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April 16, 2007

Black Hat SEO Meets Web 2.0

I’m here at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco. Today (actually yesterday now that it’s after midnight) I sat in on the SEO Workshop being presented by Todd Friesen (”The Oilman”) and Greg Boser (”WebGuerrilla”).

This session turned out to be a lot of fun. It was reminiscent of their “SEO Rock Stars” radio show on Webmaster Radio. I cracked up when Todd plugged their show and explained the name of the show by saying: “Yes, we really are that arrogant.”
Much more of the session than I was expecting turned to “black hat” or “gray hat” SEO tactics — things that are outside the search engine guidelines. Both Todd and Greg believe in being pragmatic about SEO. Greg analogized SEO to speeding: nobody goes the speed limit; just don’t drive recklessly swerving in and out of traffic so you get in a wreck. He “hates the guidelines” and longs for the good ol’ days when the engines didn’t have such idealistic guidelines and if you went too far, you were simply “torched forever and you’re gone.” Greg’s guiding principle: “I don’t want to upset my mother” — i.e. he gauges whether he’s gone too far based on whether she’d be unhappy with the search results because they’re useless. They say the search engine guidelines are simply that: guidelines.
Hmm. I’m not sure I’d take that tack with an audience of webheads from Web 2.0 startups. An audience of SEOs at SES (Search Engine Strategies) is one thing, because they can be discerning about how far to take various bits of advice. But Web 2.0 geeks? That aren’t savvy enough about SEO to know when they are playing with fire.
Greg and Todd made compelling arguments for playing with conditional redirects (serving different destination URLs to Googlebot than to humans). But the 4 major engines had specifically warned against doing that in the session “Search Engine Q&A on Links” last Friday at Search Engine Strategies in NYC. So you’d better REALLY know what you’re doing if you’re going to play with that stuff!
Todd and Greg also testified to the benefits of cloaking. One of their client’s sites was cloaked for 3 years — a new ecommerce platform was purchased and launched by the client, but the old HTML-based site was served up selectively to the bots because it ranked so well. I’m sure that was worth a pile of money to his client. But boy if you get that wrong (like not keeping up to date with all the ever-changing list of IP addresses associated with Googlebot), things could go very badly.
Todd made the point that if you are a big brand or company, you’re not going to get kicked out of Google. Or at worst, maybe it’ll be for a day. He cited eBay and the NY Times as examples of sites that won’t get banned despite operating outside the Google Guidelines by serving millions of “related search” results and/or cloaking. Todd also cited Yahoo’s new spam-reporting feature within Yahoo Site Explorer as evidence that the engines (and Yahoo in particular) aren’t very good at webspam detection: “they’re asking you to report the spam because they can’t find it themselves.” I was ROFLMAO when I heard that one. I doubt Yahoo would find that as funny though. 😉
Speaking of Yahoo… Greg told the audience that he has consulted for Yahoo. Wow! That surprised me; impressed me too. Nice one, Greg!
Speaking of Yahoo again… Todd loves Yahoo’s paid inclusion program (Search Submit Pro). That’s because with it, Yahoo “gives you a complete pass on the off-page factors”. Yahoo tells everyone publicly that Search Submit Pro doesn’t improve your rankings, but it’s not true according to Todd. Although you shouldn’t expect a rankings lift with big money terms like “credit report” or “data recovery,” it will lift your rankings on most non-ultracompetitive search terms. Nonetheless, I’d exercise caution with this one. That’s because, as Todd admits, when you stop paying all your listings in the SERPs “will mysteriously vanish and it’s really hard to get them back in for free.” A bit of evil advice from Todd (I think he was only half-serious! 😉 … “Submit your competitor and then turn it off”. I was again rolling on the floor laughing at that one! I’ve heard of “Google bowling” your competitors into “Supplemental hell”, but now I guess you might call this one “Yahoo bowling!”
Attendees got a little dose of conspiracy theory. Todd and Greg don’t trust Google and their “don’t be evil” mantra — and they weren’t afraid to spread a little hysteria into the audience. Google Analytics is one service they are very suspect of. They go far as to advise you don’t use it: “giving your ROI data to the company you’re buying your ads from — that’s just assinine.” Personally, I trust Google. So much so that I’m on their waiting list for the Google Implant (beta). 😉
Greg weighed in about the Open Directory, referring to it as “a dilapidated piece of crap.” And the ODP editors? — “they take bribes all the time.” I’d love to know who the editors are that I can bribe and how much it’ll cost!
Their recommended SEO tools were useful. For example: TouchGraph. They gave a very cool little demo of the tool in action. Todd said: “It’s like Diggswarm, but actually useful. Is Kevin Rose in the room? He’s going to kick my ass.” LOL!
Some of the other free link research tools recommended:
* Yahoo’s Site Explorer

* Netconcepts’ Link Checker

* WeBuildPages’ Neat-o Tool

* SEO for Firefox

* Tattler
Hmm. That’s funny, this list of tools (except for the last one) looked mighty familiar. So did some of the previous slides. I couldn’t resist… I got the microphone during Q&A, and I alluded to the slides, saying “Thanks for the plug for Netconcepts on that Tools slide.” Well you won’t believe what happened next! They admitted it to the audience that they lifted one of my decks from our website and then customized it! OMG!!
They praised me for making such excellent Powerpoints available online. Umm, thanks… I think! Geez!
Actually I’m not mad. Perhaps I should be, but they fessed up and poked fun at themselves for it — in front of 300 people! — so no harm done.
Just don’t do it again, k? Or if you do, at least keep my Netconcepts logo on the slides!
What other nuggets did they share? Todd shared that Endeca can be a secret weapon for SEO when you know how to make it work for you. I concur with that statement, totally. For example, with our (Netconcepts’) client Northern Tool, we were able to blow past previous search traffic records by deploying our GravityStream technology on top of Endeca Guided Navigation. Todd said that one of their (Range’s) biggest SEO successes was with Endeca. Todd gave a word of caution though: “Out of the box, Endeca is just a piece of junk for SEO”. The good news though is that, if you know what to ask for, “they will customize.”
They also recommended Google’s “Domain Park” program if you are a domainer with a bunch of domains you want to monetize.
They also advised folks to stay out of Google’s contextual advertising space so that you don’t get your AdWords campaigns onto the domain parking pages, because it is junk traffic that doesn’t convert.
What was the most interesting revelation of the day? That Todd was a Viagra webspammer before working for Range. I knew he was a reformed black hat SEO, but I never knew what industry. Greg joked that in Todd’s space, “PPC” stood for “Pills, Porn and Casinos” rather than “Pay Per Click.” Todd regaled us with tales of “churn and burn” SEO going after Viagra rankings — he could make $10k in a week, and all it cost him was a day of his time and $7 for a domain name — then the site would get banned and he’d move on to using another domain name. “Viagra” would have to be the most competitive keyword in SEO bar none (well, with the probable exception of “sex”). Todd *must* have been a “rock star” at SEO (but on the Dark Side of the Force of course! 😉 to make such a good living from it. So the name of his Webmaster Radio show really IS fitting and merited. I highly recommend downloading some audio recordings of previous SEO Rockstars episodes; even Matt Cutts has been known to listen to their show!
Rock on!

Author:  Stephan Spencer is the founder and president of interactive agency Netconcepts. He is a journalist, professional speaker and Internet Marketing Consultant currently living between Auckland New Zealand and the boarding lounge of an airport near you. Netconcepts has offices in Auckland New Zealand and Madison Wisconsin.