I don't provide SEO services these days, but every once in a while, a friend or associate asks for some advice. I usually respond with the same high-level (and somewhat useless) stuff: structure your pages and internal links well, produce great content, execute a strategy to acquire high-quality, relevant backlinks and don't worry so much about the things you can't control. But more and more, I've become inclined to ask "Do you really want to know?"
While I've never been under the illusion that blackhat SEO was 'defeated', I've become increasingly resigned to the idea that it's far worse than most of us can imagine and Google just doesn't care as much as it says it does.
As an example, I point to an acquaintance of mine who runs a number of ecommerce websites. He asks me for advice occasionally, and when I looked at some of his competition recently, I had to tell him that for all his hard work day in and day out, he really didn't stand a chance. The competition was spending thousands of dollars monthly purchasing low-quality links and despite the fact that this should have been obvious to Google, Google was rewarding, not penalizing, the behavior.
Unfortunately, my acquaintance isn't alone in spinning his SEO wheels.
2009: Blackhat 1999 Still Works
When the average person thinks of blackhat SEO, he or she probably envisions some evil SEO mastermind who ingeniously works to game Google's system. But all of the evidence points to an inconvenient reality: you don't really need to be all that sophisticated to engage in effective blackhat SEO. Some of the most basic techniques that have been around since the late 90s are still working quite well, as we saw recently with the Scotland Yard crackdown.
I tried reaching out to a Google employee on Twitter to ask about the matter, but didn't get a response. okuggboots.co.uk, one of the scam websites shut down by Scotland Yard more than a week ago, still had a top spot in the Google UK SERPs until a few days ago. And other counterfeit websites which are no longer operational, including uggboots365.co.uk, still maintain top SERPs despite the fact that people have been complaining about them to Google for months.
This really says it all: Google has some really serious flaws. Flaws that you rarely see discussed in SEO circles. After all, basic spam link hiding techniques were supposedly shut down years ago, right? And if you report the most egregious of spam, it will be taken care of, right?
The question you might logically ask here: if you can use the most unsophisticated blackhat SEO techniques like hidden links to acquire top SERPs for a website selling counterfeit goods, get shut down by Scotland Yard and still maintain a top rank for lucrative keywords even after your site has been down for well over a week, what are the odds that Google is going to penalize your legitimate mom and pop website for, say, buying a few hundred paid links? The answer is pretty obvious.
Real-Time, Real Spam
Unfortunately, Google isn't stuck in 1999. Its bold foray into real-time search is providing new opportunities to game the system. As Rae Hoffman of Outspoken Media has already taken the time to demonstrate, the integration of real-time search enables real-time spam. Obviously, it remains to be seen how easy it will be to manipulate Google's new real-time functionality, but if I were a betting man, I'd put my money on moderately sophisticated bots and a few good Twitter accounts that look legitimate.
The good news for scammers, of course, is that real-time services like Twitter are already familiar spam havens. You don't have to look any further than Ugg boots to see that scammers are already well-versed in the art of Twitter spam. So if and when Google's real-time search becomes a meaningful driver of traffic, you can be reasonably certain that the scammers will position themselves to cash in. And if Google can't detect spam in its regular index, how is it going to filter it out of real-time streams?
What Does This All Mean?
Is SEO dead? In a pure sense, no. But given what has become quite evident, I think there are some rhetorical questions worth asking when it comes to 'legitimate' SEO:
- How can legitimate SEOs in good conscience tell their clients that old-school blackhat techniques and paid links are ineffective?
- Why are blackhat tricks and paid links promoted as 'risky' when the evidence says the opposite?
- Why shouldn't more companies employ techniques that are often frowned upon publicly, such as paid links?
I'm not suggesting that everyone go blackhat or spend thousands of dollars a month buying paid links on no-name spam blogs. And I'm not suggesting that legitimate SEO efforts can't produce any results. But at the same time, one has to wonder how sensible it is for businesses (especially smaller businesses) to spend good money on 'legitimate' SEO efforts that may take months or years to show any meaningful results, and which may never produce any results in competitive markets in which there's a significant amount of blackhat and link buying activity.
In other words, if you take a small business with a new website doing $0 in internet revenue right now, which is better: committing $1,000/month to a 'legitimate' SEO provider for six months or committing $1,000/month to paid links for six months? The conventional wisdom is that the former is the right approach and that the latter is a good way to get kicked out of Google's index. But given the amount of evidence that Google is either incapable of detecting bad behavior or less concerned with cracking down on it than is widely promoted, I suppose the question for whitehat SEOs is: why shouldn't more businesses do the latter?
SEO comes under attack from time to time, and although the attacks are usually misguided, I'm increasingly of the belief that issues like this deserve far more honest attention from SEOs than they receive. Until Google's shortcomings are acknowledged and addressed, perhaps some of the criticism leveled at SEO isn't entirely misplaced.