WordPress: Avoiding the Black Hat Techniques

April 2011


WordPress 3 Search Engine Optimization

WordPress 3 Search Engine Optimization Optimize your website for popularity with search engines
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Typical black hat techniques

There is a wide range of black hat techniques fully available to all webmasters. Some techniques can improve rankings in short term, but generally not to the extent that legitimate web development would, if pursued with the same effort. The risk of black hat techniques is that they are routinely detected and punished. Black hat is never the way to go for a legitimate business, and pursuing black hat techniques can get your site (or sites) permanently banned and will also require you to build an entirely new website with an entirely new domain name. We will examine a few black hat techniques to help you avoid them.

Hidden text on web pages

Hidden text is the text that through either coding or coloring does not appear to users, but appears to search engines. Hidden text is a commonly-used technique, and would be better described as gray hat. It tends not to be severely punished when detected. One technique relies on the coloring of elements. When the color of a text element is set to the same color as the background (either through CSS or HTML coding), then the text disappears from human readers while still visible to search spiders. Unfortunately, for webmasters employing this technique, it's entirely detectible by Google.

More easily detectible is the use of the CSS property display: none. In the language of CSS, this directs browsers to not display the text that is defined by that element. This technique is easily detectible by search engines. There is an obvious alternative to employing hidden text: Simply use your desired keywords in the text of your content and display the text to both users and search spiders.

Spider detection, cloaking, redirection, and doorway pages

Cloaking and spider detection are related techniques. Cloaking is a black hat SEO technique whereby the content presented to search engine spiders (via search spider detection) differs from the content presented to users. Who would employ such a technique? Cloaking is employed principally by sellers of products typically promoted by spam, such as pharmaceutics, adult sites, and gambling sites. Since legitimate search traffic is difficult to obtain in these niches, the purveyors of these products employ cloaking to gain visitors.

Traditional cloaking relies upon spider detection. When a search spider visits a website, the headers accompanying a page view request identify the spider by names such as Goolgebot (Google's spider) or Slurp (Inktomi's spider). Conversely, an ordinary web browser (presumably with a human operator) will identify itself as Mozilla, Internet Explorer, or Safari, as the case may be. With simple JavaScript or with server configuration, it is quite easy to identify the requesting browser and deliver one version of a page to search spiders and another version of the page to human browsers. All you really need is to know the names of the spiders, which are publicly known.

A variation of cloaking is a doorway page. A doorway page is a page through which human visitors are quickly redirected (through a meta refresh or JavaScript) to a destination page. Search spiders, however, index the doorway page, and not the destination page. Although the technique differs in execution, the effect is the same: Human visitors see one page, and the search engines see another.

The potential harm from cloaking goes beyond search engine manipulation. More often than not, the true destination pages in a cloaking scheme are used for the transmission of malware, viruses, and Trojans. Because the search engines aren't necessarily reading the true destination pages, the malicious code isn't detected. Any type of cloaking, when reported or detected, is almost certain to result in a severe Google penalty, such as removal of a site from the search engine indexes.

Linking to bad neighborhoods and link farms

A bad neighborhood is a website or a network of websites that either earns inbound links through illegitimate means or employs other "black hat on-page" techniques such as cloaking, and redirects them. A link farm is a website that offers almost no content, but serves solely for the purpose of listing links. Link farms, in turn, offer links to other websites to increase the rankings of these sites.

A wide range of black hat techniques can get a website labeled as a bad neighborhood. A quick test you can employ to determine if a site is a bad neighborhood is by entering the domain name as a part of the specialized Google search query, "site:the-website-domain.com" to see if Google displays any pages of that website in its index. If Google returns no results, the website is either brand new or has been removed from Google's index—a possible indicator that it has been labeled a bad neighborhood. Another quick test is to check the site's PageRank and compare the figure to the number of inbound links pointing to the site. If a site has a large number of backlinks but has a PageRank of zero, which would tend to indicate that its PageRank has been manually adjusted downwards due to a violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines.

If both of the previous tests are either positive or inconclusive, you would still be wise to give the site a "smell test". Here are some questions to ask when determining if a site might be deemed as a bad neighborhood:

  • Does the site offer meaningful content?
  • Did you detect any redirection while visiting the site?
  • Did you get any virus warning while visiting the site?
  • Is the site a little more than lists of links or text polluted with high numbers of links?
  • Check the website's backlink profile. Are the links solely low-value inbound links?
  • If it isn't a site you would engage with when visiting, don't link to it.

