Big-Time Black Hat

In June, my inbox started filling up with tons of e-mail promoting something called the Black Mask Project. Out of curiosity, I peeked to see what all the fuss was about. No surprise, another sales-letter Web site that scrolls down to the center of the earth before it tells you how much it’s going to cost.

I forgot all about it until I was talking to a friend on the phone last week. Ralph Tegtmeier (a.k.a., Fantomaster) is almost legendary in black-hat SEO (define) circles. He’s an interesting character, with an interesting background. Born in Egypt to German parents, he attended university in Bonn, where he gained a master’s degree in Portuguese and English literature. Every now and again, I tap into the wealth of information he has regarding SEO techniques (black, gray, and white hats).

I mentioned that I thought I was seeing a lot more spam on Google. “Could be,” he said. “Since the Black Mask Project, a lot more people are dabbling on the dark side.” I hadn’t realized it, but Tegtmeier was actually a contributor to what’s effectively a DIY spam and cloaking kit.

“I heard they sold 3,000 copies in the first 24 hours when it was released,” he said. Of course, the enormous hype around the publication suggests this could well be true. “It’s still a bit like an arms race in the black-hat arena. Spammers come up with something new, the search engines clamp down on it. So spammers work an another technique,” said Tegtmeier. “And it’s all about automation.”

Back in the day when everything was based on page factors, it was easy to spam search engines. But when Google became so visible about the importance of links, the game changed. So I was surprised when Tegtmeier told me something of a return to on-page factors in the spam world. He explained that when Google started its campaign to eradicate scraper sites and other low-quality pages designed solely to generate AdSense dollars (which they became quite good at), black-hat operators had to shift to a higher-quality spam page.

When guys like Tegtmeier talk about generating pages, they don’t mean 25 or so, they mean millions. As he says, “It’s unfortunate for the search engines, but brute force does work.”

But it also depends on whether you’re going for a short- or long-term approach. Brute force linking (quantity rather than quality) works very well in the short term. “If you can register a domain and get it live for $20 and in two weeks that domain has made $40, it doesn’t matter if it gets burned in the index. And if you do that with thousands of domains in one go, you can make a lot of cash in a short space of time.”

As Tegtmeier points out, black-hat operators tend to be one-man bands or very small partnerships. Being based in back-bedrooms means low overhead and virtually no running costs. And about 90 percent of the top spammers in the industry are unknown. They don’t make themselves known in forums, they don’t speak at conferences, and they generally keep to themselves.

However, when something like the Black Mask Project throws a spotlight on black-hat techniques, the Web must surely get a little polluted as everyone tries the same stuff. “True,” he said. “It just takes someone to start blogging about it somewhere, and then everyone is on to it. Which makes you wonder whether they’re blogging about it after the event, as in a particular technique doesn’t work anymore, or are they blogging about it as an ego thing?”

How do you get to know the real, down-and-dirty secrets of black-hat SEO?

“There are certain forums which are by invitation only,” said Tegtmeier. “They’re not promoted anywhere. Some of them don’t even have domain names. They have all sorts of security checks and deep password protection, that sort of thing. Because, lone wolf or not, you’re always going to hit upon a problem that you haven’t encountered and may need some help. It could be with coding or something strategic. For instance, just last week via one of these private forums, I discovered a source to buy domains for just 15 cents a piece!”

Of course, the stuff Tegtmeier and I were discussing is strictly against not just Google’s guidelines, but all the major search engines. We did have a chuckle when I reminded him of an incident a couple years back when Google was outed for cloaking and had to dump some of its pages because it had flouted its own guidelines.

Not that I’m about to start my own black-hat operation on the side, but of course I had to ask him if he could leak a little information about any popular techniques that still work for him. “TrackBack spam is petty big. Some pretty good software became available, which, via a slew of proxies, simply throws TrackBack links at blogs. It’s a numbers game, but when you have millions of blogs to target, it’s pretty effective.”

One thing is certain: there’s no lack of ingenuity in the black-hat space. Strangely enough, there are a lot of excellent nuggets I pick up from the dark side that work just as well in the white-hat world. As Tegtmeier said, “A good black hat can out-white a white hat any day of the week.”

Don’t try this at home.

I’m a firm believer in best practice SEO and never, ever use black-hat techniques with my clients. Sure, they can be very tempting when you’re getting crushed by competitors in the SERPs (define). But remember, search engines take a very dim view of these techniques. If caught, you will be penalized or banned.

Meet Mike at SES San Jose on August 20-23, in San Jose, California.

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