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While carrying out competitor analysis for clients I am increasingly coming across blatant black hat SEO practices that were once banned from the index.

Normally the process on discovery is clear. You report it to the web spam team and it disappears. However, lately the web spam submission form appears to be a black hole.

So is web spam, hidden text and cloaking now okay? Where has the web spam team gone?

When you consider this interesting post about paid links, you have to ask a few questions:

  • Is Google concentrating too much on world domination and lost its concentration on the customer?
  • Are the advertising dollars from customers helping them ‘overlook’ certain practices?

Whether sinister or not one thing is for sure; black hat is back. Let’s look at three excellent examples of black hat.

Web spam and cloaking respectively are at the top of the results for any search on rugby spread betting on google.co.uk. The two websites in question clearly provide different data to Google than to users. For hidden text we need look no further than a legitimate player, who seemingly can get away with hidden <H1> titles and not get penalised. Even after these sites were reported they keep on trucking.

Web spam: www.britishinformation.com/

Taking a look at this site, the entire content is Adwords which cannot be indexed. It serves no useful propose than to drive advertising revenues for themselves, and oh, Google!

Cloaking: www.sportsspread.com/

The entire page is different in Google than the actual code of the page being presented. As a highlight have a look at the different meta-descriptions.

Actual meta-description:
<meta name="description" content=" Sport spread betting is Profitable spread trading for you to Gamble and profit. We offer Online Spread Betting Golf Gambling, NFL Betting Spread, and Betting Cricket Spread for you to gamble and win. ”>

Cloaked meta-description:
<meta name="description" content="SportsSpread.com is an online tax free sport betting company for sports spread betting.  Before betting online see our competitive spread betting prices and promotions." />

Hidden text: http://www.vistaprint.co.uk

This perfectly nice page has some great hidden headings that only appear to Google. Look for the two headings in the cache that show “Photo Calendars, Personalised desk Calendars”. A clear example of manipulation as these have no clear or obvious accessibility advantages for impaired users.

But despite these problems being reported to Google and a loud complaint on the webmasters portal Google appear blind. I the same vain as the recent post on paid links, I am really beginning to question whether Google cares anymore. They have failed to respond to every request. Does this mean silence is the new black?

Julian Grainger

Published 7 January, 2010 by Julian Grainger

Julian Grainger is an internet consultant and cotnributor to Econsultancy.

9 more posts from this author

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George Rosier, Product Manager at Spark New Zealand

Interesting article. Just to let you knwo that some of the links in there seem to point to the wrong places, though - in particular the British Information 'site' and 'content' links.

over 6 years ago

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Amanda Radley

Good article, Google doesn't seem to care any more.  It's all about AdWords and revenue, the actual directory listings are getting more and more muddied.  

Seems to me that a lot of people have a small amount of SEO knowledge and they are running with it and the safeguards to prevent them flooding the engines just aren't there any more.

over 6 years ago

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Jason Smith

Black hat is back? - Black hat never went away in the first place. In some industries some form of  search manipulation techniques have to be employed to get ahead. If it continues to work then people will contine to use this form of SEO.

over 6 years ago

Garry Davis

Garry Davis, Director at Grow Digital Marketing

Interesting article. These are less blatant than many others i have seen in several other very competitive sectors. 

Ultimately SEO in some cases in coming down to a reward versus risk model. A 30 day ban may be worth the risk financially. 

over 6 years ago

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Craig Broadbent

agree with Jason - black hat never went away and is necessary in some competitive industries. you still see some schoolboy level black hat techniques like hidden text used on pages that rank which i've never really understood as I can't imagine it makes such a big difference on a link heavy algorithm like Google's.

I think in some cases it comes down to whether the search engines have picked spam up algorithmically, or if they're relying on spam reports. I also think the engines are using satisfaction metrics like bounce rate, time on site, volume of queries performed in timeframe etc. when judging quality, and if satisfaction rates are high for a site then that suggests a relevant result for the user, regardless of tactics used to get there in the first place... and ultimately user satisfaction is what the engines are aiming for.

over 6 years ago

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Andrew Nattan

Garry's right here. While people can get away with Black Hat with very little risk, they'll keep on doing it.

