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Ask HN: Competitor is successful with black hat SEO
255 points by throwmesomeseo on Mar 20, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 102 comments
Hey guys - for some time our startup did organic link building and technical seo. We ranked for a year approximately as our closest competitor. Since the end of 2016 he is increasing the number of incoming links massively by adding bridge sites. These have keyword heavy domains and keyword heavy content with all links pointing to their site.

Contrary to seo consultants opinions we've ask ("don't worry") this (for all I know) works for them. They have now left us quite behind in rankings. As we are still not a known b2b marketplace brand and depend on seo this is hurting.

Ahrefs/Semrush does not report other large changes in their technical seo or link structure beside this massive buildup of bridge sites.

What would you do? We don't want to engage in the same tactics, should we?

This absolutely works but generally for a short time. How well probably depends on how good they are at it, and how often this will happen probably depends on how valuable the keywords you're going after are.

I'm surprised no one has pointed this out; you can report them for paid/spam links in your Google Search Console. It doesn't solve the problem but it will speed it up, especially if it's a manual PBN (private blog network) and not 'web 2.0s' as they say in the SEO world (links from Wordpress, Blogspot, and other already-hosted varieties). Google is pretty good at finding how the PBN is tied together - usually by looking at the hosting, and it will kill their rankings for a long time.

Also make sure to check your inbound links for negative SEO attacks. Since the most recent algorithm updates will penalize page by page for negative/spammy links it's possible that's happening to you as well. Google likes to pretend like that negative SEO doesn't exist, but it's probably the easiest way to climb to the top of rankings if the others are unaware of the intricacies of SEO. Search console is the only authoritative way to find those, but ahrefs will generally update faster and give you a head start. (I spend about 5 hours/week disavowing negative SEO links, and that's after I mostly-automated it).

In the meantime, you might want to put a little more effort into getting links pointing to you, if for no other reason than to not leave yourself in such a precarious position.

Feel free to email me and I'll look into it if you need more help. (I am over SEO at a YC startup trying to fix payday loans https://www.semrush.com/info/lendup.com+(by+organic), so as you can imagine we've seen it all... I hope).

I agree. This works until it doesn't. (Rap) Genius tried this a few years back, and was killing other lyrics sites until Google got wind of it. They've never really recovered.


In my 20 or so manual tries of billboard top 100 songs and some other random ones, Genius is top 1-2 in results, so they might have recovered fine in the SEO sense...

That is a really interesting example. They had the best product by far. Google penalizing them is almost like penalizing its own users because they provide a much better product for lyric searches, in my own opinion. Every other lyric site before them was generally full of spammy ads with no added value, but Genius actually tries to add to the experience. Some songs more than others, but still a world away from the old lyric sites.

Recovered in the financial sense- they recently fired a quarter of their staff:


I do agree that their product is the best by far; they're my go to site for lyrics.

They've not entirely recovered in terms of what comes up in search results, but they're still the go-to for anyone I know who looks up lyrics on a regular basis.

They got a little public slap on the wrist, they recovered just fine after Google removed the manual action.


I mean "recover" in the financial sense, they've recently laid off a quarter of their staff:


But you said they never really recovered. There's no way to interpret what you wrote but to suggest they never really recovered from their ranking demotion. Which isn't the case right? Their financial issues go far beyond their google rankings (namely I think Genius hasn't really gotten big with annotations beyond lyrics. Not at their valuation and hype)

Google no longer applies a demotion penalty to a site with spammy links, especially those from negative seo campaigns, but rather devalues the links. This is since the "real time" Penguin update at the end of September. You can still use disavow, but it's likely a waste of time...and if you don't know what you're doing could make things worse.

I haven't head that as far as I know you can still get a manual penalty for a number of issues.

I have had to help clean up one or two sites.

I wonder if the down voters have ever had clear up a manual penalty.

Google said so themselves late last year.

Explain that to the manual "link spam" penalty we got in April ;)

It's only March. How do you know you're going to get a penalty next month?

Question on this- does Google penalize you even if you run a network of actual, honest to goodness quality content sites that link together (think Wirecutter linking to Sweet Home) or is this specifically if you are making crappy, temporary pages that link into your site?

The latter.

You don't accidentally create a PBN. It's more than accidental crappy pages. It's automatically-generated link wheels with spun content and capitalizing on expired domains, etc.

