As I've sat here today pondering on some issues, I started thinking along the lines of how the practice of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) really is like an ongoing battle between the white hats and the black hats (think of wizards, where the ones with white hats are the good guys and the ones with the black hats are the bad guys). While thinking down this path, my thoughts took a jolting turn towards the lure of black hat tactics. Even to this day, I can't resist surfing around my favorite black hat forums/sites to read the latest thoughts and tactics these people come up with. Let's think of it as... competition analysis, shall we? ;)
So, I thought I would take you on a little journey and show you just how the dark side operates and why so many people engage in black hat SEO when it's supposedly such a "bad" or "unethical" thing. I plan to get you into the processes and methods present in black hat psychology, then show you how to translate those thoughts into actionable white hat ideas. I think it's safe to say that anyone serious about practicing SEO (be it freelance, consulting, agency) can't help but dabble in the black arts at least once. After all, it really isn't that difficult to set up a blog or Web site to use as a test bed for theories. If Google just so happens to blacklist the site, no one is losing out.
Now, having said that, the only *real* goal behind implementing black hat SEO is to make money. That's it. In the end, it's all about money. Not rankings, traffic, or fun; just money. But like I said, that's the goal behind actually *implementing* black hat methods; not necessarily brainstorming them. Just bear in mind that you absolutely should not implement like a black hat when it comes to clients and/or sites that you don't want to risk getting blacklisted. Thinking like a black hat SEO, on the other hand, can result in some creative white hat tactics -- so long as you have the initial intent to end up with them despite how far down the unethical path you might brainstorm.
While thinking through the processes of black hat SEO psychology to cherry-pick the aspects that I feel can be beneficial/usable to white hat SEO, I decided to deduce the black hat thinking process into as few actionable steps as possible; then, realize those steps in the form of a flow chart. What I discovered is that white hat thinking is very similar -- with the exception of the objective, the high risk "money" step, and the step I listed as "circumnavigation." For your consideration, here is the (rather ugly, I know) flow chart (click the image below to see the full-size image):
As you can see, I've broken down the process of black hat SEO thinking into one basic flow comprised of an objective followed by 5 steps. On the next page, I will delve further into those steps -- as well as demonstrate an example of black hat thinking with the intent of formulating an actionable white hat idea.
Continued from the previous page, here are more detailed descriptions of the objective and 5 steps which I provide basic definitions for on the flow chart itself:
Objective: To make money. High rankings and mass traffic are merely the means to a lucrative end. If money isn't somewhere in the equation, the time and energy required for black hat methodology just isn't worth it if you're a practicing black hat SEO.
Ideation: A million-dollar word that is defined as the process of brainstorming new ideas. This is where you dig in and start letting your creative juices/thoughts flow.
Risk Consideration: Weighing the risks associated with an idea. Though a black hat SEO may appear to throw caution to the wind, there is actually a very calculated process to discover any potential show-stoppers that would prevent the realization of money in their pocket.
Circumnavigation: The process of brainstorming methods to get around security measures, filters, and/or intended algorithmic processes of a Web site, search engine, or person. Deception lies at the heart of black hat SEO, so figuring out how to exploit or take advantage of a person, process, and/or situation is really the main step that turns this whole train of thought into "black hat SEO psychology." Without circumnavigation, the remainder of these steps could very easily skew white hat.
Implementation: The process of putting the idea into action and measuring the results. Any skilled black hat SEO will bring their idea to fruition, test it, and gauge how well it actually performs the task(s) desired. Did you successfully fool Google? Have you pulled the wool over a Web master's eyes? Did you make any money?
Replication: The final piece of the framework is to duplicate your method as many times as possible to achieve your intended goal (which is ultimately to make money). Now, I know I keep saying the objective is to make money, so let me clarify a few ways a black hat SEO stands to make money off of this train of thought:
1 - Create an informational packet and sell it to others. If the information is strong and credible enough, you can make a fairly large sum of cash by shopping around for only one buyer; thus giving them exclusive access to your method(s). 2 - Take on clients who you can deceive, take money from, and go on your merry way before they find out how you ranked them so high, so quickly. You may be able to rank them high in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages), but they will have no idea how detrimental your methods will be to them. By the time they realize it, you will be long gone. 3 - Get your ad-integrated niche blog, affiliate offer squeeze page, or monetized hyper-recent trend-based landing page ranked at the top of the SERPs to maximize on conversions as fast as possible.
