I recently waded through 4,000+ threads on a black hat SEO forum - that's about a month's worth of postings. I wasn't sure going into this effort if my time would be rewarded with useful information, but there was no other way to find out aside from actually taking the plunge. While I'm probably going to regret admitting it, I did actually learn something new and useful.
What Are the Black Hatters Thinking About?
The big themes that emerged from my reading weren't too surprising. Among the most common were:
Common problems reported in the forum included being banned from AdSense, AdWords, and Facebook. Although failures are more likely to be reported than successes, the number of posts does suggest that Google and Facebook are actively banning users. On the "shaking my head in disbelief" front, there were stories from those that had put their savings into efforts that failed, such as the guy that mortgaged his motorcycle and then couldn't make the payments. There were also ridiculous posts like the guy that needed to remove thousands of automated backlinks because of being banned by Google or the guy asking for a $5,000 investment so he could try out an idea he had.
Curiously, there was very little being discussed around on-page SEO. In fact, a couple of threads clearly stated the opinion that in the black hat world (as defined by this forum's participants), it's all about links with on-site techniques having next to no value. I'm not sure if this means that these posters have given up on cloaking or just don't know how to use it effectively.
This leaves us with off-site SEO (i.e., link development). In this area, the most common tactics included link wheels, link pyramids, web 2.0 links, along with the ever-popular forum and blog comment spam. No one had any illusions about the risks of such techniques, but most felt that such risks could be mitigated by linking to middle tiers, which in turn would link to their money sites.
While I'm not surprised to have read it, there were many posts about buying tweets, "likes," Google +1's, and Yelp reviews. Sellers of these services always assured buyers that there were real people behind the accounts and none of it was automated. Right.
What Can We Learn From Black Hat SEO Forums?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this column, I did actually pick up some tips from reading the thousands of threads. Part of that learning was a reminder of all of the sneaky tricks that competitors (i.e., those ranking above the sites I work on) might be employing.
Most of the rest of what I learned fell into the tactical bucket rather than being big strategies that could be applied to legitimate brands. In my opinion, that's perfectly fine. I think a lot of people fail to execute their strategies because of a lack of a solid arsenal of tactics - it's one thing to say you need links and an entirely different thing to actually get them.
The approach I used during my evaluation of the value of each forum thread was to keep two things in mind:
On the tool front, I've added a few selections to my list of things to investigate. I'm going to avoid mentioning them by name here lest anyone accuse me of promoting web spam, but you could easily read far fewer posts than I did and get the same list due to the frequency of their mentions. Also, an aspiring SEO with a strong development background could make a fortune in tool development - just identify a tedious task that people think is useful and then sell them a tool that does it faster than any existing tool. The forum itself could act as a focus group, as there are plenty of complaints about current tools and people expressing their feature wish lists.
On the link building front, I was able to make note of a bunch of sites where a link opportunity exists. However, rather than spamming them, I plan to contribute useful information and earn my link. In addition, I won't bother with any sites that are obviously not moderated and therefore overrun with spam. In this way, I hope to eliminate any association with bad link neighborhoods.
I also witnessed a real example of how the effectiveness of some tactics is eliminated by abuse. For example, a post revealed how backlinks could be obtained from Tumblr blogs and then not too long afterwards the issue was written about on TechCrunch. I then manually verified that the hole had indeed been plugged.
And finally, I expanded my list of sites to perform competitive analysis on. My hope here is that by looking at what is actually driving site performance, I'll get better insight compared to relying on what the site owners are saying they're doing. My analysis will also include a time element in that I will compare a site's performance now to its performance many months from now as a gauge of long-term value of the tactics employed.
What I Know I Don't Know
In closing, I wanted to point out that everything I read was on a public forum and the effectiveness of publicly shared knowledge can be quickly eliminated by the masses. I'm certain that there are well-guarded techniques that weren't discussed, so if that's what you're looking for, you'll have to do something other than lurking in public forums.
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Marios Alexandrou is the East Coast Director of SEO for Steak's Search Marketing team and has a background in web development and project management. While he loathes to tell people just how long he's been working with computers, he will admit that his first computer had just 16KB of memory.
His SEO experience includes work with both in-house and agency teams ranging from one-man shows to 20+ dedicated SEO strategists. He has worked with organizations of all sizes and across multiple industries including hospitality, financial services, publishing, and healthcare. He particularly likes to use his combination of skills to identify ways to scale SEO activities through process standardization and automation.
In addition to writing about SEO for ClickZ, Marios also writes on the broader area of Internet marketing for Infolific.
March 19, 2014