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Whitehat SEO Techniques in 2013: Learning From Blackhat SEO

The phrases “white hat” and “black hat” are loaded guns, and we only use them because they’re so ubiquitous. The truth is, when you tell yourself you are a “white hat,” you can end up fooling yourself into thinking that your strategy will always work, and Google will never turn it back on you. Worse still, you can close your mind off to insights that dramatically improve business results.

Don’t misunderstand us. Ethics are crucial. If you don’t already understand why it’s absolutely vital for SEO to be crystal clear and ethical in the years going forward, take a look at what we wrote over at Search Engine Journal. (Hint: the algorithm is only a very small part of why ethics matter.)

But there’s a difference between ethics and restrictive labels, and if you aren’t learning anything from “black hats,” you’re probably missing some key insights, like these:

1. Testing is Always Better than Blind Faith

Before you head straight to the comment section and write a rage-fueled rant, let me point out the fact that these are generalized statements. They don’t apply to every single “white hat” or “black hat” out there. But here we go:

White hats are less likely to test things than black hats.

This is an unfortunate truth about our industry. While there are plenty of excellent number crunchers on the “inbound” side of SEO, like, say, Dr. Pete, your average white hat SEO is less likely to put things to the test than your average black hat SEO. There are a few reasons for this:

    • Black hats can test some theories much faster than white hats, because they can use automated software and create controlled experiments that aren’t practical with white hat tactics
    • A large portion of white hats are “reformed” black hats who couldn’t stomach tests that kept getting them penalized, and have decided to simply follow the advice of industry experts instead
  • Some confuse white hat SEO for doing exactly what Google advises, and thus don’t bother testing anything

Again, I’m not saying these statements are true for all, or even most, white hat SEOs. I’m simply saying that more white hats are guilty of this particular offense than black hats.

Things don’t have to be this way.

As we’ve said several times, it’s a bit ironic to put the word “optimizer” in your title if you aren’t doing any actual testing for optimization. Even the worst conversion rate optimizers understand this. It’s strange how few SEOs (on either side of the fence) actually test their pet theories about the algorithm, or run the numbers to see how well their cherished tactics and strategies are playing out.

We recently wrote an in depth guide for KISSmetrics on SEO testing. Here are a few of the takeaways from that post:

    • You can test quirks of the algorithm by tweaking single things and measuring how they influence traffic
    • You can put SEO strategies to the test on “real world” sites by running two different content strategies at the same time, and measuring which content group picks up the most lifetime value (note that lifetime value does not equal number of visits, subscribers, etc.)
    • You can use traditional split testing to discover which kinds of pages are most likely to pick up natural links, or links from outreach

We are living in the age of big data. There’s just no excuse to leave money on the table by relying on assumptions instead of hard facts. Intuition is crucial, but it’s most useful when you are also putting it to the test.

2. It’s Okay to Spend Money to Make Money

As we all know, black hat SEOs have no qualms spending money to make money. They will buy links, pay for inclusion in networks, pay for automated link-building tools, buy multiple IP hosting, and buy sites to set up their own private blog networks.

As all white hat SEOs already know, these tactics aren’t worth investing in if you care about long term results. For the black hats who know how to do it, these tactics can make a quick buck, but they are very far removed from the brand building that legitimate businesses need to survive. Sites that rank using these kinds of tactics are short-lived at best, and eventually get struck down by algorithm updates, manual reviews, or user spam reports.

So, what can we possibly learn from black hats on this issue?

It’s a basic lesson that marketers in every other field understand quite well: it’s okay to pay for results. Marketers buy ad space on television networks, they pay per click, they hire talent, and they invest. And there certainly are white hat SEOs who understand just how incredible results can be when you have money to invest.

Unfortunately, the whole “don’t buy links” mentality has really hurt our ability to think of SEO as a “put money in and get money out” field of marketing.

We can even learn direct lessons from some of these black hat tactics:

    • Buying links – While we can’t straight up buy links or even offer “free products and services” in exchange for links, it’s perfectly fine to hire talent from people with influence on the web. The over-emphasis on guest posts and link-begging has led some of us to believe that you just can’t offer money to people when you’re trying to establish an online presence. That’s a terrible way of looking at things. When you hire microcelebrities, influential bloggers, well-known photographers, and so on, you will attract traffic, and you will earn links. You just need to be willing to hire people who always earn natural links, no matter what they do. It’s that simple. Not to mention the fact that buying no-follow links for the referral traffic is perfectly fine, and seriously underrated.
    • Private blog networks – While setting up a private link network of sites that “pretend” not to be associated with you is a terrible idea if you care about a long-term online presence, we can take a page from the basic approach. It’s perfectly legitimate to buy blogs, redirect them to folders or subdomains on your site, and when possible, hire the blogger. This allows you to buy not just a link profile, but mindshare. Conglomerates understand the value of acquisitions. Why do so few SEOs?
    • Pay for inclusion in networks – Joining a link network, especially a publicly advertised one, is an extremely bad idea for brands. But there’s nothing ethically wrong with buying visibility on networks. Advertorials (not to mention advertisements) are an incredible way to increase exposure, when used properly. What many people don’t realize is that you can actually earn links by buying ads. Traffic turns into links, and if the content is better, it turns into more, higher quality links. That’s how Google works outside of the most competitive niches, and it’s a fact that you can use to build entirely natural links with ad exposure.
    • Pay for tools – While fully automated link building tools are an awful idea, tools like Followerwonk can make link building outreach much more effective and efficient. Reporting tools like AdvancedWebRanking make it easier to track and learn from your campaigns, and tools like KISSmetrics can teach us about our individual customer’s behavior. It’s very difficult to do any real optimization without tools in your arsenal.