Those are just a few ways, but there are certainly more. So, now that I've probably done a good job of getting you interested in black hat SEO, let me take you through a thinking exercise where you will see just how the processes encompassed within the aforementioned flow chart come together. Then, I'll show you how to resist the powers of the dark side and find a way to shift your conclusions over to the benefit of white hat implementation.
Black Hat Thinking Exercise
What I'm going to do now is run through the steps of my flow chart to come up with a good black hat idea. Then, I'll segue it into something that skews completely white hat. A bit of a caveat: Some of the following may get a little bit abstract for you. Feel free to comment below if you need clarification on anything!
Scenario: Let's say I have a page on a Web site with a dedicated ad that pays me based on the number of people who visit that page, thus seeing the ad (CPM is what that type of model is called). Let's also say that I only have 3 days to perform for that ad and that the person who is running the ad on my page is also tracking the traffic coming to that page so they can verify its validity. So, one ad up on one page for 3 days which will pay me based on how many people see that page (let's just say a VERY unrealistic payment of $0.25 per page view) and tracking code is installed on the page. Now is when we kick into the methodology of the flow chart:
Objective: MONEY, MONEY, MONEYYYYYYY!!! I SEE DOLLAR SIGNS! GREAT, BIG OLD GINORMOUS DOLLAR SIGNS!!! AHHHHHH, I'M FREAKING OUT!
Ideation: I start thinking about how I can build links to that page and get the most impressions (people who view the page) possible. 3 days isn't enough time to hope for any significant link-building measures to perform well, so I turn to social media. Can I craft a campaign that garners tons of relevant traffic to that page? That's going to take at least a day to think about and bring to fruition, so I think more extreme. I think about the overall traffic on my site as a whole.
Looking at my site traffic, I know that I get approximately 13,000 unique hits a day on a very popular post from 2 weeks ago. All the other pages on my site *combined* only pull in about 1,500 uniques a day. Now, the greedy, black hat side of me automatically goes to thinking about how I can beat the system. What is the fastest path to *guaranteed* page views right now? Well, what if I redirected all of my traffic from every page of my Web site to that one page which contains the ad? This would give me around 43,500 views -- (13,000 + 1,500 page views) * 3 days -- right off the bat. This sounds like the fastest way to significant traffic, so I'm going to roll with this idea.
Risk Consideration: If you will recall, the person running the ad has also installed tracking code on my page so that they can track any deceitful methods like the one I want to do above. As such, the risk of my deceitful method is very high... especially if I forward my whole site to one page, because they could visit any part of my site, see that it forwards to the page they're advertising on, and figure out very quickly what's going on. The potential to make money is very high, though, so I think it's worth the risk to proceed to the next step.
Circumnavigation: After spending some time contemplating on this, I've decided it's best to only forward my page that has 13,000 uniques daily instead of forwarding my whole site. This way, there's only one page that does the dirty work which significantly lowers the chance of being caught. Now, how can I filter the traffic from that popular page to the page with the ad without such activity showing up in traffic analytics? Spending more time to think, it finally dawned on me to try utilizing one of the mechanisms that have become commonplace on the Internet these days: URL shortening/forwarding services (such as bit.ly). The thought is, what if I redirect that popular page of mine to a bit.ly link which then forwards to the page on my site where the ad is located?
