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Reminiscing: My First Experience of a Black Hat SEO

From an SEO perspective, we all know that a good listing in the search engines can pay dividends to any business.

When I started back in web design 14 years ago, search engine optimisation wasn’t really an issue:  There were a handful of businesses online and as a result if you said what your company name was and what you did, that pretty much was search engine optimisation for you.  You could even get away with implying that you had an image of a naked Britney Spears on your pages just to get more people coming to your site!

I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realised that search marketing was going to be a separate industry in itself:  It was 2004 and I had been on maternity leave  for about 2 weeks when one of the clients that I’d recently designed a website for contacted me out of the blue to request the FTP information for their website.  So I gave him the necessary info, didn’t really ask any more and got on with the rest of pre-baby time that I had left.

One of my first quests on my return back from maternity leave was why this client had gone elsewhere for web services and how I can learn from this experience.  So we had a meeting and all seemed to be ok with the website – he was still happy with the work I’d done, but this other company had contacted him and promised that they could get his website a #1 ranking in Google and all he needed to do was allow them to make a few changes.

The site looked ok, but I could see the page title now didn’t just contain the company name and their main service:  It just contained a barrage of keywords (using an example, car wash, car valeting, vehicle service, car valeting essex, car wash suffolk and vehicle service cambridge).  There were clearly areas on the page where the collection of keyphrases was repeated.  Also the dark navy background used to emphasise the white logo and slogan now looked dirty and I really couldn’t work out why.

I checked out the page code and almost choked on the coffee I was drinking at the time:  The same collection of keyphrases had been stuffed in every  available space in the page.  The meta tags (both description and keywords), the text description on images.  They were even contained within the comment tag!  But mainly, they  were listed as links and repeated excessively about 5 times.  That is when I twigged that was the commotion on the navy background.  I had heard the term used a couple of times before, but this was clearly the work of a black hat SEO.

Naturally I mentioned all my findings, beginning with the hidden links to my client.  I could tell that he had been speaking to whoever his “SEO guy”, because he told me it was perfectly ok because the links weren’t exactly the same colour as the background “so Google wouldn’t penalise us”.  The conversation went this way for about 5 minutes and consisted of me pretty much explaining everything they had done, until the client put his hands up and basically said “It’s my site and not really any of your business”.

For the next year or so, I was expecting a call at any minute from the same client either wising up to what was going on and asking me to remove the carnage or in a blind panic as Google had banned the site, but that call didn’t come.  In fact nothing happened for about 2 years.  It may have worked and he may have got top rankings for all of the keyphrases, but I didn’t get to hear about it.  The few times I did check, he was on that first page.  It was only when we came to redevelop the website did he mention that we could “discard all that old rubbish.”

I wouldn’t say that my experience with this client was my sole reason for what I did next, but I was determined that there was not going to be a repeat performance: During that two years, I took the time to re-educate myself on how to optimise a website without the need for trickery (White Hat SEO).  I read books, websites, went through the training guides for SEO software, joined SEO forums, subscribed to SEO newsletters and even got the chance to attend SES London one year free of charge in exchange for a few articles.

In the early days of SEO, where both black hat and white hat seemed to work, it could be quite discouraging:  One week you could be in the top 10 of Google for your main keyphrase, only to lose places the following week when a new site would pop up on the top spot, using every dirty trick in the book, and created by a kid contactable only via his Xbox (I’m not joking).  But I am glad that I stuck to genuine SEO as things have certainly changed for the better.

Black Hat SEO companies sadly do still exist and still make false promises to anyone gullible enough to believe them (not many thankfully).  They also still find new ways to trick the system.  Luckily the search engines are quick to find and penalise them.

The client that I am referring to shall remain anonymous and has since retired.  Sadly I never got to thank him for the whole experience.


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