Outing Black Hat SEO; Should we, or should we not?

In the White corner: Gianluca Fiorelli
Gianluca FiorelliObviously, outing is not something that should be done lightly.

Personally, when it comes to blatant cases of black-hat, I don’t hesitate denouncing them, especially when that black-hat is related to negative SEO actions, malware or cloaking.

When I see a site that is ranking thanks to manipulative actions, then, what I try to understand – before an eventual outing – is how “dated” are those actions, because I don’t know the details of the “SEO reality” of that site, what really happens behind its curtains.
For that reason, if I know who is doing search marketing for that site, I try to talk with him privately, respectfully but directly in order to see if what I’ve seen is a legacy of the past or not.

Sincerely, I know how – with few exceptions – almost everybody in SEO did something not really accordingly to the Google guidelines (I did it too!), and personally I have nothing against Black/Grey Hat practitioners (albeit not approving their actions) if they:

  1. don’t hide their nature behind a White Hat appearance;
  2. do it for their own personal projects and/or for conducting SEO experiments;
  3. they don’t blatantly sell it to clients as their main feature

The first case is the most painful, because sometimes it is related to people that maybe I esteem for their knowledge, but that sort of hypocrisy can make me distrust them in everything they do and tell. For instance, I can’t stand people saying that they do great Content Marketing, and then you discover that the gazillions shares the content they created are mostly composed by likes gained with Fiverr.

And the third case is pissing me off because, usually, those professionals/agencies are selling black hat taking advantage of the ignorance many of their potential clients have about the potential consequences of black hat (or, simply, dumb hat).

It is pissing me off because, finally, their are one of the main reason the SEO industry has such an horrible reputation. Their clients are happy, but then come to me asking me to “save” their site, and many times they cannot be saved at all.

But if there is something that completely drives me crazy, and that finally I tend to denounce, is when I see “agencies” taking advantage of the ignorance of their own clients for sneakily promoting themselves, for instance injecting links to their own sites or landing pages (oh… I see this almost every day).

But outing, for me, is also outing Google itself, when it falls in evident contradictions. And denouncing it’s lack of real action against spam. I did wrote posts in that sense (and few with quite a big resonance too).

Or I tend to denounce also the malpractices I see in other areas of Internet Marketing… because we should not forget that exist something like Black Social, about which very few talk about. I must admit that I feel as special pleasure in unmasking the Social Media gurus :).

So, to conclude, outing is something that should be done by all, but consciously and having solid proofs, with the purpose that nobody will play the “search-game” against the rules, because – sincerely – I don’t think that everything is licit.

I think that’s the “moral” nature of a responsible outing: if we just let pass a single blatant black hat action, then we won’t be able or and we will have no reason to complain because other sites dominate the SERPs due to black hat.

I think we cannot just blame Google because its failure against spam, if we too remain complacent with who do spam.

And, maybe because I’m Italian, but this “code of silence” attitude – even in SEO – I call it Mafia.

In the Black corner: Barry Adams
Barry AdamsContrary to you, Gianluca, I am strongly opposed to publicly outing SEO tactics we don’t agree with.

First of all I think a lot of SEOs that are in favour of outing see themselves as being on the side of Google. They think Google is their ally and that by outing black hats they are on the side of justice and righteousness.

That is a deeply naive and outright dangerous attitude.

Google is no friend of SEO. In fact, Google actively hates SEO and is – rather successfully – portraying the entire SEO industry as shady, unreliable, and unworthy of putting any money in to.

Whether you’re white hat or black hat, every time a story gets out about ‘bad SEO’ being responsible for a website being penalised by Google, the entire industry suffers from it.

Corporate decision makers rarely know the difference between white hat and black hat – all they see is another big story about a website being penalised by Google because of SEO. So for those people, all SEO is tainted. As a result companies will not want to invest in to SEO as much anymore, and are more willing to put their marketing budgets in to AdWords advertising, which is exactly what Google wants.

Secondly, we need to understand that black hat SEO, as a rule, is not against any law. We are not reporting criminals to the police here. We are not serving as deputy sheriffs, helping make the streets safer for everyone.