Google Webmaster Guidelines

Google Webmaster Guidelines are a set of written rules and prohibitions that outline recommended and forbidden website practices. You can find these webmaster guidelines at: http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/ answer.py?hl=en&answer=35769, though you'll find it easier to search for "Google Webmaster Guidelines" and click on the top search result.

You should read through the Google Webmaster Guidelines and refer to them occasionally. The guidelines are divided into design and content guidelines, technical guidelines, and quality guidelines.

Google Webmaster Guidelines in a nutshell

At their core, Google Webmaster Guidelines aim for quality in the technology underlying websites in their index, high-quality content, and also discourage manipulation of search results through deceptive techniques. All search engines have webmaster guidelines, but if you follow Google's dictates, you will not run afoul of any of the other search engines. Here, we'll discuss only the Google's rules.

Google's design and content guidelines instruct that your site should have a clear navigational hierarchy with text links rather than image links. The guidelines specifically note that each page "should be reachable from at least one static text link". Because WordPress builds text-based, hierarchical navigation naturally, your site will also meet that rule naturally. The guidelines continue by instructing that your site should load quickly and display consistently among different browsers.

The warnings come in Google's quality guidelines; in this section, you'll see how Google warns against a wide range of black hat techniques such as the following:

  • Using hidden text or hidden links, elements that through coloring, font size, or CSS display properties to show to the search engines but do not show them to the users.
  • The use of cloaking or "sneaky redirects". Cloaking means a script that detects search engine spiders and displays one version of a website to users and displays an alternate version to the search engines.
  • The use of repetitive, automated queries to Google. Some unscrupulous software vendors (Google mentions one by name, WebPosition Gold, which is still in the market, luring unsuspecting webmasters) sell software and services that repeatedly query Google to determine website rankings. Google does allow such queries in some instances through their AJAX Search API Key—but you need to apply for one and abide by the terms of its use.
  • The creation of multiple sites or pages that consist solely of duplicate content that appears on other web properties.
  • The posting or installation of scripts that behave maliciously towards users, such as with viruses, trojans, browser interceptors, or other badware.
  • Participation in link schemes. Google is quite public that it values inbound links as a measure of site quality, so it is ever vigilant to detect and punish illegitimate link programs.
  • Linking to bad neighborhoods. A bad neighborhood means a website that uses illegitimate, forbidden techniques to earn inbound links or traffic.
  • Stuffing keywords onto pages in order to fool search spiders. Keyword stuffing is "the oldest trick in the book". It's not only forbidden, but also highly ineffective at influencing search results and highly annoying to visitors.

When Google detects violations of its guidelines

Google, which is nearly an entirely automated system, is surprisingly capable of detecting violations of its guidelines. Google encourages user-reporting of spam websites, cloaked pages, and hidden text (through their page here: https://www. google.com/webmasters/tools/spamreport). They maintain an active antispam department that is fully engaged in an ongoing improvement in both, manual punishments for offending sites, and algorithmic improvements for detecting violations.

When paid link abuses are detected, Google will nearly always punish the linking site, not necessarily the site receiving the link—even though the receiving site is the one earning a ranking benefit. At first glance, this may seem counter-intuitive, but there is a reason. If Google punished the site receiving a forbidden paid link, then any site owner could knock a competitor's website by buying a forbidden link, pointing to the competitor, and then reporting the link as spam.

When an on-page black hat or gray hat element is detected, the penalty will be imposed upon the offending site. The penalties range from a ranking adjustment to an outright ban from search engine results. Generally, the penalty matches the crime; the more egregious penalties flow from more egregious violations.

We need to draw a distinction, however, between a Google ban, penalty, and algorithmic filtering. Algorithmic filtering is simply an adjustment to the rankings or indexing of a site. If you publish content that is a duplicate of the other content on the Web, and Google doesn't rank or index that page, that's not a penalty, it's simply the search engine algorithm operating properly. If all of your pages are removed from the search index, that is most likely a ban. If the highest ranking you can achieve is position 40 for any search phrase, that could potentially be a penalty called a "-40 penalty". All search engines can impose discipline upon websites, but Google is the most strict and imposes far more penalties than the other search engines, so we will largely discuss Google here.

