Black Hole SEO

Sep 11th

Black Hole SEO

There is a black hole forming.

A few of them, actually.

These black holes aren't the result of the CERN Hadron Collider. They are forming for two reasons: the desire to keep people on site longer; and to hoard link juice, in order to dominate the SERPs.

Increasingly, top-tier sites are becoming cagey about linking out. They are more than happy to be linked to, of course, but often the favor is not reciprocated. Check out this post by SEOBlackhat.

What Does A Black Hole Look Like?

  • Uber-black hole, The New York Times, seems reluctant to link to anyone but themselves. This is especially annoying when they write about websites.
  • Wikipedia no-followed their links some time ago, thus forming a PageRank variant of the black hole.
  • The mini-me black hole, as practiced by TechCrunch. Rather than directing you to a site mentioned in an article, TechCrunch would direct you to their own CrunchBase entry instead, thereby keeping you on-site longer, and passing link authority to their own web pages. As a result, a search on Google for a sites' name may well bring up the CrunchBase entry. To be fair, TechCrunch does also link out, and there is an explanation as to why TechCrunch aren't as bad as the New York Times here.

The result is a link-love black hole. Sites using such a strategy can dominate the rankings, if they are big enough.

So if you wanted to create a blackhole, what would you do?

  • Don't link to anyone
  • If you must link out, then No-Follow the links, or wrap them in scripts
  • Direct page rank around your own site, especially to pages featuring your competitors names
  • Buy a motherlode of links
  • Become a newspaper magnate :)

Now, if you're an SEO, you might be feeling a tad conflicted about now. Why wouldn't every SEO do this? What if you owned a black hole? Isn't that the ultimate SEO end game?

In the long term, I doubt it.

If this problem becomes too widespread, Google will move to counter it. If Google's results aren't sufficiently diversified, then their index will look stale. If you search for a site, and get third party information about that site, rather than the site itself, then this will annoy users. Once confidence is lost in the search results, then users will start to migrate to Google's competitors.

I'm not certain such a move will be entirely altruistic, however. After all, what is the point of Knol? No, really - what is the point of Knol? ;)

The Advantages Of Sharing The Love

Consider what you gain by linking out.

  • Webmasters look at their referalls, and may follow the link back to check out your site
  • Outbounds may count for more in future, if they don't already
  • Your users expect it. Don't fight against their expectations else you'll devalue your brand equity
  • Any site that looks "too-SEO'd" risks standing out on a link graph
  • There is social value in doing so. Black hole sites start to look like bad actors, can receive bad press, and risk damaging their relationships with partners, suppliers, and communities.

Create More Value Than You Capture

Tim O'Reilly put it well:

"..... The web is a great example of a system that works because most sites create more value than they capture. Maybe the tragedy of the commons in its future can be averted. Maybe not. It's up to each of us".

Update:
The phrase Black Hole SEO was used by Eli on BlueHatSEO.com over a year ago to describe various aggressive SEO techniques.

Published: September 11, 2008

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Comments

September 12, 2008 - 5:00am

I am torn.
I own a forum and the links that my members post can sometimes be average. I allow linking out, but I nofollow them. Should I remove the nofollow and let Google have its way with me and my associations-by-link? Or should I play it safe, let people link but say to google 'who? him? never seen him before in my life!' ?

September 12, 2008 - 11:42pm

I think if you are using a common content management system and allow members to direct link by default you will get spammed to bits. Maybe after 100 or so posts you may want to allow direct linking, but before then spam bots will keep hitting your site.

September 12, 2008 - 9:28am

i practice 'black hole' seo and do notice my serps improving once these have been managed.

imho based on the results i see do-following a link out does more harm than good to my serps... however should google change its an easy one to fix :)

September 12, 2008 - 9:30am

Hi Aaron,
How Fresh Is Your Black Hole Experiment?
I wonder how many visits were generated by this post.

@cbiggins : I remember Google said you nofollow to a page if you think it does not bring much value to your site (or something like this).
What I mean is they didn't put this feature for people to game with easily. I made a post with a link to what i think an authoritative site (relevant to my post) and one month later it has a TBPR of 1 ! while some other post are in the supplemental index.

September 12, 2008 - 11:42pm

I have not done a black hole experiment.

