Sure, manual actions and Penguin refreshes have penalized some of the most obvious offenders. The thing is, I’ve been in the industry long enough to know that the number of sites that get penalized is just the tip of the iceberg compared to the number of shady sites that go scot-free. Let’s not be naive here: a lot of us probably have personal knowledge of companies from startups to Fortune 500s that are dominating the SERPs with the help of questionable link building strategies.
I’m not here to judge. As a matter of fact, I think some “black hat” tactics aren’t as unethical as people make them sound.
And if you’re one of those white hat advocates that feel like taking a shower after reading about paid links, this post is not for you. Feel free to ride away on your moral high horse while the rest of us discuss the realities of the industry.
There are No Hats, Just Consequences
A few days ago, I had a conversation with one of the most prominent link builders in the Philippines. He asked me how I educate my team on the ethics of SEO. He asked if I talk about the difference between black hat and white hat, plus what to do and what not to do.
It was an interesting question.
I simply said that I handle the matter similar to how a father would talk about alcohol and tobacco to his child. When they’re starting out, we teach our SEO the purest methods. As they gain more experience, they will inevitably become more curious and they’ll start asking questions like “is it ok to do this?” and “what will happen if I try this?”
Most of the questions they ask will be close to so-called black hat practices such as comment spamming, link exchanges, link wheels, etc. We never say something is good or bad. We simply educate our SEOs on the possible risks and rewards of each link building scheme they think of.
Much like cigarettes and beer, some link building tactics carry risks and rewards. Whether you are open to taking on the risks is entirely up to you.
Of course, that advice only applies if the site is your own. If it’s a client’s site, all bets are off. You just don’t play with fire in someone else’s house —
unless, of course, the client specifically asks you to do it. In cases like that, I personally view it as an act between two consenting parties. As long as both sides understand the risks, it’s nobody else’s business. If things go awry, nobody should act like they’re surprised ether.
The Problem is Enforcement
While it’s perfectly reasonable to blame black hat link builders for the survival and proliferation of the practice, it’s hard to ignore Google’s (and other search engines’) shortcomings. The search giant’s deliberate ambiguity on its statements regarding links and its inability to penalize the not-so-obvious black hats serve as encouragement for some SEOs to push their luck.
For instance, if you check out Google’s page on link schemes, the opening statement says:
Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
The fact that they said may instead of will indicates to me that it’s either the vague rules aren’t absolute, or that Google understands that they can’t catch everyone. It gives me the sense that the gray area between natural link acquisition and manipulative link building is pretty wide and that’s where some SEOs take risks.
It’s human nature: as long as the limits re not defined and proven absolute, people will test how far they can go without getting burned. Given the fact that SEOs are under constant pressure from bosses and client to deliver results, it’s not surprising why some take chances with questionable techniques geared towards gaining a competitive advantage.
Over the past three years, I’ve met dozens of foreign and local SEO managers and agency owners. I can safely say that at least half of them have admitted that they’ve tried black hat tactics before and I only know of a couple of people who got penalized for very aggressive black hat SEO. As long as Google isn’t able to demonstrate that it can consistently catch and punish black hats, the practice will not go away. People will always find reasons to take risks.
No Such Thing as Fairness – Only Leverage
“Level playing field” is a concept that I find amusing after eight years in the digital marketing industry. According to white hat preachers, black hats are cheaters and they deserve to be punished because they’re not playing fair. While that sounds like the [self] righteous mindset, I look at it more pragmatically. Consider these points:
- How do we define cheating when the rules are not clear cut?
- Yesterday’s white hat can be today’s black hat. A few years ago, exact match anchor text in links was good practice. When Penguin came along, sites started getting hit because of this very same technique. Google’s view of what’s bad and how hard they come down on it changes constantly depending on SEO trends.
- White hat becomes black hat when more people get into it. Case in point: guest blogging. Once a very white hat technique, guest blogging became popular when directory submissions and content farms became ineffective. Most SEOs jumped on the bandwagon and after a few years, Google declared that the technique was no longer in its good graces.