Black hat SEO breaks only one company’s rules: Google’s own arbitrary webmaster guidelines. When you out a black hat, you’re enforcing Google’s own rules and doing their work for them – you’re not committing an act of public service, because in the end the only thing you’re doing is help improve Google’s profitability. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t get a single cent of the money Google makes.

If someone breaks the law – the REAL law, laid down by courts and governments – then yes by all means report them to the police. But we need to understand that Google is NOT the internet’s police, and reporting black hats to Google only serves to help Google’s own bottom line.

Outing hurts the entire SEO industry and makes Google more profitable. That to me should be more than sufficient reason for anyone to refrain from outing black hat SEOs.

Hmm… I may understand your point of view Barry, but I cannot totally agree with it.

I agree with you that “formally” BH – except very extreme cases – is not against the laws.

The problem is that SEO is about Search Engines, and Search Engines are private companies and, when not with abusing attitude – it is their right to establish rules.
I mean, it’s like a pub: it’s not against the law to get drunk in a pub, but the owner of the pub can legitimately decide to expel you from its pub if you’re drunk and becoming dangerous or simply annoying for the other customers.

If we agree to compete in Google, then we should follow the rules Google (or Bing or any other search engine) has set up. If Google is acting abusively, going against its own rules and self-proclaimed principle, then we have all the right for “outing” Google too (but that would lead to another discussion).

It is for that reason than not outing is acting, maybe unconsciously, like a “Mafioso”. Why should we stay silent when we see a doped site outranking others? I think I can’t be considered a Google blind fan (i.e.: my post http://www.iloveseo.net/dear-google-why-do-you-want-me-to-hate-you/ wasn’t really friendly), but I think that we, as an Industry, should follow the rules and don’t make of our profession a Far West kind of environment.

Staying silent is dangerous especially for us, because there are two reasons why SEO has such a bad reputation:

  1. the dumbness of many self-proclaimed SEOs;
  2. the impunity and silent acceptance Black Hat has from our own industry.

Those two figures are those feeding the SEO bad fame.

  1. the first ones because do SEO without really knowing SEO, hence conducting sites to ruin because of ignorance;
  2. the second because the are leading sites to the same fate because Google will eventually punish them.

And the consequences of their actions is inevitably putting a scarlet rose on everybody’s SEO clothes, and stay silent is in not the way to quit that mark from our Industry. And, sincerely, I am (as others) quite pissed off saying that “no, I don’t do that kind of SEO” with potential leads, or being implicitly considered as someone playing with rigged cards, hence a risky partner.

The other solution – the one I don’t like at all – should be accepting the Wild West, everybody doing everything it is possible for making our clients or our sites ranking and gaining money, not caring of any rule because everybody isn’t. But then, please, let’s not blame if others sites are outranking ours or if Google penalizes sites or because spam is making the SERPs useless or Google rolls out updates.

As I wrote in my previous email, I am not advocating outing for outing, and I am not saying that outing should be necessarily done in the public place, but – yes – stay silent is not the correct way to be.

You say that black hat SEO damages client sites, and I agree that is a valid concern. But we need to realise that we, as outsiders, do NOT know what the client has agreed with their SEO agency.

The fact is that in many competitive industries, you need to use black hat tactics to get your site to rank. If you adhere to what Google calls ‘SEO’ (which is almost entirely on-site stuff) your site is simply not going to out rank your competitors in high value industries.

What an SEO agency does for their clients is a matter for the client and the agency – it’s none of our business. I suspect that in this day and age many companies are well aware of the risks involved in their SEO tactics and work on a ‘plausible deniability’ basis.

So when you out a black hat SEO, you are basically interjecting yourself in the relationship between the agency and the company and saying that what they’re doing is evil. You are sticking your nose somewhere it simply doesn’t belong, and in the process you are;

  1. hurting the client company by making it very likely they will get a manual Google penalty;
  2. hurting the agency that works with the client for something they may have been very honest and transparent about with their client;
  3. hurting the entire SEO industry with the resulting PR fallout;
  4. and let’s not forget, helping Google in their propaganda war against SEO.

I don’t agree that we agree to play by Google’s rules. Google has a near-monopoly on search in Europe, so we have no choice but to use Google for marketing purposes. Google is a for-profit enterprise and I see SEO, black hat or white hat, as a perfectly legitimate way to compete in an open marketplace. Google might not like what I do but then as long as I don’t break any laws, what Google likes and dislikes is entirely irrelevant.