September 12, 2008 - 10:01am

@cbiggins I guess that's the thing, is that the algo is going through a limbo phase. I guess it's likely that it will change, but to make a site-wide decision like removing nofollow on each and every link and page is a brave one - good luck!

September 12, 2008 - 3:08pm

About a year ago I decided to freely link out, especially using footnotes when I use information from another site. I think it makes my articles look more athoritative.

However, I refuse to link to Wikipedia. Any websites I know use no-follow I make my link to them a nofollow. I do this mainly as my little effort to try to bring back a bit of balance to the web universe.

September 12, 2008 - 3:33pm

@mcgelligot, a great policy, although timely for a large site! A fair argument though.

September 12, 2008 - 5:57pm

So if you wanted to create a blackhole, what would you do?

I would nofollow links, but I have to clarify that I would not create a black hole in the first place. Linking out is one of the main purposes of having a website. Yes, there are other reasons that are self oriented, but that is one of the ways to create value, and you need to create value to receive value.

I do nofollow links to blackhole sites, like wikipedia, and news sites. What goes around comes around, but otherwise, I generally take the position that if it's not worth having the link be followed, it's not worth having the link at all.

September 12, 2008 - 8:37pm

I love the term Black Hole SEO and enjoy you calling out the New York Times, but I am convinced this is a failing strategy. Page Rank hording is an illusion. From what I have read and tried, linking out to sites actually helps a site seem authoritative. My take is that Google probably manages internal Page Rank flow and external flow separately and that linking out to an external page has nothing to do with how much juice you can pass internally.

Google may have different rules for the New York Times or Wikipedia, but I am very sure that the willingness of bloggers to liberally link out whenever they write a post has a lot to do with how much easier it is for a blog to rank than a typical commercial site with the same amount of content and link juice.

The same logic explains why so many conspiracy SEOs think that .orgs and .edu sites are preferred by Google. Not for profits and particularly academic sites tend to include a lot of citations. Only commercial sites fail to link out or put all of there outbound links on a single page.

Black Hole Linking profiles are pretty easy for Google to spot. A big site without outbound links probably sticks out like the Great Wall of China-- search engines can from outer space!

So, kudos to bloggers, shame on the New York Times and let the page rank flow!

September 12, 2008 - 11:45pm

Hi Jonah
In this interview Matt Cutts said:

all of the things that have good qualities of a link from a .edu or a .gov site, as well as the fact that we hard-code and say: .edu or .gov links are good - and when there are good links, .edu links tend to be a little better on average; they tend to have a little higher PageRank, and they do have this sort of characteristic that we would trust a little more.

September 12, 2008 - 9:04pm

Here, as always, the interests of small business owners are not quite aligned with those of the SEs.

When these black holes grow so powerful that the hegemony of the SEs is challenged, then their algos will be updated. Until then, we will be feeling the pain.

SEs do not exist to benefit publishers OR searchers; these benefits are only a side-effect. Never forget that. Ask yourself when, or whether the advertisers will complain about black holes.

Concent consumers have been trained since time immemorial to accept low-cost and low-quality reporting from trusted sources, over more expensive and challenging primary sources. In that respect, what has changed since 1900? Why hurt your own brain when NYT has already done the work?

I continue to link out on a regular basis, but corporate entities usually receive a nofollow--they are "untrustworthy". ;)

P.S. Jonah, the ranking boost given to blogs today is only temporary.

September 13, 2008 - 12:23pm

That whole “link out to authority sites” mantra of yesteryear’s SEOs does not apply to black holes.

Also, the 'black holes' senior management will never sacrifice a single page view..example: A new way of linking out on BBC site - in-page links - introduced in August 2008.

September 12, 2008 - 11:30pm

No matter what the situation is, the practice of hoarding, or intentionally taking in much more value than you're giving out, there are negative repercussions to someone because of the act.

Sometimes the harm is done to the person who hoards, and other times it falls upon another. At times, the 'pros' quickly pile up, as intended, and it takes some time for the hoarder to realize any 'cons' in response to their actions. But often, the 'cons' quickly fall upon others once the hoarding begins.

Some "cons" for the hoarder include: loss of positive reputation (or, a first-time awareness of the hoarding one's reputation in a negative light), loss of prior investment(s), loss of expected gains from hoarding & loss of future opportunities because of poor relationships with others in your space.

