Pitch Perfect Marketing

Black Hat or White Hat: The Ethical Dilemma in Website Search Engine Optimization

 

Abstract

In the quest for top search engine rankings, companies can leverage ethical or unethical techniques to attain those coveted top spots. The methods used to "trick" search engines into artificially inflating a website's position are numerous. When such companies use these search engine optimization (SEO) techniques, it is a choice that carries with it the risk of substantial negative consequences.

Introduction

As the Internet has grown from a tool of the education sector to a revolution in global communication, people have come to realize how critical it is to rank their websites high in the search engines. This is the primary way a website connects to its target audience. Many companies' profitability hinges on how well they show up in the three largest search engines: Google, MSN Search and Yahoo. With this increase in search engine awareness also brings companies and individuals that can assist clients in obtaining those prized top spots. This process is called search engine optimization (SEO). It involves adjusting a website content and HTML code as well as increasing the links coming to it from other websites (Google 2008). The goal is to outrank the competition and bring in more visitors.

As ethical SEO techniques have grown over the last 15 years, so have the underhanded ones (also known as black hat techniques). It has been argued that such tactics are unethical since they are methods that attempt to trick the search engines into rankings websites artificially high. Many of these companies make claims such as "Just $99 for a top spot in Google. Guaranteed!" Others undertake click fraud where they repeatedly click on competitors sponsored search engine listings so the unfortunate recipient is charged for each click (Kent, 2006). This paper will focus on black hat SEO and the unethical behavior that drives it. It will delve into the finer points of SEO processes as well as how the community of SEO professionals view what is ethical and what is not. What after all makes a given SEO technique ethical or unethical (Whalen, 2004)? If it is true that as a person grows, retaining integrity may involve some sacrifice to live up to ones principles (May, 1996), then what compels these SEO companies to practice black hat SEO? It is important to note that there are many professionals and companies within the SEO industry that strive to work in an ethical manner.

What Is SEO?

SEO involves the on-website and off-website strategies that people can use to improve their search engine rankings (Ledford, 2008). The process is usually part of a larger marketing effort designed to increase target audience exposure and profitability. The importance of SEO continues to grow and can be better understood using the analogy of a beautiful store located on a dirt road in the middle of a barren landscape. It matters very little how well the store is organized, decorated, or operated since it is very unlikely people will find it unless they happen to be traveling down that particular dirt road. The same is true for websites that do not undergo SEO to improve their search engine exposure. People are unlikely to find such sites. SEO has been around as long as there have been websites. Since the early 1990s, there has been a growing effort to use SEO techniques effectively for organizations and companies throughout the world (Seda, 2004). The explosion of the Internet as a communication medium has also led to the abundance of consultants who claim, with or without merit, to have knowledge in the area of SEO. Search engine marketing in general also includes Pay Per Click (PPC), or paid placement, wherein companies bid on words and phrases and, when users enter these phrases into search engines, their site appears in the sponsored listings area of the search results (Blankson, 2004). PPC is not covered within this paper since the unethical techniques being described here do not apply (except for click fraud which will be discussed later).

A successful SEO initiative involves a series of phases. The first phase involves analyzing a website's goals, audiences, and competition, as well as finding the best words and phrases that audiences are using to find similar companies. Once these phrases have been identified, phase two can begin. The website content is carefully sculpted to include these key phrases at a certain frequency. The underlying HTML code is also modified in a number of ways. The final phase involves increasing the number of other websites that link to the target website. This is known as inbound linking. When a website is finally posted on the Internet, each of the search engines sends out a spider which is a small program that reads through a website and tries to discern what the site is about so that it can be indexed correctly. Once the site is indexed, it can be found in the search engines.

There are plenty of books and online materials detailing the various processes involved in SEO. The vast majority of these processes is completely acceptable to the search engines and is used by most SEO professionals. A minority of individuals however use black hat optimization tactics to increase rankings. If detected by the search engines or alerted to the issue by another individual, such sites can be penalized or removed entirely from the search engine's index (Jones, 2006).


What is Black Hat SEO?

In many ways, the Internet is like the American Wild West of old. So many of the technologies that interact with the Internet continue to grow and evolve. There are no laws that restrict how website owners structure their sites in order to enhance their search engine rankings. So in this Wild West, some individuals knowledgeable in SEO take advantage of any tactic available to help a website obtain top rankings. Leveraging these black hat techniques is also known as search engine spamming. Jerri Ledford (2008) defines spamming as: "Pages created deliberately to trick the search engines into offering inappropriate, redundant, or poor quality search results" (p. 185). What follows is a list of the most commonly identified unscrupulous SEO techniques.