What you say about the fallout outing can have is something I know… and that’s why – as I said – outing should be done responsibly and, personally, I tend to contact and express my concerns to the agency doing SEO for the site using BH and not the site’s owner.

Personally, if it comes clearly out that exists an agreement between them, I wouldn’t publicly denounce them, but – sincerely – I would do all I can for pushing Google in paying more attention in their spam action in certain fields: why? Because their agreement is damaging other business companies, which are not accepting for any reason to playing with the same tricked cards. And, I repeat, because it’s unfair.

I too worked and work for companies in very competitive niches, where no rule is exist… but, sincerely, in many cases I’ve seen that BH is used in those niches just because it is normal doing BH since the beginning of time.

Take as an example the betting industry, which has – with a good amount of reasons – a sort of Black Hat fame attached to it. Why they must do BH when they are sponsoring football teams and have sports’ celebrities hired as testimonials? Why, instead, they don’t do real marketing with them?

What I really can’t understand is why thinking that BH in certain situations is the only answer, when it is not so.

Finally, as I said, that is not something that affects SEO only. Social Media too is affected by bad practices, which are even more insidious if you think about the influence social media has toward the mainstream way of thinking nowadays.

And that’s why, even if I don’t approve many of the things Google does, even if I know that big part of Google doesn’t really love SEOs, that doesn’t mean that I will not applause Google every time it will do something that I consider correct for fighting spam or when it penalizes a site that clearly used black hat for doping its rankings. And shouting my indignation when it does it just for propaganda without really changing anything.

If a company wants to avoid SEO entirely and focus on classic above the line marketing, that’s fine, but that’s also outside the remit of this discussion. We’re talking black hat SEO tactics here, and I think we all know that it’s literally impossible to get rankings on competitive keywords in high value industries like betting and finance without breaching Google’s guidelines.

Whether or not that’s fair is, frankly, entirely beside the point. Businesses in general don’t care about what’s fair – they care about their profit, and will do what it takes to maximise that profit. If that involves breaking the arbitrary guidelines drawn up by another profit-maximising company – in this case, Google – then so be it. Like I said, we’re not breaking any laws here. I could draw up a rule that other digital agencies aren’t allowed to approach my clients, but that won’t stop them from doing so. Google’s rules are similarly for the benefit of Google and Google only, and I have no obligation to adhere to them.

If you as a marketer are content to stick to the rules laid out by another for-profit company for its own benefit – not your benefit nor your clients’ benefit – then fair play to you. I suspect it’s a moral high ground plenty of white hat SEOs are comfortably sitting on.

But actively and publicly outing other SEOs for daring to go their own way with an approach you don’t agree with – i.e. black hat SEO – and thus causing real damage to people’s jobs and lives, that makes that moral high ground seem rather shallow.

About Agnete Tøien Pedersen

Agnete Tøien Pedersen is Head of SEO in iProspect Norway and has years of experience within SEM, SEO, web publishing and journalism. She is also chairman of the Board of Ethical SEM in Norway, BraSøk. On a daily basis she is working with customers of all sizes, in Norway, the Nordics and internationally.

29 thoughts on “Outing Black Hat SEO; Should we, or should we not?

  1. what a fascinating discussion, and I can see both sides of the argument. But then I don’t fly with the whole black hat/white hat argument anyway. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing. This isn’t the old west, or a cowboy movie. This is real life and we are charged with getting results for our clients.

    All SEO (short of on page stuff) is “grey hat” anyway. Anything we do to increase the rankings of our sites in Google is essentially against their webmaster guidelines. My example, you write a good blog post and post it on your clients site…you need to seed that blog post for it to get any traction and build links naturally. Whether that’s through a paid suggestion network such as outbrain, taboola or even zemanta, or something like paid stumbles, tweets, social etc. You do outreach to other sites, your end goal is very likely to get incoming links to that post via people finding your post on these paid channels, it is very rarely to get the traffic itself from the initial outreach.

