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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?

How To Buy Aged Domain Names

Does an aged domain name make it easier to rank in Google?  In some cases, yes.

It’s not so much the age of the domain, per se, as the authority you’re able to assume.  Lets review a quick Q&A from my experience:

 

If I buy an old or aged domain name, is it easier to rank in Google?

If you’re able to acquire an aged domain name with significant PageRank or an extensive back link profile, absolutely.

 

Does the domain need to be relevant to my targeted niche?

In my experience, no.

 

Should I 301 redirect the domain name to my new domain and/or existing property?

While a 301 redirect of an authoritative and/or trusted domain can enhance your existing site’s (or a new domain)  rapid acquisition of its own trust and link equity, I believe it’s almost always more effective to develop and re-establish old domains rather than a redirect.  If you’re looking to promote your existing domain or new brand, create content on re-established domains specific to your niche.

 

How do I buy old or aged domains?

Though a multitude of registrars and ancillary services exist, I’m a fan of GoDaddy Auctions.

 

How do I know which domains are worth buying?

Several paid services exist to assist in the hunt for aged authoritative domains, but why pay when you don’t have to?  I use ExpiredDomains.net free service for an initial assessment of available domains for purchase.  It will allow you to view basics metrics (PageRank, Back Links, SEOMoz Domain Authority/Page Authority, MozRank, etc.) for all domains currently available for sale on GoDaddy Auctions.  I then use SEOMastering’s Fake Page Rank Check Tool to verify authenticity of PageRank, and look for hidden bonuses like existing Yahoo Directory or DMOZ listings.  Additionally, I’ll analyze potential domain purchases with back link analysis tools like MajesticSEO, Ahrefs, and OpenSiteExplorer.  Personally, I prefer an established, diverse and clean back link profile to Google PageRank.  MajesticSEO is my tool of choice for analysis.  Even without a subscription, look for trouble indicators like over-optimized anchor texts or excessively low trust.

For example, a current domain listed on PRDrop is bosch-fh.com, touting a PageRank of 7.  Impressive, no doubt, but in analyzing this domain with MajesticSEO we see it’s showing a single back link that’s showing as recently deleted as of April 4th and nil CitationFlow or TrustFlow.  Don’t be led astray by PageRank alone.  While a PR7 site can have uses of its own, I’d much prefer a PR5 domain like togetherville.com, with a TrustFlow of 25, 16,567 back links from over 1,000 different domains on 819 referring class C subnets.

A quick search on Archive.org’s WayBackMachine shows the domain active with content as recent as March 2013, and the domain still exists in the Google index and shows no 301 redirects.  This makes for a fantastic potential acquisition.

 

What are some pitfalls to avoid when evaluating domains to acquire?

Sites that diverse back link profiles, but have been stripped of PageRank.  See my example below, WickedAngelsRadio.com, on initial inspection — evaluating back links alone — it appears that this would be an absolute power house of a domain.  Our first warning signal is the discrepancy in the ratio of CitationFlow and TrustFlow.  A domain with this many back links showing a TrustFlow of 8 likely has a sordid past.

WickedAngelsRadio has a diverse back link profile, but has been stripped of PageRank.

Upon further inspection, we see this domain has been completely stripped of PageRank by Google.
0 PageRank?  Rut roh.

0 PageRank? Rut roh.

Worse yet, glancing at its anchor text diversity, we see key indicators prior use and abuse.
Extensive back link profile.  Bueno.  Over-optimized anchors containing casino references?  No bueno

Extensive back link profile. Bueno. Over-optimized anchors containing casino references? No bueno

 

What are my options after purchasing an aged domain name?

Rebecca Kelley presented the article below on SEOMoz.  I think provide a fantastic post-acquisition risk/benefit analysis.  Again, it’s worth mentioning, in my experience I’ve seen the most favorable results when developing out the content on an acquired domain.  Your mileage (and intent) may vary.

Option #1: 301 Redirect the Old Domain to Your Existing Domain

The easiest and least time consuming option is to 301 redirect the old domain to your existing site. This tactic obviously works best if both sites are in the same sector and are targeting the same keywords; otherwise, if you have a pet supply site and you buy an old Texas Hold ‘Em poker site, a redirect probably might raise some eyebrows among the search engines. If, however, your site is brandnamepets.com and you buy onlinepetsupply.com and 301 redirect the domain over, you’re inheriting a lot of topical and appropriate links.

PROS:

  • Is the least time consuming option
  • Benefit from the value (about 95% or so) of the old domain’s links (postscript: Danny Sullivan has recently blogged about expired domains and their link credit, and it appears that buying a domain and redirecting to your site for the link benefit may not work since the links may not pass credit from expired domains.)

