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Confessions of a Black Hat SEO: There is a limit to what I will do!

I have been known since the early days of search as a “black hat SEO”. I have always been preaching “No Limit Marketing” – do whatever it takes to reach your goals. However, in recent years I have found my limits. There are things I just won’t do anymore …

One of my all time favourite marketing books is Marketing Warfare by Al Ries and Jack Trout. This book basically takes 2000 years of military strategies and applies it to modern marketing. Marketing is a war where the enemy is the competition and the customer is the ground to be won. It’s a very good book.

My work with SEO has very much been influenced by the strategies and ideas in Marketing Warfare. If you don’t intend to win a fight – don’t fight it. There are no medals for losing a battle.

Applied to SEO this means that if the search engines want some specially optimized texts then fine – we cloak it for them. If the search engines want links – cool, we buy them or get them whatever way we can. And if the search engines value our social imprint – fine, we fake it.

As an old school Black Hat SEO you just have one thing in focus: Win the battle! Get those rankings anyway you can – as long as it is legal.

Just like in war there are rules and laws that limit what you are allowed to do. But even within those limits – and especially in the “grey” areas close to the borders of the limits, there may be things you probably should not do. I realized this after many years of practising and preaching “No Limit Marketing”.

There are no valid excuses for drive by shootings!

For me personally the change began when I first heard the stories of how private non-commercial websites got “killed” by comment spam executed by aggressive Black Hat SEO’s – as totally innocent bystanders in a drive by shooting.

Links are very important for SEO. We all know that. One of the ways to get links is by posting comments and links on sites that allows it. This can be more or less automated and applied more or less intelligently. The cheap way is to just blast comments out all over the web – like sending out millions or billions of spam-emails.

The first story that came to my attention was from a good friend Mike Grehan. He wrote about how a memorial site for a dead friend had to close down because of comment spam. Then another good friend of mine, Danny Sullivan, wrote about how his wife had to close down a small community site she had from comment spam too.

That’s just not fair! It’s not right.

We need the grass roots of the web!

You could of course argue that the two site owners could have set up proper comment spam protection. And yes, they could (if they knew how), but that’s really beside the point. Killing those sites is not fair no matter how you put it. They did not do anything wrong. They are not part of our “war” to win search engine rankings and business. They are innocent bystanders.

A lot of these small websites are driven by people with very limited technical skills and resources. And isn’t that part of what’s so great about the web? I mean, I for one really like the fact that the web has given many more people an easy and cheap way to get their thoughts out to the world and connect with like-minded people – no matter where they are, how skilled and wealthy they are. It’s a very important part of the web. The grass roots of the web.

I admit it – I was wrong!

The stories from Mike and Danny made me think …

Maybe I have been wrong. Maybe there is a limit to what you should do in marketing. Maybe “No Limit” is not the answer in all cases. Maybe marketing is not exactly like war …

I don’t mind putting up a fight with the search engines – if that’s what it takes to reach my goals. They are professional players in the game – or soldiers in the war.

The same thing can be said about all my competitors – competing for the same rankings, the same prospects and the same sales and business. They are professionals in the fight. They have chosen to go to war. If they can’t take the pain (of me beating them) then they shouldn’t play the game.

Be wealthy or smart!

Sometimes I get away with manipulating Google. Sometimes I don’t follow their guidelines. And sometimes I find ways to promote my own or clients’ websites on the expense of my competitors. I don’t have a problem with that.

The smartest marketers and the ones with most resources will always win the marketing war. Some lose and some win. Is it fair? Well, if you believe in the free market forces (within the limits of the law) I guess it is. And I do.

Sometimes the ones that are smartest win the marketing war. This is still true for a lot of organic web marketing (SEO, Social Media Marketing etc). Sometimes the ones with the biggest pockets win. This is true for some Search Engine Advertising (such as AdWords) – and a lot of offline marketing, such as TV advertising. So if you don’t have money – you need to be smarter.

If you are small business you probably can’t afford national TV advertising. If you are not as smart about SEO as I am – or can’t afford my (or other great colleagues’) help, then you probably won’t be able outrank us for your keywords.