    This in itself is essentially paid links. OK, you don’t know where the links are going to come from, but without all the money and time you’ve spent promoting your blog entry, it’s unlikely to gain any traction by itself (short of having an actively engaged community). Google seems to be promoting an “if you build it, they will come” mentality, and that’s just not the case for the majority of sites.

    So let’s look at the “black hat” argument. As Barry says, the webmaster guidelines are not laws and people who choose to promote their sites without considering them are not outlaws, they are making a business decision. There are no ethics involved, it’s not an ethical argument, the right to life argument is an ethical arguement, what techniques you use to rank a site is not. We as SEOs use these terms like blackhat/white hate, ethical link building but that whole concept is flawed.

    The only thing that taints that is when an SEO company uses these techniques without actively discussing the potential consequences with the client. If they have, and the client is willing to accept that risk for a short term gain (for example, a site using black hat techniques to rank for high traffic keywords just before Christmas might be worth the risk of having to do the manual reconsideration request etc after Christmas when business is quieter anyway) or willing to use a pump and dump model, then that is up to the client. AS LONG AS THE RISKS ARE DISCUSSED

    The other thing to consider is that Google is constantly changing the definition of what it considers black hat. You just have to look at the recent announcement regarding guest blogging, which was for a long time considered the whitest of white hat techniques to build links and now you’re going to have SEO companies running round disavowing links from previous guest blogging work.

    However, I also understand the frustration of trying to rank a website by using techniques that conform to Google’s webmaster guidelines to see your work eclipsed by other sites using techniques that you’ve agreed with your client wouldn’t be a good idea. So should you out those using the techniques? Well I guess that’s a personal decision.

    Most of these posts we see outing those using techniques that don’t conform to Google’s webmaster guidelines are self serving link bait in themselves. They are not done to make things better, or make things a more even playing field, they are done to promote a company/author.

    1. Doing paid promotion or outreaching people, who may be interested in your content is not against the Google’s guidelines IMHO: it’s marketing. Yes, you are doing that also because of the links that content may gain, but – at least that’s my main objective – you do it because you want to reach out your audience there where your audience is.
      For instance, if I target people loving self-organized travels, and I wrote a great guide that may interests them, then I’d outreach some of the Lonely Planet writers, because I know my audience:
      1) visit the Lonely Planet site;
      2) trust Lonely Planet and its writers
      3) because Lonely Planet has a much bigger volume of people within my site audience than my site itself.

      If then Lonely Planet links to me with a follow link… hurray!, but if it doesn’t do it, I don’t care, because the main objective has been achieved anyway.

      1. Hi Giunluca

        Thanks for responding, I see your point but I can’t help wondering whether your main objective from doing the outreach is to really have your content seen by 3 or 4 people?

        Where as I agree, outreach to related authors, writers etc on quality sites is a great way to promote your post. If they then do nothing with it (which you say you don’t care about), then that’s a very limited way of getting visitors…

        1. Mmm… I’ve said that if Lonely Planet – in my example – cite my content and link to it, I don’t despair if it’s not followed, because people will click on it anyways and I will receive quality referral traffic (a part gaining in brand exposure, obtaining the advantage of co-occurences on a trusted site…), and surely that exposure on such an authoritative site will end up producing links (also followed ones) to my content.

          1. Ah, now that we can agree on. In this case the nofollow link will be equally valuable in driving referral traffic and other engaged site owners. Those following people who are engaged with your post because of that link may also link to it from other sites.

            I misread your original reply whereby the outreach was just to get the authors to read your post and you didn’t care if they ignored it completely

  2. Really like that one
    Black hat SEO breaks only one company’s rules: Google’s own arbitrary webmaster guidelines
    Because that is what really happens.
    In my opinion, there are different elements:
    Your act as a company or as a “online Professional”
    You acts affect to your company or to others.
    According to that, the problem gets different dimension.

  3. “But actively and publicly outing other SEOs for daring to go their own way with an approach you don’t agree with – i.e. black hat SEO – and thus causing real damage to people’s jobs and lives, that makes that moral high ground seem rather shallow.”

    Isn’t that part of the risk the black hat takes? Why should they have it both ways?

      1. Perhaps they are. But what does that have to do with the fact that if you want to take a risk and use those tactics, the risk also involves being outed? Why blame the outers for hurting your business when you knew the risk going into it?

