Google Thinks YOU Are a Black Hat SEO. Should You Trust Them?

Preemptive Spam Penalties

There is a great thread over on SEOmoz by Matthew Inman about how some Googlers consider any of his future attempted linkbaits and widgetbaits to be off topic spam, based on his aggressive misuse of widgets in the past.

With hundreds of comments many of them are noise, but some of them are spot on with Google's current trends, especially those from Jeremy Luebke and Jim Boykin. Jeremy wrote:

Google is determined to make any scalable link building process blackhat. It won't be long before all off topic linkbait, including articles, is considered linkspam.

And Jim wrote

And the blackhat club gets bigger.... and the waters get murkier and murkier.... if you're an SEO, you're a black hat. Only those who don't know what SEO is are the white hats.... Don't try to rank high on purpose....if you do then you've broken a google guideline

Corporate Marketing vs Individual SEOs

This event clearly demonstrates how differently Google treats major corporations vs individual SEOs (especially if they are publicly known as SEOs). An individual SEO who is great at his job can expect to be preemptively penalized to be made an example of, even while the competition are doing exactly what he wants to do (ie: the same activity is brand building when the corporation does it and is spam when Mr. Inman does it).

A corporation typically is out of the index for a few days to a week at most, even if they are operating at an industrial spam scale for years! When the corporations are relisted they may need to do a bit of rebuilding, but millions in profits from years of spamming allow them to invest adequate capital into growth.

This is why some of Google's editorial judgement seems so arbitrary and lame. The small player innovates, gets crushed by Google for being creative and innovative, then the monolithic corporations uses the same techniques to an industrial scale and are somehow better for borrowing/stealing the techniques. How does that process foster web innovation?

I lost a lot of links when a Google engineer decided to penalize one of my sites, and in the process all the links from my aggressive promotion costing 10s of thousands of dollars disappeared, while the fortune 500 companies in my field got a head start and competitive advantage against me by recycling my idea. I can't express how thrilled I was. That was the past and I am over it, but I think Google needs to take a close look at their own behavior when judging others.

Does Google Use Off Topic Linkbait & Widgets?

  • An off topic transcription is a legitimate source of links, according to Matt Cutts - at least when you are syndicating Google's opinions.
  • When you install AdSense for search on your site with the Google logo (aka paid link) it direct links back to Google (ie: not to their AdSense program).
  • Google barters PageRank to push their business objectives.
  • How is what they are doing any better than what the average SEO does? Should they hold themselves to the standards they judge everyone else by? How can they be seen as objective if they do not?

Be Careful Who You Trust

What is worse about this game of passing arbitrary judgement is that many of the best known SEOs praise each other in public only to snitch on one another in private (talk about being ethically challenged). One member who recently joined my training program read the training module about how affiliate programs can pass PageRank and asked Matt Cutts if they could use 301 redirects on their affiliate program "like Aaron does" so that he too could "rank for everything". Within a week my affiliate program no longer passed link juice.

Pick a Smart Professional Label

Google can not keep growing their revenues at an acceptable rate without beating the value out of others. If you are new to the SEO field and want to excel online, call yourself something other than an SEO. Using the label SEO invites arbitrary monitoring and punishment, and there are too many plastic personalities in this field willing to dime out a friend in exchange for a wooden nickel.

Published: April 17, 2008 by Aaron Wall in marketing


Sam I Am
April 17, 2008 - 9:02am

Without a doubt, one of the best posts I've seen in a long time. That post by Matthew over at SEOmoz was bound to bring up some of these issues. I'm grateful that someone whose had this happen to them took the difficult step of going all public about it.

By the way, I'm really curious about this affiliate program of yours and it no longer passing link juice based on someone dobbing you in. Matt Cutts has said in the Google groups before that it's perfectly fine?!? Remember having some discussions about this there a few months back already. Soon everyone will just have to go the BOTW affiliate route. There's no way Google could penalize links that contain no tracking whatsoever :) Although knowing G they'll probably just take a guess at how many 'must' be affiliates and discount that percentage, starting with the highest pagerank ones....

April 17, 2008 - 9:08am

I used shody anchor text to link through my affiliate program and I did not rank. I used a direct link and did. Thus that affiliate program does not pass PageRank.

A few months ago my old salesletter ranked #13 for "book" so clearly it did pass PageRank up until recently.

April 17, 2008 - 9:12am

Great post. I can't believe someone within your training programme outed you to the "spam police". I think Google firmly believe in keeping the goal posts in motion and the penalties inconsistent so that we all keep guessing about what is deemed in breach of Googles webmaster guidelines.