However, many sites – like Mike’s and Danny’s, are not part of the professional game. They are not fighting for a prominent position on the web. They are just trying to be there. They are just using the web as a platform to communicate and interact. They are like innocent bystanders in a city at war.

Hackers have entered the SEO-game!

Another limit I have personally found in Black Hat SEO came after real hackers entered the SEO market big-time last year.

I am not a hacker – I am not at all smart enough for that. But over the past 1-2 years I have seen more and more evidence that hackers have found out how profitable SEO can be and how easy it is if you can hack and are ready to do it. And it’s much less risky or illegal compared to other revenue-driving activates hackers can engage in.

Hacking is not the same as Black Hat SEO. Let me make that clear! Hackers have clearly got inspired by Black Hat SEO’s but they do not respect the laws. That’s a huge difference!

Black Hat SEO’s may not respect the guidelines of search engines and they may fight competitors really hard – but they stay within the laws! Hackers break into other peoples properties, destroy and steal. That’s something totally different.

I would never do that and I will not recommend anyone doing it either – however tempting it might be. I know it sounds cool that you can buy links on prominent sites from Russian hackers but you are funding criminal activities by doing so and you are hurting others in an unfair way. Don’t do that!

Hackers entering the game has led to some confusion. Some people think hacking for marketing is just a natural extension of Black Hat SEO. I very much disagree. Being an aggressive marketer or a Black Hat SEO is absolutely not the same as being a criminal. I may be “naughty”, I may not respect standards or stupid rules – but I respect the laws and I abide by them.

Some people, such as Google’s Matt Cutts, have even suggested a new term to describe Black Hat SEO Hackers: “Craphats”. That is stupid in my mind. We don’t need a new word for hackers and criminals – we already have words for that! And we don’t need to fuel more confusion.

Of course, Google would like to see Black Hat SEO as some sort of criminal activity – but most of us know this is just a pure attempt at spinning their case. Fair enough (that they try) – but it’s not how it is.

I still reserve the right to fight – but with honour!

I reserve the right to fight really hard as a marketer and SEO to win the game. My job, as an SEO, is not to create a “better web” – certainly not the “better web” Google wants. My job is to market websites. And I do that well.

On the other hand it is not my job either to destroy the web – and especially not all those great little websites that make the web so great. I may have “enemies” that I want to “kill” in our marketing war – but just like in war, I should shoot on the other soldiers, not the innocent civilians!

So where exactly will my new borders be? What will I do and what will I not do? The correct answer is: I don’t know.

I will still think like a “Black Hat SEO”, I will still see marketing as a war – one I intend to win, and I will continue to seek new and adventurous ways of winning that war. My force is that I can be very creative – not that I have tons of money — and I intend to play that card as hard as I can.

But I will definitely think a lot more about what I do. I already do that now. I think about who will be affected by my actions and how.

I can’t give you a list of what I will and won’t do. I have to judge case by case based on my good morals and better understanding of how too-aggressive SEO can hurt innocent bystanders that just don’t deserve it.

If you hear me speak at conferences these days you will hear me defend my new standards. This may be a little different from what I said a few years back – do whatever it takes, and all that. Now its more like: Almost always do whatever it takes, but think before you act!

I hope all this makes some sense to you – especially if you, like me, have worked a lot in the “grey” areas of SEO. I hope “we Black Hats” (in spirit at least) can agree not to be assholes. Let’s show the world that there is a very clear line between good and creative Black Hat SEO’s and pure bastards, drive-by killers and hackers.



Skrevet af:

Mikkel deMib Svendsen er grundlægger af deMib.com og fungerer i det daglige som kreativ direktør.

Kommentarer (45)

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  1. Rosenstand siger:

    Well spoken, Mikkel. I agree: Let’s not hit the innocent.

  2. IrishWonder siger:

    Yup, and also one thing that always pissed me off is abusing strategies that work beyond any measure thus killing them both for yourself and everyone else. I can list a ton of examples over the last few years.

  3. Mikkel deMib Svendsen siger:

    Thanks – and yes, Irish I agree!

  4. Jan siger:

    Good post. I didn’t know you used to be such a bad guy, Mikkel :-)

  5. Very well put and very true. Lets just hope that more people get aware and follow the “rules”. :)

  6. I think everyone has a limit to what they do. While all of us might have a line in a different place it is very obvious that there are certain lines most will not cross in the quest for money.

