Much of the discussion in the SEO community of late has been related to Google's efforts to "level the playing field" for mom and pops vs. those with bigger marketing budgets, and comments to this effect made by Matt Cutts at SXSW recently. He indicated that Google is working on things that would make it so people who "over-optmize" their sites don't necessarily rank better than others who didn't worry about SEO, but have great content.
Are black hat SEO tactics worth the risk? Tell us what you think.
To a great extent, Google has been working on these kinds of things for a long time. The Panda update was certainly designed to make content quality matter more, but Google also regularly gives tips about how to optimize your site better and releases lists of algorithmic changes, which practically beg webmasters to try and exploit them. Google, of course doesn't take this stance, but when they release the signals, people pay attention, and try to play to them. Why wouldn't they?
Google knows this, of course, which is why they won't release their entire list of signals, let alone talk about how much weight certain signals have compared to others, although if you pay close enough attention, you'll sometimes catch hints at this too.
You might say Google sends mixed signals to webmasters. Danny Sullivan asks if Google's over-optimization penalty is its "jump the shark" moment. He makes the case that it's more about PR for Google to indicate they're actively working on making results more relevant.
The whole de-indexing of paid blog/link networks plays to the whole making over-optimization matter less concept, but based on Google's webmaster guidelines, it seems like doing so would have always fit into the company's policy.
When you play the black hat, or even gray hat game, you're taking a big risk of being dealt a damaging penalty. Google didn't even hesitate to penalize its own site for violating guidelines (at least after they were called out on it), which may have even cost Chrome some browser market share.
Going white hat after playing it at a darker shade in the past isn't necessarily going to help your rankings either though, as one blogger indicated in a recent post at SEOBullshit:
I did paid links, paid reviews, and never, ever did any shit like “cloaking”, “spam”, or “stuffing.” Hence, the “grey” hat campaign type. I had awesome content. I had a crawlable site. It was perfect in every way. I used paid links and reviews to scream at GoogleBot, “Hey, notice me! I’m right here! I have killer content and reputable sites link to it.” The results were great. The money. Terrific. I left the competition scratching their heads since my site was HTTPS, it was hard to reverse engineer as most link-finding tools couldn’t really find my backlinks.
However, the stress of running a grey-hat campaign eventually wears on you and you long for the peace of a white hat campaign. So, I hatched a plan to wean my site from grey and pray that the results weren’t too bad. I expected a 15-25% drop in SERPS and traffic which I could then recover by getting a big relevant, content piece linked up to the pages where I removed the TLA’s.
Fucking failure. Total and monstrous failure.
He continues on saying his total traffic drop was -72.5%.
Every time Google makes big adjustments to its algorithm, sites pay the price. Sometimes that price is deserved, and sometimes it's not. I find that often, people tend to think they didn't deserve to lose their rankings. Even with the latest Panda refresh, we had sites telling us about ranking declines.
The intro of a recent Entrepreneur article sums up the conundrum of the small business perfectly: "As a small business owner using the web to reach customers, you've surely been implementing search engine optimization tactics to make sure your site turns up high in web searches. But just when you might feel like you're starting to get the hang of this SEO thing, it appears that search giant Google might start penalizing websites that are over-optimized."
We understand that there are plenty of white hat SEO tactics that Google not only is OK with, but encourages. However, most people simply don't know what SEO even is. Matt Cutts himself shared results this week from a survey he conducted, finding only one in five people in the U.S. have even heard of SEO.
It's not surprising that sites would be tempted to go for the darker hat techniques. But as Google continues on this new (same) path of leveling the playing field, however, it may be more playing with fire than ever. And once you start, engaging in SEO's dark arts, you may have a hard time returning to the lighter side, should you ever choose to do so.
Have you ever been helped or hurt by using black hat SEO tactics? Let us know in the comments (you don't have to use your real name).