How To Act Blackhat And Get Away With It

by on December 9, 2010 | posted in Linkable Asset Creation

Before you call Mr. Cutts, let me first say that the black hat “idea” has changed. Before, black hat was sheer, unbridled manipulation of the search engines in the pursuit of rankings, in a way that would completely corrupt user experience in order to get to the ideal product – such as with intense keyword stuffing, cloaking, sitewide links for the soul purpose of instantly ranking for a keyword, and etc.

But the further refined Mr. Cutts and Co. got with their Webspam Team, the less “black hat” became black hat at all – and the more it became a simple statement that yes, you bought links. To me, and I’ve stated this previously, that’s a ridiculous imagining – so let’s instead think of this post, and more, what we should think of SEO as period, as the act of obtaining targeted, frequently obtrusive, commercial anchor text and/or taboo vertical links – while still planting said links on domains that pass tons of value, and will continue to pass even more value in the future than they started with in the first place.

The Site Value Bell Curve

Alexander Graham Bell Curve

With great power comes great responsibility. Or at least, that’s what Uncle Ben says.  And wow, was that man right. Many websites fall victim to this very curse – at the time they obtain value in the form of PageRank or some other way to monetize their site, many webmasters begin to smell blood. They suddenly take every action possible to start making a buck, and because of this, begin to erode everything that got them value in the first place.

By selling mass amounts of text links – or placing commercial anchor text links in some way, they start to lose credibility in the eyes of their readers, and as such, lose traffic and stop obtaining natural links. Similarly, they likely also set off algorithmic triggers that begin to blitz their actual value in the eyes of the search engines – and surely, somehow, these two factors interact. Because of this, the fall from power that comes with high PageRank causes a webmaster incapable of handing monetary value to burn away anything they ever had, and as such, the drop from the top becomes more of an olympic dive than a steady decline.

How things would change if PageRank had a wider value — and was also constantly updated. It may, may, even make for a better web. But let’s leave that conversation for another day – since we really don’t know how much time we’ve got left with Uncle Ben.

This is the great dilemma that falls to SEOs. Many times, they are forced to hit these sites at an apex – ones that have just decided to accept commercial anchor text links in some form, and as such, are at the height of their algorithmic value before they start the steady decline that comes with whoring out commercial anchor text. SEOs, because of this, rarely fall into situations where their links can accumulate value over time due to this dilemma that occurs on many sites. In an ideal situation, they reach a naive webmaster who has yet to realize the value of their domains – but these things often don’t last. Suddenly, they show up in Open Site Explorer or Yahoo! Site Explorer and every competitor hounds the site like blood in the water. After all, since the site ranking #1 is linked to there – they have to be too in order to rank first, right?

Err..

So, what is an SEO to do? We need commercial anchor text (at least sometimes) in order to rank for competitive keywords, but instances in which we can place them often lead to websites that don’t retain the value they originally had. Wouldn’t it be great if we could place these links somewhere they not only wouldn’t depreciate, but would actually accumulate value?

Well, there’s hope, true believers. There’s hope.

Site Colors, Heat Mapping & The Reasonable Surfer

The Predator surfing the web.

Commercial anchor text links sting the eyes. If you see them on a blog, you’re like, UGH. Dirty. Naturally, this offsets everyone, and in excess, can turn a user away from a site. The thing is, though, they don’t always occur in ways that signal the eyes. As such, they exist more peacefully on many incredible sites — that you just aren’t aware of. And I don’t mean in the Reasonable Surfer kind of way – where they’re hidden away deep in the footer and in the bottom right sidebar. I’m talking right there in your face, passing value on some of the most trafficked sites on the internet.

How does this happen? Simple. The same ways sites can change their button color and increase conversion 50% – we find ourselves drawn to certain things, and websites frequently luck into doing this right – mapping in an anchor text link in a spot where its user’s eyes aren’t drawn.

