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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.

Patricio Robles

Published 14 December, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2379 more posts from this author

Comments (17)

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Justin Hayward

Nice post Patricio,

I have to agree my first concerns were around the real-time spam issues we will now face, along with easier opportunities for anti-competitive practices to grow using twitter status updates and targeting competing terms. 

This also works to an affiliate advantage getting high page prominence for terms that were previously quite difficult and directing traffic away from brands via the affiliate sites. 

Most notably, this makes it even more important to monitor social channels and adjust your SEO and particularly PPC messaging strategy accordingly to take advantage of user comment and discussion.

over 6 years ago

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Mark Alan Effinger

(First observation - there are two blog comments, yet a stream of tweets as long as my arm regarding this post... I think that says a lot about how info is being disseminated today).

Excellent post.

As an SEO using video, images, PR, blog posts, social bookmarks, microblogging and a few other obscure approaches to serving clients long-term, legit SEO vs borderline spammish/grey hat SEO is certainly a balance.

I get crap from my own cohorts when I use bulk content distribution tools to do some heavy lifting and get the message out faster. And then we do it by hand, with the same results, but with a lot more cost and time.

What really works is the find the traffic and stand in front of it, then focus on conversion. It's no longer about moving bits. There's enough digital detritus out there to damp your signal regardless of your methods.

It's about effectively converting existing traffic. Then escalating the traffic through tried and true methods. Prove, then scale.

I think some of the smarter folks are those doing JV partnerships: cross pollinating consumer groups is a win for everyone, if done with integrity.

Just my two cents.

Really great post. I'd love to see a cure for digital crap. We can always hope.

Best,

Mark Alan Effinger

http://ww.ThoughtOffice.com

over 6 years ago

Adrian Bold

Adrian Bold, Director at Bold Internet Ltd

What a great post, Patricio. A bit like Mark, I'm surprised this hasn't received more comments given the popularity on Twitter. Perhaps, everyone is just too busy Twittering...

It is interesting the number of websites that appear to be 'flying high' in Google yet quite clearly shouldn't. I guess though, that all the time the brand is so strong, people (searchers) will just believe the results that are presented.

I guess better competition amongst the search engines would help but who's really going to switch their default search engine? I wish Bing well and would like to see them putting up a fight with Google but still find myself using Google for the majority of my search tasks.

over 6 years ago

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Peter Cullen

Put yourself in the shoes of the average SEO service provider, there're getting paid to deliver a service, a service which may or may not result in better rankings.

If the service provider deliverss a service that results in the client's website being kicked out of Google's index, would you risk it?

The blackhat stuff works - there's no doubt about that, but the impact is fleeting. Once they're eventually caught, off they go again, another bogus domain name, backlinks..etc

The bottom line with this is asking yourself as an SEO service provider, 'Am I willingly to get better rankings in the short term and risk getting my client's website kicked out of the index long term?'

The answer is...maybe!

Yes if I'm looking for a quick buck and then move on.

No if I'm looking to build a reputation as a reputable SEO service provider.

I don't thiink this is going to change anytime soon, what I do see changing though is traffic being generated in mulitple ways, i.e. social media + organic + ads

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Adrian,

It's cynical, but I'm coming to believe there's a good reason why SEOs don't want to talk about this stuff: if SEO newbies and clients knew how bad it really is, it would be a lot harder to make money because legitimate SEO would be far less appealing to prospective clients.

Think about it this way: why would somebody agree to pay a legitimate SEO, say, $2,500/month for six months to get the ball rolling if he knew that he could probably have 1000x more backlinks at the end of six months spending $2,500/month with a decent linkbroker?

Peter,

I'm not sure how fleeting it is. As pointed out here, some of the sites shut down by Scotland Yard well over a week ago still have their top SERPs. And that's on top of people complaining about these sites to Google for months now.

When it comes to paid links alone, I've seen sites maintain their top SERPs for a long time and the backlink trail indicates they've been buying links on no-name sites through well-known linkbrokers for years without penalty.

All this said, I absolutely agree that it would be unethical to use blackhat techniques with clients if those clients don't know that they're being used and haven't been given 'informed consent.'

But as someone whose only real interest in SEO today relates to websites I own, I'm looking at it from a slightly different perspective: if a prospective client knew about all this, why would he or she want to pay good money for 'legitimate' SEO? After all, a decent budget can buy you a lot of links, and if your competition is using paid links or blackhat techniques, your legitimate SEO provider realistically has little chance of getting you top SERPs with an honest strategy.

So in a sense, a lot of the criticisms about SEO being a rip-off are probably true for a lot of mom and pop clients. If SEOs were honest about the effectiveness of webspam and blackhat tricks, a lot of them would be out of work. That's probably a good incentive to perpetuate myths about Google's capabilities and the risks of being penalized. "No, don't buy links. You'll get banned. Instead, spend $20,000 with me over the next year to do things right."

over 6 years ago

Gareth Morgan

Gareth Morgan, Managing Director at Liberty Marketing Ltd

In my experience, small businesses and start-ups are far more likely to be chasing localised keywords or niche markets, so sticking to white-hat techniques is often enough to get them high rankings within a few months. It's the larger, national businesses that are only getting turned on to SEO now where I feel this issue is most important. For example, I am meeting with an insurance company tomorrow that is targeting very popular, very competitive keywords. I will be giving my thoughts on all SEO, white-hat and black-hat (though we would only perform white-hat work for them) as all of their competitors are involved in link purchases, so they need to know accurately what they are up against. With small businesses I don't really go into the subject as it isn't necessary.