  1. Keyword Stuffing. This process involves adding an inflated number of targeted key phrases within a web page. Search engines discern what a web page is about by primarily analyzing its textual content. Keyword stuffing artificially inflates certain phrases to trick the search engines into ranking the page higher than it rightly deserves. A common way to accomplish keyword stuffing is to simply repeat the targeted phrase over and over within a block of text usually at the end of a website page. However, there is a genuine dilemma in that it is hard to identify at what point is the frequency of a keyword or phrase too high and therefore will trip the search engines into categorizing the page as keyword stuffed (Ledford, 2008).

  2. Doorway Pages. Doorway pages, also known as gateway or portal pages are sculpted and optimized for a certain keyword or phrase. They act as a doorway into a website by ranking very high in the search engines for that phrase (Arsenault, 2006). Usually such pages are crafted to exploit as many search engine ranking tactics as possible yet are typically unattractive and hard to understand since they have not been created with the human eye in mind.

  3. Bait and Switch. This tactic involves creating an optimized page for the search engines to index yet once the page is indexed, quickly replacing it with one that is more user-centered and attractive (www.seoglossary.com/article/662). The goal is to obtain high rankings with the first version of the page but showing the public the second version.

  4. Cloaking. Cloaking involves delivering one page to a search engine for indexing while serving an entirely different page to regular visitors (www.webreference.com/authoring/search_engines/cloaking/). A programming script is used to execute this real-time black hat tactic. Some SEO administrators will use this tactic on what are known as throwaway websites. They use cloaking to garner as much traffic (and profit) as possible until the search engines become aware of the issue and take the site down (Ledford, 2008). Then they move on to a new cloaking endeavor.

  5. Hidden/Small Text and Links. Since a web page ranks well for a certain phrase if that phrase appears at a high-frequency, many black hat SEO individuals try to color such text the same as the web page background (and therefore render it invisible to the human eye) or make the text so small that it is not noticed (Blankson, 2008). Search engines also give additional weight to a page if a phrase shows up within a hyperlink to another page. So a similar tactic is to change the color of the link to the color of the surrounding text. Recently, the search engines are more adept at spotting these tactics (Ledford, 2008).

  6. Page Jacking. Content theft is a better label for this approach. This tactic involves stealing content from a website and copying it into another website in order to siphon off some of the original site's traffic to the newly copied web page. People can then be tricked into thinking an illegitimate site is the actual site they were looking for (www.webopedia.com/TERM/P/pagejacking.html). In some cases, the illegitimate site will have links to pornographic websites. Fortunately, site administrators now have tools to scan the Internet for instances of duplicate web copy and can fight such plagiarism (Jones, 2008). If an entire website is found to be "jacked," the crime could result in stiff fines or even jail time (Ledford, 2008).

  7. Spamming of Social Media. Blogs, wikis and discussion forums are just a few examples of how people can more efficiently interact with each other on the Internet (Young, 2006). This social networking environment (a large component of what is known as Web 2.0) is ripe for SEO abuse. One of the prime reasons that the explosion of social networking has gotten the attention of SEO companies is the fact that there are so many opportunities to increase the amount of links pointing back to a website (inbound linking). For example, if you post 20 messages on different blogs and each message includes a signature line with a link to your website, all of those links will help to raise your search engine rankings. However, this environment can easily be exploited since vast numbers of posts can be added to online discussions and yet offer no substantive value to the topic at hand. Some companies go as far as to create spam blogs which are machine generated blogs whose only purpose is to enhance search engine rankings (Ledford, 2008). As a defense against this automated spamming technique, many sites utilize CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) where an individual must type in a word or phrase displayed in a graphic appearing on the page. Automated scripts cannot bypass this measure since they cannot "read" the graphical image and discern the text (Jones, 2008). Paid blogging is another tactic where people are paid to offer a review of a product or service on their own blog. Though bloggers are expected to be truthful in their reviews, there is potential for ethical abuse since they are getting paid and the hope is he or she will continue to get offers for paid reviews by the same company (Jones, 2008). So generally they rate products and services favorably.

  8. Click Fraud. Tom McGovern president of snap.com indicated click fraud was a "billion-dollar problem" (news.cnet.com/Click-fraud-roils-search-advertisers/2100-1024_3-5600300.html). The basic form of the unethical process involves a person or persons repeatedly clicking on their competitors sponsored listings in the search engine results pages. Each time a person clicks on a sponsored listing link, the sponsoring company is charged a small amount (for example $.50). This black hat technique is known as dumb clicking, the crudest type of click fraud (Kent, 2006). There are other forms of click fraud but the underlying goal is the same, drain your competitors marketing budget. It is the most troublesome of SEO problems and unfortunately is very hard to identify and control (Ledford, 2008). Large search engines like Google and Yahoo do not expose the amount of click fraud that they have detected. However, it has been estimated that between 5% and 20% of their total search engine sponsored listing sales are the result of click fraud (news.cnet.com/Click-fraud-roils-search-advertisers/2100-1024_3-5600300.html).