Sam I Am
April 17, 2008 - 9:22am

You should think about going BOTW on your affiliate program in this case I'd say. Register the referring urls and if they match ones listed by your affiliates credit the sale to them. No variables, just nice clean links.

Miles Galliford
April 17, 2008 - 10:15am

Over the last 3 months, I've seen the links listed for my site by Google drop from 5,200 to 3,200. This has happened since I started publishing articles on sites like Squidoo and Hubpages to drive traffic back to my site. I'm very careful to only undertake activities which I believe improve the experience of internet users, but I wonder whether this activity has led to the site being penalised? The links listed by Yahoo have continued to rise to over 50,000 during this period!

April 17, 2008 - 10:25am

Hi Miles
The link counts they show to the general public are, at best, irrelevant and misleading.

April 17, 2008 - 10:32am

Ugh.. sounds like a pain. There is certainly a bit of merit to stopping affiliate links from giving benefit, given Google's line against paid links. It sounds like there's an assumption that large corps have something valuable to say (is that accurate, or just capitalism at work?) and so they're less prone to penalisation.

Miles Galliford
April 17, 2008 - 11:51am

The affiliate link issue raises another question that is relevant to any company that creates websites. I've launched over 100 websites for clients over the last 12 months and at the bottom of every page I put a link to my company website. This has provided links from over 40k pages. I thought that this would be seen as legitimate link building, but could it be seen as link spam by Google?

April 17, 2008 - 12:30pm

Nepotistic designed by links are probably fine. It gets shadier (to Google) if those are SEO by links, especially if they are keyword rich and you do not have a well known brand.

April 17, 2008 - 1:05pm

The bottom line here is that as an SEO you just can't be that forthcoming about your tactics. Sure, it makes for great reading when you blog about it. For Matt Inman it was a boost to his already stellar reputation on the web - it was one of those "why didn't I think of that?" things. I think Matt's mistake was simply to outline his tactics and their results publicly.

I have a great deal of respect for Matt - he's done a lot of remarkable work, and I'm sure he'll continue to do so for years to come. However, I see an inherent mistake in his being too transparent in this case.

Aaron, what I always thought you were smart about was keeping your blog at a higher level of discussion regarding SEO and marketing without dropping down to the level of detail where you discuss one of your own sites. It isn't easy to do, but it's smart.

Yes, Matty Cutts and the Webspam Blades chopped right off page one...but based on how public its climb to the top had been and the fact that Matt started using the same tactics to promote spammy domains, can we really be surprised?

As SEOs we can all be construed to be in the business of "gaming" Google. We want to alter their results to our benefit or that of our clients. Sometimes we believe our clients or sites have the right to be there, and that their being there will add value for users. Sometimes our motivations are financial. In any case, I don't see the benefit of being "radically transparent" about SEO techniques, especially when they're super-effective.

Just my $0.02.

April 17, 2008 - 1:35pm

Great comment Mike

That is sorta the hard part about teaching people. Without examples how much can you teach? And you certainly do not want to go out and burn client websites. This site has enough traction that it lives or dies based on what I do...the rankings are not all that important at this point.

And I honestly didn't expect someone to out me directly to the search engineer, especially after they told everyone how great I was, etc. But I guess they put their business objectives ahead of friendship. Not sure how well that strategy will work longterm though.

April 17, 2008 - 2:31pm

You make a great point about the term "SEO" being a potential unpleasant red flag. Not only are there problems with Google penalizing you, but it can also cause problems when branching out into Social Media promotion. If someone has the stink of Search Marketing on them the crowd will turn on them like dingoes on babies. I've stopped using "SEO" for what I do, and just call it "web promotion."
As to the disparity between Google's behavior toward the megacorps and me, I try to be understanding. They aren't, after all, in the business of being fair to publishers, they're in the business of trying to give people the thing they're looking for when they type a bunch of words into a box, and people are more likely to be looking for SonyStyle than me (even as handsome as I am). At least, that's the justification I let them use to make myself feel better about the whole thing.

April 17, 2008 - 2:38pm

I really don’t mind Google penalizing Matt the first time around for what he did. But do a preemptive demotion on website that he is building from scratch is out of control judgment.

April 17, 2008 - 2:56pm

Thanks Aaron.

You certainly raise a good point - without specific examples the value of the lesson certainly drops off. It's difficult to achieve a balance point in that regard. Examples are the best way to teach, but if by citing examples you're exposing vulnerable properties are you comfortable with that?

