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Black Hat PPC: Really? (Part 1)

  |  June 4, 2010   |  Comments

Search marketers who use black hat techniques in paid search advertising are misjudging the guvernment of Google. Here’s how.

With apologies to SNL’s Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler: this column is about black hat paid search advertising. Really.

I’m a white hat. Really.

So to you clever black hats out there: you still want to convince us...that the best way to maximize your return on paid search is to focus on "spammy" black hat techniques? Really!?

Because you’ve done all you possibly can to optimize your campaigns, plan marketing strategy, in the normal, legitimate ways. Really!?

The annals of black hat PPC hubris dating back to about 2005 read like a "before" photo where the "after" photo is of some white collar CEO doing a perp walk.

"Hey, what’s Google going to do about it? They can’t resist your money, even if you break a bunch of rules." Right?

What the Black Hats Say

Here are a couple of examples from recent black hat PPC history.

  • Mikkel deMib Svendsen is among several black hat PPC advocates who focus on cloaking or otherwise making it difficult for Google’s editors and bots to review the actual pages the user sees. At the time, he was bothered by certain editorial policies, like the ban on pop-ups. For that and certain other trifling reasons, deceptive landing page regimes are recommended. Svendsen (nonetheless a widely respected, and technically-able SEO) simply did not foresee the seriousness of Google’s quest to know what was on landing pages and websites. Think about those TV episodes of "Cops" where the suspect tries to outrun police because he doesn’t want to get in trouble for a minor probation violation. Seventeen supercharged cop cars, three roadblocks, two helicopters, and two K-9 units later, the police bring down the idiot suspect. If you’re going to try to outrun the police, make it for a good reason.

  • Svendsen also advocates not forming partnership relationships with the search engines. Again, that is consistent with his take on the industry overall, but it’s a less and less tenable position for a serious business or agency to take. Isolation from Google is bad business for most of us. Healthy skepticism is, of course, a must.

  • The random quality of the black hat discussion is often evident to full-time paid search marketers. Elsewhere in his piece, Svendsen makes a relatively minor point about budgeting, one I’d been publishing and advocating since I released the Google AdWords Handbook in 2002. And he calls it "black hat," for some reason.

  • Ralph "Fantomaster" Tegtmeier is legendary among black hats, primarily for "cloaking." Show one page to the search engine bots, and another page to the user. You might do this because you want to boost your landing page Quality Score by "optimizing" the page you show to the landing page bots, and yet that page wouldn’t be ideal for a user for some reason. Or at least, so goes the story, even though the landing page Quality Score is nearly impossible to optimize in this way. Taking cloaking to the paid search landing page world is a logical brand extension for a black hat SEO, but strategically, it’s incoherent. Many SEOs today will attempt to sell tricks and link them to better Quality Score, but similar to Svendsen’s hit-and-miss account management priorities, it’s really just proof that they don’t understand Quality Scores, don’t really care about paid search, and have little real-world experience in moving the paid search needle in a coherent, comprehensive way for corporate clients.

Google as "Government"

Overall, the black hat belief that your risk is limited because "Google can’t resist your advertising dollars" is based on a serious misjudgment of what Google is all about. It fails to see the powerful paradox at work. Google is like a government. They are, in fact, to emphasize my favorite new word that describes Google best: the guvernment .

[guvernment. n. An entity that is sort of like the government.”

Governments, to be successful, know that they can’t privilege particular sectors of the economy over others, at least not to the extent that it destroys legitimacy so much that the other businesses stop sending in their taxes, and citizens jump ship to live elsewhere.

Google’s the same way. It must provide rules so that most everyone lives happily under the Google guvernment, keeps using the search engine, and keeps buying ads. That means coming up with a system of rules and enforcing those rules. That means throwing out blatant rule-breakers.

Google not only publishes most of the rules, but they’ve even taken care to share with us what business models most often turn out to be rule-breakers.

Among other things, the majority of affiliate marketers, click arbitragers, and operators of businesses that scam consumers or that are bait-and-switch, deceptive, or non-transparent about business information all tend to run up against the long arm of the guvernment.

It’s nothing personal. It’s just that there are certain uses of the advertising system that don’t anger users and the majority of advertisers. "White hat" advertisers may find it challenging to optimize their accounts, but they don’t face ingrained resistance from the company selling the ads, at least. They may face competition and rising costs, but by and large, Google is there, eager to serve them. Turning to black hat techniques is the least likely means of combating those rising costs. Anyone who has seen their keyword Quality Scores suddenly go to all 1s and 2s will be aware that Google can keep tabs on black hat activity and can shut it down without warning.

Low risk? Ha!

Policing Affiliate Marketers

So far, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the gritty detail that comes to light in this area. One of the most interesting areas in black hat PPC has to do with the many tactics affiliates use to grab affiliate credit from one another, or affiliate commissions in jurisdictions or spaces where the parent company bans it. In the end, much of this falls under the area of affiliate policy and affiliate policing methods: in other words, it’s an area parent companies must pay close attention to. As a matter of policy creation and enforcement, it’s largely internal to parent companies and affiliates.

Google has certainly done its part in making life easier for parent companies by making it difficult for all but a minority of affiliates to ply their trade in the Google paid search results. If most of a community is inherently black hat, Google’s logic seemed to be, then why serve them, when there are white hats lined up, waving fistfuls of equally good advertising dollars?

Enforcing the rules in this way is not a passing fad for Google: it’s a permanent condition.

See you next time for part two.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Goodman

Goodman is founder and President of Toronto-based Page Zero Media, a full-service marketing agency founded in 2000. Page Zero focuses on paid search campaigns as well as a variety of custom digital marketing programs. Clients include Direct Energy, Canon, MIT, BLR, and a host of others. He is also co-founder of Traffick.com, an award-winning industry commentary site; author of Winning Results with Google AdWords (McGraw-Hill, 2nd ed., 2008); and frequently quoted in the business press. In recent years he has acted as program chair for the SES Toronto conference and all told, has spoken or moderated at countless SES events since 2002. His spare time eccentricities include rollerblading without kneepads and naming his Japanese maples. Also in his spare time, he co-founded HomeStars, a consumer review site with aspirations to become "the TripAdvisor for home improvement." He lives in Toronto with his wife Carolyn.

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