The problem comes when you take a white hat only stance. Call it naive, but sometimes you have to play things by the book for clients, and there's nothing worse than telling them someone's taking their business through "cheating".

It's frustrating, to say the least.

over 6 years ago

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Ross Matthews

Checking Google's search result for SportsSpread.com it seems the homepage rather than the frameset is being indexed.  Therefore is Google simply ignoring the frameset and showing the true homepage content, taking any unfair advantage / poor user experience out of equation?

Interestingly, Bing's search result for the same site actually displays the cloaked content from the frameset (body not meta). 

It would be worth an expert validating this but looks like Google has spotted it and Bing has taken the bait...

over 6 years ago

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David Quaid

AFAIK, breaking guidelines doesn't necessarily result in a penalty or ban.

Given the way dynamic content is structured, it may be unavoidable to have content version 1 show for Googlebot and content 3.x show for a regular user?

Things like hidden content, text in the same colour as the background, if I can remember were reasons for bans with Search Engines pre-Google - like Alta Vista, MSN, Yahoo.. But they also (and MSN still reads/allows 2 keywords in the meta-keywords) read the meta-keywords and meta-description for ranking whereas Google state clearly that they don't.

I look at it this way: you can could put hidden text but without authority, your site won't show - hidden or visible. Even if you don't have the text on the page, you can still show (e.g. Google Bombing - which may be dead but you can still show without the text on the page). We still don't seem to be able to get over the authority part of the ranking principle...Text doesn't bestow authority.

I'd say that the paid links form/spam form must probably generate tonnes of spam - no doubt the user validated one in the Webmasters Tools carries more weight. If you imagine how many sites are hit with spam, how easy would it be to just report your competitor?

over 6 years ago

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Shilpi

Interesting article, though observing this trend of websites with black hat SEO ranking on top Google SERPs for quite a long time now.

over 6 years ago

Adrian Bold

Adrian Bold, Director at Bold Internet Ltd

Thanks for the post.

As already mentioned, black hat has never gone away and anytime there's a very lucrative market, it is only to be expected that people are going to 'bend rules'.

over 6 years ago

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Scott - Video Production

Thanks for the article.  As a I SEO DIYer this is really dissappointing as we spend effort in our SEO through playing the books as we could not afford to be penalised.  Makes you think...

over 6 years ago

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David Quaid

@Scott - but Google's rules are very clear on their site and their blog. You have to becareful that just because someone writes a post or builds a site around things you could be penalised for - doesn't mean they really are.

One of the  biggest myths is that Duplicate content can result in a penalty - but that doesn't stop self styled experts from blogging about it or preaching about in forum's or websites.

over 6 years ago

Julian Grainger

Julian Grainger, Director of Media Strategy at Unique Digital

Thanks everyone for the comments.

I agree that black hat never went away but I think the point has been missed and this is a growing trend.

Google sponsor cloaking (A/B testing), and this trend has been increasing long before caffeine went live. Rather than a smattering we are now seeing a dominance of many search results.

Google may have recognised the cloaking but the listing still exists. Previously it would have been banned.

It is still indexing results on Vistaprint even though the bot view is different from the human view.

The adwords site still exists whereas before it would have been dropped.

All of these have been reported. Nothing has happened.

This shows a legitimising of black hat as acceptable practice. Before it was a risk. Now it seems they may have given up so we can all join in the fun.