Overall, search engine spammers are constantly trying to find new ways to exploit the search engines so they can inflate their website rankings. To combat this, search engines regularly update their definitions of spam. Previously people caught conducting click fraud schemes would, for example, receive the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. However, more recently search engine companies are imposing steep fines and criminal prosecution for the worst offenders (Ledford, 2008). It is an ongoing cat and mouse game in the Internet frontier.

Who Cares?

Almost all SEO companies state that they use only ethical techniques when they service client websites. So why is SEO spamming unethical or wrong? No police officers will ever break down your door due to such activities. The only tangible consequence that can occur if a person is found to be using black hat techniques (except for page jacking and click fraud ) is they will have their website blacklisted (removed) from the particular search engine. If the culprit is selling their services to a client, than the repercussions fall completely on the paying customer's website, and the perpetrator can move on and continue to exploit other unsuspecting customers. If, however, the perpetrator is associated with the website itself, then getting blacklisted on the search engines can be a death knell for the company or organization's online success.

It is true that sometimes ethical SEO professionals get inadvertently caught by search engine spamming rules and can be penalized. If the search engine companies find it to be an honest mistake, it can still take several months or longer for the website to reenter the index at which point the struggle for high rankings must be restarted (Ledford, 2008).

Many would argue that there is a lack of common sense when turning to black hat techniques in search engine marketing (Ledford, 2008). From a users perspective, if a person clicks on what they think is a relevant website to their Internet search and it is not, they will promptly leave. So inflating a website artificially when its content does not inherently justify its enhanced positioning will not bring about goal attainment since as soon as people arrive at the site, they will realize they have been tricked and promptly move on. Overall, the SEO community is in agreement that the risks far outweigh the potential benefits of black hat SEO. And finally, there is the lack of website exposure and loss of profits should a site be blacklisted. All of these work to scare many SEO professionals from treading down this path.

There is no indication that black hat SEO individuals possess any unusual common thread that sets them apart ethically from their above-board counterparts. Ethics is focused on moral situations (Ruggiero, 2004) and a moral choice here is whether or not search engine professionals should abide by industry-accepted rules of conduct, or break those rules. Computer professionals are commonly self-regulated by their respective organizations or employers (Johnson, 2004). Therefore a black hat SEO company can convey to their employees the idea that search engine spamming is acceptable since it maintains their collective employment. A second moral issue at hand is fairness. By using these techniques, black hat optimized websites are unfairly outranking more deserving websites and skewing the search engine results so they become less useful to the public (Ledford, 2008). Developing a code of ethics would be the first step in maintaining a company's dedication to accepted regulation of search engine marketing. Some in the SEO industry are self employed however (Thelwall, 2006). They could develop a code strictly for themselves; although such an action is unlikely. What complicates the matter further is there is very little legislation on these issues and an unethical SEO professional can work out from any number of countries where foreign laws have little or no affect (Thelwall, 2006). So why do people still use these tactics? It comes down to the fact that top rankings equal more money, and it is extremely easy to garner additional clients if said clients have no idea of the SEO individual's unethical reputation. Companies will pay for help in attaining high rankings and are often unaware their consultants are leveraging these precipitous techniques. SEO professionals with a strong sense of right and wrong will typically avoid black hat techniques entirely. On the playing field of the Internet, black hat is cheating, and in the community of search engine professionals, there is no love for those who skirt the rules that the honest segment is working within. As to why individuals choose to take part in these unethical practices, it could be due to the content of their organizational environment . That is, if the group or company views this practice as acceptable, then the individual is are more likely to take part (Banerjee, Cronan & Jones, 1998). Naturally, a person's internal moral compass will also come into play. It may also be attributable to the lack of ethical education that some information technology professionals receive in college. Michael Quinn, dean of the College of Science and Engineering at Seattle University conducted a survey in 2006 where he found that only 55% of computer science programs require their students to take an ethics class (Tennant, 2007). Without adequate grounding in ethics, black hat SEO professionals may be ignorant about where unethical search engine marketing lines are drawn.

Conclusions

Black hat SEO is not going away. There is a sizable percentage of the SEO industry that will use any means available to achieve high search engine rankings. It can be argued that there are a number of reasons why these individuals partake in these unethical tactics, yet the main driving force is monetary gain. It is naïve to think that SEO professionals engaged in these activities are unaware of the repercussions or the disdain they will receive from fellow search engine marketers. Fast cash drives this segment of Internet marketing. A prominent tenet in SEO is, if you build genuinely useful, easy to navigate websites, the users and rankings will come (Arsenault, 2006). This approach has proven to be true but can take considerable time to materialize into sizable rankings success.

Due to the nature of how search engines sift through and index the incredibly large number of websites on the Internet, this idea of skirting the rules does not look to be fading away. Those who work the back alleys of search engine marketing realize there is money to be had in black hat SEO even if they flirt with blacklisting and risk being labeled as industry outcasts.

Paul Kaufman
President
Pitch Perfect Marketing


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