Ethical SEOs and inbound marketers spend a lot of time talking about why it’s a terrible idea to use black hat strategies. When you buy links, spin content, and cheat the system, you can succeed for a while, but you’re eventually going to get slapped down. A black hat approach is detrimental to long term success.
And yet…sometimes inbound marketers push things too far. They claim that black hat doesn’t work at all, or they close their eyes and ears to the spammers sitting on the front page of the most competitive search terms in their industry.
We’ve been pointing out for a while now that black hat still works, even though we know full well that it’s the wrong approach to use if you care about being successful in the long term. Today, we’d like to talk about some black hat tactics that, despite some people’s outright disbelief, still work. And we’d like to talk about what we, as ethical marketers, can learn from them.
1. Hacked Websites
Majestic SEO recently published a case study of a site that managed to rank for the ridiculously competitive search term “car insurance.” The domain was registered a mere 3 days before it showed up on Google’s front page. The landing page was…nothing. Just a Joomla login page. There was only one page on the entire domain.
If we were to take the SERP at first glance, this empty page was more important that long established brands like Tesco Bank and Money Supermarket.
And how did this page manage to impress the Google algorithm to such a ridiculous extent? By hacking websites and installing links using a Joomla plugin.
During all this time, the site had no content, and almost certainly had awful user data. None of this apparently mattered. The site stayed in one of the most competitive search results for five straight days until people started complaining directly to Matt Cutts about it. The next day, the site vanished, almost certainly manually removed.
If you’ve spent any time analyzing some of the most competitive search terms, you should already know that this situation is not uncommon, not by a long shot. In only slightly less competitive markets, these kinds of search results can last for weeks or more, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was almost always a manual review, not an algorithmic demotion, that delivered the final blow.
So yes, in this post-panda/penguin world, sites with zero content can rank on the front page of massively competitive search terms long enough to make some serious cash, and they can do it on a link profile made of hacked links, a tactic that is not only spammy, but illegal.
What can we learn from this?
First and foremost, we can learn that link velocity can basically dominate just about any other factor.
The site hacked 2,923 domains and built 127,047 links in just over a week. Despite what many spammers and gray hat SEOs tell each other, there is nothing in Google’s algorithm that says overnight links are a bad thing. In fact, the faster you build links, the better, as long as they aren’t coming from known spam sites, and the links aren’t getting deleted as soon as they show up.
For white hats, this really emphasizes the power of viral content. Content that pulls attention and gets shared at a rapid pace is typically going to outrank content with slow and steady link growth from guest posts and similar sources.
Odd as it may sound, to Google’s algorithm, this site’s hacked link profile looks more natural and authoritative than one built on guest posts, even authoritative ones.
Most of the hacked sites had “low citation and trust flow, 34 and 21 respectively.” Chasing authoritative links still isn’t as useful strategy as attracting a large number of shares from mediocre sites. Authoritative links should be thought of more like “SEO insurance.” You want to build those kinds of links to send a message of trustworthiness. But it’s still the massive amount of links from the base that really tell Google you’re influential on the web.
We’ve pointed out before that the “gray hat” SEOs are the most at risk. Panda was released before Penguin for a reason. This was a deliberate choice. EzineArticles was clogging virtually all of their search results, while outright spam was only turning up for competitive search terms, where people already expected to find spam.
Gray hat SEO poses the biggest threat to Google, because a massive amount of mediocre search results is more threatening than a few spammy niches. You can’t be half-in, half-out when it comes to white hat SEO.
Here’s another thing worth pointing out. The site had only seven anchor text variations, and 53 percent of the links used the exact match anchor text “car insurance.” This emphasizes that, while it’s wise to diversify your anchor text, you shouldn’t get paranoid about it. Over-thinking anchor text is akin to over-optimization.
And finally, from this we can learn that obsessing over content factors is a bad idea. This site ranked on no content but a login page, and it was the only page on the entire domain. And why should we expect otherwise? There are plenty of legitimate sites on the web with close to zero content. They’re called tools, and they make up huge percentage of the most successful sites on the web.
For all Google’s algorithm knew, the Joomla login page was a car insurance quote tool, or a login to a private community, or any number of other things.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: modern SEOs place too much emphasis on “content,” at least the way we currently define it.
Think of every major site you use on the web. How many of them are pure content sites? How many of them are tools, social networks, or communities? I’m betting the vast majority of them fall into the second group.
2. Private Link Networks
Source-Wave’s Becker has become something of a hero for the black hat, gray hat SEO crowd, and it’s easy to see why. In one example, he recently shared, with full transparency, how he managed to rank a nearly empty site for a search term with 40,000 monthly searches in just 4 days.
In some ways, this case study is the exact opposite of the previous example. He didn’t do it with thousands of linking domains, he did it with 4. The secret? He built a private link network.
The idea behind a private link network is simple: you buy several high authority domains, and use them to build links to your “money site.”
Here’s the blunt truth: the way the algorithm stands today, private link networks are basically invisible. If you join a public link network (such as the late BuildMyRank), you’re probably not going to survive for very long. But if you buy up a bunch of sites and use them to build links, and don’t advertise what you’re doing, you’re going to get away with it for quite a while.
Not long enough to count as a viable marketing strategy, mind you, but long enough to make some cash.
It’s things like this that can make white hats feel seriously demoralized and want to throw in the towel, especially if they haven’t put in the hours yet, and learned how to do real marketing for real clients.