Maybe the business risk no longer exists and black hat is now an acceptable practice?

over 6 years ago

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Moo

I see loads of my competitors getting ranked high up there by using spammy and black hat techniques. Sometimes it gets picked up but more often it doesn't, leaving them to carry on their merry way. I'm sure at some stage it will come back to bite them but Google doesn't seem to have their policing algos in shape, very surprising for the "do no evil" team

over 6 years ago

Julian Grainger

Julian Grainger, Director of Media Strategy at Unique Digital

@Moo out of interest, what are you seeing? Over the last few days Caffeine has allegedley been rolling out and I'm starting to see more rubbish in the SERPs.

over 6 years ago

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John Bradford

Caffeine update has produced high rankings for a number of very old (6+ years) pages that I had completly forgotten about! Perhaps Caffiene incorporates some sort of roll back to previous algo?

over 6 years ago

Garry Davis

Garry Davis, Director at Grow Digital Marketing

@Jean-michel de sousa This is my concern, black hat fuels black hat, if agencies employing these techniques are 'winning' then ultimately this will drag the others with them.

It is clear from the work we have completed that in a large number of businesses the board are not aware of the risks involved with this strategy / approach.

Its all well going out to deliberately run black hat and be aware of the risks, but what about those business who are not aware and end up with 'egg' on thier faces. 

over 6 years ago

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Shane

Great article. Daily people are profiting from these blackhat methods. Its not only on websites but they are used all over the internet. The reason so many people use it is basically because it works! Google need to implement more to stop it. People are using the likes of xrumer to build thousands of backlinks at a time to their website and many go unnoticed.

over 6 years ago

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John Nagle

The fundamental problem is that Google's business model requires web spam. When organic search works perfectly, taking the user to a site that gives or sells users what they want, Google makes no money. When search takes a user to an ad-laden site, or the ads displayed with a search result are more relevant than the organic search results, Google makes money.

At SiteTruth, we rate advertisers for legitimacy. The basic question our system asks is "can we find the real-world business behind this web site". We offer a Firefox plug-in which rates each Google ad that appears on the user's page, placing a rating icon atop each ad. As a result of this, we accumulate Google's customer list as our plugin contacts our servers. (We don't monitor user behavior, just advertiser behavior, which is more interesting.)

About 35-38% of Google advertisers, by domain, are what we call "bottom-feeders", sites with a commercial purpose but no identifiable business behind them. This reflects Google's rather low standards for advertisers.

It's sad. In the early days, Google tried not to be evil. Then, in 2006, they had a down quarter. That's when they turned to the dark side. They stopped sponsoring the Web Spam Summit and started sponsoring Search Engine Strategies. It's sad.

over 6 years ago

Chris Turberville-Tully

Chris Turberville-Tully, Managing Director at Inspiration Inc

Good article. For me a lot of what happens depends on your clients and the trust they place in you - if we are talking as an agency. Explaining why from a long-term and potential PR perspective why black-hat could be bad for business, is enough we usually find to convince clients to stay on what we all consider to be white-hat techniques.

Google is flawed but then aren't we all!

over 6 years ago

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Bob Barcus

I think that you have to patient in dealing with Google and waiting for them to 'discover' the tactics being used by a particular website. Given time, Google will eventually find out that a website is using unscrupulous code and will ban them from the search results. Overall, I think that Google does a good job.

The problem I have is that there are many SEO's out there that claim to offer guaranteed results (usually by using black hat methods) that give us all a bad name. If everybody just played nice with Google, then we wouldn't have to worry about damaging the reputation of our industry.

almost 6 years ago

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John Nagle

It's even worse on the "Google Places" front. Google Places is easy to spam, and the penalties for spamming are low. Some previously "white hat" companies are spamming in a big way, adding phony business locations and fake recommendations.

(Our paper on this: "http://www.sitetruth.com/doc/placesspam10.pdf")

Just to show how blatant this has become, see this video from Musson Media:

'"http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yHsI17fxAE"

Best viewed full-screen with the volume up, this is the most overproduced commercial for spam I've seen to date.

All this can be stopped (see our "http://www.sitetruth.com") but Google will have to take a much harder line than they've ever taken before.

over 5 years ago

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