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How Search Engines Killed Black-Hat and Changed the Agency Approach to SEO

Taylor Brennan • December 22, 2015

 By Josh George (Technical Lead Engineer), Edwin Romero (SEO Analyst), and Taylor Brennan (SEO Analyst)

White-Hat SEO is the ethical way to build a website’s authority in the eyes of the search engines. This strategy is implemented through creating high quality content and improving your site user’s experiences, whilst following best practices set by search engines.

Examples of “White-Hat” tactics include,

  • Quality Content
  • Optimized and Unique Page Titles and Meta Data
  • Coherent Site Architecture
  • Mobile-Friendly via Responsive or Adaptive Design

The goal of White Hat SEO (or more simply put, SEO) is constant, incremental, long-term growth. Some campaigns for more competitive industries can take up to a year or more to see the desired return, but the results are long lasting and are truly meant to improve the search and site experience for your users.

Impatient analysts and their clients, determined to outwit the wittiest of ours or any generation, have helped coin the terms Black Hat or Grey Hat SEO. These strategies are more Search Engine Manipulation then optimization. Historically, Black Hat SEO has included some of the following tactics:

  • Link building using sites that exist solely for link building
  • Keyword stuffing content
  • Hidden content (that is stuffed with keywords)
  • Creating pages and content solely for improving search rankings for specific terms
  • Plagiarizing content
  • Creating backlinks with heavy duplicate anchor text usage

By definition, these tactics are meant to be performance-driven, rather than providing the most optimal user experience.

This Google Kills Black Hats Dead

Google representatives have always stated that agencies and individuals should optimize for users rather than search engines. Meaning, we should consider what brings the most value to users when they’re on-site, and ranking performance should follow suit.

The mobile algorithm update is a great example of this. With more users on mobile devices, squinting eyes or pinching a phone screen is counterintuitive to what provides the best experience. The mobile algorithm update can be seen as a way to reward mobile-friendly sites as much as it was meant to penalize those who weren’t mobile-friendly.

Blurred Lines

Every time a black hat tactic becomes obsolete, it can impact an SEO strategy that blurs the line between optimization and manipulation. These strategies are called grey hat, and while they aren’t as obviously conducted to game the system, the goal is to improve rankings instead of experience.

An example of this is guest blogging. Guest blogging is generating content for a blogger or website relevant to yours. An SEO would reach out to a blogger asking to write a post on a relevant topic. This helps the blogger because they are receiving a unique piece of content, highly useful or relevant to their audience. The SEO typically gets a link back to the site for accreditation. When executed with best practices in mind, it truly is a win-win.

Once this strategy became a given for link building, the quality of guest blog posts greatly diminished. Webmasters received an in-flux of barely literate guest blog requests on a range of painfully general subjects. The phrase “Content is King” was born, and for any one piece of content worthy of royalty, tens-of-thousands of pretenders and usurpers poisoned this strategy for SEOs working to build an audience through maintaining relationships and generating great material.

Evolution of Search Engines

At this point, Google’s algorithm has been updated several times, often to obliterate a black hat manipulation tactic while making smaller adjustments to overall performance.

Below is a list of major updates that have been released for Google.

  • Google Caffeine (June 2010) – Improved Google crawling, expanded indices, and provided more real-time ranking
  • Google Panda Update (February 2011 and ongoing) – Targeted web properties that had low quality content, including duplicate content, content farms, and ad-heavy webpages
  • Google Penguin Update (April 2012 and ongoing) – Targeted web sites that over-optimized and over-used keyword usage via hyperlinks
  • Google EMD (September 2012) – Targeted web domains that leveraged search phrasing as their root domain as a means to perform well in SERPs
  • Google Hummingbird (August 2013) – Improved semantic search and the way in which Google interpreted a user’s search intent
  • Google Pigeon Update (July 2014) – Improved local ranking factors to provide an even better localized experience
  • Google Mobile Friendly Update (April 2015) – Sought to improve mobile search results with sites that were ready for ready for mobile device usage

SEOs who have worked in the industry for several years have had to adapt through each change. It’s organic search Darwinism: evolve or die. The best way to avoid extinction for your clients and your career is to question your top strategies. The core value of Google doesn’t change, so if your SEO strategies are meant to improve the experience for your site users, your campaigns should survive any algorithm updates.

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Taylor Brennan

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Taylor Brennan

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