This article was originally published at the IDG News Server, on march 22nd 2010
Ever since cases such as JCPenney´s and Overstock’s went public, the general concern about a web-site’s health and risk has become an issue. Both companies had their web domains severely penalized by Google for applying techniques that do not comply with the search engine’s guidelines, simply Black Hat SEO.
In Brazil, a very similar case took place not one month ago. Decolar.com, a major travel website for Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries, vanished from the search results. Google found out that between November 2010 and February 2011 over 700,000 inbound links were “planted” all over the web. As a result of those inbound links, all of Decolar’s URLs were erased from the Google index and didn’t make it to the SERP (Search Engine´s Results Page) for keyword queries they usually ranked for nicely.
At the same time, not one single page would come up on Google queries, made using the query operator “site:” (which allows anyone to get a list of indexed pages on a given domain — just type site:domainname.com into Google to see).
A real disaster for a company whose revenue is mainly driven through e-commerce. The company is now using TV commercials, a far more expensive medium. Way more expensive than a righteous White Hat SEO.
To prevent conviction to a long period of digital ostracism, many companies are now hiring independent consultants to check on their current SEO company. For example, a multinational beverage company hired SEO Consultant Flávio Raimundo, from the Brazilian SEO-shop Linkbuilding.com.br, to analyze how and if their website was in any way compromised by a SEO job provided by another SEO-shop. We cannot disclose further information on the case due to an NDA, but it does bring to question how SEO professionals may see such actions..
So, since the wheel is already in motion here in Brazil, I decided not to stir things up too much here and looked up other SEO professionals in the US to find out how the market reacts to such an investigation and what their personal opinions on the subject are.
Meet the interviewees:
Chris Boggs – Chief Executive Officer of SEMPO (Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization – an association of marketing professionals in search engines) U.S.;
Bill Hunt – Former SEMPO president;
Gabriella Sannino – CEO of search Level343.com and a personal friend of mine;
Alan Bleiweiss – A long time and respected Forensic SEO Consultant;
How do you see such service?
SEMPO’s Boggs says that hiring such a service is a great thing for companies. “Third party verification of implemented SEO tactics is probably a wise thing for any company. One of the big ways that SEO agencies get work is by performing assessments of current organic performance, and pointing out areas for further improvement,” he writes. Boggs points out that recent changes in the algorithm may alter the perspective from which these verifications are performed. Boggs´ predecessor, Bill Hunt, sees a good opportunity for SEO shops to prove their abilities in performing a solid work without using Black Hat techniques. “On the other hand,” says Hunt, “some SEO shops will be scared since they will be discovered for using these and, as they are devalued in Brazil or their home countries, they will have a serious business impact.” Hunt also sees a trend emerging, which can be attractive to many SEO’s. “There will be some entrepreneurs that will use this as a great opportunity and will build new audit businesses from it,” he writes on an email.
“In fact, some SEO-shops would love the idea of an independent audit, because that audit would prove how well they’ve done their services,” writes the Italian, hot-blooded SEO consultant Gabriella Sannino. But, according to her, choosing one company to perform those verifications is a tricky quest. “The irony is it’s possible to hire an independent auditor with little experience, who comes in and destroys the reputation of an excellent SEO-shop,” she warns.
To Bleiweiss it would be a safety precaution for companies to seek such services. Although they do not. Whenever someone looks an SEO consultancy up, “It’s always because they either want visibility for the first time, or they want better visibility than they got previously, or they want to repair the problems that got them in trouble, specifically because they want that visibility back,” he writes. According to him, it´s not only a matter of discovering any irregularities, but is something enterprises can use when the time to set the fee with their SEO provider comes. “A well written audit becomes leverage in advocating to have a site owner then needing to actually pay someone to do the SEO afterward,” says the Forensic SEO consultant.
So, what can companies do after catching an SEO provider doing Black Hat for their sites?
Former SEMPO president Hunt says that many times there are no relevant consequences for Black Hat SEO shops. “Most of the time the SEO-shops do not face any penalty other than the loss of business from that client or bad reputation if they are named in a public disclosure. I have worked with some large companies that have it in their contracts that you cannot use techniques that the search engines have identified as a violation of their terms of service or guidelines,” says Bill.
