How Google Creates Black Hats

May 1st

The #1 goal for any organization is self-preservation. When people feel things are fairly just & they are just getting by they are fine with squeezing out more efficiency in what they do and figuring out ways to pay the bills. But when people feel the table is tilted at some point they stop caring and do whatever it takes.

Ex Post Facto

Some longtime AdWords advertisers have recently been punished for affiliate ads they ran 8 years ago where some of the sites they promoted at some point fell out of Google's graces through an ad system which never allows you to delete your history & offers ex post facto regulations that turn a regular advertiser arbitrarily into a spammer.

What's worse is that sometimes the data Google ties together creates guilt where there is nothing but innocence.

AdSense, AdSense, AdSense

In 3 weeks it will have been 3 months since Google first launched Panda. Outside of bloggers with 50,000 RSS subscribers few (if any) reports of recovery from Panda have been seen. Some of the theories floating around what caused Panda attempt to tie it to AdSense & many of Google's AdSense case studies are now highlighting best practices to follow if you want to be just like the sites Google torched.

As if that wasn't conflicting enough, some of the webmasters that were torched by Panda received automated messages that they were missing out on revenues by not using the maximum allotted number of ad units. After the huge fall off from Panda, Google has been pushing AdSense so hard that many webmasters have been receiving unsolicited emails from Google suggesting they sign up for AdSense.

I won't run AdSense on our main sections of this site because it would be tacky and destroy perceived credibility (having a "submit your site to 2000 search engines for $29" ad next to the content doesn't inspire trust on an SEO site). I could create a content farm answers section of the site that mirrors Ask's strategy, but with a higher level of quality. I won't though, because it would be viewed as spam because I am me. Once again, SEOs should be held to a higher standard than search engines. ;)

That Which You Consume, Consumes You

Where this rubs wrong is not only the overt brand push, but also that some of Google's pushes at expansion down the search funnel have looked a lot like the spam they claim to fight.

Many UK finance comparison sites were penalized for spammy link buys, and then Google somehow managed to buy BeatThatQuote without any due diligence. Others who were penalized for sketchy links (say like Overstock.com) were whacked for a couple months. BeatThatQuote was ranking again in Google in only 2 weeks ***without*** fixing any of the actual spam link buys.

TechCrunch's April 1st article about Google Places being inadvertently classified as a content farm sounded so authentic that I saw multiple friends in-the-know pass it around as though it was true.

Bad Actors

In the Wall Street Journal there was an article about the Panda update highlighting that many small businesses were laying off their employees. The same article highlighted numerous cost extensive desperate marketing measures the firms were taking which may or may not work. Google didn't disclose much in the article other than:

The Google spokesman says the company doesn't disclose details about changes it makes to its algorithms because doing so "would give bad actors a way to game our systems."

Nobody likes bad actors, but most of the webmasters that were hit were not bad actors. Rather, most of them were naive & simply followed the Google guidelines thinking that was in their best interests and perhaps would allow them to stay competitive. Unfortunately, it wasn't.

Not only did the update allow some information-less pages to rank better than ever, but certain folks with 100% duplicate content screamed to the top of the search results.

Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out!

If you adhere to guidelines, get beat down, are not told why, and are told that generally sites need to "improve their quality" that can be a pretty infuriating message. The presumption that your stuff isn't good enough when 3rd grade rewrites of your content now outrank you is both smug and obnoxious. What is worse about the update though now is that many scraper websites are outranking the original content sources, so the message is that your content is plenty good enough, but it is just not good enough when it is on your site. A large portion of those scraper sites are monetized via Google AdSense & would not even exist if it were not for AdSense.

So Google whacks your site, tells you to clean up your act (& increase your operating costs while decreasing your margins), lumps you in the bad actors group, offers no information about when the pain will (or even could) end, pays someone to steal your content, then ranks that stolen copy of your content above you in the search results.

Make Your Move

If a person has the pleasure to experience the above it doesn't take much critical thinking skills to develop a different perspective on search.

Ultimately this is going to lead to a "why not" approach to search for many folks in the search space.

  • If Google already dinged your website why wouldn't you remove AdSense & replace it with competing ad programs? Why not test those affiliate programs you have been meaning to test? If you have to rework your content anyway, why not move past AdSense/webmaster welfare?
  • If your AdWords budget was marginally profitable & you were buying ads to compliment your organic exposure, why wouldn't you stop buying ads with Google & test running ads on other websites? Google is fine funding an affiliate network that uses direct links, so why not use clean links on your ad buys? If you like run it through a self-hosted affiliate program so that you are just like Google.
  • If your site is already whacked why wouldn't you buy links to help boost its ranking back?
  • If your site earns nothing from search, why wouldn't you sell links if you have to do whatever it takes to make costs?
  • If your site gets penalized & someone copying your content & wrapping it in AdSense outranks you why wouldn't you create new mirror sites? Why wouldn't you create scraper websites to pollute Google with?
  • If rankings are unpredictable & one site is no longer enough, why wouldn't you create backup sites & projects of various levels of quality & effort? At this point diversity simply serves as a needed form of insurance.
  • If while running these purely scientific experiments you accidentally run into something that works really well that shouldn't, why not scale it to the moon?