  7. Kim siger:

    Well spoken, and amen to that :)

  8. Janno siger:

    Good ethics there Mikkel, and as Kim says “Well spoken”

  9. Heeren tanna siger:

    Really Good post. its okey not to follow rules made by someone in the business but you must have some ethics of your own

  10. Ani Lopez siger:

    “killers and hackers”, “hackers and criminals” wait a minute dear Mikkel, these kind of associations between those terms is what newspapers love because it sells but I would like to state clearly that a hacker is not a cracker, is someone investigating deep for knowledge not for money.

    the pursuit of knowledge and laws is an old story and quite a lot of times along history investigators had to step beyond laws to achieve it.

    it is funny, not to say ridiculous, to me mixing ‘black hat’ and ‘honour’ in example. it is not morality and honor, it is just pure business ans money in a world (search engines) with private rules, not public real ones.

    Black Hat SEOs can be assholes or not, thin or fat, tall or shot just as any other person. I don’t want to be misunderstood, as a simple person I respect ethics so I’m somehow with you but not the way you are getting to it.

    Regards

    • Mikkel deMib Svendsen siger:

      I am aware that references to war, killing and such shock some people. Apparently you. But read the book: Marketing Warefare and you’ll better understand why it makes sense to use those terms in marketing. It dosn’t mean warfare and marketing is the same – but the strategy thinking behind it can be :)

      I am primarily writing on this blog to the pro SEO community, so I often assume my readers know a lot about this business. I do realize that this may lead to some confusion by readers that don’t have the same background. I am sorry for that.

      When I talk about hacking here – it is “marketing hacking” we usually talk about. Breaking into other peoples websites or networks to gain some kind of advantage. This is surely criminal in all countries I know of and to me there is indeed a very clear line between that – and anything else strictly illegal, and then Black Hat SEO or any agressive marketing techniques.

      That line is relatively easy. The line between legal and not.

      My main point in this post is:

      1) I think it is OK to break rules – such as Googles guidelines, to achive your goals.

      2) I do think there is a limit to what you should do – even if it is legal, if what you do seriously hurt innocent bystanders.

      Doing so I actually do believe is honourable. It is honourable to fight hard for your goals. But only if you know your limits – not just the ones set by law but also by your moral and generally good ethics.

      I do not really see any conflict between being honourable and Black Hat SEO. Not the way I define the two.

  11. Ani Lopez siger:

    Thanks Mikkel for your last notes and I agree with the bottom line of it, hacking search engines (no hurting innocent bystanders) for money or just for fun is OK to me, they are not charity NGOs, they are a simple business with their own rules that we re free to freak.

    I’ĺl read the book you recommended.

  12. sajal kayan siger:

    Nice post… but….

    Hackers are not criminals and what you describe above is not hacking.

    http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/words-to-avoid.html#Hacker

    How you feel when when ppl refer to Black Hat SEO as criminal is same as how some people feel when you refer Hackers as criminals….

    • John siger:

      Sajal, he didn’t fully explain what he meant by hacking, but gaining unauthorized access to a hosting account in order to place a link on a prominent website would be considered hacking/cracking… At least by my count. 9/10 people would agree. “Old school” hackers want to preserve the traditional definition, but it seems to have lost any sort of respectable/non destructive connotations today.

  13. Goalranks siger:

    very good article, we know that black hat seo is easy to do, so some people choose that way. But I think for the quality site, white hat is good for website image and long run term.

  14. [...] « On Cell Phone Security What’s a real BlackHat SEO? 19/04/2010 This is indeed an interesting view on the SEO business from a completely different point of view. SEO is war, but there are rules in this war that have to [...]

  15. Brett Tabke siger:

    > Another limit I have personally found in Black Hat SEO
    > came after real hackers entered the SEO market big-time last year.

    Then why are we using/endorsing the “black hat” phrase in our industry? Why are we using/endorsing spammer?

    In the publics mind, “black hat” = “illegal hacker” and “spammer” = “illegal emailer/scum-of-earth”.

    Until we stop using those words, the public is always going to think of this industry as scum-of-earth illegal hackers attempting to corrupt their google. Which is just what the engines want.