I know there’s probably some argument that Google may be able to detect these same things in click patterns, devaluing links inside areas that are normally good for users, but I would argue the opposite. To think that Google picks up these things on a site to site basis at the kind of granularity required to do so – is thinking that Google is essentially Skynet. I do believe the reasonable surfer is in effect, and they can determine that the footer links shouldn’t pass as much value, body content should, etc – but to say that the second link passes more value because I say NAKED PICS OF ME HERE and get my clicks over the first link – it’s assuming the most advanced, incredible thing in the history of man. And I know the algo is good, but c’mon.

But that’s not the point here. We only have so much time with Uncle Ben, so let’s not go too off topic. No matter how Google interprets the links, the important thing is how the users do. And in these situations where the eyes are pulled away from certain sections, paid links fly. And they probably do even more than those footer or deep right sidebar links – because those set the kind of “wow, this webmaster is scummy” triggers that can automatically lose a user.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a limit to this. But a site that naturally draws a users eyes away from these links allows them to exist more naturally. If there were still twenty commercial anchor text links in prime areas, there’d be no getting around it. But if they blend every once in a bit with every other link, that site will continue as it was – naturally attracting great, value-passing links – should it be worthy of it otherwise.

So, for you, the SEO, this is something to consider. Even if I get a commercial anchor text link here naturally, what will that do to the future of the site? Where are my eyes naturally drawn? How will the normal traffic feel about it? Just more things to think about when valuing a link.

Blog Archive Links

Occasionally,  bloggers will go back in their archives at the request of their friends and input anchor text links on old blog posts. The benefit is obvious – users rarely stumble upon these posts, besides low-converting (subscribing) search traffic, so the cost-benefit of adding a link to a blog post for a valuable contact is obvious.

The crazy (and standard-black-hat-definition-rebuking) thing about this practice is it never involves paid links – due to the minutiae and personal relationship it requires to negotiate such a request. There is no “blog archive” broker.  That doesn’t make it any more “black hat”, at least according to our current definition.

In these situations, these links can still be “one off” from a homepage that continues to attract links, with a userbase that is completely unaware of the destructive practices that occur within it. These things happen frequently, again, on some of the biggest sites on the internet. And you might even find some porn sites if you look hard enough – I have. That’s how dirty it gets.

However, it can be clean too. You earned that friendship and/or domain authority, right? So if I have a friend who requests I link to their site Aptus Insurance or Short Term Health Insurance, I’m going to do it, as no feelings are hurt, I help someone – and no money ever exchanges hands.

Advertising? No, Image Links

Need a banner ad? Sure. But not in the way you think – a banner ad that’s a hyperlink. By replacing the image alt tag with a keyword, some kind of anchor text value seems to pass to the original website and also, can appear way more natural, if not a quality signal, for the site it’s posted on.

After all, high quality sites have advertising on them, so, to a naïve reader, a link that’s for the main purpose of passing SEO value could actually appear as though it’s a normal adsense banner for them to click on. Undoubtedly, site webmasters advanced enough to pull this tactic can maintain their image while maximizing “ad” revenue – at least, if that’s how they want to input it on their balance sheet.

Service/Testimonial Providers & SEOs

Service/software providers have a unique opportunity, in that they can openly communicate about the people that buy from them, without penalty, on the websites they use. Most can’t use anchor text, but given the “image alt” tag example previous, many could easily pull it off as a potential benefit to those who buy their software/offer up a testimonial. These client testimonials could provide the “tipping point” for an SEO savvy company that was otherwise up in the air about their service/software offering.

After all, Raven Tools asked me for a testimonial and offered a link to my last company, they balked, and it pissed me off SO much I put a giant freaking affiliate image in my sidebar. That’s sarcasm, of course, but I was actually especially fond of Raven for the 2 weeks after they offered me the link, despite the fact that the actual link never came from it. Now, I’m just really fond of them.

P.S. – Dear Raven, Internet Marketing Tools.