- Like love and war, fairness is a nice concept which doesn’t necessarily bring you closer to victory.
- The SEO playing field is by nature not level. After all, doesn’t Google favor big brands? If you’re starting small, there is an inherent disadvantage.
- And oh, it’s not just the small guys who are tempted to “cheat.” Why do you think some companies have hundreds of thousands of dollars in SEO spend per month? They can’t be using all of that on content creation and technical SEO, right?
- Google is not a divine entity. It’s not omniscient and your transgressions against its terms don’t necessarily make you a good or bad person – as long as you don’t do it to a client’s site without full disclosure.
- Throughout history, minorities have sought to profit from the wealth of empires. The Vandals sacked Rome, but we don’t remember them as being good or evil – it’s just what they did. What black hats do to Google isn’t that different.
I’m not defending the black hats by any means, but beating the white hat drum on them is like insulting hobos by saying they’re poor. Black hats are usually aware of the calculated risks that they’re running. If they get smacked, feel free to laugh and gloat atop your SEO high horse. If they don’t, you should probably stop sourgraping. They may be winning, but at least your conscience is clear, right?
And don’t get me started on the ethics of SEO. Google doesn’t even mention the word “unethical” in their Webmaster Guidelines. As far as I’m concerned, the only unethical thing that black hats can do is practicing their craft without full disclosure to the people they work for.
But you already know that.
A Closer Look at So-Called Black Hat Tactics
We live in modern, civilized times when witch hunts are out of style. I view link acquisition in a similar way: I can’t summarily dismiss a technique as being taboo just because someone got penalized using it. In a lot of cases, healthy link acquisition methods are tweaked and scaled to degrees that trigger the ire of manual reviewers or filters. When used in moderation, however, most link building tactics can be helpful to your rankings and relatively safe for your site.
Here are seven of the most common:
Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
A private blog network is a group of websites owned by a single person or organization. These sites usually discuss similar content themes to establish contextual relationships. Unlike the link wheels of the yesteryears, PBN sites don’t necessarily have to be interlinked. They can be made to look independent of each other to make links from them appear natural and editorially granted.
How PBNs Can be Bad
PBNs can be used for “black hat” purposes when the owner decides that the sole reason of the existence of the sites is to pass link equity to “money sites.” When used this way, the quality of the content in the PBN sites tend to suffer. That’s because the satisfaction of the audience isn’t the prime consideration for the conception and creation of the content.
Professional PBN builders have refined their craft to a science in order to protect their blog networks from Google penalties. The usual drill looks something like this:
- Purchase expired domains that have good domain authority, Trust Flow or PageRank metrics. Tools like Bluechip Backlinks and Domain Reanimator are some of the popular services that can automate the process.
- Use archive.org to see what the sites in those domains looked like before they expired.
- Rebuild the sites as they were before.
- Use different hosting providers to make the sites look like they’re independent of each other.
- Avoid using Google Analytics and Search Console to prevent Google from taking notice.
- Point links to money sites or use the PBN sites to sell links
Some of the bigger SEO agencies own anywhere between 200-2,000 PBN sites. The owners of these blog networks love to say that “the best PBNs are the ones you never hear about.”
How PBNs Can be Good
Fundamentally, owning groups of websites isn’t bad. Large holdings companies can own and run a large number of websites while sill doing things the right way. Just check out what the IDG group and CNET do for a living: they own and run several websites that publish content about technology. The difference between organizations like these from suspicious PBNs is the intent behind the ownership of multiple websites. Shady PBNs do it just for SEO while the legitimate guys do it for readership.
I think a balance can be struck between good and bad PBNs as long the owners commit to a high level of quality standards on their properties. Making sure that the sites in a PBN serve people’s interests while granting you SEO leverage can allow it to stay within the bounds of what Google considers acceptable for the foreseeable future.