Gabriella says that most of the times, the consequences may become legal difficulties. “If the SEO-shop is in a country that considers this to be fraud, they can be facing legal difficulties. Depending on the client’s budget, there’s a definite possibility of a civil case for nonperformance of services, regardless of whether the SEO-shop actually broke any laws. And, of course, they lose the client and gain a poor reputation in the industry,” warns Sannino. She regrets the results of such cases for the whole SEO industry. “It’s frustrating to watch people claiming to be SEOs deface our industry’s reputation,” says Gabriella. She thinks a regulatory body would be a blessing for web site optimization professionals.
Boggs says that there is little that can be done to the SEO shops using Black Hat. “Unless they were foolish in the way they set up their contracts. The bottom line is that algorithms constantly change, so SEO is a ‘best effort’ type of project. The line between ‘screwed you ‘ and simply ‘missed the mark ‘ is hard to discern in all cases. If the tactic that was employed is clearly Black Hat, then some lawyers going forward may take on these cases, especially if the situation becomes more common,”” clarifies SEMPO president, Boggs.
Bleiweiss agrees with Boggs, and writes that there is not much left for the companies whose sites have been hurt by Black Hat techniques. “Most of the times, the site owner just wants things fixed,” says the SEO consultant who has investigated cases where hosting providers and domain registry companies were involved. “It became a big deal due to the criminal activity I had uncovered,” remembers Bleiweiss.
And yet, most times when clients ask if they should take the case to the court, Alan says that it is paramount to discuss costs and risks form a financial perspective. “It’s typically better for site owners to just move on due to how draining it can become”, states Bleiweiss.
Does Black Hat pay off? Is that cheaper than a 100% White Hat SEO? For that matter, is it possible to develop 100% White Hat SEO? Let´s hear it from the experts
According to Flávio Raimundo, who will conduct the verification for the multinational beverage’s company, an enormous amount of good will is required to conduct these inspections. “If we would follow Google’s strict recommendations, a web site would not be much more than a white background HTML with .txt fonts.” If you are willing to enter this third party audit trend, you have to be very careful not to confuse those errors made by mistake or inexperienced SEO’s. So it´s not about classifying everything into Black or White Hat SEO.
“Black, white, gray — those are really emotional concepts. My personal opinion is that an audit shouldn’t classify techniques in any way besides: works, doesn’t work, and will cause problems. As an independent auditor, my job isn’t to classify. My job is to find out what’s been done and then inform the client,” writes Gabriella Sannino. However, if she comes across any techniques that don´t comply with her way of getting SEO done, she points them out to her clients along with a “why this is a problem” report.
About Black Hat’s cost efficiency, Sannino says that there are many aspects to consider before being sure about the myriad of advantages embedded in techniques to fool the search engines. “In upfront costs, I have no idea. Black Hat is probably cheaper it seems that it would be. For example, if you use comment spamming — you know, those comments that have nothing but spammy links in them — as a technique to rank your client, as far as I’m concerned you’re using Black Hat techniques. It’s cheaper, because you don’t have to put any time or thought into it.”
SEMPO president, Boggs sees an adherence to Black Hat techniques for very competitive segments, such as the financial and pharmaceutical ones. According to Boggs, those segments are highly competitive and there is enough money in it to bet on Black Hat. About pricing, Boggs thinks there is not a difference between SEO implementations whether they’re Black or White Hat.
For some particular business models, Black Hat SEO might be something to think about. “If you need to get results relatively quickly and are not worried about the potential loss of the domain (or step penalization/backlash). However, Boggs says that when it comes to a consistent and robust web presence White Hat SEO is the right answer. Even White Hat SEO’s will use some grey tactics, but extreme Black Hat should probably not be used if a marketer is concerned about a domain or brand, according to Boggs.
Bill Hunt goes along with Boggs’ comments on the issue. He suggests an analytical approach to the issue when analyzing a site. “I suggest audits that help you understand your ‘current state’ of performance. Looking at the on page and off page attributes of your site and those ranking in the top few positions of Google. With a look at current state we can understand what we have,” says Hunt.
About how efficient a Black Hat technique can be for a site, Hunt says that a truly effective Black Hat SEO program costs both patience and effort to replicate the natural web. Such a job is neither cheap nor quickly done.
Klaus Junginger is a news reporter for Computerworld Brazil and covers search, SEO and sponsored links. Follow Klaus on Twitter at @computerklaus. Or mail him firstname.lastname@example.org