For SEOs, we have an audience of similar people, accepting of the fact that we have to do whatever it takes to get our clients to rank. Up to a certain threshold, this audience is more accepting than most of our blatant anchor text offerings. In fact, one prominent SEO blogger actually linked to porn last week – and still got 200+ retweets to his post. I won’t link to it, but the fact that it happened and was accepted at all says something about how tolerant we are of SEO bloggers and otherwise, those who are capable of good content despite it.

The lesson is that service providers – and internet marketing service providers in general – have an extra opportunity to naturally link to shady sites – without drawing the ire of their audience. After doing so, more, natural links will still follow – should the content deserve it.

Commercial Anchor Text Links, Blended

These are the most powerful of all, given the fact that they occur only occasionally, even on accident. Bloggers will describe URLs and websites based on anchor text like “t-shirts” or “great computers” pretty frequently – because it’s what makes sense to do. Because of this, topically relevant, one-off anchor text links are absolutely accepted by the audiences that view them. And it is very possible that it is this very reason that Google decided to do “optimal URL retrieval” for many homepages targeting the most powerful keywords, because webmasters will often point to a URL that doesn’t make much sense – even if topically relevant.

The problem for SEOs is that there is very little middle ground – convincing a webmaster of the above argument is often impossible, and many view your request as beyond crazy & full of lunacy. If you want to attempt retrieving a few links instead of one, it’s likely that many other commercial anchor text links will follow from like-minded SEOs, leaving your link in that “bell curve” scenario where it depreciates with the website it’s placed on. If you’re lucky enough (or skilled enough, depending on who you ask) – to find a webmaster willing to do the above, you’ve got a link worth it’s weight in gold.

A Process for Links That Appreciate in Value

There may be more than the above strategies, and some may require some actions that aren’t approved by Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, so proceed with caution. However, the thing you should pull from this post is that something you should take very seriously – how your link value will change with time. Will it appreciate? Will it depreciate? What can you do to perhaps help the appreciation process?

Can I write one paragraph to the webmaster after my link goes live, recommending a certain thing that could perhaps change a webmaster’s view to something that would make your link one of gold, rather than “pay for gold”, in the future? You’re an SEO, after all – it’s in your best interest to help those who have helped you – so they can then help your link gain the maximum amount of value in the future by helping themselves.

The internet isn’t a zero sum game – so let your links add up in value by helping others, too.

  • http://www.imnotadoctor.com imnotadoctor

    I always like to start my mornings with a good read thanks!

    One comment. You mentioned “No matter how Google interprets the links, the important thing is how the users do. ”

    I wound argue that the common visitor to a website don’t really notice these “scummy” links on the site. I think as an SEO we look at website very differently. We are trained to notice these types of links.

    • Ross Hudgens

      That’s a good point.. we are overly sophisticated web users. The thing is, anyone capable of linking to another site I believe is way more likely to be aware of commercial anchor text and what it does. So perhaps you’re right that those that aren’t webmasters aren’t aware, but anyone capable of dropping a link is a lot more certain to know what commercial anchor text links accomplish.

      • http://www.imnotadoctor.com imnotadoctor

        I think a poll about this topic on a Non-SEO website would be interesting. Know any? ahahah

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  • http://www.emailsweets.com Chande

    Hi. Do you think that HTML5 will change the link landscape? Meaning, that Google WILL algorithmically be able to detect the subtle differences?

    Thanks (btw, great post, I sent it to 5 other SEOs :)

    Cheers,

    • Ross Hudgens

      Hey Chande, to be honest, my strength as an SEO isn’t technical. I can’t program a lick. I’m a marketer, first. So to make any assumption about HTML5 – which I know absolutely nothing about – would be misleading you in the wrong direction. As SEOs, my thought is always best practices, best practices, sustainability, sustainability. So, to answer your question – always assume the worst.

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  • Geoff Kenyon

    …links that appreciate in value… I think this gets at a really big problem with many SEOs; there is not enough focus on building future value. There is a lot of shortsightedness in this industry.

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