SEO is business. We need to speak the language of ROI, and think about more innovative and effective ways to spend money, if we wish to be taken seriously.

3. It’s Worth Taking Advantage of What Works Today

White hat SEOs are playing the long game. They’re interested in strategies that will continue to work for years and years, because they don’t want to throw their clients under the bus, and lose their reputation virtually overnight. This is the only smart way to run an SEO agency.

And yet, it’s clear that some black hats can make a lot of money very quickly by taking advantage of loopholes in the algorithm. Sites can rank for ridiculously competitive terms like “car insurance” in 3 days using links from hacked websites. They can rank for terms with 40k monthly visits in 4 days using private link networks.

And let’s all face facts: everybody wants to make money now, not later. So is there something we can learn from the cheaters?

Long term strategy is crucial, but it shouldn’t exist in isolation.

When there’s an opportunity to make money today, you should take advantage of it, as long as it doesn’t compromise the future of your brand. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking advantage of the way Google’s algorithm works today, as long as you can justify what you are doing as legitimate marketing, and as long as you are investing the revenue in strategies that will continue to work for the long haul.

Conclusion

While it can be useful for SEO agencies to distance themselves from spammers, it can also become dangerous if it limits your thinking. Ethics are crucial for the success of your business, but they shouldn’t be used as an excuse to plug your ears and cover your eyes. Open minds are a must if you want to compete in this growing market.

What other lessons can we learn from the seedy underbelly of SEO?

Building Links in 2013: Strategies & Tactics

On average, Google employs 200 points of criteria to determine website rankings. These discernible categories are segmented by popularity, relevancy and content.  As implied in the name, “popularity” is perhaps the most crucial driving force for higher rankings.  How does one achieve a recognizable website? With a little help from  effective, linkbuilding strategies.

Link building is an-ever changing discipline that must be executed correctly in order to produce  advantageous results.  What exactly is linkbuilding, you may ask? Let’s get down to brass tacks!

The objective of linkbuilding is pretty straightforward: place high-quality website links across the web pointed to your site.  The more quality websites you acquire placements from, the better your website can rank.  Seems easy enough, right? Ah, if only it were so simple!

Many people confuse “link bait” with “link building,” and there in itself lies the first problem. Link-building strategies are endeavors you personally undertake (ie. the cause-and-effect falls on your shoulders), whereas link bait is intended to go viral upon conception as a result of high share volumes.

Similar to fishing, you “bait” some amazing content to the masses and wait to reel ‘em in. The problem with this technique? Unless you’ve hired professional SEO strategists who can ensure positive ROIs, you’re likely to be waiting on that bite for a long time. You’re better off taking the plunge and implementing your own linkbuilding strategies, rather than sitting back and waiting for a catch.  It’s like that old Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime” (but with a little more marketing jargon).

Anyway – enough about linkbait; now onto strategy building!

Link strategy is essential when blueprinting your short and long-term goals.  You first must determine what links you’re capable of creating in moderate-to-high volumes. That’s the whole point of linkbuilding strategies: driving as much traffic to your site via organic linking methods. Let’s take a look at some of them!

Link Building for High Visibility

Consider taking advantage of trending pages that generate millions of visitors each month. For a small investment, buying links from such notable websites can optimize your linkprofile with natural, nofollow links (rel=’nofollow’). While these nofollow links don’t pass pagerank to your site, they do serve as Google-friendly, natural sources.  All-followed links, even from reputable sources, can raise a red flag if misconstrued by Penguin 2.0 algorithms.

In order to proceed with this strategy, the following measures should be taken:

1. page placement (ie. location of link)
2. determining style/format of chosen link (ie. opting for image vs. widget)
3. assessing your angle (ie. consumer-appeal vs. brand name insert)
4. inventory placement (homepage link vs. deep content link)
5. cost-awareness (ie. knowing your price limit)
6. link disclosure (ie. acknowledging third-party sources )

This method calls for some patience, along with strategic planning. Pursue your networking options and employ the expertise of ad brokers and associates.

Don’t get discouraged if Google’s linking limitations pose some obstacles every now and then. There is still industry growth potential; you just have to source out your own specific medium.