Gathering without giving back will always lead to the one who hoards being more and more isolated. The 'island' idea might feel nice and safe at first -- a place where the piles of 'booty' can be stored. But eventually, the piles of goods lose some or all of their value and the isolated person has a very difficult time getting back onto the mainland.

Boats drive by the island, see who's stuck there, and keep on driving. Meanwhile, the isolated person watches others steadily grow and maintain their profits without even having a volleyball to talk to and name "Wilson."

The Golden Rule is thus named because its value has stood the test of time. Those who live by it are able to keep what they work for and earn. Those who don't live a life not unlike a wavy line graph. The highs seem so high, but the lows require much more time for recovery.

Hoarding=FAIL -- It's just not worth the effort (or lack thereof).

September 15, 2008 - 12:08am

Aaron

Absolutely no doubt that links from .edu and .gov are worth more than regular links. Do you believe that means the hard wired benefit also applies to the ability of these pages to rank, leaving aside the inherent trust/authority earned by most .edu domains?

September 15, 2008 - 6:05am

I am unsure the full extent of what Matt meant...but am sure he said there was some hard coded advantages of some sort. I wished Matt would have expounded on that point. :)

September 15, 2008 - 4:43pm

A few lifetimes ago at SES New York in 2006 Matt did explicitly deny any ranking preference for .edu or .org sites (I do not recall what he said about .mil because I have never seen on in competitive SERPs). At the time, he said "there may be something about their linking profiles" that makes them rank better than .com sites.

That comment is what made me start experimenting with outbound links as part of a link profile. Since then, I have heard many SEOs repeat the idea that quality outbound links help you content rank. This still falls short of proof, of course, but my opinion is that Black Hole SEO is a mistake.

September 15, 2008 - 6:27pm

Outbounds to the right site might help (especially for a new site), but I have seen sites that hoarded PageRank with no outbound links at all just kill it for some high value phrases.

September 16, 2008 - 9:55am

Coining new terms is fun :)

September 16, 2008 - 12:51pm

I added a link to your Black Hole SEO category page Eli.

September 17, 2008 - 2:08am

Thanks Aaron but I was really just being humorous you don't have to do that.

On topic, my humble opinion of the concept of hording link juice differs quite a bit from Quadszillas. Yes obvious exceptions are in play especially when you see Google babies such as Wikipedia who aggressively refuse to share the link wealth, and it can be very frustrating to work hard and build a nice site around a topic and see a little wikipedia subpage come up and outrank you simply because someone decided to write a single page about your topic. However if you actually look at the evidence its obvious that "link juice" is actually very shallow and to think you're somehow hording it all for yourself as if it comes to your site and just rolls around till its gone with no way of escaping is a very false security. Furthermore the benefits you loose by refusing to link out in many cases far exceed the benefits of "black holing it" on your site. I'll list examples.

Authority Sites
Authority sites are where link hording tends to be most fervent. Yet if you look at the biggest players such as About.com vs Amazon.com vs Walmart.com vs Crutchfield.com in the last four years their shifts in dominating all their categories has altered dramatically. About.com who used to give credit links to all their authors used to rank higher than wikipedia for nearly every single topic. These authors who also tended to be webmasters of those topics now no longer try to boost their about.com articles and now about.com is nearly unseen by comparison to what it was just three years ago when they made the no outbound link policy. Walmart.com who has always had a no linking policy exploded when it went public and they outranked ebay and amazon for nearly every topic. Now they're a smaller player than crutchfield in the ecom world. Yet they are a beautiful example of link hording because they're inbound links vs pages indexed are nearly identical at ~3.3 million each. Therefore if the link juice was really flowing into their site and around and around never to escape than by all reason wouldn't they have a near 100% indexing saturation rate? A quick PR crawl of their site (actually wasn't so quick) shows that they have a mere 40.62% to the nearest significant number saturation and less than 12% of their pages contain a pagerank. That clearly shows that either the link juice is intently flowing somewhere or its just stopping dead (eg it's shallow and not ever flowing). A prime example of a shift in this would be Crutchfield. Crutchfield used to be #1 for every home and car electronic term now they really only owns #2 for car audio. Two years ago they literally shot themselves in the foot when they sent an email to all the top 100 site owners in all their keywords asking them for a link, but when the webmaster responded and asked for a link back they replied with a canned email with a very lawyer tone stating their strict policy against linking to other sites. They very quickly lost over half their on topic fresh-site links and their current rankings reflect that. Amazon on the other hand along side Yahoo shopping who is very easy to get links on and is very user based has had nothing but an upward trend in their SERPS since. On the authoritative site it just makes sense to play nice with the others in your niche because in the end their combined power is much larger than yours. My intuition says this will soon play a key role when wikipedia starts going more head to head with knol.

