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While most people argue that SEO is either white hat or black hat in reality much of it is more or less gray. In fact most people don’t even know when some technique ceases to be white and starts to be black. Some techniques considered by Google to be black hat are seen by people in the SEO industry as only gray. Why is there so much confusion whether a given technique is black, gray or white?

Well, the reason is simple, in spite of all so called transparency by Google the Google algorithm is top secret. Google may hint on forums or on private blogs that this or that tactic is not the best, as happened to paid links already in 2005 before they were officially “banned” by Google in late 2007 but most people won’t even notice.

Search engine contender Blekko in contrast openly shows its ranking factors below their search results. So it’s possible but Google tries to monopolize search and thus can’t be truly open about their inner workings.

Today I will present popular and a bit shady gray hat SEO tricks most SEOs use but don’t admit. I don’t condone them. Rather I despise these tactics as they make my work more difficult. I want you to know that they exist, why they work and why they are shady.

Paid links

I wanted to believe that so called paid links are gone or only get used by low quality sites these days. Sadly in reality I was wrong. Not only we had several high profile paid links scandals these year but I also found out that basically most of my new clients’ competition does use them in one way or the other.

I haven’t been doing much SERP analysis until lately as I was focusing on business blogging but now I have seen it with my own eyes again. Yes, paid links work. I know because the competing sites I’ve been checking were all ranking above my client. That’s why he was seeking my assistance. Why are paid links shady? Well, paying for links is like paying for sex and Google is like the church. Go figure.

Site networks

Most old school SEO practitioners have built up a so called network. It means a site network of websites that can link back to the SEO or its clients with a button click or at least easily as s/he controls all of these sites. Most big businesses and old media outlets practice this as well but when you do it it’s a shady SEO trick.

Of course Google doesn’t mind when you interconnect a few of your own sites but when you have 50, 500 or 500 sites it gets messy. Why is this technique shady? Well, links are meant to be an endorsement by other people. When you endorse yourself over and over something goes wrong. So unless your name is Rupert Murdoch or Yahoo this way of interlinking your site network is considered black hat.

Three way link exchange

Reciprocal links and link exchange has been the most widely used link building practice for years until Google made it more difficult devaluing such links in its algorithm. Webmasters adapted quickly by engaging in so called three way link exchange.

To some extent natural links are also reciprocal, just consider a journalist linking to your site and you linking to the article about your business. Of course some webmasters relied almost solely on link exchanges without getting any real links voluntarily from other people. So the era of reciprocal ended with an algo tweak by Google.

Then many moved on to three way link exchange. Site A links to site B and site C links to site A. Most people who offer you such a “three way” give you a link on a low quality C site while they want you to link to their main B site from your authority site A. So unless you are not an expert in SEO audits do not practice it.

Article spinning

To avoid duplicates when copying and distributing content many low level SEOs practice article spinning. It means they change the wording of a text slightly in order to get reused on another site. Ideally the meaning is preserved while the duplicate content filter doesn’t notice and the SEO gets lots of links from article directory type of sites who publish them.

Unfortunately or luckily Google has limited this shady practice with the recent high quality aka “Panda!” update. Low quality content sites have lost visibility by as much as 90 or more %. Yes, article directories are considered content farms as well. Now some people try to spin articles to publish them on “blogs”. I get emails offering me links on 1000+ blogs like these. I’ve taken a look at such an offer once and of course bounced from the blogs immediately. Who wants to read garbled gibberish?

Major media outlets republish news articles dozens of other sites already have published. Most news stem from a few sites like AP, Reuters or DPA. As long as your are big enough you can away with it.

Social Bookmarking

Many people who claim to do SEO still don’t know what social bookmarking is. From their point of view it’s just a way to get free links fast. Also they mix up Delicious-like social bookmarking, with social news like Reddit, social discovery like StumbleUpon or niche social news sites like BizSugar, Tip’d or SERPd. So the low quality SEO services provider “submits” your site to “x social bookmarking sites” all of the above mentioned among them. Of course all of them with the exception of Delicious perhaps consider this spam.

Using social bookmarking, social news and social networking for SEO purposes is perfectly legit but in case you submit your site there you are doing it wrong. It doesn’t have to automated to be spam. Even “manual social bookmarking services” from India are akin to spam, especially when the submission is done in poor English on your behalf. You have to encourage other users to bookmark your site or to spread it on social news and social networking sites instead.

Buying old domains

Shady SEOs buy old domains with some authority and backlinks and use them for completely unrelated content they either scrape or copy from elsewhere. Just recently when searching for [seo /date] on Blekko, the allegedly spam-free search engine, I’ve found at least a dozen sites with the same article about SEO. Most of them had domain names that had nothing to do with SEO at all.

Purchasing an old authority domains by itself is of course not a crime. When you start flooding the search engines with low quality off-topic content it of course is. You can buy an old domain and try to make it flourish in the same industry or business. Nobody will consider that shady.

So as I noted above it’s not just black and white when it comes to SEO. It depends on who you are, how big you are and how important your brand is. Also the level of bad publicity is key. When the New York Times reports about your paid links Google has to act. When a blogger like me reports about big brands and Google buying links nobody really cares.

Of course it’s your fault when Google penalizes your site. Also in most cases big brands blame the SEO company for the wrongdoing.

So be cautious when you really don’t like the sun and prefer the shady part of SEO. You’ll be surprised how many other people you’ll meet there in the shade but they won’t admit it openly of course. Just check your your top ranking competition’s links and you’ll see it.

* Image by Erick Nguyen.

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