How do you view PBNs in 2017? Would you ever consider purchasing a site that is ranking with a PBN or is it just too risky? I've read conflicting opinions, some saying that if it is done is a silo'd way and the content is not terrible, its not such a big deal.

There is some grey area as it pertains to content farms though. Google has penalized sites for creating a ring of sites that point to a central property, even if the content is hand created, of "okay" quality, etc.

Where has google penalized hand created content sites of okay quality where a ring of them link to a central site? I'd highly doubt that happens if the content truly is of okay quality.

Unless your quoting okay meant that the content is barely okay aka not good at all. Then the links the sites get could be crap too and some other factor could be the reason for the penalty.

One example of the algorithm deciding a site was a "content farm" https://www.labnol.org/internet/blog-as-content-farm/18750/

By "okay", I mean content written by someone in their first language, with intent to be useful. Not necessarily great, but not intentional filler.

Thanks. I was a bit skeptical at first. May have sounded like sort of a dick as a result. But thanks for for the link. Cheers!

Google doesn't penalize sites if it's an honest to goodness quality site link. Just look at how Yahoo! is linking to out to college sports sites, ticket sites, gaming sites, etc. etc..

The problem is that many of the larger "link networks" are controlled by big brands.

I have heard that disavowing is actually not a good practice because you can hurt your own ranking without much benefit (if there isn't a problem).

If you don't know what you're doing then disavowing can hurt rankings.

But if you know what you're doing, disavow is awesome. It works.

seconded disavow is a powerful tool but not to be used lightly

Disavowing definitely hurt my website. I disavowed a handful of the most spammy links and I dropped from the consistently 2nd search result to 4th quickly. I "un-disavowed" and now back to 3rd.

Problem for me was I didn't know if I was getting hurt by the spammy links or not. You don't know if you have a problem or not.

True if there isn't a problem. But most sites nowadays have problems.

The tricky part is links that look spammy to you can be viewed by Google as legitimate. So as a practice I only disavow the spammiest of spammy links.


"Black hat" SEO will almost always work in the short term.

I run a few sites and have seen competition pop up very fast, outrank me for a few months (one was even for almost a year), and then disappear completely.

You then have a choice, ride these waves out, or play in the mud. At some point, Bad SEO will get caught and penalized/de-indexed, which for anyone that's not a household name, can entirely ruin your business if this is a main lead channel.

I hate to sound generic but I think you just have to stay on your path, and bolster your own link profile with good links. This might be a good opportunity to hunt mid/longtail queries to boost traffic in less competitive SERPs.

As a secondary, bigger picture thought, I think this is also an opportunity to hunt for more inbound channels. Relying too much on SEO is playing with fire.

I think your advice to start building more inbound channels is definitely the right approach.

I was chatting with a marketing exec in the real estate business and he said something I found chilling: "Google is transitioning to a pay for placement model."

You can see this in things like:

The move to 4 ads on top of SERPs - https://moz.com/blog/four-ads-on-top-the-wait-is-over

Making the Ad designation more subtle - http://blog.eyequant.com/blog/2014/03/20/why-the-new-google-...

Deep ad integration on mobile - http://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2016/05/24/google-mobile-f...

> You then have a choice, ride these waves out, or play in the mud. At some point, Bad SEO will get caught and penalized/de-indexed, which for anyone that's not a household name, can entirely ruin your business if this is a main lead channel.

This is what makes competing against blackhat SEO so difficult. People who are doing blackhat SEO know this so they don't create huge amounts of links for a site that they want to stick around for a long time. They'll either rank a revolving door of sites that are easy to turn up, or they'll rank sites that feed to their main business (such as a "review" site).

There is really no defending against this - right now Google can't algorithmically detect these links with any sort of speed or reliability and SEOers can create new sites faster than Google can accurately detect them.

Yes, this is absolutely the case. Google has been gamed and they don't know how to recover from it. All they have to fall back on now is the common misperception that Google is not gamed.

Google's search product is ripe for disruption, if anyone can get the resources together to take them down.

One of those resources would be facilitating a modification to the laws that make Google's line of business (internet search) legally shaky.

Exactly why Google is aggressively monetizing the search results by reducing the number of organic listings, in favor of AdWords, Knowledge Box, Featured Answers and direct response plays such as Google Guarantee.

One of those resources would be facilitating a modification to the laws that make Google's line of business (internet search) legally shaky.

Can you elaborate a bit on this?

Web scraping is generally a legally precarious proposition.