        1. It’s not about blaming the outers, it’s about the outers themselves realising what they are doing and who they’re really helping – and hurting. The naivety of outing is what I’m trying to address.

  4. If we didn’t out shady tactics then the likes of Rap Genius wouldn’t get 1000’s of free links and publicity worth millions.

  5. Obviously we should call them out. Blackhat hasn’t just wrecked search for Google but for Whitehats. I’m not talking about the shady area of liberally intepreting Google’s TOS – I mean the high scale scandalous stuff. If you want a fair, free, even space, then blackhat cannot be tolerated.

    I really struggly with the conspiracy-theory sounding binary education that outing blackhat is helping AdWords….

    1. You don’t think that Google is trying to grow your AdWords spend and decrease the validity of SEO, as part of their legal obligation to maximise profits? Seems awfully naive…

      1. Heh! Yes, it does definitely help AdWords if your site has been penalisted but I dont see penalising good sites will help.

        But in order to sell Google AdWords, it needs to be number 1 organic engine too, as AdWords gets less than 20% of total clicks. The quality of the organic results must be higher or the product will be irrelevant to users, and subsequently users

        1. True, but Google is very good at blurring the difference between AdWords and organic (and makes concessions only insofar as they can squeeze past the watchful eye of regulators). Read this for example: https://www.stateofdigital.com/adwords-vs-organic-difference/

          Additionally Google is taking over specific verticals like travel and finance with in-SERP comparison engines, all so that Google can take a larger share of the whole internet revenue pile.

          1. Yup – the lines are well and truly fuddled – beyond blurred, they’re intermingled.

            “There can be only one”

          2. To me Black Hat accounts for the nasty sh!t that goes on (hacking sites for link injections etc). Just because something is not advised by Matt Cutts or goes against what Google are advising/saying/writing into their TOS, this week, does NOT make it Black Hat in my view.

            If Google were a non profit, regulated organisation dedicated to the good of the internet it would be one thing…but make no mistake there primary goal is to make money. My duty to our clients is to make them (and by extension my company) money. Not to make Google money.

            The way I look at it, it’s not our job to do Google’s job for them…and what is black hat these days anyway?? It seems to depend on the person you talk to and whether they believe Grey Hat is a thing.

            imo ANYTHING that manipulates Google’s SERPS is effectively Grey Hat, and if it isn’t yet, just give Cutts & Co time. That doesn’t make it unethical in my view. Hacking someone else’s site or some other shady tactic on the other hand is a different story.

            Personally I feel if a tactic works you have to evaluate the risk profile in the context of how effective it is. I also think if Google want to have great SERPs they need to make that happen algorithmically rather than through propaganda…

            I genuinely believe if Google had their way there would be no SEO industry, just a PPC/SEM one.

          3. Neil – what do Google sell ? Organic rankings. If people didn’t get “unpaid” for results – even if they click on paid results – then it offers nothing to them.

            There’s a world of difference between two people’s definition of an SEO optimised website. Every month I deal with “this site is already 100% SEO optimised” only to find that there might be 6 months of work that we create for the web designer to bring it up to par.

            Its not about designing sites for search engines – its about web designers understanding how people might find their site, and the answer is almost never because of the design.

            I’m doing this for 15 years now and the interest, importance and results have never been better.

          4. So Barry, I thought about this long and hard. I recently had to drive across the little Island of Ireland that we live on and it gave me 2 hours to think about this.

            What makes it hard is the arbitrary nature of the ToS violations. That good white hats easily become hit with no good reason, and the tar brushing that follows suit.

            But, and I say this as the founder of an agency that is 10 years old (I registered PrimaryPosition.com in 2004 – its easily checked) – we picked a path of trying to stay very ethical and white hat and tow the Google line (which, honestly, used to be much easier),

            There are/were 3 outcomes to this decision – and this is why I am not against outing blackhat SEO’s or filing Google spam reports or calling the beneficiary companies who have hired blackhats to spam my blogs.

            Firstly, there is a very definitive blackhat industry that in no-way resembles SEO. It isn’t SEO be any definition of the word, it is just link buying. We have to “compete” with fake agencies here in Ireland and the EU that are front offices to link sweatshops based in lower income economies.