As the term suggests, paid links are the ones obtained by offering compensation to webmasters for linking to your money sites. In its guidelines, Google described paid links as:
Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
It sounds pretty straightforward at first, but this statement has a lot of gray areas when you really think about it. Consider these points:
- How does Google know when a link is paid for unless it’s made extremely obvious by the host site? Outside of having a page that says something to the effect of “write for us for a fee” and highly concentrated anchor text, it’s not easy to tell for sure if a site is selling links.
- Google specifically qualified the links as those that pass PageRank. The thing is, there’s a lot of bloggers out there who don’t know SEO, much less the concept and application of the nofollow link attribute. Does this mean these blogs are putting themselves at risk of being suspected as link vendors just because all their external links are dofollow? Probably not.
- Does this also imply it’s potentially dangerous to receive credit with a link after making a donation to a worthwhile cause?
- A lot of bloggers have caught on to the guest posting fad and have started using it to monetize their sites. Anyone who’s done outreach in moderately competitive niches knows that a good portion of the webmasters they contact will ask for compensation to host their content and their links.
- These bloggers often refer to payments as editorial fees. If you think about it, they’re not just sugarcoating things here. Hosting a site, posting a guest article and reviewing it does take some time and resources to do. There is some justification as to why they would charge to accept guest posts.
When Paid Links are Bad and Dangerous
Paying for links is always bad if you’re advocating fairness. It separates the haves from the have-nots and it puts a lot of pressure on smaller SEO players. The little guys either have to come up with brilliant white hat plans which may or may not pay off after a year or so. If they can’t make a dent, the smaller players may find themselves tempted to fight fire with fire and pay their way to the top.
When Paid Links are Not as Bad and Dangerous
It’s never really good to pay for links outright, but I’ve never heard of sites getting penalized just because they made donations and got links from non-profits as a way of giving credit. Neither have I heard of online vendors being punished for sending products over for review and having bloggers mention them with a link back to their site for reference.
If you’re going to do this, always have moderation in mind. Sending out a new gadget to five reviewers and getting a link from each one is tame enough. Sending it to 100 reviewers may sound the alarms in Google’s headquarters. Similarly, you can make donations in cash or in kind to non-profits related to your industry and get a link back without getting penalized. Seeking out every .org site and handing over money with binding conditions to get links, however, is a different matter.
Once a popular and easy way to get inbound links, blog commenting devolved into the comment spam that floods moderation queues in our CMS platforms. Black hats use bots and cheap labor to visit thousands of unrelated blogs per day and plant unintelligible comments that point links back to money sites.
Like many black hat tactics, blog commenting isn’t bad in itself. With strategic use, it can be useful in building relationships with influential bloggers that can lead to legitimate link acquisition opportunities. The problem is the scale and manner in how some SEOs do it.
When Blog Comments are Bad
Personally, I consider blog commenting a joke when it comes to link building. Most blogs add the nofollow attribute in comment links by default. Even in the rare cases where blog comment links are dofollow, they’re usually way below the fold, reducing the potency of the link equity they pass. Add to that the fact that other comment spammers will likely follow your lead and the link equity you receive becomes thinner.
It’s probably an insult to the black hat community if you call yourself a black hat link builder just because you spam blogs across the web. It’s mindless work that has little to no merits.
When Blog Comments are Good
Blog commenting is good when you’re doing it to add intellectual value to a discussion. This allows you to establish your name in a community and distinguish yourself as a source of useful insights. If you do a good job at this, the blog administrators might end up mentioning you in their posts and linking to your site. It’s also not far-fetched to get invited to write a guest blog that links back to your site as credit.
Originally, guest blogging referred to instances when an author is invited by a blogger from another website to contribute in his or her blog. It’s often done because of the guest writer’s perceived authority on a subject matter. Other times, bloggers do it to cross-promote each other to new audiences.