The copies of content that are stored in RAM are eligible for copyright protection, which means that just downloading a page without authorization, even before you've done anything with it, is an act of infringement. If you download 1000 pages from a site and it's determined that the license doesn't apply to you, you've got 1000 acts of copyright infringement just by storing them in RAM, let alone any "derivative works".

Then there is the issue of storing the page's contents for analysis and re-hosting portions of it for display. If you do image search, Perfect 10 v. Amazon said that although the storage and rehosting of images were unauthorized copies, they were a "fair use" under copyright law and therefore not infringing. Because fair use is an affirmative defense, this is not a very portable ruling, and it should be expected to be applied unevenly (and already has been wrt to RAM copies, at least in Ticketmaster v. RMG). The judge may find your non-Google image search non-transformative and therefore unfair and infringing. If Google had been sued on this point when they were a smaller company, they almost surely would have lost.

Then there is the CFAA, which makes it unlawful to access any server "without authorization" or in a way that "exceeds authorized access". The CFAA prescribes both criminal and civil penalties. Aaron Swartz was being prosecuted under this law for scraping publicly-funded research out of a paywalled database.

It can be, and frequently is, argued that accessing the site with an "automated method" like a scraper automatically "exceeds authorized access" due to clauses in the Terms of Service, which require users not to do this. This is often a successful argument, though there are notable exceptions.

On the flip side, robots.txt has been considered legitimate authorization for CFAA purposes in some cases, so if you're always obeying robots.txt, you will at least have that to fall back on. Search engines are well-understood and most people are probably not going to be haughty about your trying to index their site unless your scraper is super-aggressive and causes performance problems. In most cases, search engines usually don't need to crawl any single site in particular to be successful, so if someone really doesn't want you in there, you can just move on to the next one.

Google was designed for a self-published, late-90s web where the whole internet was accessible via URL. A modern search engine would recognize that the common man's voice is no longer accessible through the links they've placed on common-mans-site.com, but rather through their social media footprint on sites like Facebook and Twitter, and that accessing these profiles is critical to actually assessing what normal people find valuable online. The old method leaves you stuck in corpo-vision, since no one has a personal web site anymore.

Now, if Facebook or Twitter learned that accessing their data streams was critical to a major competitor's algorithm, they could sue under this cluster of anti-scraping laws and get access permanently shut off (unless, of course, you're big enough that the judges decide everything you do is fair and authorized, as they did in Perfect 10 v. Amazon, but you can't expect that to apply). If Facebook and/or Twitter wanted to launch a web search product, I have every confidence that they would have access to a much better dataset than Google.

This has a lot of negative implications for the future of the internet as an open platform, and drives the momentum back toward the bad old days of a keyword-based web controlled by a few central services.

I am not a lawyer and this is based on my layman's understanding. Consult an experienced lawyer specialized in this area before you believe anything I say.

Thanks for the detailed response. It would be nice to have some way to "iterate quickly" (and cheaply) in the legal realm, as a lot of laws seem to have unintended consequences, probably because the are not foreseeable by the folks writing the law.

I also enjoyed cookiecaper's post, thank you for your sharing. Is it possible to compete against the facebook/twitter inbound data-stream knowledge and against google's corpo-vision, if you're operating from another country with non-restrictive rights? Geo-fences are the most annoying political invention ever, we know that, but by obeying to unhealthy laws, we encourage it. Not every law makes sense and should be obeyed blindly.

Thanks for the encouragement, we probably ride it out. Our competitor goes to our customers and shows how he is 'better' on seo (it's relevant to our customers). We probably need to educate our customers more.

Sadly the seo is very heated in that niche, so we went for long tail queries roughly 12 months ago.

Yes we know, we would love to get of the seo addiction, but for us others channels are not working as good (we do newsletters, FB, Twitter, Google, print etc. also).

If you feel it is web spam, I would report them to the search engines.

For Google: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/spamreport

And you can submit feedback to Bing on a search results page -- be detailed!

It may not be fast, but it helps them.

The problem with this is there is a whole industry around what is called 'negative SEO' which has basically defeated the purpose of these reporting tools.

It goes like this. You want to hurt a competitor so you hire an SEO agency to do a bunch of black hat stuff to the competitor's site. Then you report the competitor's site to google in hopes that they penalize them. Now google is put in an awkward position where the site that looks guilty is actually innocent.