Filtering is not a penalty; it is an adjustment that can be remedied by undoing the condition that led to the it. Filtering can occur for a variety of reasons but is often imposed following over optimization. For example, if your backlink profile comprises links of which 80% use the same anchor text, you might trigger a filter. The effect of a penalty or filter is the same: decreased rankings and traffic. In the following section, we'll look at a wide variety of known Google filters and penalties, and learn how to address them.

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Diagnosing a Google ranking ban, penalty, or filter

If you undertake black or gray hat techniques, you run a fair chance of having your site penalized in the search results. But even if you are not engaged in these techniques yourself, your site may be punished for associating with black hat purveyors. Hosting on a shared server or sharing the domain registration information with bad neighborhoods can lead to ranking problems, if not punishment. Certainly, linking to a bad neighborhood can lead to discipline. If you purchase a domain, you'll inherit any penalties or bans imposed on the prior version of the website.

There is a wide range of penalties and ranking filters that search engines impose and a still-wider range of effects that those penalties produce. In diagnosing and correcting ranking problems, more than half the battle is about figuring out which penalty, if any, is imposed and for what violations. Ranking problems are easy to fix, but are arduous to diagnose with precision. Sudden drops in rankings might lead you to suspect that you've received a penalty, but it might not be a penalty at all.

In the following section, we'll look at some specific penalties, filters, conditions and false conditions, and how to diagnose ranking problems.

Understanding a Google ban

The worst punishment that Google serves upon webmasters is a total ban. This means the removal of all pages on a given domain from Google's index. A ban is not always a punishment: Google "may temporarily or permanently remove sites from its index and search results if it believes it is obligated to do so by law". Google warns that punishment bans can be meted out for "certain actions such as cloaking, writing text in such a way that it can be seen by search engines but not by users, or setting up pages/links with the sole purpose of fooling search engines may result in removal from our index".

One of the most newsworthy instances of a total ban was when Google, in 2006, issued a total ban to the German website of the carmaker BMW (http://www.bmw.de). Their offense was: Cloaked doorway pages stuffed with keywords that were shown only to search engines, and not to human visitors. The incident became international news, ignited at least partially by the SEO blogging community. BMW immediately removed the offending pages and within a few weeks, Google rescinded the ban.

Diagnosing a total or partial ban

To diagnose a total or partial ban penalty, run the following tests and exercises:

  • Check Google's index. In the Google search field, enter the following specialized search query: "site:yourdomain.com". Google then returns a list of all of your site's pages that appear in Google's index. If your site was formerly indexed and now the pages are removed, there is at least a possibility that your site has been banned from Google.
  • Check if Google has blacklisted your site as unsafe for browsing (type http://www.google.com/safebrowsing/diagnostic?site=mysite.com with your domain at the end)
  • Check for the nofollow/noindex settings. It might seem obvious, but check to make sure you haven't accidentally set your WordPress site to noindex. To check, go to your WordPress Dashboard and click on the Privacy option under Settings. If the second setting, "I would like to block search engines, but allow normal visitors" is set, then your site will promptly fall out of the index. A stray entry in a robots.txt file or in your WordPress template file can instruct search engines not to index your entire site.
  • Check Google Webmaster Tools. Sometimes, but not always, Google will notify you through your Webmaster Tools account that your site has been penalized. But you won't always receive this message, so you can still be penalized even if you don't receive it. See the following screenshot for an example message:

PageRank adjustment/PageRank penalty

An alternative penalty short of an outright ban is a PageRank adjustment. The adjustment can be partial (a drop from a PR4 to a PR2) or it can be full (a drop to PR0). With a PageRank adjustment, Google simply adjusts or removes the PageRank value for a site. Google often imposes this punishment upon low-value general directories that sell links. Part of the difficulty with diagnosing and repairing a PageRank penalty is that the PageRank that Google shows to its users is historical; sometimes six months pass between PageRank updates.