In the mid to late 2000s, guest blogging was a known means of acquiring links but it was used a lot less compared to article directory submissions, blog commenting, forum posting and link directory submissions because it required more effort. After Google started devaluing links from content farms, SEOs looked at guest blogging as the escape pod that ensures their survival.
For a while, guest blogging seemed to sit well with Google. However, some SEOs started scaling the technique to inordinate levels and ran outreach campaigns that pestered tens of thousands of webmasters for guest posting opportunities each day. Finally, Google called guest blogging out through Matt Cutts’ post in January of 2014 and stated that the practice was “done” as far as Google was concerned. Cutts cited the “decay” of the practice and how it’s now a tool for search ranking gains and not literary reasons.
Okay, cool. But there’s just one problem.
Google hasn’t really followed through on that ominous threat.
To this day, guest blogging remains as the backbone of most link acquisition campaigns and there haven’t been many cases of penalties levied for the average SEO who doesn’t guest post at scale. Until Google is able to demonstrate that it can punish people who bank on guest posting to power their link building programs, people will always find ways and reasons to gain links this way.
How Guest Blogging Can be Bad
Guest blogging gets bad when it’s done at scale and it’s flooding the Web with content pieces that nobody asked for. It also looks suspicious when a site’s link profile consists mostly of referrals from guest posts.
If the articles you publish in other sites are spun, rehashed or poorly written, guest blogging becomes even worse. Google’s tolerance for guest blogging seems to remain high, but if you give them reasons to suspect that you’re making this method your ticket to better rankings, you’re putting yourself at risk.
How Guest Blogging Can be Good
For the most part, guest blogging is a good thing for a site. It still works very well, especially if you target sites with good contextual relevance, decent authority metrics and legitimate readerships. It’s even better when you’re not paying to receive guest posting opportunities and you’re not linking with exact match anchor text.
The best kind of guest blogging is done with thought leadership in mind. Aside from receiving a nice link equity boost for your site, a guest post can introduce your name and your brand to more people. Recognition and thought leadership can go a long way later on in the realm of natural link acquisition.
Before social media became a thing, forums were the go-to places on the web for in-depth discussions on practically any topic. Since these sites carried PageRank and allowed anyone to post content, SEOs saw an opportunity to build links.
It started off pretty docile with link builders joining discussions and planting links in their forum signatures. When everyone else caught on, though, all hell broke loose. Forum moderators found themselves swamped with unrelated and spammy posts that ruined the quality of the experience in their boards. Things went from bad to worse as spammers started using bots to scale their link planting with bots.
When Forum Posting is Bad
Anytime you’re posting on forums for link equity gains, it’s not a good thing. Forums usually don’t have a lot of link equity to begin with, so the potency of the links is pretty weak. When you factor in the fact that forums have a lot of outbound links that spread the already thin link equity that each one passes, it’s easy to tell that you’re getting close to no value from your efforts to build links like these.
The only reason you might want to build a lot of links on forums is to increase the concentration of anchor text for your target keywords. Then again, why would you want to make your site an obvious target for Penguin or manual actions?
When Forum Posting is Good
Link building through forum posts can still work on a limited basis if done correctly. The first thing you should accept is that your rankings will barely budge with just forum links. You may get a slight Domain Authority boost by adding more linking root domains to your link profile, but the ranking climb will hardly be felt especially for competitive keywords.
The second thing you have to come to terms with is that it’s not worth the risk to concentrate anchor text with links – especially from low value forum links. Make sure your forum signature’s links are related to – but not overly optimized for – the keywords you target.
Forums are most valuable for demonstrating your knowledge about your industry and amplifying your thought leadership efforts. As with blog commenting, a good reputation on forums can be leveraged to build relationships, introduce new people to your websites, drive more readers to your blog and earn editorial link acquisition opportunities. It’s the kind of work that takes months and years of effort for returns to set in, so don’t resort to this tactic if you’re looking for quick wins.
