By Chaz Wilke, Staff Writer
February 17, 2014


Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com

Let's say that you have a website. It's a little slice of internet real estate to call your own. You fill your space with pretty pictures, uplifting words, and maybe a thing or two to sell. You might not heavily market your site, but people still find you. One of the reasons they can is because search engines scan, index and rank your site in their search results.

There was a time when you could load your site with keywords, hidden through code or just right there on the page, and potentially trick the search engines into thinking you have a better site, or a different site focused on different things.

There were many reasons to do this, but ultimately more keyword hits on a search engine results page means exposure for your site, which means more people visiting each month. And each visitor means a better chance of converting them to leads. And each lead means more money.

Yesteryear's wild west of the internet was filled with sites that found ways to trick search engines like Google into thinking their site was relevant and important. Then, frustrated by the quality of links that Google's own first page presented, the big G decided to separate the types of search engine optimizations (SEO) they would allow to affect site rankings. And along the way, Google coined the terms black hat and white hat SEO.

We're not talking about a fancy dinner party, or a magician's wardrobe. The terms black hat and white hat are confusing misnomers to the average person on the street. But to your SEO specialists, those terms have become a common classification of tricks and tactics.

These classifications aren't referring to the legality of an action. Illegal is still illegal. Black hat SEO really only applies when the action is in direct opposition to terms of use of another company's platform. Think of it like lying about how tall you are in a dating profile, or giving someone a box of chocolates without telling them that you've already eaten half of it. Sure, they are not the nicest things to do, but you're not going to jail over it.

Another great real-life analogy for black hat SEO is when Taylor Swift won for best female video at the MTV VMA's. Kanye West jumped on stage and started ranting about Beyonce's video being the best of all time. Think of the award show as the search field on google.com, and the winner of the award, Taylor Swift in this case, as the search query that got entered on the site. Kanye jumping in and grabbing the microphone, thereby diverting the audience's attention from Ms. Swift to him and Beyonce is essentially a form of black hat SEO in real life. While Kanye's antics were deemed rude, it actually functioned exactly as he planned. In fact, it worked to solidify his name in the headlines and sparked a larger debate over who really should have won that award. Mission accomplished, Kanye.

Specifically the difference between white and black hat SEO is as simple as the difference between what is allowed versus disallowed when intentionally affecting how a site ranks on a search engine. The terms and conditions of use for each search engine should outline what each platform uniquely allows and denounces.

Google's official stance on changes to what is allowed is often based on a simple value-added proposition. They want to make sure that the elements affecting a site's ranking are adding overall value to the end user of the site. This is their north star in the fight against spam. They want to make sure that the highest ranking spots on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) are given to the sites that are providing a real service to their visitors.

Hummingbird

Every so often, Google makes a big announcement concerning their latest algorithm changes to how their search functions including what they now consider forbidden when it comes to all things spam and SEO.

Announced on September 26th 2013, Google introduced Hummingbird to the world.

Google's innocuous name choices have become something of a trademark. Only in Google's world could an operating system be called Ice Cream Sandwich. Google's main intention with the name hummingbird was to evoke a sense of the algorithm being "precise and fast."

So what is included in these changes to the algorithm?

Google's Senior VP Amit Singhal explains that their main focus is to change the search algorithm to be more reactive to conversational context, adding that "people communicate with each other by conversation, not by typing keywords - and we've been hard at work to make Google understand and answer your questions more like people do."

Conversational Context Search

While it may seem that Google's focus is to diminish black hat SEO tactics, they publicly present their focus more towards actually sophisticating their search algorithms to tailor the search results to the conversational context of the user's speaking patterns.

Along with the potential of a future where someone could have a real conversation with Google's search, hummingbird also implements some advancement to the Knowledge Graph, including support for more languages. The big G promises "you'll get richer answers from the Knowledge Graph if you speak Polish, Turkish, and Traditional and Simplified Chinese."

Introduced a little over a year ago, Google's Knowledge Graph is a vast matrix of people, places and things. In practice, this means that Google is prepared to answer conversationally-phrased questions that are likely to follow queries like "What's the temperature in Los Angeles?" Google's Knowledge Graph is prepared to answer other Los Angeles related questions like, "What's traffic like on the 101 right now?" or "How long will it take for me to get there?"

Previously, a search engine wouldn't be able to know what "there" was referring to in a separate search query. But this is what conversational context and the Knowledge Graph hope to satisfy.

It would seem that these changes would wreak havoc on traditional keyword SEO tactics. But Matt Cutts, Google's head of the webspam team, put these fears to rest at 2013's PubCon. He surprised the crowd by saying that the algorithm had been in place a month before the announcement with very few people taking notice of the changes without Google deliberately pointing them out.

After hearing this news, Moz, one of the industry's leading SEO blogs, admits they saw fluctuations in their site's stats that project the implementation date of hummingbird right around August 20th, 2013. Using that date as the potential change point, it might be worth digging through your records to see if there had been any shift in usage stats on your own site.

Google's Black Hat Fight

While Google remains vigilant in their fight against spam, they've made it clear that their outward focus is to promote quality content. Essentially, they want to create an environment where the novice or inexperienced SEO specialist will not consider black hat tactics as a faster method to make money.

And it seems like it is working.

Google's tactics are interesting in that it's pretty clear they already know every black hat tactic out there. After all, they coined the term. However aside from the heavily publicized updates they don't usually spend their time hunting down individual black hat SEO specialists, barring a few newsworthy instances.