What I'm getting to is, it all depends on the competitiveness of the keywords and the practices used within that market.

over 6 years ago

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Aloysius Carl

Great post.  Good job writing about the skeleton in the closet that no one wants to talk about. 

In my opinion, Google will only attempt to address this with cheap and unsophisticated algorithms until they have money on the line.  Then they'll take it seriously and do something that will knock a good bit of it out.  Until that time, these techniques will continue to work and provide lift. 

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Gareth,

In my experience, the problem with 'longtail' search phrases is that you usually need a ton of them to drive a meaningful number of sales, leads, etc.

Hypothetical example:

1. Local business.
2. Ranks first page for 3 key longtail phrases that deliver 150 visitors a month.
3. 10% convert (generous) at an average order size of say $50.
4. That's $750/month in revenue.

Does $750/month make a business? Probably not.

Obviously, this is just an example but in general, longtail SERPs are likely to deliver on the lower end, not on the higher end, unless you have hired a full-time SEO and he or she is successful in scaling the effort out in a dedicated fashion so that you're getting big traffic from a large portfolio of very niche keywords/phrases. Big if.

At the end of the day, it's very easy for a small business to spend more on SEO than it gets back in revenue. So the question I'm increasingly asking is why a small business with little to no internet revenue and ~0 backlinks to its website should pay an SEO $1,000/month instead of spending say $200/month on some backlinks from a reputable broker?

Until I see some legitimate SEOs answering the question and addressing the economics, it's really easy to look at Google's inability to police blackhat techniques and paid links and wonder if 'honest' SEO makes any sense for the average business.

over 6 years ago

Jayne Reddyhoff

Jayne Reddyhoff, Director at The Ecommerce Adviser

Patricio

Excellent post as usual!

I have to say I do agree with Gareth on this. Don’t forget, not all small businesses are selling low ticket products.

In the past few months I have worked with several SMEs selling services/software costing from £1000 to £30,000 and we have been able to secure first page listings for 10+ longtail keyword phrases. Fortunately they have all been able to provide good content to support these search terms.

If one of these businesses gets just 6 extra, good, qualified prospects every month, they are very happy.

But one thing your article has done is to confirm that I made the right decision to target the smaller, specialist, high value service providers rather than low cost commodity ecommerce retailers!

over 6 years ago

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terrie

Agree with Gareth. There are many small businesses out there that not only don't know how to do SEO for themselves, but wouldn't have the time even if they did know. And, they need to be competitive online, even if they are very local. Even if the keywords that work for them ARN'T super competitive, it is still important to implement...how many sites do we know don't rank at all? That makes any web endeavor a waste of time and money.  Websites can be expensive...any marketing and advertising endeavor can be expensive..why not do it right in the first place, and not waste money, especially in the case of a small business without millions to burn.

over 6 years ago

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rohn smith

hi ,these are very good points.But now google is going to change their stretegies in which ld black hat techniques will not work...

over 6 years ago

Alice Morgan

Alice Morgan, Freelance digital marketing consultant at Freelance

I thought the post was great. I also have enjoyed reading the debate that followed. One of the best!

My own personal experience, working at pan-European level for a couple of automotive clients, is that if you're working with big brands, you are so much more visible to Google and therefore have do everything 100% above board. There is no other way.

I feel that Google, in its effort to serve up highly relevant content to match consumers' searches, has probably overstretched itself and, despite its (I believe) good intentions, it just can't police the volume. That's why smaller businesses and, I'm sorry to say, counterfeiters can slip easily under the radar. There is too much to index and too much fragmentation of content for Google to have any chance. So the spotlight shines on well-known brands whose hats have to be white as white!

over 6 years ago

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Chris

I think a lot of these comments are spot on.

My experience of working for a couple of major financial service providers with a good number of online brands is that many companies are so worried about being penalised by Google that they would never push the boundaries past the most basic techniques. So smaller outfits with less to lose are often going to have the ability to do well in a niche like the Ugg Boot niche.

over 6 years ago

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Maggie

Okay, that's it. I give in! Caffeine is supposed to be something in my coffee. I'm outsourcing. The guys I've found who seem to be good at keeping up with this are at 3Prime (www.3-prime.com). I wave the white flag and will be paying someone else to manage it all for me...

over 6 years ago

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Ian

Great post! It's hard to decide which SEO strategies are good and which ones are bad. Especially as Google keeps changing the way it ranks pages. We will see what they will change after they will release their new Caffeine index.

over 6 years ago

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Mark @ Ghillies Suit Warehouse

I think that part of SEO services is on page content which most people paying for SEO don't ever think of.  A decent SEO service should provide links, on page optimization and even article writing.  SEO needs to have all facets.

about 6 years ago

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Mapics

I think a site editor like you should be able to run out the links as he sees fit, I have several site locations or I rent plus textual banner to sites that want it.

Google does not like it but it does not prevent him from cashing the sale of advertising space that I made through AdWords on its engine promotionner for my services, one side does not want Google to sell have a link but on the other as he earns a commission which he is a bit hypocritical on this prtaique there.

Google wants all the world passes through this board and knows that legitimate part to try to capture 100% of advertising revenue on the planet.

The link exchange is good but when it is done in both directions between two locations within this weight then passed through the purchase of secured link allows links to index pages with big pagerank and boost its site.

I have a client who does not want to wait 3 years to see their website placed at the head of the engines and it is easier to buy text links than wait until it takes off in X years.

SEO

Netlinking.tel

almost 6 years ago

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