Sites With Two Link Sources
A classic example of really big niches that are dominated by every day webmasters as apposed to big companies would be the myspace niche, such as "myspace layouts." A flashback a year ago shows a totally different top 20. These sites such as myspacesupport and such had two linking sources, myspace.com (peoples profiles) and the many new myspace resource sites that popup every day. These sites were gaining in the millions of links from myspace which were far exceeding the traffic and link exchanges they were doing with all the new sites coming out. So they became more strict on their outbound linking policies. Myspace then started using the msplinks system which dried up that river of link juice propelling the need for new links from other myspace resource sites to keep competitive. Look at the sites that rank now. They freely link to anyone who sends them traffic with no restrictions. Most even give out sitewide links to the top linkers with dofollow. Those sites that started out being willing to share the link juice and stuck by their guns now own that niche. Heck not a single site in the top 20 even have the term Myspace Layouts in their domain name. It's all done through link building and the willingness to link out thus attracting a larger percentage of the new sites entering.

Blogs and New Sites
I'll make this my last example since this comment is getting huge. :) As a new site or as part of a communal niche such as a blog might provide you're best chance of getting the stuff needed to acquire a rank is to get noticed. IMO to follow the advice as I interpret it, to build the site and try to gain links but refuse to link out is foolish. SEOBook for example. Look at your stats and filter for referrals coming from wp-admin and other trackers such as Technorati reactions. How many readers and sitewide blogroll links have you gotten from just freely linking to other seo sites and blogs and getting yourself noticed? That's how I found you and that's what lead to a sitewide blogroll link on my blog just to list an example. :)

Summation of My Point and Case
1. The "link juice" as its called has limitations and will stop anyways and as much of a fantasy as it is for your site to be like some sort of black hole sucking up links and hording them for itself it's not the reality. That's why deep links are so important and will remain important.

2. The benefits of being generous with your outbound links FAR out weigh the small link juice that goes with them. You gain more links faster. You get noticed more and gain audience much faster, and the public relations aspect pays when you're friendly with other webmasters instead of being cold to them.

3. The scale does not matter. Where there is opportunity for other webmasters to get noticed on your site there is opportunity for you to get noticed on theirs. I won't begin my twitter rant or speculate on where sites like that would be if they refused linking opportunities, but if you look around you'll see my point.

4. An outbound link is NOT the death of your link juice or pagerank or in any way is saying this site is worth more than mine in the eyes of Google. Dmoz is still a PR8, Yahoo directory still ranks in Google, drudge is still king of news, and seobook.com will continue to gain links faster than seoblackhat.com for the very same reasons that blackhatseo.com which freely links to seoblackhat.com outranks seoblackhat.com for the terms "black hat seo" and "black hat".
Think about that for a moment :)

Thanks for listening and sorry for the giant comment :)

September 17, 2008 - 2:14am

Thanks for the insightful comment Eli. I enjoyed it. :)

September 19, 2008 - 8:54am

Surprisingly long (but nevertheless typically interesting) comment Eli... you should post more regularly on your blog!

A lot of people seem to get very het up about what's being called "Web 2.0", but again this seems to be phenomena on the fringes of something big that many seem to ignore... the equivalent of Hawking radiation, if you will... the fact is that the web is becoming a place in mnay ways incompatible with Google's system of Pagerank... let's consider for starters how they've had to enforce the massively counter-intuitive fudge of "nofollow" because their algorithm couldn't best interpret people's linking behaviours.

The Web's becoming a far more sophisticated place. Some of the advances of Software as a Service will change the way people use the Web in ways people like this guy are desperate to resist, and this "black hole" mentality is another symptom of the evolution of the 'net reaching another tipping point.

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