Black-hat SEOs – If they’re gay as well, can we ‘Out’ them twice?

November 4, 2008 •

“Out him! Out him! Out him! People have a right to know!” Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? But if you think I’m talking about lifting the lid on the personal lives of the Neil Patrick Harrises and T. R. Knights of this world, think again.

I’m talking about exposing black-hat SEOs for the depraved, oiled-up, muscular, leather-clad, handle-bar-moustache-sporting, night-club-going evil-doers they truly are!

What’s that you say? I’m just jealous that they rank better than me, and I want them hung, drawn and quartered so I can have a bigger slice of the pie? Preposterous! People have a right to know, I tell you! (Did I already say that?)

OK, I know I’ve stretched the analogy a little too far, but you have to admit, black-hat ‘Outers’ do share a few things in common with your garden variety Outer of homosexuals. If you don’t believe me, show me one who didn’t Out a black-hat for his or her own benefit… (And yes, personal satisfaction counts as a benefit!)

But surprisingly enough, that’s not really what this post is about. (The headline got you reading, though, didn’t it?!) And it’s by no means a defense of black-hat SEOs. If they’re silly enough to back themselves against the world’s best math brains and algos, they deserve all they get. No, this post is really about what Aaron Wall neatly describes as “the arbitrary and uneven nature” of hand editing for black-hat tactics.

Put simply, when a site is Outed, it’s far more likely to be unjustly penalized. Search engine algorithms aren’t sensitive to public opinion – not directly, anyway. Google’s PR and legal teams, on the other hand, are. As soon as a site is Outed, you can be guaranteed there’ll be a lot of negative publicity surrounding it. I agree with Aaron that this publicity makes Google far more likely to err on the side of caution and penalize a site that might otherwise have been considered fine, rather than risk being publicly branded soft.

Imagine if it happened to you. Can you say with 100% certainty that you have never employed tactics that could possibly be construed (in a public de-construction) as black-hat? How would you prepare a defense when the public wants a scalp taken? Especially given the inherent muddiness of Google’s ‘rules’:

  1. The rules are ambiguous – Google says, “Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings” and “Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank”, which includes “Links intended to manipulate PageRank.” C’mon! Can they be any more ambiguous? Every SEO is into link building, and we’re all trying to increase rankings and manipulate PageRank. Does that mean we’re all black-hat? Google also advises us to avoid “Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging,” but it doesn’t say what constitutes ‘Excessive’.
  2. The penalties for breaking the rules are unclear – I just did a quick search of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, and couldn’t find any mention of specific penalties, much less an indication of what offence will result in which penalties. And I’ve been reading the Guidelines quite a bit recently. (I’ll qualify this by adding that it’s waaaaaaaayyyyyyy past my bed time!)
  3. The penalties don’t distinguish between intentional and unintentional black-hat.
  4. The penalties often impact people who were not responsible for the black-hat – Like the client of a black-hat SEO.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not condoning black-hat. I’m just saying that they’ll eventually get what’s coming to them. They can’t stay a step ahead of the mathematicians forever. The system will get them in the end. More importantly, ‘offenders’ will treated a little more impartially by the system than they will be by the PR machine.

Now I’m going to bed!

EDIT: Check out Patricia Skinner’s Outing blog post for a slightly different perspective (still anti-Outing).

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