For Google, the best place to focus is moving away from penalties for the most part and just trying to devalue spammy tactics. It'll never be perfect, but at least this way you avoid companies attacking each other.

All in all this is just the web moving more in the direction of 'you get what you pay for'. In the olden days you had to almost always pay for advertising to get business (if not word of mouth). Take Yellow Pages as an example if someone had the money to pay for a bigger ad [1] generally they got more calls from yp users. The rest battled it out by trying to name their businesses 'aaaaaplumbing' 'a+plumbing' and so on to get near the top of the listings. Or to get a 'big' sounding phone number xxx-xxx-2000 etc. Google profits when people get frustrated with SEO because they get to sell more ads or at least have the price of those ads bid up. This makes perfect sense hard to believe they couldn't use (hat to say it) AI or better algorithms to figure out what is going on if they wanted to.

[1] Sometimes though you placed a big and a small ad since some people want to deal with a small company and not a big company so you needed both.

Do you know how they detect those? It looks that even pages with 100 links pointing to only one other site, with spammy domains and keyword stuffed texts still help with Google.

If the algorithms don't catch them, they'll eventually attract the attention of a human Google reviewer, at which point they'll be assessed a manual penalty that will show up in the Search Console: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/2604824?hl=en

I work in SEO and regularly see large, poor quality link networks benefit sites, despite all Google's efforts. Other people have already suggested reporting the sites, but in practice you will never be able to keep up with someone who is really putting effort into this tactic.

It's best to avoid fighting this head on and stick to doing things properly - content, presentation and links. You may be under pressure now, but it's worth it in the long run. They will get their comeuppance.

If you're lucky you might even get an cryptic answer from the source during one of the Google Webmasters Hangouts - https://plus.google.com/collection/8926cB

(If you're interested I'm happy to have a five minute look in case I spot an opportunity you might have missed.)

I'd first check if those "bridge sites" are really black hat or simply a very labour-intensive and effective way for them to increase their SEO efforts. What's the quality of those sites like?

Also, sometimes sites have a short-lived improvement on Google by using black hat tactics. However, sooner or later Google catches up and penalizes them. So be careful about copying them!

The quality is low. It's spun text I assume by some interns or outsourced. They don't make any sense to people looking for info on the subject.

But when you only need it for the next funding found, the means justify the ends

Organic marketing means you have 10 million dollars from other people and 500 instagram followers and begging your own employees for likes. It means you waste $10,000 per day celebrating over a brief 200 person bump in your daily active users. It means one retweet has you saying "we're blowing up!"

If the bridge sites pass the test of being legitimately useful information rather than just spammy then I wouldn't consider what they are doing as black hat. This test is subjective or at the mercy of Google's current algorithm.

If they are keyword stuffed junk then your SEO people are right penguin slammed keyword stuffing hard. I know because I was using these tactics back then. On the other hand a keyword specific micro site with useful information can rank and likely eventually pass on useful pagerank to the main site.

The question I don't have the answer to is the period of time the site becomes beneficial. If you buy a new domain and setup a micro site I personally think it will take a year or more before the linked domain can benefit based on what I've seen. I base this on the fact when the micro site starts to rank itself and receives traffic. At that point I think it is safe to assume some rank is being passed onto the main site.

So if I were in your shoes I'd analyze the age of the bridge/micro site, quality of content and the ranking for the targeted keywords for that domain to decide if your competition is benefitting from it.

We have analyzed those and sadly they are benefitting from them. The sites have no real content, users only click through (we did some user research).

I've seen a lot of people come and go doing things like that. The vast majority may get a potentially large short term benefit but long term typically get penalized. Do report them as others have said if they are building junk sites.

Isn't it pretty risky to have a business rely so heavily on a 3rd party (Google) with whom you, presumably, do not have a business relationship? If your business is vulnerable to being hurt simply due to some other company "doing SEO", maybe consider trying to address that weakness directly rather than just riding it out or trying to SEO back at them. I don't think I'd have the guts to start a company that depended so heavily on the whims of Google's search algorithm.

If you're a marketplace it's mostly SEO (and branding). Yes it's risky to depend on Google.

Per this comment https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13914768 is it not possible to win at adwords in your area?

It is risky to depend on Google but what choice do you have when more than 90% of new visitors come to your site via google.

That's easy to say, hard to execute. Many businesses depend very heavily on SEO as a means of acquisition.