            We couldn’t compete with the incredibly cheap offerings, the sheer scale and the complete and utter nonsense proffered as “consultancy.” These agencies – which have now cost companies 100’s of €1000’s in lost revenue are still there, most of them penalised so badly that they don’t rank in the first 100 results but do happily run PPC.

            If you think I’m exagerating, I spent just 5 minutes Googling up this example


            So no – I have no issues with outing true blackhat cowboy businesses. I do respect SEO’s who have gotten nailed because Google started with a broad, low-touch interpretive almost philosophical approach to explaining it’s ToS, I even sympathise with those who got into grey areas.

            But there are some that I secretly enjoy seeing justice served. Of sorts.

          5. I suppose it depends on how you define ‘SEO’. For me, if it gets results for the client, it’s a legitimate tactic.

            Also, you speak of ‘justice’ – but, as I say in the post, Google is not the internet police. The only justice you’re serving is Google’s own bottom line. Outing black hats has, as I explain in my side of the debate, negative repercussions for ALL of SEO. You’re harming yourself as well whenever you out a BH.

  6. This is exactly what they want.

    The algorithm has massive shortcomings right now. Just look at the Viagra SERP, it is all hacked sites. But without getting rid of links altogether, we are going to be stuck with things how they are for some time.

    But, what they can do right now, is to turn people against each other.

    I mean, we have a respected white hat stating that he is happy to out other SEOs.

    Rather than putting his faith into following the Google guidelines and being justly rewarded. That’s how you rank a site right? We now have a situation where people are turning on one another.

    There were some notions about responsibility and following the rules. But let’s be brutally honest with each other here.

    Outing is born out of frustration. Whether or not people care to admit it. Google isn’t your friend. Writing a nice blog post for them isn’t going to get you any brownie points. What outing does guarantee you, as long as the right person sees your post, is that pesky competitor off the SERPs.

    Can’t outrank a competitor? Following the guidelines getting you nowhere? Just drop us an email or write a post with some evidence and we’ll take care of the rest.

    We’ve already had the crowd sourced spam identifier in the disavow tool (10/10 for that one) and this is now the next step. Crowd sourced outing of websites breaking the guidelines.

  7. Google always hates Black Hat techniques. But still, an untraceable white hat technique exist under Penguin Era. I learn two of them from symbianize. And it really works.

  8. Black hat should not always = “bad guys” just as white hat should not always = “good guys.” There are plenty of examples of black hat practitioners who are not harming the overall search experience, just as there are examples of white hat advocates who most assuredly are.

  9. I actually need help I have so many teams using data for the problems they create I amreally overwhelmed at the collusion. They are providing the work for BIG DATA project. I am in deep with this and I am just a homemaker and no one is getting this abuse of power and harrassment. Maybe Ill get your call. but email is worse but I get to see it for a second. [email protected]

  10. I loved this article. I have to laugh reading my old post. It is amazing how unintellible my words end up whenever I seek help for my tech nightmare. Now I am mirrored and there is a new program for best WP Defense. I have to see what they are trying to teach me now. Marginalized and isolated. This is ridiculous. The industry cant eat its own young and.think normal less techy users will follow. It.never got better after Super Nitendo. 🙂 i am a lucky one.I know the highest people to call. I havent yet. No one seems connected to anything else. Plausible denial and big checks to charity is not.really getting what you can only knkw by those who arent in on the know. . I am not mad. I an jist glad my sons an daughters arent hurting people as a guise for employment or advocacy. All this intelligence should be better managed. There is room for individuals to di well because there is not a corporation that has a clue to the demographics… instead they rely on data that is very suspect. Who needs more interactive apps? Who knew that Steve Job didnt allow his own.children on the internet? STEM. You have to have boots on the ground and that feeds the innovation. Pretty soon the world will figure it. still is ignorant. Reel in the.technet creation team and just. ask those bright young people what communities they belong to and how it helps them to know about the other hundred variables that is unique to people groups and what matters. Relational is never going out and in its void is where tyrants rise to fool the ignored. Sorry no working spell check. Hope everyone is working towards conflict resolutions. We cant fear everything. Praying for you Paris.

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