I am not convinced that the search results are any cleaner today than they were a few months ago. However I am fairly certain things will soon head south. I am not advocating going out of your way to be extra spammy, but am just highlighting the cost-benefit analysis which is going through the heads of thousands of webmasters who Google just torched.

Google is betting that anonymous strangers will behave more kindly than Google has, but when an animal is backed into a corner it often acts in unpredictable (and even uncontrollable) ways.

The big problem for Google is this: "when innocence itself, is brought to the bar and condemned, especially to die, the subject will exclaim, it is immaterial to me whether I behave well or ill, for virtue itself is no security." - John Adams

Published: May 1, 2011

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Comments

May 2, 2011 - 3:07am

In my reading about the Panda update I have seen mentions by Google that this is strictly an algorithmic update. If so, as you mention, there is a time penalty involved on specific domains. I find this highly frustrating in that whatever I do to try to improve my websites NOTHING works. It does set the mind churning as to what I can do to come back, and I admit that many of the items you mention have crossed my mind.

I have been scrupulous in the past to follow Google guidelines. The algo change seems a strange way to reward loyalty, honesty, hard work, and creation of the best content of which I am capable. I am not saying that I will try absolutely ANYTHING to get my traffic and consequent income up to the point where I can pay my bills, but if I am going to have to go out and look for a corporate or gov't job anyway, the risk reward ratio for doing things Google doesn't like certainly changes.

If Google does not allow web publisher improvement of a website to be reflected in the index, it seems to be saying that certain domains are beyond redemption. If Google is really interested in better SERPs and perhaps even a better web, one would think that improvement of a website would be more immediately rewarded. Even our prison system holds out hope for rehabilitation. The current policy would seem only to encourage recitivism (at least a Google defines it).

McGelligot

May 2, 2011 - 3:25am

Take your genuinely useful, panda-slapped sites and turn them into PPC powerhouses. Most of the high-quality sites affected by Panda would be welcomed with open arms into Adwords.

Pop a few optimized landers onto your domain promoting whatever products or services Adsense was running on your site before panda and roll.

May 2, 2011 - 4:30am

I can count myself as one of the advertisers banned for an ad that was about 8-years-old. And I don't mean I was running it for 8 years- I DELETED it 8 years ago. But Google says I'm banned unless I fix that site. That site I don't own, that site that got a single click, that site that Google was happy to take my money to advertise in 2004. But now, I'm a "bad actor". It's a nice way to reward their most loyal longstanding customers.

In a logical environment Google would understand that I don't own that 8-year-old site and simply let me advertise my current businesses with them. But for some reason they feel the need to acknowledge their request is insanity, but compel me to comply with it anyway. As if compliance was more important than logic.

You can almost hear the faint twinges of humanity peeking through while listening to an Adwords rep explain how you need to be retroactively punished. Almost.

May 2, 2011 - 5:32pm

As if compliance was more important than logic. Great line. :)

May 3, 2011 - 1:42pm

I was recently BANNED with no warning after being a Adwords advertiser in good standing for over 6 years (and well over $100k in ad spend) FOR RUNNING A SINGLE ADGROUP FOR LESS THAN 24 HOURS OVER 4 YEARS AGO that generated ZERO clicks. In other words, I tested an offer, it sucked, and I moved on.

This is not a site that I own, or in any way am affiliated with other than this brief test I ran FOUR F*CKING YEARS AGO.

After 5 form-letter emails telling me nothing of use, the Google rep finally tells me that 'they have been getting many complaints' about this particular website. So, instead of banning or penalizing the website generating the complaints, they ban ME.

I'm not sure what bothers me most about this:
1) the absolute lack of professionalism in how this was handled
2) the lack of any logical though process involved in making the decision to ban me (especially from an 'engineering' based company)
3) or the outright GREED that drove this decision. $100k over 6 years in Google's view is not even worth the time spent to lift a finger to try and make the situation right.

Do no evil my ass.

May 3, 2011 - 6:32pm

Google is probably throwing away hundreds of millions by adopting this position. Your account was six-figures, mine was, numerous others have told me the same all the way up to a 3mil account that suffered a similar fate. This is just what people have told me and posts I've seen online. Explain to me how taking 10 minutes to look at an account is not worth millions? That's just hubris and nothing else.

Google isn't even telling us we're banned, simply that the site is banned and we have to change it- WHILE they acknowledge we don't own it and can't do a thing about it.

I just saw a post from a company that was spending 200k per year on a campaign that was setup entirely by the Adwords team (so you know it was probably terrible and highly profitable for Google) and Google banned them- even though Google was managing the account! The reason was "sorry, the policy team acts separately from us".