They will eventually get caught and when they do, it will be very difficult for them to recover. If you are in this for the long haul, stay the clean route.

I also highly suggest investing in other inbound traffic channels. Having all of your eggs in the Google basket is risky. You will sleep better at night knowing your customers are coming from multiple channels.

Don't engage in such tactics, because once Google hits, it hits hard... Report this black hat SEO and be patient. Keep doing the right thing. SEO is a marathon. But most important, make sure you meet your visitors' intent over and over, again and again. Google focuses on customer satisfaction, not on promotion of good SEO.

a DIY content farm is still against googles guidelines - and what exactly do you mean by bridge site?

I suspect the OP is in a non English speaking country where anecdotally there is a lot more spammy crap going down.

It's surprising how well spam tactics from a decade ago still work in US SERPs honestly.

More people probably use doorway site.


Good call to take it public, it's the only way to solve such an issue in time. Just wait until Matt Cutts or one of his team shows up here on HN to have a look at this problem.

(Matt Cutts left Google eons ago; he formally resigned last December but had been on leave of absence long long long before that.)

Based on the downvotes I received it seems that enough people still recognize him to get my point across.

I don't think you should be downvoted.

Historically complaining on HN has been an excellent way to get the attention of people who care and can do something about things at these big faceless companies that skint on customer support.

I for one remember when Matt or Android devs etc would wade in if one of the community got their point across on HN.

your right, and IIRC the "rap genius" fiasco that happened a few years back actually started on HN.

Matt Cutts left Google eons ago

Who is Matt Cutts' replacement?

had been on leave of absence

Why was he on a leave of absence?

Matt Cutts... Wow a blast from the past. Polarizing figure. Yes, he's gone along with any public explanation for SEO changes and guidance.

Just wait until Matt Cutts or one of his team

Who is Matt Cutts' replacement?

I think the main issue is you need more ways to get customers, cause in SEO almost everything everyone else does - including Google - can derail all of your effort.

My company is Pacific Medical Training and we do CPR training. This is an extremely competitive space with many losers. I saw one competitor at a conference and quickly figured out that the people at the booth did NOT work for the company and basically knew nothing (and they had vista print business cards).

Their SEO strategy included buying the Drupal plugin that adds Facebook/Twitter links to your page. Then they pushed an update that includes invisible text "BUY YOUR ACLS WITH US" and a link to their homepage. Google immediately ranked them first and they stayed for 3 weeks. Then they got blacklisted.

I purchased email-outreach linkbuilding from a company whose name rhymes with Winter-mitt harkening binges. Complete scam, and they sold us links and then sold the same links to our competitor. I actually have their client list and know that they are doing this to other companies.

END RESULT. Internet marketing is very important to our company so I decided to bring this function in-house. Last year we created 500+ high-quality inbound links. So hang in there kid, keep doing it the right way and things will work out.

I've made my living in SEO for nearly a decade now, I'm not in a position to risk any brand I represent with possible penalties, (but that is incredibly uncommon,) or in spending time and budget on increases generated through unreliable means that may disappear one day.

But that's all that stops me. It's just safer to build slow and natural.

Even when these grey networks go down, that often just means those links no longer provide value rather than an actual penalty.That is an important distinction.

Since that site enjoyed higher visibility if there was any value to the site while it was in that improved position it likely secures more references,links,sales, income to support more legitimate content creation and traditional marketing.

If it was my personal business or side project and I was losing in the rather unreliable and unfair game that is the Google dance because the competitor was "cheating" I would absolutely return that tactic against them.

It is surprising that still seems to work but playing fair won't help you catch up unless they are so blatant that they get a manual penalty.

But, if you came to me as consultant I couldn't suggest that because it's unreliable, unethical and dirty. I would admit that it still works though.

Is there any reason you can't win via "ethical" tactics, are you truly creating content and resources that people might naturally link to and promote?

One of the sad oft-repeated stories is that if you create great content and resources ..the links will come ... but that leaves something very important out, only us webmasters,seo's,bloggers can generate links so unless your content appeals to that audience in addition to your consumers.. how are you going to get natural links and what is the carrot to the piblisher audience to do that for you?

If you can answer that and do influencer targeting / "blogger outreach" then you can play fair.

How many people have seen great backlink generation from getting their article or business here on HN? Can you get on here naturally? Then maybe you have the type of site,business,content to survive in natural SEO, otherwise maybe that shouldn't be your primary channel.