Reciprocal linking refers to an arrangement where two webmasters agree to link to each other’s websites. Before Google came along, this practice was done strictly for referential and cross-promotional purposes. When Google introduced its PageRank algorithm and SEOs realized that links were the secret sauce, they started viewing reciprocal links as a way to get an edge in the SERPs.
For a while, the tactic worked and was considered white hat. But as the case is with every link building technique that starts to get scaled and abused, Google cracked down on the practice by devaluing sites that relied heavily on this method. By the late 2000s, SEOs started avoiding direct link reciprocation and instead focused on link wheels where multiple sites would link to each other without reciprocation. Ultimately, this was also deemed a failure as Google demonstrated its ability to see though these schemes and punish the sites involved.
When Reciprocal Links are Bad
In Google’s guidelines on link schemes, bad reciprocal linking was describes as:
Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking.
The operative term seems to be “excessive.” This probably means that the only reason you might get nailed for reciprocal linking is if you do it in masse. Obviously, sending out thousands of emails offering reciprocal or link wheel-style agreements is a bad idea. Doing it a few hundred times is likely to get you on Google’s watch list as well.
Besides, exchanging too many links can weaken your link profile due to the number of outbound links it has. If you scale up this practice to unnatural proportions, the value of the link equity you pass becomes diluted and therefore less attractive to other webmasters.
When Reciprocal Links are Good
When done in good taste, link exchanges can be beneficial to all websites involved. There are perfectly legitimate reasons why several sites would link to each other. Common ownership, association within organizations, friendships between bloggers and mutual referencing are some of them.
Some webmasters feel that they should add the nofollow attribute when exchanging links with another site. This is perfectly fine and it makes things a lot safer if you’re worried about penalties. Personally, I just can’t be bothered with it. If I’m linking to a site within the body of my pages, that site is probably worthy of the link equity that it’s going to receive.
Back in 2008 when I was starting out as an SEO specialist, the part of the job I hated most was submitting website information to link directories. A link directory is basically what the name suggests: a website dedicated to showing info on different types of websites according to category and hosting their links.
While these directories seemed like a good idea at first, things devolved when people started putting up tens of thousands of these sites where links can be farmed. Quick and guaranteed inclusion then became a matter of money. Directory administrators started charging fees for inclusion, turning the practice into a black hat enterprise.
Google later devalued these sites, rendering most of them useless and toxic to the sites they link to. The main reason is the lack of quality and unique value among these directories. It came to a point when dozens of directories looked identical due to the fact that very basic templates were being used for a lot of them. The domains varied but the content served no apparent intellectual value.
When Directory Links are Bad
Like other low quality link sources such as blog commenting and forum posting, scale is your enemy when it comes to directory listings. Several of these can’t hurt, but a few dozen to a few hundred can be dangerous.
Personally, I hardly ever bother with link directories. It’s my opinion that there are a lot of other link building activities that I can use my time and resources on. The value of the links I can get from directories that have thousands of outbound links is too small compared to the gains I can get from average sites that have good quality and very few external links.
When Directory Links are Good
Of course, directories aren’t always bad. There are some that are well-respected even by the search engines such as DMOZ. If you really want to get links from sites like these, this list from Tom Forrester might help.
The Final Word
Ultimately, classifying SEO as black hat and white hat is a very tricky matter. There’s a gray ocean separating the two where rules can be bent and policies can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. There is such a thing as spammy link building, but it’s the “unethical” part that I’m not sure about.
My view on link building is simple: there are no absolutes. Google and other search engines have their policies, but those are driven by their corporate interests. These same interests can change over time and everything hinging on them can go out the window tomorrow. I don’t condone the acts of the so-called black hats but I can’t pass judgment on them either.
I view the so-called black hats as risk-takers. As long as they do their stunts to their own sites or with the consent of their clients, it’s probably fair game. If Google wants webmasters to behave, they can do more in terms of enforcing the rules and making them clearer. Until that happens, people will look for loopholes and webmasters will always take chances.