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…

  1. I'm not promoting black hat SEO. Nor do I practice it for my own sites or my client's sites. I will admit to the occasional experiment though “just to see what happens”.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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  1. Myths and rumors abound on the being banned for cloaking issue, and five experts will probably give you six different answers … Well, here is mine: ……don’t be fooled by the hype!

    Can your core web site get banned by the search engines for cloaking? If that was true, then your competitor could build some cloaked domains and point them to your primary web site so that it would be banned! Think of the damage that would be done if that was at all true. Not a very likely scenario, is it?

    So can you really have your “cloaked” domains banned for cloaking? The answer is yes – if, for example, the search engines’ staff have manually checked and compared your spider content with what you are actually serving your human visitors. In a worst case scenario a human editor may come along to check the matter out.

    On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that you will get penalized or banned unless some silly campaign build mistake has taken place. If a cloaking campaign is implemented professionally and with sound marketing techniques, your chances of being banned are minimal.

    Note that I do NOT condone cloaking for misleading purposes: it is counter productive and will only serve to make life more difficult for all parties concerned.

    So can cloaking be abused? Sure it can! But so are kitchen knives and painkillers. I for my part have never advocated misleading search engine optimization, if only because it’s dumb marketing. There’s no excuse in the world for misleading visitors like that and it certainly doesn’t seem to pay off either, which is why the SERPs is actually seeing less and less of such practises these days.

    But let’s face realities here: while the search engines may take a strong-arm stance against cloaking in public, they don’t really seem to worry too much about it in everyday life, even if they state otherwise.

    One of the reasons being that there’s so much legitimate cloaking about, it would simply be impossible to weed it all out. Else, you might well expect the world’s top 1000 web properties to disappear from the SERPs.

    It’s quite important to realize this fact before fretting about the possible penalization of cloaking, as so many clueless SEOs are preaching, without a single tangible proof of what they’re claiming to know absolutely everything about.

  2. awesome post! people are smarter than computers because people are the one who makes them.. i still prefer to use grey hat because its better for my site..

  3. Wow, I loved this post. Normally I'll nit pick and find flaws in an article that I'm reading, but you really hit the nail on the head.

    My favorite part was about the real world consequences a black hat faces vs white hat. I agree I get so much more stress from my clients. When I'm working on my sites, the only thing I worry about is my ppc accounts.


  4. Yes, but unless you are a real elite black hat seo then you will see your sites bring in traffic for a few weeks, maybe a month, before it trips the algo or a few surfers moan about it to the search engines, especailly if you are using cloaking, surfer hate it, many of them will take the time to go to google and fill in the report spam form..but there are still a lot of black hats making big money

  5. Blackhat,

    That's an important point that I missed stating -- that good black hats can create sites quickly. It plays to the volume item, but I think it's important to state more explicitly.

  6. And because a black hat seo can build a site in a few hours and promote it in a few days then it doesnt matter - although there are ways to keep a site under the radar for a much longer period of time - even years without tripping the algorithms, but on a ratio of time money and effort then why should they bother being white hat - it takes years to build up unique content - ages to promote, and months before any traffic or profit. Ive had a black hat seo site making money after 1 week of building it !

  7. Yeah, if a blackhat is able to rank for a short period of time then likely he/she has made enough money to make it worth their efforts and they're back to doing it again. That's the unfortunate thing about penalization is it's usually not too much of a threat.

  8. I like the analogy to investing - I've seen that in a variety of investing books and it's a good point.

    Es to black hat vs blackhat, as the expression becomes more popular, the one word version will become dominant. Same way people discuss email today and not e-mail. eCommerce and not e-commerce. I owe that insight to my college history prof.

  9. This was an excellent entry.
    It's 100% true. I have people asking me constantly if I worry about my sites getting banned, and I have the same answer: No, I look forward to it.
    When a site gets banned, that's when I look at it's statistics. If it was profitable, I'll replicate it another 5 times, close my eyes, and go to sleep.
    Each banning is a potential profit increase.
    Not many people understand that.

  10. Adam,

    I think people will be "smarter" than computers for a long time, but there are problems that computers are particularly good at even though they're not smarter. For example, recent advancements in computing have made them capable of analyzing enough chess moves that they can beat even the best human players. However, in chess the variables are far more limited than they are with web sites.

  11. The basic reason black hat works is very simple - people are smarter than computers. In a game of wits, you can beat the computer, until someone teaches the computer how to beat you.... :-)

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