I certainly prefer PPC for "boring" topics, as you can eventually learn your all your costs, work off real conversion data and scale and test off of a relative constant.

quick addition:

I'm generally calloused to believing the first theory about why your website performs below a competitor is the correct one.

Have you made sure your site loads faster, do you know how engaged your users are and what have you done to increase that engagement.Is your mobile experience better than average, do your meta titles encourage people to click or has your seo battle descended into keyword stuffed titles? Is your on page stronger than them? Who says so? Have you audited your own content and architecture inside and out to make sure that rather than they have a leg up, you actually just have some deficit. Did both your sites start at the same time, have you been preserving your architecture as you rebuilt the site, do you check server logs for malformed Url requests, 404'so?

Might want to be sure some of these relatively easy comparisons and factors are in your favor before deciding that the link network you judge as valueless are providing that value that beats you.

My apologies if you have truly exhausted all those concerns, but I so rarely see that to be true.

If you think they're being shady and you aren't afraid to walk in the grey/black hat arena, one thing you can do is negative SEO. -- Buy up some link blasts to the shittiest sites imaginably, or use a tool to do it manually. 20,000 new links in a month from porn/warez/etc sites to your competitor ought to take them out completely. The benefit here is there's really no way to trace it back to your site, and penalize your rankings because of this behavior. Edit: I'm not in SEO anymore, and I can say this is highly unethical, been about 5 years and I only did whitehat. I'm a developer now, and I don't condone or think negative SEO is proper, but it's done everyday, and I'm just laying it out as an option the op has.

I don't think negative SEO works anymore. Google devalues the inbound links, but doesn't penalize the target site. In the case of Rap Genius I think they made a change specifically for them that punished their bad behavior. I stepped out of an SEO project about 18 months ago so my info is probably dated. Google makes several updates a year.

yeah I stepped out in 2012'ish, so don't have much clue anymore what's 'hot' in SEO tech circles.

The basic problem is Google has no idea what good content is. It relies on external 'signals' to determine what to rank. Those signals will be manipulated by people. Once a manipulation strategy becomes widespread enough to impact search quality Google will adjust to compensate. This game has been going on for many years. It's cat and mouse between SEO black hats and Google engineers. I have looked into black hat SEO (a few years ago). Two words of caution: 1) Setting up black hat (or grey hat) can be costly and time consuming. 2) You are assuming the competitor's rank is going up due to black hat SEO. That may not be the case. A few backlinks from top sites can leave you in the dust.

I hate to say it, but if you're looking at Semrush or ahrefs for link data, those aren't going to be the best sources. Try Majestic or Link Research Tools.

In regards to "keyword heavy domains and keyword heavy content with all links pointing to their site", the search engines tend to favor on-topic content links, especially if those domains have trust and authority. I wouldn't necessarily call that a "black hat" strategy.

Some honest advice:

For lots of companies and businesses SEO at the level your talking about just isn't worth it. There are simply more effective ways to spend the capital and get the results you want.

Organic is great but it isn't the only game in town.

What does your company do (the vaguest of terms will do... Sells clothing, software as a service)

What does the rest of your marketing look like? Ad buys, email, product distribution for review or placement, and PR...

I created this website for seo tutorial in urdu and hind language http://apnapedia.com

A better question would be:

Can anybody recommend an up-today resource for PROVED SEO techniques (white, grey or black hat), like a book, vlog, or similar? There is a ton of information about SEO out there but it is quite difficult to filter the garbage from what it actually works.

The issue with this is that there are so many "grey" areas for different people. Google themselves don't really want you building links manually, they think that if you have good content, you will get links naturally and all will be right in the world.

At one point years ago I got half way through finishing an eBook/info product that was an SEO checklist. But half way through I felt that some people would find link building "spammy" no matter what. At that time, I was manually building large Web 2.0 networks with good quality content, and having it all funnel up to my main site. Even this can be seen as "grey hat" at the very least to some.

Write good content.

That actually isn't great.

The niche that my startup operated in was eventually shut down, but we had a very similar situation. I emailed other sites and asked them to include a link (many replied back asking for compensation, which, according to Google policies, should've been nofollowed, i.e., made not to count for SEO), bought ads on private niche-specific sites/podcasts, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google. I also paid someone to write "high-quality content", which Google claims is the #1 way to rank, for months.

In the big picture, these strategies are very expensive and not effective at all.

