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

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

21st January 2014

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.


Written By
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...
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