The goal here is to trick the tracking code to make it look like people are visiting the ad page from bit.ly instead of from the popular page on my Web site (keep in mind that I'm the only one who knows how popular that one page on my site is). Well, that sounds like a fantastic workaround until I realize that bit.ly retains referrer information and passes it to sites as if bit.ly was never a part of the equation (for instance: if someone clicks on a bit.ly link that you post on Twitter, it would appear to the site that the person came from Twitter and NOT from bit.ly). Now the trick is to find a URL shortening/forwarding service that *does not* pass referrer information and see how that works out. Luckily, after searching Google and trying out a couple of things, I find a service which passes the test with flying colors. Exploit achieved! (Quick shout-out to my good friend Rafael Rivera for reminding me of the referrer thing when I first presented this whole scenario to him for feedback)
Implementation: Without any further adieu, I create a link to the ad page on my site from the URL shortening/forwarding service, then redirect all of the traffic from the one popular page on my site to the shortened link. This will make it seem like all the traffic to the ad page comes from some random forwarding site instead of from the popular page on my site. For good measure, I tweet the shortened URL with text befitting the content of the ad page, as well as build a number of links from random sites that I can keep track of. That way, if asked, I could show all these sites I placed links on but there would be no way to differentiate where the traffic came from apart from the shortened URL.
So, for all the ad folks know, ~13,000 hits a day came as a result of a combination of all the places I placed the link. Success! Replication: Since this whole deal only lasts 3 days for me, there isn't much to replicate to achieve the goal I want to achieve here. So, instead of replicating it myself, I choose to replicate it via writing an informational document which details the method. Then, I'll look to sell it to other people who may be interested. All-in-all, a seemingly solid deal! On the next and final page, I will show how to segue all the thinking above into a white hat method. Then, I'll conclude our journey and wrap things up.
White Hat Implementation
After the successful exploit we fleshed out on the previous page, it's time to shift that thinking into something that we are *actually* going to implement in the case of the ad page. Since we have established that there is clearly value in focusing on the traffic coming to our site, how can we take from everything we just brainstormed and create a white hat action item to funnel all of that traffic? Well, after thinking on it for a bit, we could create a site-wide call to action banner/button which would prompt a person to click and land on our ad page. With proper placement and the right mix of images and words associated with our call to action, we could very well harness a significant number of clicks over to the page. We could also engage in traditional link-building methods and seek out relevant sites to link to the ad page from. Alternately, we could seek out avenues to make our popular page even more popular and see if we can easily increase traffic to that page (which would hopefully spill over to our ad page via our call to action button/banner). Likewise, we could turn to social media and try to spark interest that way. It may take a bit more time and planning, but the result could just end up even more beneficial than leveraging the black hat method we came up with. And though the black hat method seems like the better deal monetarily, it is dishonest and unethical. Naturally, it's up to you whether or not you think it's worth it to implement. Personally, I would rather implement on the side of white hat, because I wouldn't feel good about essentially stealing money from someone based on my shady thinking.
First, I'd like to address the flow chart. There are many smaller facets I could have factored into it, but I wanted to break it down in a very basic manner. For instance, you may find yourself having to skip back to "risk consideration" after you come up with certain facets of "circumnavigation." While I intentionally didn't account for things like that, what you must process still essentially keeps to the chart -- even if the exact flow I presented may break.
With that said, I hope this post has been entertaining and/or enlightening for some of you! I certainly had fun working on everything that went into its creation. I'd like to note that there are most likely a good number of workarounds and/or exceptions to the scenarios I've written, but the main point I wanted to get across was that it's okay to think like your counterparts. So long as you always skew white hat with what you actually implement, you never have to worry about the complexities of "circumnavigation" or its associated/inherent risks. Black hat SEO can be fun and it can be lucrative, but don't ever put into practice anything that would jeopardize your brand, your client, your sites where search engine health and longevity are important, et al.
As I've noted in previous posts, one of the best guides to keeping your SEO ethical is to ask yourself if you would feel comfortable explaining to Google how/why you went about implementing whatever it is you're thinking about implementing. Even though I skew completely white hat with everything I actually implement, I find that thinking on the black hat side of things can give me fresh, new perspectives to take from. So, why not give that flow chart a shot and see if you can come up with your own creative method to segue into a white hat action item? Try it out, have some fun, and let me know what you think!