We had about a one year head start and were the only place that provided the service we offered. Eventually, a (bad) competitor showed up. They engaged heavily in spammy SEO tactics and social media astroturfing and surpassed us within a couple of months, even though their product worked only 10-15% of the time.

We refused to engage in those spammy tactics. Partially out of principle and partially out of just not having interest in that muck, as it's not remotely attractive to people who are used to being honest and doing meaningful non-spam work. But that decision absolutely did cost us.

My advice is to think carefully about what may actually be over the line and what you've been socialized to believe is "uncool" or "distasteful". Then do those "uncool" things without making much noise about it (potentially even making some noise against it). Like everything else, there is the written rulebook and then there is the way things are actually done.

Business is competitive and if you're not taking every advantage you can, someone else is going to come in and eat your lunch. You have to be aggressive. That's hard to internalize (for me, it's taken multiple significant business failures), but it's crucially important to be successful. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there.

As for Google and SEO in general, every successful firm is at least "grey hat"; they're absolutely leveraging their portfolio as a "private blog network" (that is, a large, high-quality link ring) and otherwise regularly doing things that are borderline or off-book. If you grill them long enough, you can get close to having them admit this.

Google has been totally and completely gamed for years. You have to know that going in. If you're dependent on SEO, you're going to have to play the SEO games with all of their uncomely accouterments, or your business will lose out to someone else.

It's really that simple, and no one wants to admit it. All these people say these tactics only work for "a little while", but they're mostly wrong; unless you're being blatant, it seems to be quite easy to hide from Google's spam team.

The real thing here is that Google is ripe for disruption. Virtually every query you input is going to be based on someone's application of SEO strategies meant to trick Google instead of based on the ultimate relevance/quality of the content.

Buying links wasn't effective? That's like 80% of SEO if you have any sort of budget to work with.

I didn't buy links because they weren't SEO-legal, and because, to be honest, most people wanted an affiliate-style program to share the link. I tried to work that out with someone and they went dark and tried to launch a clone of our service (which failed after about a month) instead.

After that, I didn't spend much more time manually requesting links back. Whenever I did, I was always met with either no response at all or requests for money. Note that I was not really "link building" in the conventional SEO sense of emailing 1000 webmasters each week and getting 5 of them to add me back. I was just propositioning sites that I thought would have interested readers, under the naive assumption that they mostly wanted to be a useful resource to their readers.

I could've bought links in one of the various ways that's done: an SEO firm, a blackhat forum, etc., but I was naive and wanted to believe that word of mouth + social media + high-quality offerings and content would take us the rest of the way without making us a dirty "link buyer" who would surely get caught and destroyed by Google.

The competitor showed up and quickly demonstrated that none of that mattered (they actually didn't have any content at all, and ranked with about 4 pages total on their site). With a professional spam operation, you can rocket to the top pretty easily.

SEO does not work that well anymore, unless your budget, I suppose, is absolutely astronomical and you spend years and millions of dollars to build a brand http://greyenlightenment.com/seo-is-a-waste-of-time-and-mone...

Even though SEO does not work well, my advice is don't buy links from link brokers...they won't work, and such services are almost always a scam. The websites selling the links have inflated/useless metrics... Hiring an SEO agency also not worth it, unless you have millions of dollars. Any mid tier SEO service is almost is guaranteed to be a scam. They will bill you $2,000/month for links they buy for $200 that you can buy yourself.

Buying links off forums worked well in 2005-2007 before Google cracked down and removed the pagerank metrics.

Zillow can spend millions buying links to rank for all the real estate and mortgage keywords, because they have a blank check. Few have that privilege.

In 2005-2007 SEO was much easier..now all those techniques no longer work well.

The problem is google changed their algos to discount links from many sites (such as Reddit and elsewhere); second, they have put much more emphasis on domain-niche authority. That means, if you write a viral article about daytrading and it gets shared and voted thousands of time on a social media sites, it may temporarily get a good SEO boost for those competitive keywords, but then slide back to page 8 or so. A the old, established daytrading sites established news websites will outrank, due to authority.

unless your budget, I suppose, is absolutely astronomical and you spend years and millions of dollars to build a brand

In which case, you'd probably be better off using your budget to purchase placement from Google[1], which causes the ratchet to tighten.

The future of Google Search looks grim and portal-like.

1. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13915016

> SEO does not work that well anymore

A more accurate statement would be:

2005-2007 SEO does not work that well anymore.