I guess we can add to the teaching repertoire, since the G webspam team made an example out of them. Damage is done.

Who knows what would have happened had Matt never become involved in promoting those "other" sites. might still be at the top.

Is there a chance that this student of yours simply didn't realize what they were doing in exposing you? Maybe it's wishful thinking to give people the benefit of doubt to that degree...either way, it was short-sighted on his or her part for sure.

April 17, 2008 - 3:04pm

Is there a chance that this student of yours simply didn't realize what they were doing in exposing you?

Considering they run a leading competing SEO site this is not likely.

April 17, 2008 - 2:59pm

Personally I think that Google is the organization that needs to be more transparent. If the rules as they defined them are not being applied universally than there are ethics issues at hand. Favoritism and discrimination are strong words but this smells bad to me. Are SEOs being descriminated against? Aaron described it as "arbitrary judgement" but I think there is more to it. If you put lipstick on a pig it is still a pig... right?

Unfortunately we all get a taste of that harsh reality at some point in our lives (not all people are treated equally....shocker). The reality is the corporations with the deepest pockets will play by different rules as they always have and always will. It is simple economics Google answers to the stockholders and the almighty dollar.

April 17, 2008 - 3:10pm

Considering they run a leading competing SEO site this is not likely.

Wow...well I guess my "benefit of the doubt" is shot to hell. That's a real shame.

Daria Goetsch
April 17, 2008 - 5:19pm

Another SEO turned you in to Google, someone taking your class? I can't even tell you how wrong that is. Doesn't matter if they are a competitor or not, there is plenty of work to go around as the industry grows. No wonder SEOs are hesitant to share information and with good reason. I have to tell you I appreciate the information you have shared over the years and the free tools you provide; I'm sure many others do as well.

As an industry we should spend more time watching each other's backs instead of reporting information that Google needs to make their work easier for them.

April 17, 2008 - 5:42pm

Trying to parse the difference between Off Topic Widget Spam and acceptable link building has made me realize that we are falling into a linguistic trap when we use the term "White Hat SEO". Let's just call it "Apparently Approved By Google At The Moment".

The bottom line is that the link analysis model is a broken system for ranking sites. It was a great laboratory concept but not nearly robust enough to stand up to the assault of millions of marketers trying to game the system. The link analysis paradigm is being held together by a team of well meaning people who tell themselves they are fighting "web spam" (which they frequently do). The Web Spam team ultimately make black and white decisions and provides black and white examples against a reality with an infinite spectrum of colors. The outcome of each of these decisions is potentially millions of dollars.

Google is between a rock and a hard place and so are web marketers. The stakes are too high not to push the envelope but being successful risks backlash. Ultimately, the important thing for marketers to remember is Jeremy ShoeMoney's advice - Don't Make Google Look Stupid.

I have no problem with Google negating the cross promotional links to Payday Lendors or Ultra Sound Technician schools. I understand why they needed to slap JustSayHi with a penalty for a while and make an example of them. Matt Inman crossed that line by being too successful with his link bait and then suffered the misfortune of having his success called out in the Guardian. His transgressions were real, but does the punishment fit the "crime"?

Google made an example of BMW for cloaking content, which is an unambiguous violation of Google's TOS. The were penalized for less than a week. How long should a site be penalized for successful link bait?

April 17, 2008 - 5:59pm

So, just out of curiosity, how did you know who turned you in?

Did Matt Cutts tell you why you were being penalised?

April 17, 2008 - 6:06pm

being penalised?

not penalized...just some stuff not counting. I can't say who mentioned the outing though.

April 17, 2008 - 9:24pm

The affiliate program incident reminds me of that linkbait ideas article I'd proposed to you, where one of them was testing out whether the software you use passes value. In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense that you asked me not to share that in the article (which I didn't, if you saw it at Huomah).

Also, will you be monitoring their site(s) more closely now for signs of unkosher behaviour? Obviously, this brings up the prisoner's paradox.

@Jonah - I was just having the same chat with Matt Inman the other day ... It wasn't the tactic that Google probably disapproved of - it was the Guardian outing the technique and making Google look foolish.

April 17, 2008 - 10:55pm

well - almighty google, although offering great tools becomes a bit too big and that should raise concerns in the long run. let´s see how things develop - there is no black and white solution i can see.