Diagnosing a PageRank penalty

To diagnose a Google PageRank penalty, run the following tests and exercises:

  • Check your inbound links. Whenever your PageRank drops, the most likely reason is that you've lost valuable links. Check your link profile on Yahoo! Site Explorer. Have you lost any premium, high-PR links you had formerly? Use the reliability of the PageRank algorithm to help diagnose: If you have a PR4 link pointing into one of your pages, and that PR4 link has only one outbound link, that one link alone will be strong enough to make the destination page a PR1 or a PR2. If despite such a link, your page remains a PR0, that raises the likelihood of a PageRank penalty.
  • Check all pages. Be sure to check every page on your site; you might just have your PageRank shifting around within your site. It is true, however, that generally your home page will have the highest PageRank value of any page of your site. So, if you've got a PR0 on all pages including the homepage, a PageRank penalty is suspected.
  • Check canonicalization. Recall the "www" and "non-www" distinction and that search engines see these as separate domains in some cases. WordPress handles this automatically, but some online tools don't check this for you, so you have to be sure you're checking both, the "www" and "non-www" versions of your domain.
  • Compare PageRank. Compare Google's reported PageRank score for your pages with SEOmoz' mozRank. Typically, these two scores will correlate loosely (within about 10%). If the Google score is much lower than the SEOmoz mozRank score, it's likely that Google is trimming some PageRank. You can see the SEOmoz Page Rank score with the free SEO Site Tools plugin or by visiting http://www.opensiteexplorer.org/.
  • In the following screenshot, you can see visible evidence of a Google ranking penalty by employing the SEO Site Tools plugin. All the elements of a ranking penalty are present. The inbound link count is healthy with over 3,500 links pointing to this domain. SEOmoz's mozRank (erroneously called "Page Rank" in the screenshot) is a healthy 4.41. Nevertheless, Google's PageRank is a zero. This is a clear evidence of Google's PageRank penalty, as shown in the following screenshot:

    (Move the mouse over the image to enlarge it.)

  • Check the internal links. In Google Webmaster Tools, Google reveals its profile of internal links on your site. See the following screenshots for examples of an unhealthy internal link profile, and a healthy link profile. If your site has 100 indexed pages, but the Google Webmaster Tools references only a handful of links, it means that Google is not properly processing your internal links. We need to be careful here because a range of conditions can cause this. It can potentially arise from a PageRank penalty but also from poor internal navigation structure.
  • The following Google Webmaster Tools screenshot shows an unhealthy internal link profile, and is the same site as shown in the previous screenshot. This site is a low-value link directory, a likely candidate for a Google PageRank penalty.

    The following Google webmaster tools screenshot shows a healthy link profile. All or nearly all pages on the website are represented on the internal link profile and the numbers of links to each page is relatively constant.

The -950 ranking penalty

Google sometimes employs a -950 ranking penalty to individual pages (but not to the entire site) for particular search queries. The -950 penalty means that for a particular search, your page would have 950 positions added above it. So, a term for which you ranked on page one of Google's search results at position three, you'd now rank on page ninety-five of the search results at position 953. Sound harsh? It is, and Google has made faint references to it as a penalty for over-optimization. Some SEO professionals contend that they have seen the penalty imposed for shady link building practices.

How to diagnose a -950 ranking penalty

Diagnosing a -950 ranking penalty is easy: Try search terms for which you formerly ranked (hopefully you noted their exact former position) and follow the search results out to page 95 or 96. Remember that you can always set Google to display 100 results instead of 10 by using the advanced search option at Google.com, which is convenient for checking a ranking position in the 100s and above.

The -30/-40 ranking penalty

Google often serves up another variety of penalty: It's the -30 or -40 position penalty. This is an often-imposed penalty, and is applied by Google to the entire site, not just particular pages and not just for particular search queries. This penalty is common enough to trip up legitimate webmasters for very minor oversights or offenses. Most signs point to the -30 penalty being applied algorithmically and is "forgivable," so changing the condition that led to the penalty automatically reverses the penalty. This penalty has historically been imposed upon sites for serving up poor quality content. For example, the penalty has been imposed upon sites that display thin content. Thin content is the content that is partially generic, as with an affiliate site repeating common descriptions of products it sells. Low-value directories have also served this penalty.