The most recent directed action that made national news was when Matt Cutts publicly called out the lyric database website Rap Genius. This rising venture-capital-funded company was caught using spammy SEO techniques where they'd essentially sell tweets to other blogs that were willing to add contextually unnatural Justin Bieber links on their sites that linked back to Rap Genius. This was an instance of intentional link-buying black hat SEO performed by a brash and attention-hungry upstart.

The specific Google condition that Rap Genius violated reads: "Additionally, creating links that weren't editorially placed or vouched for by the site's owner on a page, otherwise known as unnatural links, can be considered a violation of our guidelines." This infraction led to a -50 penalty for 30 days on their PageRank.

An important distinction of the infraction was made by Rap Genius' user Babbler:

"While this doesn't violate Google's explicit terms of service, the Big G decided that it was a violation of the implicit ToS, because the suggested use case was a static list of Justin Bieber song links, rather than anything directly related to the blog topic. In other words, it felt like an attempt to juice [Rap Genius'] PageRank through link buying, even if the tactic wasn't explicitly forbidden."

The site is still operational and includes an open letter to Google apologizing saying the state of the lyric-site business is a rough one adding that "other lyrics sites are almost definitely doing worse stuff, and we'll stop. We'd love for Google to take a closer look at the whole lyrics search landscape and see whether it can make changes that would improve lyric search results."

There is much to learn about this case study. While we'll reserve judgment on the tactics utilized by Rap Genius, it seems like they made a lot of noise and shouldn't have been surprised that they attracted the attention of the big G.

The experienced black hat SEO specialist is often far less obvious or reactionary.

The key is to stay calm and understand the possible outcome of your choices. A knee-jerk reaction is what Google is looking for, so the experienced black hat SEO specialist waits to see if the big G will contact them directly or if they are just playing around with their new algorithm requirements.

Essentially the experienced black hat SEO specialist waits to see the proof of the change by watching the change of their site's ranking, not just a press release from Google.

However, this method comes at a cost.

You would need to be ready to have your site banned from Google's search results. This would be considered a death sentence for many affiliate marketers. No amount of keyword adjustments will fix a banned site.

Also remember Google's sandboxing filter, where they allegedly withhold a new site's ability to rank with desired keywords for a set amount of time, usually 6 - 8 months. And, this filter apparently stands completely independent of the quality of the content on your site.

What this means is that if you're heavily dependent on search result ranking for your inbound lead generation, it might be worth it to avoid black hat SEO all together and do what Matt Cutts tells us. Create great content that provides a service to your visitor.

The floating point of what's allowed versus not allowed is contentious for most SEO specialists both experienced and inexperienced alike. This Rap Genius instance brings up the inherent issue with human intervention in organic search results.

How do you bring the hammer down on one site when not also expanding scrutiny to the site's competitors at the same time? The subjectivity of pursuing complaints has caused many SEO specialists to cry foul. This then makes SEO's proverbial black hat seem more like a witch's hat considering the often subjective justification of Google's webspam hunt.

Measurable UX and Branding

Another recent push by Google is their ability to quantify user experience, or UX.

Something like user experience seems like it would need to remain reserved to the qualitative spectrum. After all how could a person's subjective, unspoken feeling towards a website get turned into a quantifiable metric?

Through scrutiny of user activity on a given site, Google asserts that they are able to mathematically quantify the satisfaction of the user. The big G has created a deceptively simple metric they call pogosticking and thrust it into their search ranking algorithm.

Amit Patel, one of the first engineers hired at Google, explains the logical explanation of a seemingly illogical metric in the book In The Plex by Steven Levy. "If people type something and then go and change their query, you could tell they aren't happy," explains Patel. "If they go to the next page of results, it's a sign they're not happy."

So, it's this bouncing back to the search results that Google measures. Clearly a satisfied user would have found what they were searching for, thereby ending the user's return cycle to that or related search queries. Each time a user comes back to the search engine results page to dig deeper into the query's results, Google identifies that user's dissatisfaction with the results provided.

Since this metric has been implemented in Google's ranking algorithm, keyword stuffing could decrease in long-term effectiveness as it doesn't satisfy the end user, thereby increasing the user's pogosticking metric and conversely decreasing the UX value of that site.

Due to this change, even black hat SEO specialists have begun focusing on the user experience. This trend is likely not to change as Google is insistent on pushing value-based metrics for their search engine ranking algorithms.

Grey Hat - A word on walking the line

Let's boil this down to a simple value proposition.

While many contemporary SEO specialists would classify their tactics as grey hat, what they mean by that is they engage in high-value and low-value tactics as well as high-risk and low-risk tactics, all with a long-term or short-term mindset. Sure, business sustainability comes into question when referring to those low-end tactics. But if they work, they work. Like figuring out the trick of a carnival game, low-end tactics can produce results. And like a carnival, it can all disappear overnight.

Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com

However, as stated earlier, these classifications can be quite nebulous. So when you've gone through all the work of establishing a site that conforms to the stringent specifications presented by Google, adhering solely to white hat tactics, you should be in the clear.

Right?

Well, not exactly. At any given time, Google can release an update to their algorithm and terms of use, instantly darkening the color of your hat. Suddenly, it's a scramble to adjust affiliations with tactics now deemed unacceptable before Google's ban hammer slams down removing your site and all your hard work from their search results.

In the end, it's a matter of just going along with what you're told, and not trying to get away with what isn't explicitly forbidden. Google isn't going anywhere, and their search, for lack of a better competitor, is THE search of the internet.

Being told what to do by a company that's found success on the internet might feel demoralizing but playing nice is required to maintain a long and prosperous affiliate career. Slipping into grey hat and black hat tactics absolutely has its advantages for short-term revenue generation, but just stay mindful of the watchful eye of Google. They won't be getting any more lenient in the future.

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