What's the guide to 2017 SEO? As far as I can tell, it involves a) begging for links; b) buying links; c) gradually building your own private link ring of "content sites" so that you don't have to do a and b so much.

Outside of SEO, now popular is also fake social media profiles. What's the guidebook there to "Social Media Optimization" (I'm sure there's a real acronym for that by now), and how are Facebook/Twitter policing their datasets to prevent spam and fraud? afaict they're not, beyond basic anti-scraping methods like blocking anonymous proxies, etc.

Not trying to be aggressive, just really don't think that there is any reasonable way to do organic internet marketing anymore. It all boils down to either spam or advertisements. Spam (used broadly here to include astroturfing, PBNs, etc.) is the more effective solution by far, which means if you don't do it, you'll lose to the competitor who will.

I've come across SEO guys who insist they have the secrets to modern SEO, but on further inspection, they're just referring to using all of their clients' sites to link back to each other and insisting that they're the only ones who know how to do this.

It is true that an SEO firm's rate may be worthwhile if it buys you access to a well-governed link ring, but personally I'm skeptical of the abilities of anyone who has chosen to be involved in that type of career path. It's usually sales types who think they're good at computers, i.e., people who don't really have any idea what they're doing beyond convincing someone to pay them money.

>I've come across SEO guys who insist they have the secrets to modern SEO

If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.

My experience is that there's 3 things that work:

1. Write a lot. No matter how much research you do, you can't predict what will rank. You can increase the odds, but there are no guarantees. In the context of a software company (one of my previous jobs) do customer support and post in-depth answers to support questions. Write about users' success stories. Write about product features that might be hard to understand. Write about industry issues. Eventually you'll start to get some results. It's not an overnight thing.

2. Keep writing. If you think you're writing enough, you probably aren't.

3. Build relationships in you domain. Contact other companies serving the same audience who aren't your competitors. Post on message boards and Facebook groups without ever selling anything. Give away the most valuable thing you have: expert knowledge. People will read what you write and share/link to it.

I know it's much easier to just write the whole thing off as scams and hucksters, but good writing is what it's all about today.

I'll add a big caveat that there are MANY industries I don't know the landscape of. In the past, I've written in-house for largeish ecom and saas companies. Currently I work for an agency on a variety of clients, mostly smaller local businesses.

So if you throw enough at the shit at the wall, eventually something will stick, in the sense that someone will link to it. That hardly seems like a viable or repeatable "strategy" for increasing search rank.

My personal experience with this, after paying for months of professional content writing, is that you get a few people posting links on their zero-PageRank Wordpress blogs and you get a few people attempting to share links or spread the word, but over-aggressive forum admins have filters that automatically remove all off-domain hyperlinks, and, in some cases, openly-hostile admins will remove any link to or mention of anything that isn't their own site. One of the largest forums in our niche had this policy; if you didn't pay them $5k for an ad package, any mention of your site whatsoever would be removed. You also get competitors, often large ones, blatantly ripping/reskinning your content without giving any credit, and then everyone shares the link from the better-known source instead.

Google claims that good content is key, but what they mean is that "good content will get links, so links mean content is good, so we just count links".

The premise that links correlate with quality is no longer valid in 2017. People no longer puts links on the internet to content they like, at least not in the format that Google expects and/or is able to access. The simple fact is that Google is made for the web past, and that it doesn't work on the web as it stands.

Our competitor had only 2-3 publicly visible pages that informed on the mechanics of their service and provided 0 related content. We had a blog that featured new posts with updates that were relevant to the niche almost-daily, including fully original high-quality photo essays with abundant explanatory text. Despite this, with a little bit of spam voodoo, they blew us away on SEO in every non-long-tail keyword.

Pay for traffic and make it profitable. It's a more useful skill long term than playing the Google Black Box SEO Game.

We're working on that, in a marketplace usually one side is easy making traffic profitable, the other is much harder (asymmetric).

And this may explain why Google doesn't fix the problem. Not really in their best interest.

Can you report them to google?

Theoretically yes: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/spamreport?hl=en

No idea if it has any impact.

I bet part of the black hat SEO toolkit involves a distributed reporting of your competitors as spam using this exact link.

Yes I can, but I'm not sure if it helps.

Thanks for all the help!

well, did not Google said "Content is King" guess not. AGAIN.

Be happy to evaluate your site vs. the competitors and then give an opinion..

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