust/links for your Web site is to create good, unique, resourceful/helpful content (perhaps through a blog), promote your blog via social channels (be sure that you're connected with many in your industry, or your target audience), and try to win links the "white hat" way.

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