May 2, 2011 - 11:45am

Aaron,

Another fantastic post. You are the only really well known SEO figure I know of who seems to be saying it how it really is. Respect.

My frustration with Google knows no bounds, and I'm a pretty much white-hat kinda guy who has done nothing wrong. I'm seeing friends losing adsense accounts, their businesses, their livlihoods, and all with no justification from G, just an automated email, and a black hole to put your appeals in.

Google seem to think they are totally unaccountable. I've never been angrier at any entity in my whole life.

Keep up the good work, this blog is one of my few doses of sanity each week.

May 2, 2011 - 2:24pm

Aaron,

Your post riled me up so much that I have decided that we should go on strike against Google. I have created some banner ads and a one page site to express our disgust and perhaps give Google a kick in the pants! If we ban together maybe we can make a difference with these arrogant people.

www.googlestrike.com

We're mad as Heck and we aren't going to take it anymore!

At first I was aprehensive about creating GoogleStrike and making this post. Maybe I am paranoid about the power of Google, but someone has to step up and fight back. You were first Aaron, thanks for showing the way.

May 2, 2011 - 11:28pm

I should disclaim that seobook.com continues to use Google Analytics, I still use Gmail, etc.

I am not trying to create an anti-Google movement of any sort...I was simply writing about the cost-benefit analysis that is going on in the heads of many people right now.

In the past I have highlighted how the outcome of Google's tweaks has often been far more damaging than the problem they were trying to solve. That is all I was trying to highlight here.

May 3, 2011 - 2:19am

Hey Aaron,

I didn't mean to imply that you advocate a strike against Google or anything like that. What I meant was that your inexorable logic led me to see that, though the effort might be futile, people affected by these changes should ban together in a way that lets the Google Goliath know that we perceive some of its activities as unfair, unethical, and fraught with bad consequences.

Truthfully, I still use some Google services. How could I not? My effort here is to, in at least a small way, nudge Google's behavior in a more positive direction. I think a great first step would be for Google to take off the seemingly permanent penalty on websites affected by the Panda Update. I don't like what the Panda has done, but I believe that most webmasters would not even consider putting on a black hat if only they could be assured that they could work on an even basis with every other site on the web. This permanent punishment by Google is what web masters find so difficult to deal with. I think most of us realize changes in the algo are inevitable. We only want the right to be able to adjust to Google's changes.

I did the GoogleStrike page as a kind of cathartic lark. Perhaps I should have thought twice before doing so. I never really believed that I would get any support. Ultimately, people are too afraid of Google to openly stand up and say what they really think. You are one of the few who have had the courage to do so. I found it inspiring. In spite of my vulnerable position I decided to speak out in my own way.

You say that you did not intend to create a movement. Nevertheless: Ideas have consequences.,

Cordially,

McGelligot

May 2, 2011 - 4:06pm

... the reality-check is catching up to your average webmaster. I really do feel sorry for anyone who is employed as a full-time webmaster, for a single specific site, when something like the Panda update happens... I can almost imagine the frustrating one-way conversation with a non-technically inclined boss.

This reality-check has been at the core of internet marketing principles for any online marketer who started off early in the SEO / affiliate game... it's a fact that projects will fail, your sites will get google-slapped, and even legit means of paying for traffic will be penalized without any reasonable explanation. In fact, the industry is so dynamic, that the only consistency is change itself.

For the most part, black hats are not the evil spammers they're perceived to be, they simply belong to that (apparently exclusive) club of people who understand that in internet marketing, unlike in the offline world, your success relies on not having all your eggs in one basket.

I agree that a good number of by-the-book webmasters is about to start experimenting with what they can get away with vs direct benefit it generates... Please use common sense though, don't bother with 600,000 forum backlinks Xrumer blasts, think more along the lines of outsourcing manual labour.

May 3, 2011 - 1:26am

Excellent post, Aaron! I'm not a big fan of hats, to describe one's professional bent. But I think you're absolutely correct, that the situation as it stands is pushing many people to consider techniques that they may have condemned in the past. I really try to believe that Google continues to try to "do the right thing", even though their mandate is to maximize profits.
Common sense tells me the two are mutually exclusive. Wish that weren't true, but...

May 3, 2011 - 4:46am

According to Hitwise stats released on Apr 11, in addition to Bing growing market share at Google's expense,

"Yahoo! Search and Bing achieved the highest success rates in March 2011. This means that for both search engines, more than 80 percent of searches executed resulted in a visit to a Website. Google achieved a success rate of 66 percent. The share of unsuccessful searches highlights the opportunity for both the search engines and marketers to evaluate the search engine result pages to ensure that searchers are finding relevant information."

Myspace seemed invincible before Facebook. Yes, with just over 64% share of US/English Speaking searches, Google is still the 900, make that 800 pound Guerrilla in US Search, but Yahoo! Search with Bing are chipping away. Free markets are funny that way. Lose focus on your customers and the competition will welcome them.

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