Link Building for Moderate Visibility

Guest posting has emerged in recent years as an effective way to increase page rankings.  A successful guest post is one that produces valuable content for the hosting blog site(s). The following are key steps to consider when executing a search-free, link traffic endeavor:

1. frequency of contribution(s)
2. depth and structure of shared information
3. the contribution benefits of your content
4. external promotion features

Your mission is to obtain consistent visitors for each site you contribute content to, so it’s important to produce quality content to pique visitor interest. Moderate site-traffic should see an influx of 10,000+ monthly visitors. While this seems like a high number, creative, optimal content can easily pull those figures. If you are unable to appease that volume, you may be marketing insufficient content that does not appeal to visitors.

Link Building for Social Media

Even though Lady Gaga reigns the Twitter realm with her multi-million (plus) fan base, the average Joe requires a bit more strategy than a stage name and arena of adoring fans (hate to be the bearer of bad news)!

Your social media audience will increase as you dabble in the networking process; friending, accepting and/or following a target niche, or individuals with similar industry interests. Some factors to keep in mind when executing this endeavor:

1. the positive outreach support you foster vs. the generic approach of others
2. your active participation within social media communities vs. standard, link publishing spiels
3. regular guest interaction vs. communicative indifference

In this situation, your goal is to ‘persuade’ without ‘pushing’ You want to convey the right amount of enthusiasm/chutzpah, but you should also avoid overly-aggressive, networking tactics that are likely to work against you. Ultimately, you want visitors to click on your links because of legitimate interest in your services/specific niche, so be socially-forthright instead of hard-selling.

Link Building for Mobile Apps/Mobile-Friendly Devices

This strategy works best for those capable of creating/marketing an engaging app that drives mobile traffic to your website. Consider the app as your very own publishing medium that showcases the benefits of your site.

If creating your own app is not a possible option, try creating a mobile-friendly website that supports smartphone browsers with easy navigation. Factors to consider for this endeavor are:

  • extended platform/device usability
  • app promotion efforts/appeal to target audience
  • work/effort needed to publish + maintain app and/or mobile site
  • designing a CTA link that corresponds with mobile presentation

 

SEO Linkbuilding: A Dying Industry?

Contrary to what you’ve heard, there are still plenty of search-influenced methods to tap into. Linkbuilding is not a “dying” industry, so much as it is “evolving” with the times.

Like any SEO venture, there are certain risks associated with linkbuilding. The launch of analytical, algorithmic tools like Google’s Penguin 2.0 (used to weed out spammers) have posed a problem for unnatural linkprofiles that are often perceived as manipulative link tactics.

The consequences of these anchored, SEO tactics are severe enough to sway some marketing agencies from link building strategies. The following are just some of the SEO tactics that have emerged on the market in recent years as “questionable” strategies:

  • manipulating the anchor text of links
  • mass, infographic distribution for link bait
  • vendor/tradeshow promotions aka. “giving away swag”
  • journalists who use “Help A Reporter Out” service to gather immediate feedback

While some webmasters are comfortable with link spam, Google algorithms are certainly not. The anticipated launch of Penguin 2.0 is sure to tighten the reigns around anchored, SEO strategies. As many spamming tactics violate Google policies, algorithmic interception is likely to occur; tarnishing your site visibility, along with any number of associated penalties.

Regardless of some of the current hesitancies surrounding linkbuilding strategies, correctly-executed links are still capable of influencing search rankings…without detriment. Though it may seem like the entire Google conglomerate have it out for every webmaster seeking higher traffic volumes, the search engine algorithms aren’t intended to destroy the linkbuilding industry’s SEO attempts. The whole point of this Google Penguin crackdown is to single out the manipulative links that have been distributed by automated spamming sites, and fair enough. Webmasters who have effectively-employed natural, linkbuilding strategies can finally reap the benefits of their hard labors, because they’ve earned it!

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and if you find yourself considering “white hat” strategies, we strongly encourage you to weigh the pros-and-cons of this risky attempt.  Realistically, SEO tactics that sell links via white hat strategies are far more likely to encounter marketing agencies that run like the dickens from these link acquisition services. In order to succeed in the current and ompetitive marketing realm, you have to plead your case, so to speak. Demonstrate that SEO is possible through natural linkprofiles, to lower their ‘linkbuilding guard.’

Also keep in mind that substituting guest posts and infographics for paid links is a very slippery slope that you should avoid at all costs. Realistically, these manipulative linking practices have already faced backlash, penalties and long-term, critical reviews. People are very quick to sport the fancy label of “content marketer,” but those who intend to streamline the labor-intensive processes just to manipulate search results are simply link spammers with a misconstrued job title.

The most important thing to remember? Relax and approach this venture with diligence.  Avoid linkbuilding shortcuts that may save you time, but cost you much more in consequences. Haste should not be a driving force for your marketing strategies. If you’re quick to expedite the linkbuilding process, you are likely to showcase a site that conveys exactly that: rushed efforts and/or presentation and illegitimate credibility. Always keep in mind that natural linkbuilding isn’t an urban myth. With the right strategies and legwork, you can avoid manipulative linking and all its associate penalties. Sure, this endeavor requires a fair amount of effort, but with a little bit of organic effort and an extra boost of gumption, it is possible to ensure your site’s successful placement in high search rankings!

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