Diagnosing a -30/-40 penalty

If you suspect that your site has been hit with a -30/-40 penalty, there is one surefire test to determine if you tripped the penalty. Perform a Google search for your domain name without the "www" and without the ".com" or ".net" as part of the domain. This search, in normal circumstances, should return your site at or near the first position (depending a bit on the competition of that term). If this test yields your site showing up in a position dropped to the 40s or 50s, it almost certainly is a -30/- 40 penalty.

False positives that aren't penalties

Don't assume you've been penalized by Google just because your rankings drop or because your rankings remain poor for a new site. Ranking positions can jump around naturally, especially just before algorithm updates, when Google updates its search engine rules. You may also have lost one or more valuable inbound links, which can lead to a drop in rankings. You may also be alternating between Google's personalized search modes. Personalized search is a Google feature that returns results based on your personal browsing habits. So, if you've visited your own website in the past few days, Google will return your website near the top of the results, figuring that it's one of your personal favorites. Personal search is a convenience tool, but it doesn't return true rankings. To see actual ranking results you need to make sure that personalized search is off. To do this, look on any Google search results page in the upper left hand corner for Personalize Search On. Click on the link just under it that reads, Turn it off.

Google penalties are almost never imposed for no reason at all. Yes, Google imposes penalties on light offenders while more egregious violations go unpunished. While that might not seem fair, it doesn't change the fact that if you have perfectly complied with Google Webmaster Guidelines, you are extremely unlikely to be penalized. If you've been penalized, there's a reason.

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Clearing a Google penalty

Google penalties can literally mean the death of your business. In a business climate where such high percentages of consumers use Google for search (Google's share of total searches hovers around 65%), a Google penalty can reduce your website traffic to a trickle. There are three paths to clearing a Google penalty. First, automated penalties and filters correct themselves when the error is corrected. Diagnose the problem, fix it, and you are back in business. Sometimes webmasters miss this point. They assume they have been penalized and request reconsideration from Google and wait for a response, only to realize later that the answer to their penalty was simply to correct the error that led to it.

Whenever you suspect a penalty, you must review Google's guidelines thoroughly. To correct an automated or manual penalty, you must make your site 100% compliant with Google Webmaster Guidelines.

The second path to correction is for more serious penalties: Serious penalties will require you to fix the violation and request reconsideration of your site from Google; such a request can take more than a year to be heard. We'll explain how to submit a reconsideration request in the following section. The final path to clearing a penalty is to abandon the tainted domain and begin with a new site.

Until your Google penalty is lifted, you have a few alternatives. Bing's share of the search market is growing, especially following their partnership with Yahoo!, so Bing can deliver meaningful traffic, although much less than what Google would deliver. There are always paid click programs such as Google's AdWords and Bing's AdCenter. Also, you may take advantage of pay-per-click campaigns in specific web properties such as LinkedIn and Facebook. But without doubt, a Google penalty is a harsh sanction that will cost you the traffic and business.

Abandoning your existing domain and starting over

While it sounds drastic, you may be better off, in some cases, to abandon your domain when struck with a Google penalty. Requesting reconsideration from Google is where the trouble lies: It can take over a year to clear a penalty attached to a domain and delays of up to three years are not uncommon. Then, there is the possibility that the penalty will languish indefinitely. Note that Google penalties that attach to a site solely because it is infected with malware or other viruses do not fall into this category. Such penalties are lifted within hours.

Here's how to evaluate the choice between abandoning a domain and sticking with the domain, and requesting reconsideration. First, bear in mind that Google penalties follow the domain, they do not follow the specific content. So, if you secure a new domain and rebuild your site, page by page, your new site will not inherit the Google penalty. WordPress has a convenient export/import feature (available under Tools in your WordPress dashboard), so rebuilding a site on a new domain takes little time.

What you need to consider is how valuable is the old domain? Does it have a difficult-to-obtain DMOZ listing? Is the domain a valuable domain with powerful branding awareness with the public? Does it have thousands of links which would take months or years to rebuild? Or, can the link references be easily changed to point to your new site? Is your penalized domain a newer domain? A newer domain is less valuable than a domain with years of history and authority with the search engines. You should also consider that you will need to update any local listings that appear in Google Maps and Yelp, to point them to the new domain.

In some cases, then, the work to create a new domain is less than the delay and trouble you'll endure by going through the reconsideration process.