  16. Mikkel deMib Svendsen siger:

    Thanks for your comment, Brett :)

    > In the publics mind, “black hat” = “illegal hacker” and “spammer” = “illegal emailer/scum-of-earth”.

    I think there is a big difference in how the public look at the “black hat” word in Europe vs US. I don’t think we, here in Europe, look at the word as being as bad as you may be right they do in the US.

    Maybe its related to how we also swear a lot more – also in public and on TV here in Europe :)

    > Then why are we using/endorsing the “black hat” phrase in our industry? Why are we using/endorsing spammer?

    I don’t think Black Hat SEO is spam – that is unless you believe that “spam” is what the engines say it is: Basically breaking any of their guidelines. I don’t.

    As I have stated many times before: I don’t think “Search Engine Spam” exist. There are good results and bad results. That’s it. Sometimes search engines get manipulated to show sites in top results that they should not have shown.

    No matter what the cause of it is it’s the engines responsibility. Just like it’s the responsibility of a news paper editor to make sure only correct stories gets in the news paper. Even in a manually edited news paper cleaver PR-experts and political spin doctors every day manage to “feed” stories into news papers that should not have been there. But we don’t call that spam. We just call it “bad editing” :)

    However, that is a different discussion. This blog post was really more about what I, as an SEO, think is acceptable to do – no matter if you see yourself as white, grey or black hat – or don’t like hats labels at all. And its about the fact that there is a huge difference between being very aggressive in your marketing – and then breaking laws, as geeks that hack your website do.

    • ke siger:

      You said:
      I don’t think “Search Engine Spam” exist. There are good results and bad results. That’s it. Sometimes search engines get manipulated to show sites in top results that they should not have shown.
      No matter what the cause of it is it’s the engines responsibility. Just like it’s the responsibility of a news paper editor to make sure only correct stories gets in the news paper.
      –//–

      Search engines are rigged in all kinds of ways. But when a page of crap content is placed only to capture traffic = ads = revenue that that doesn’t deliver the actual info the simple citizen is trying to find it wastes their time.
      Fair enough, we all now search engines are rigged.
      When you are able to outsmart the algorithm which allows this page to show at the top of the search result proves SEO’s know how to do their job. However it’s still spam, a bogus cyber trash page of content that wastes the viewers time and makes them have to continue to click to find what they were actually looking for.
      Time is precious. More precious than money. You can never get it back. You lose it forever. That is why it is “spam” that is the meaning. Something you didn’t want, and didn’t ask for, that wastes your time. Spam is a bad result.

      • Mikkel deMib Svendsen siger:

        It is the search engines that “spam” you – make you waste your time on bad listings in search results. They made the decission to include the crap.

        I don’t see the difference between this and when smart PR-people get stories pushed into newspapers that shouldn’t have been there (or written the way it was). It happens every day.

        The only difference is, that getting crap into Google requires technical skills – getting crap into newspapers requires human skills.

        Also when it happens in newspapers we call it “bad editing” – but in search the engines want us to call it “spam”, in an attempt to run away from their responsibility as “editors” of their media.

        The fact that Google have chosen to “edit” its media with computers rather than humans, as newspapers do, is their choice. They still have the responsibility for what comes out.

        • ke siger:

          dear Mikkel

          you said: “search engines want us to call it “spam”, in an attempt to run away from their responsibility as “editors” of their media.

          I am calling it spam. I am using this word.

          Linguistically spam is something that is unwanted. It doesn’t matter if a human sent it or a machine served it up.

          Spam can be automated, a product of technology and the lack of humans. But it can also be sent by humans as in getting spamed by email.

          I am explaining the appropriate use of the term “spam” to indicate getting something you didn’t want or ask for.

          If engines EDITED out useless pages that would be great. But they want the revenue. So click fraud is rampant. The search engine humans decide to leave it in because it makes them money.

          However, that is why I will continue to use the term spam for crap content that shouldn’t be there.

          good discussion!

          • Mikkel deMib Svendsen siger:

            Its OK with me to call what you get spam – I just think its wrong to put the responsibility for that on others than the ones that control the media.

          • ke siger:

            You and I both know that the content provider (provides trash) and the search engines (who provide same trash) are both in it for the money – they are all making money off of click fraud.