April 18, 2008 - 3:04am

"Google killed former SEOmoz CTO Matt Inman’s widgetbait because some Guardian reporter didn’t like it and wrote his negative opinion up. Then Aaron Wall was unlucky enough to trust a jerk who asked Matt Cutts about Aaron’s affiliate program based linkbuilding.

The question is: Will Amazon get a beat-down too? For their affiliate based link dev?"

April 18, 2008 - 7:06am

Google just had a monster quarter. Those guys are unstopable.

Manish Mathukiya
April 18, 2008 - 10:02am

Great Post Aaron, Agreed!!
One more "Anti-Google" post according to Matt? :p

ny seo
April 18, 2008 - 4:37pm

when they come with the blitz or try to read into our play book we will just call an audible, like we have been doing for years

April 18, 2008 - 7:01pm

What Google is doing it NOT good. Sure, there are a high number of SEO's out there that may be involved in spammy or black hat techniques. But a few bad apples shouldn't ruin the whole bunch, as they say.

Google may be an unstoppable beast, but who knows what the future will bring. How many world leaders have there been that started their position as a fair and "of the people" leader, then overtime they became a dictator with an iron fist? Pre-emptive spam penalties could be another step in the "Iron Fist" direction... I might be blowing this out of proportion, but just think about it. How far could Google go? Will Google's definition of "..the best interest of the user.." stray further from the User's definition?

Aaron, I am interested to know what you think Google will be doing in 5 years. No, not even 5 years, 2 years from now. Do you think their policies and rules will get out of hand? Will they become an "internet government" of sorts, and if so, will their bulging ego from their "quick" success lead them into more of a dictatorship role?

It might be a bit pre-mature to think Google may be heading in that direction, but to deny that possibility would be just foolish.

April 18, 2008 - 7:29pm

The reason I wrote this post was the same fear you have...though I am unsure if I can change the future I can at least state my opinions.

But until Google has real competition I am not sure what any of us can do to change the trends in a significant and meaningful way.

April 18, 2008 - 8:00pm

Google in the past has warned against:
* including backlinks in hit counters
* including backlinks in free WordPress themes
and has in fact penalized many websites for doing this.

As such, I'm not sure that penalizing a website that includes backlinks in widgets is really such a big surprise.

Note: I'm not saying I agree with Google. Trading freebies for links seems very fair to me. I'm just saying it seems obvious to me that the site would get penalized for doing this.

April 21, 2008 - 5:06pm

Nice way to be a SEO Professional. Google does not recommend any SEO as we know already. But one thing Google has created many virtual positiions, desigination since it came into existence such as SEO, SEM etc... All these sector are increasing rapidly in online market with new ideas.

There was a time when no one knew about SEO, SEM, Internet marketing concepts but today, every webmaster who has experienced in this field is called SEO professional or SEO Expert. In fact, seo is very very simple thing. If you do it in very simple way, you will go up and if you try to lead this SEO term, you will go down because Google, Yahoo and MSN (major search engines) does not disclose their alogrithms or techniques to indexing the websites.

April 21, 2008 - 6:26pm

if you try to lead this SEO term, you will go down

Not true IMHO. I have owned some keywords for many many years.

April 21, 2008 - 5:38pm

So Aaron,

Do you think they blocked page rank based on footprints from the software itself that you use, or was it just a hand-edit on your site? Reason I ask, is I was considering picking up a license of that for a client.

April 21, 2008 - 6:25pm

Hi Avalanche
I am not sure, but can you do me a favor and test it, and report back with the results?

It is easy for you to test out someone else's program.

  • join someone else's affiliate program who is using the software who is using 301 redirects
  • you can verify 301s using a server header check tool
  • point an anchor text link at them with one of the words in it slightly misspelled
  • after your page that your wonky affiliate link is on get indexed see if the end destination page ranks for that phrase
April 23, 2008 - 7:56pm

I agree that some of Google's techniques may be a little messed up, but if you just follow the basic guidelines set by Google you can remain a white hat. The techniques used by a lot of SEO's through Google ARE unethical and need to be stopped. There are many way's to market your company without breaking the rules, you just have to be innovative and try out new things.

April 23, 2008 - 9:29pm

The ironic thing is that people who are innovative and try out new things are often determined to be spammers after the guidelines change behind them. Then what do they do?

Seems like you are either new to the game of SEO or have not thought it through from end to end.

April 30, 2008 - 7:51pm

The same thing happened to me, and unfortunately happened when I was still new with SEO so I had no idea how to fix it. Lesson learned after a few tears and hurdling over mountains. Although you can't trust everybody, there were a few SEOs who came to my rescue. :)

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