Requesting reconsideration following a Google penalty

If your website has, with certainty, been penalized, then abandoning your old domain isn't economically feasible, you must request reconsideration from Google after correcting the violation. The steps are as follows:

  1. Sign up and verify with Google Webmaster Tools.
    You must create a Google Webmaster Tools account to request reconsideration. If you haven't done so already, visit http://www.google.com/webmasters to sign up for a free account. Then, verify your site by either uploading an HTML file, adding a tag to the header of your site, linking to a Google Analytics account, or by adding a DNS entry to your domain configuration. The reconsideration request process is handled entirely within the Google webmaster tools area.
  2. Clean your site.
    Before requesting reconsideration, you must correct whatever violation or condition led to the penalty. The key to this step is thoroughness, and you'll need to meet a higher standard than simply meeting the bare minimum rules set forth in Google's guidelines. Your site will be reviewed manually by a Google representative, so you need to make sure your house is in order. That means all your content needs to be original, no thin content affiliate pages or duplicate content.
    Your site should be validated to the current HTML standards (use W3C's free HTML validator tool at http://validator.w3.org/). Any scripts that run on your site will be scrutinized extremely thoroughly. Even if such scripts are harmless; if Google can't determine that, they'll let your penalty stand. You should thoroughly check your site for malware and malicious code. Google provides a free tool for this, the Safe Browsing Diagnostic Tool. To use this tool, enter your website URL manually into the following string: http://www.google.com/safebrowsing/diagnostic?site=http://yoursite.com
    The Safe Browsing Diagnostic Tool will return a report on any malware or malicious code hidden in your site. If you want a second opinion, you can also run your site through AVG's free web page scanner: http://www.avg. com.au/resources/web-page-scanner/.
    Your chance for review might take six months or way longer, so make sure your site is clean when Google comes to visit.
  3. Requesting reconsideration.
    Once you have verified your site in Google Webmaster Tools and cleaned your site of any problems, you are ready to request reconsideration from Google. Log in to your Google Webmaster Tools account and on the left navigation, click on the link that reads "Site reconsideration". On the resulting page, find the link near the bottom that reads "Request reconsideration of your site".
    You will now be taken to the form where you request reconsideration. Do the following:
    • Select the site from the drop down menu for which you are seeking reconsideration.
    • Check the box indicating that you acknowledge that your site is now in compliance.
    • In the large text box, you are asked to make a statement regarding what led to the penalty and what you've done to correct the violations. Don't try to hide anything here; it's time to come clean. Google's employees are going to know exactly what you did. If you had an SEO company trigger the violation, let Google know. If you recently acquired your domain, that will help your cause.
    When Google receives your reconsideration request, you will soon receive the following message:
    • We received a request from a site owner to reconsider how we index the following site: [yourdomain.com].
    • We've now reviewed your site. When we review a site, we check to see if it's in violation of our Webmaster Guidelines. If we don't find any problems, we'll reconsider our indexing of your site. If your site still doesn't appear in our search results, check our Help Center for the steps you can take.
    Once you have submitted your request, you must simply wait for the ban or penalty to be lifted. You will not receive any further message or comment from Google that specifically addresses your penalty.
  4. What if Nothing Happens?
    If nothing happens after months, it can mean a few things. First of all, it might mean that your site was in compliance the entire time and you weren't penalized. It may also mean that your site remains in violation and did not pass Google's site review. An official statement from Google on their policy reads as follows:
    Please allow several weeks for the reconsideration process. Unfortunately, we can't reply individually to reconsideration requests at this time.
    If it has been several weeks since you submitted your request and you haven't seen any change in your site's performance, this probably means one of two things:
    Your site is still in violation of Google's webmaster guidelines
    Or, there was nothing wrong with your site in the first place, other than that it wasn't ranking as well as you'd like.

If this happens to you, you'll need to review your site again for violations and resubmit your reconsideration request. Trying to e-mail Google or posting in the Google Webmaster forums isn't likely to yield any results, and certainly won't yield any specific information in your case. You might also consider hiring a professional with experience in handling reconsideration requests.

Avoiding black hat techniques and purveyors who promote them

Articles like this one are of little use to black hat webmasters who rely on shortcuts to web rankings and traffic, so we suspect our audience is predisposed to our warning about black hat techniques. You are more likely to be lured into a black hat scheme than concoct one yourself. If you honor the Google Webmaster Guidelines and produce valuable original content, you are extremely unlikely to be penalized.