            More here:
            http://www.edu-cyberpg.com/Internet/google-click-fraud.html

          • Mikkel deMib Svendsen siger:

            No, click fraud is something very different than Black Hat SEO – or trash content for that matter.

            Click fraud is the act of creating invalid clicks on links that are paid for on a CPC basis.

  17. Anchor Text siger:

    I really dig this opinion on BH SEO. “We may break the rules, but NOT the laws.”

    Love it.

  18. Earl Grey siger:

    Big business pollutes the water we drink for a profit.

  19. [...] Confessions of a black hat SEO Hackers entering the game has led to some confusion. Some people think hacking for marketing is just a natural extension of Black Hat SEO. I very much disagree. Being an aggressive marketer or a Black Hat SEO is absolutely not the same as being a criminal. I may be “naughty”, I may not respect standards or stupid rules – but I respect the laws and I abide by them. [...]

  20. importerlist siger:

    I think in search the engines want us to call it “spam”, in an attempt to run away from their responsibility as “editors” of their media. Thanks.

  21. Pete siger:

    Mikkel, I have been to conferences and listened to you talk, and I love what you do and inspire me, seo is getting dirtier and dirtier, and depending what industry, is just plain cut throat, it is a battle, it is war! just depends what people want to do to win that war, sometimes you have to do what you have to. But at what cost?

  22. csp siger:

    Thank-you very much

  23. [...] Confessions of a Black Hat SEO: There is a limit to what I will do! | Mikkel deMib Svendsen. Filed Under: Black Hat [...]

  24. pcnw siger:

    I agree with Pete and all others that believe that web marketing is a modern type of war with SEO as a primary weapon but I believe that the Black Hat SEO is just an optional button on that weapon that is pressed when the webmaster is on “panic”.

    • Mikkel deMib Svendsen siger:

      pcnw, it sounds like you haven’t been dealing with SEO in competitive industries. Following all search engine guidelines in those industries is just not an option for far the most.

  25. Hans siger:

    “And sometimes I find ways to promote my own or clients’ websites on the expense of my competitors. I don’t have a problem with that.”

    Can you also be hired only to do creative things on the expense of my competitors? :-)

  26. [...] skrev tidligere på året en artikel på min engelske blog med overskriften ”Confessions of a Black Hat SEO: There is a limit to what I will do!” som går lidt mere i dybden med mit syn på de etiske grænser jeg synes der [...]

  27. Henrik Blunck siger:

    “Never be afraid of anyone who has had a past – however bad it may appear :-) – but stay away from people without future potential” is my personal 0.02$ on the matter. ;-)

    I think you have given much to the business of SEO in recent years, so past sins should not be held against you.

    Keep up the good work.

    [We people from the Vestsjaelland-area have to stick together... ;-) ]

  28. Darksky siger:

    As a new comer to the SEO game, and an old school grey hat hacker, I must admit to walking a thin line at times. The temptation to used my old skills in this new game is hard to resist. You guys at the top of marketing leave little room for then new kids on the block. It sometime seems that without the right strategic alliance, or new tactics, there is no way to win. Caught between Google’s bible of rules, and the current top marketers, is definitely a rock and a hard place.

  29. SEO siger:

    nice quote “We may break the rules, but NOT the laws.”

    I’m stills new in this business, and I don’t know if I needed to cross the line.

  30. SEO siger:

    “I will still think like a “Black Hat SEO”, I will still see marketing as a war” I like this sentence and I agree. The best article thanks for your sharing

  31. Morten Madsen siger:

    This is one of the best articles I have read so far. I have personally always seen SEO and marketing as a warfield my self. I remember when I once said that on the warriorforum – people was freakin’ out!

    They told me, that there should be enough room for multiple sites in the top 10. I said that I agree, but if I could own the top 10 for a specific keyword, I would, and then they started calling me selfish, an idiot and what ever.

    I still see all my competitors like you do: They are all soldiers, and I need to get first to the flag! Although as you say: Within the limits, and within the law!

    Very good article!

  32. CMSBuffet siger:

    You made a very good point about hackers and black-hats.

    Breaking into someone’s server or web site is not the same as manipulating Google algorithm. it is totally different

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