Can we really learn anything from this?
There’s a strategy buried in this one that I keep bringing up, and that’s seriously underrated. It’s the power of acquisitions: something that multinational conglomerates understand very well. It’s basically the same thing as a private blog network, only augmented to be perfectly legitimate and even more valuable.
It’s also very simple.
Just buy up high quality blogs with massive traffic, redirect the pages to your site, and hire the blogger.
Most SEOs don’t realize that most of the influencers on the web have trouble with monetization; that you can probably pay them better than they can pay themselves. Many bloggers would be ecstatic to learn that a marketing agency would be interested in buying up their blog and hiring them for a full time position.
This strategy really is the best of both worlds. You get all the SEO value of a private link network, plus the added value of a pre-earned audience, all wrapped up in a nice white hat package. It’s one of the most powerful SEO marketing strategies in your arsenal, and I’m outright amazed it isn’t used more often.
Now, this particular case study also shares a few other tactics that fit well into any white hat campaign. First off: the power of internal links. Google seems to like internal link loops. (The home page links to this page, which links to this page, which links back to the home page.) There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking advantage of this.
Putting a link at the bottom of each blog post that takes them to the next one is a perfectly legitimate thing you can do to keep visitors reading, and it helps all of the pages on that ring rank better than they otherwise would.
I’ve mentioned before that “domain authority” is more or less just the power of internal links, and that “page authority” is the only metric that matters as far as “link juice” is concerned. Domains do have some influence, but I suspect this is driven almost entirely by things like user behavior data and domain name. I’ve never seen evidence to suggest that the number of linking root domains to your domain matters, beyond the power of page authority and internal links.
In short: make it very easy for Google to find your pages. Don’t bury links to old content in the archives.
Finally, this case study highlights the power of outbound links as well. Becker apparently links to authoritative sites in order to convince Google that his sites aren’t spam. I’ve never looked into this myself. Outbound links give you so much more credibility, as far as your users are concerned, that I’ve always used them.
However, if the black hats are doing it, you no longer have any excuse to be greedy with your outbound links.
3. Paid Links
It’s basically impossible to find case studies on this particular topic. Nobody wants to spend money on links only to reveal their results to the world. That said, there is no shortage of black hats who can rank websites using link profiles that they paid for.
In one experiment, half of the people who responded to a link building outreach email expected to be paid. On average, they asked for $285. This was in November of 2012, well after Penguin, and judging by the relatively small upset that was Penguin 2.0, I’d be very surprised if anything’s changed since then.
It should go without saying that public link buying networks don’t work for very long at all. But these kinds of private exchanges can pass value for a considerable amount of time before the site gets slapped. What’s more, it’s usually the link sellers, not the buyers, who receive an actual penalty. (I’m surprised more people didn’t already know this.) The buyers typically face link devaluation, not penalties.
Buying links is a very bad idea if you want the SEO value of your links to last, and that includes doing things like offering “free products” in exchange for links. So what can we learn from the black hats who still buy links?
In the black hat sector of the travel industry, links cost close to $300. How much SEO value can you buy with that money?
Could you pay an influential blogger to write a guest post on your site and earn at least one natural link by doing it for the price of $300?
Could you pay a photographer or graphic designer with a large social media following to produce and promote an image for you for $300?
Could you conduct some sort of survey or study in order to reveal a fascinating piece of information for your audience with $300?
Unfortunately, the mindset against buying links has spilled over into our broad approach to SEO. Most SEOs just aren’t willing to spend money in order to turn a profit. They fail to realize the vast number of ways it’s possible to spend money in order to earn SEO value.
This is tragic.
4. Tiered Linking
This is one of those strategies that a lot of white hat SEOs are surprised to learn still works, or that it’s worth the effort for anybody. But one case study, by MakeMoneyNinja, explains how he used tiered linking to build a profitable website starting in September of 2012. As of May 2013, the site was still profitable. Panda and Penguin updates didn’t seem to do anything.
How did he do it? Basically, he joined a bunch of private link networks, set up some web 2.0 properties, and started spamming these with crappy links. He’s been spending about $500 a month in link building using this method, and he’s been getting close to $3,000 a month in affiliate sales.
Now, clearly, this is not the way to build a sustainable business, but it demonstrates that tiered linking, as it stands, does seem to protect sites that would otherwise fail in short order.
So, what’s the lesson?
There are a few things to take away from this. First of all, when you do build links yourself, and you want their value to last, you want to maximize the chance that the content will go viral. A guest post on an authority site is much more valuable if it is written to attract natural links and social activity. This means that it will continue to contribute value long after it falls off the front page.
Second, it’s worth promoting content on sites other than your own. Guest posts aren’t just an opportunity to build links; they’re an opportunity to earn traffic and credibility that you can’t yet earn on your own site. You can enhance this by promoting the content that you publish on authoritative sites. For example, by adding a link to the post in your email signature, promoting it through your social channels, and putting it in a badge on your site, you can increase conversion rates, establish authority, and give long lasting value to these accomplishments.
While the spammy world of black hat SEO is no way to build a real business, there are lessons to be learned from every corner of this industry. We only do ourselves a disservice when we completely shut ourselves off from tactics that we wouldn’t want to use ourselves. Shocking as it may be to some, black hat still works. If we can learn from “the dark side” without joining it, we will become much better marketers, and our clients will thank us for it.