But black hat providers prowl the Internet for business constantly. You may already have received emails about link exchanges and automated content services. Nearly 100% of all mass marketed traffic, link, and content services are black hat services and should be avoided. As you promote your site and become more visible online, the number of inbound inquiries you receive will increase.

The standard black hat scam: Link exchange

This is a standard pitch you might receive through an e-mail. An innocent-sounding webmaster proposes a link between your site and theirs. Naturally, they'll open with a generalized compliment about your site. Here's an actual e-mail, completely representative of this type of come-on:

My name is Lauren Robinson, Web Marketing Consultant. I've greatly enjoyed looking through your site and I was wondering if you'd be interested in exchanging links with my website, which has a related subject. I can offer you a home page link back from my related websites all in Google cache and backlinks which are:
transcendtechnology.biz PR4

You should never pursue such a link exchange. No matter how innocent-sounding and personal, these e-mails are sent to hundreds of thousands of webmasters, if not millions. The sites promoted by such e-mails are nearly always bad neighborhoods or link farms. The risk of penalization for linking to such sites is high.

The standard black hat scam: Website submission service

Website submission services often promote their services through e-mails or on online forums. As the pitch goes, they will submit your site to "the major search engines" for a fee. They offer specialized software as well as automated services. These services haven't been necessary for at least 10 years, as now the major search engines find the sites by crawling the Web, not through manual submissions. These purveyors still exist despite the fact that the service is completely unnecessary. At worst, these services will spam the search engine submission forms with your domain name. You should never subscribe to a search engine submission service. There is no value to the service and is most likely to be worse than doing nothing at all.

The standard black hat scam: Offshore link building

This is a common e-mail-based pitch. Most of these e-mails originate in massive link-building shops based in India or that part of the world. Link building is a major industry in India and the prime source of revenue is American-based and Europeanbased businesses. Nearly all of the offshore purveyors of link building services offer very low-quality, assembly-line link building services that are more likely to trigger the ire of search engines than build up your website's rankings or popularity.

The standard pitch usually sounds very similar to the following, from an e-mail received at our consultancy, with minor variations, nearly 500 times in the past two years:

Dear Sir \ Madam,
We are a Smart and fast growing Web Development Services company from Delhi(India).
We provide complete Natural quality Link Building services in a fully professional manner and at very competitive cost.
We get 1 way high pr relative links from commenting on do follow blogs & forums. However All these benefits leads to one goal: "Increase in Sales".

The standard black hat scam: Autoblogging

While less common, sellers of autoblogging software and services do market services online through e-mails, websites, and pay-per-click ads. Here's an actual e-mail that is fairly typical of the pitch for autoblogging services:

Generate Automatic Income While You Sleep—Auto Blog S a m u r a i Software 'automatically' creates content and updates your blog every day - once your blog is set up, you're done!
Start Earning Monthly Residual Income On Autopilot—Software seamlessly integrates with and generates profits from most popular affiliate networks such as Google AdSense, Amazon Associates, eBay Partner Network & ClickBank.

Autoblogged content is, by definition, duplicate content and we've learned that it is strongly discouraged by Google Webmaster Guidelines.

Beyond the specific services outlined here, there are others. If you follow Google Webmaster Guidelines and follow your instincts, you should have no trouble steering clear of Google penalties.


In this article, we learned about a range of black hat techniques and why the obvious course is to avoid them religiously. You must always remain vigilant in honoring Google Webmaster Guidelines. Stay right with Google and you'll be rewarded with high rankings and steer clear of damaging ranking penalties.

In this article, we examined the full spectrum of forbidden black hat and gray hat techniques, such as hidden text, cloaking, sneaky redirects, doorway pages, and more. We dug into Google Webmaster Guidelines and learned how and when Google will act on a violation. We discovered the difference between penalties, filters, and bans and how to distinguish them. We learned how to diagnose and repair specific Google penalties.

Finally, we learned how to avoid the black hat techniques by steering clear of purveyors of these forbidden techniques. By following the guidelines set forth in this article, you will keep your rankings and traffic shielded from penalty.

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