Why Does Black Hat SEO Work?
One good thing about sitting on a train getting to and from work is that your mind wanders. And today the question of why black hat SEO works popped into my head. I figured answering this question would be a good follow-up to a previous question I posed about whether you'd be a black hat if you knew how.
First off, a few items to provide a little context for my post...
- I'm not promoting black hat SEO. Nor do I practice it for my own sites or my clients' sites. I will admit to the occasional experiment though "just to see what happens".
- I don't work for a search engine and I never have. Much of what I've written here is based on observation and speculation. I have been wrong before and could be wrong here.
- I'm not trying to convince you that white hat is better or worse than black hat SEO. That discussion has been played out many times already.
Search Engines Are Algorithmic
Despite the many, many smart people working at the search engines and the many, many years devoted to developing the algorithms, in the end you're left with a system that given the same inputs will produce the same output. Search engines don't learn from their mistakes. It's the people running them that make the tweaks when spam gets through or end users complain. Earlier this year, Eric Enge recognized this very thing and noted an increase in discussions around human editing. One day the field of artificial intelligence may advance enough to reduce the need for ongoing human input, but we're not there yet.
What this situation means is that when a loophole is found, it can be exploited long enough to be profitable. A more intelligent and automated system would detect and react more quickly making black hat efforts shorter-lived and therefore not worth the effort.
Computational Resources Are Limited
Back in July of 2006 SEO Egghead argued that even Google has limited computational resources. The gist of this idea is that as long as content continues to increase and the relationships between that content becomes increasingly complex, analysis will require more and more computing power. At the moment, even Google's vast array of interlinked computers simply can't examine every detail of every page on every website for every permutation of spam. Instead, Google engineers are forced to prioritize and therefore ignore some page elements. And as long as some aspect of websites is ignored, there will be an opportunity for exploitation and profits.
Black Hat SEO Embraces the Short Term
Show me a black hat SEO that thinks a specific effort will be long lasting and I'll show you a black hat SEO that really doesn't get it. That isn't to say that some tactics don't end up being long lasting, but the professionals know not to bank on them. Stephen Spencer once wrote, "They are prepared to get caught, and when they do they pick up and move, setting up shop elsewhere. Or, more typically, they have thousands of other sites to fall back on." Working with the knowledge that everything is disposable offers a whole host of freedoms that other SEOs and legitimate businesses just don't have.
Black Hat SEO Is About Volume
While white hat SEO is often about building a single site that is a powerhouse in a select industry, black hat SEO (often) focuses on a lot of little sites each of little value, but in aggregate would sure cause some jaws to drop. Black hats are the best at exploiting the long tail. A lot of this is possible because of their short term focus and willingness to lose out to the search engines every now and again. It's like investing in 100 companies and knowing that even if 90 are complete flops, the remaining 10 will make up for everything vs. piling all of your money into a single company.
More Tools and Techniques
There's a line that white hat SEOs can't cross and continue to call themselves white hat, but there is no such line for black hats. In addition, I suspect the black hats have a good handle on all white hat techniques and in this regard Rae Hoffman a.k.a. Sugarrae agrees as she unequivocally stated that the best black hat can out-white hat a white hat. What this means is that black hats are free to mix and match techniques to achieve their goals while white hats are left dismissing XSS as a black hat technique without having a clue about the details.
Smart People Like Puzzles
A lot of smart and entrepreneurial people want to do things that others aren't doing or aren't doing well. Outsmarting the biggest brains at the search engines falls into this category. The opportunity to brag about success also attracts a highly motivated group of people. This situation is similar to what some of you may remember as the early days of computer game piracy when cracking and distributing software were done in large part for the fame. The potential for profit with black hat SEO provides a double incentive for some.
Consequences are Relatively Minor
In the grand scheme of things, black hat SEOs have little to worry about in terms of consequences for their actions. They may lose a bunch of sites or have a revenue stream disappear, but so what? No jail time and no fine. If you happen to be a big name (everyone remembers BMW, right) then you can just apologize when caught and go about your business. For smaller players, a little extra care making sure you're anonymous (e.g. don't go bragging about specifics on your blog) means being able to move on to the next project a little smarter than you were before. Contrast this with the consequences for an in-house white hat SEO that fails.
All of these points leave just one thing unanswered. Is it black hat or blackhat? Google doesn't provide a "did you mean" for either, but the two word version does have 4 times the results.