CONS: 

  • Old branded anchor text pointing to your new site isn’t going to help as much as a keyword-rich anchor text
  • If the old site had a penalty (for shady link building, cloaking, spamming, etc.), the penalty could carry over to your new site (I can’t confirm this to be true, but a lot of SEOs I’ve talked to believe that this is a possibility, and some have sworn that they’ve experienced it firsthand, so I guess you just have to be cautious)

 

Option #2: Create a Microsite That Links to Your Existing Domain

The second option requires a bit more time and effort than a 301 redirect. You could do a mini overhaul of the site and turn it into a microsite for your main domain. This option is good for exact-match domains for your targeted keyword, and there are other reasons for going the microsite route that Rand’s highlighted in his post about root domains, subdomains, subfolders and microsites. This strategy also works better if the old domain has decent rankings for the keywords you’re targeting.

PROS:

  • Can cross-promote/cross-link to your existing site
  • More real estate in the SERPs means more branding and potential conversions for your site
  • You can do stuff on your microsite you may not want to do with your main site (e.g., launch silly viral content, experiment with a promotional tactic)
  • You don’t have to have a completely robust site; a lot of microsites are smaller and have a single focus (e.g., center on a quiz or a centric idea)


CONS:

  • Can be time-consuming to do an overhaul of the old site
  • Aggressive promotion and linking to the existing domain can seem spammy and you could get penalized for reciprocal linking or setting up a link farm
  • Your current site isn’t inheriting any of the old site’s link value that would have come via a 301 redirect
  • Microdomains can be used ineffectively (see Rand’s Whiteboard Friday about the microsite mistake)

 

Option #3: Overhaul the Old Domain and Operate It Independently

The third option is the one that’s the most time consuming but also has its benefits. It’s like having a successful restaurant and buying another restaurant and operating them simultaneously. They’re not the exact same restaurant, but both are popular in their own right and make you money. The same goes for Option #3. You could update the content on the old domain and sell the same products that you’re selling on your current site. If you can get both sites to rank alongside each other in the SERPs, you’re increasing your conversion chances and sales potential.

PROS:

  • As with Option #2, you get more real estate in the SERPs if you can get both sites to rank for your targeted search terms
  • You don’t have to work hard to brand the old site if it’s a generic, keyword-rich domain–you can just focus on getting rankings and conversions
  • The old site already has links pointing to it and is more established than starting with a brand new domain

CONS:

  • You have to ensure that the old site doesn’t mimic the new site and runs into any duplicate content issues
  • It’s time consuming to revamp and maintain the old site (you’ve essentially doubled your workload)
  • As with Option #2, aggressive cross linking between the sites can raise red flags

Your course of action really depends on how much work and effort you can put into the expired domain. If you’re barely able to maintain and optimize your current site, you probably want to just 301 redirect the old site (note: see my amended comment above about the link value not likely to be passed). If, however, you’re more creative and have some time on your hands, you can try your hand at crafting a microsite. If you really know your stuff and are experienced at making money off various websites, you’d probably do well with the third option.

 

What has your experience been with acquiring old domains?  Let us know.  More to come.

Blackhat SEO vs. Whitehat SEO

Since the late 1990s, SEOs have been identified as belonging to one of two camps – the “blackhats” and the “whitehats”. Progressively, these labels have transformed into little more than exaggerated caricatures, cartoon heroes and villains that merely exist as manifestations of our imaginations, usually embellished to suit our latest marketing agendas.

Under the microscope, even when evaluating specific tactics and methodologies, “whitehat” vs. “blackhat” is akin to distinctions of “liberal” vs. “conservative” – the definition evolves with each year that passes and every person you ask. Undoubtedly, that definition is almost always accompanied with significant bias, assumptions and judgments.

Unfortunately, too many businesses still base their choice of internet marketer on the hat they don, even if that hat only comes out as a flourish for sales calls.

Business owners should focus on educating themselves to the basics of search engine optimization and forming better questions. True tactical and strategic differences exist behind what we often refer to as “black” and “white” hat, and those differences are critical to understand when deciding the right direction for your business.

I won’t tell you how to run your business. I simply want you to ask yourself (and your prospective SEO vendors) harder questions.

Are “cheap” and “low-value” strategies truly saving you money? How much risk are you really willing to stomach? Is your top priority to get up and running quickly and cheaply, or are you trying to build a real, long-term business that realizes steady incremental growth?

 If the best your SEO can do is show you their hat, and they can’t help you answer these questions, then move on – it doesn’t matter what color that hat is.

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