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SEO Today: We're All Gangstas Now

Marianne Sweeny

A few weeks ago, fellow contributor Paul Bliss wrote an article about why black hat SEO is awesome. It got me thinking that there is no winning in our current state.

Search engines dole out punishment indiscriminately either on a massive scale with massive algorithm changes (Panda, Hummingbird) or on an individual site basis with trial in absentia (Penguin). The search engines do not want any SEO beyond what they themselves develop. So, anything we do as a community is bad. Despite our best efforts, we’ve been wearing black hats all along.

I suggest that we divest ourselves of worry and embrace this gangsta status. 

We will be like Jay Z who applied what he learned as a low-level drug dealer in the projects to building a multinational entertainment conglomerate that spans sports, music, fashion and fragrance. It is time that we learn from our black hat brethren to develop SEO that will exploit search engine weaknesses for the benefit of our fellow searchers and our client interests. We will be Robin Hood with the search engines as Sheriffs of Nottingham.

It’s all black hat now

Black hat SEO is often described any non-search-engine sanctioned tactic to influence ranking. In essence, the search engines can do what they want, arbitrarily favor brands, obscure user data from site owners, manually demote sites for link infractions assigned in secret. The search engines maintain that they are in the best position to determine what is relevant to user queries. Well, that is one wide net to cast!

Playing "by the search engine rules" has reduced our influence and effectiveness. SEO is now in the position of waiting for the bell to ring so that we can all ask the search engines how high we should jump.

The SEO community is not to "optimize" sites in any way. Google decided that we don't get access to keyword phrase referral data because we do not need it and, oh, by the way, they are concerned for customer privacy.

So, I propose that we stop following the guidelines from the entity that has a vested interest in misleading us. Since the search engines see any optimization as "black hat," let’s all wear black.  Because, from the looks of it, this is what we have to do to make sure our clients and their users get what they need from search engines.

Be nimble, be quick

Competitive research supplements keyword research: Google claims there are trillions of URLs, with more coming online daily. There way too many sites to track individually. So, the search engines rely on competitors to do the monitoring for them. Gangsta SEOs elevate competitor research using SEMrush competitor placement information and side-by-side page analysis.

The best defense is a good offense: Gangsta SEOs defensively monitor link profiles for changes or anomalies that could be the result of negative SEO. Google is the poster child for the Law of Unintended Consequences by creating fertile ground for negative SEO ground with its Penguin updates.

Guest posting: I am with my black hat homie on this one: “… Matt’s entire little outburst proves that guest blogging is effective for gaming their SERPs, and that they can't do anything about it algorithmically (or they would have done so a long time ago)…”

Guest posts have been around since the birth of social. If a guest post is well-written, has links out to contextually relevant authority sites, and engages with its readers and passes Google’s algorithmic “sniff test,” who cares about its pedigree? If searchers decide (with their actions) that the post is quality content, then it is quality content. Right, Google?

Work with/learn about user experience (UX): I know what you’re saying: "More research???” or “Those UX nitwits give me the willies.” Gangsta SEOs work with whomever they have to work with to get the job done. Like it or not, UX designers are creating the experience that ranks. No longer can the SEO swoop in right before launch, sprinkle keywords here and there, carpet bomb pages with headings, “craft” <title> and meta descriptions, and call it a day. Page layout counts, conversions contribute and customer engagement with the page content rules. Get used to it!

Rehabilitate good old domain with good authority: Gangsta SEOs see a lot of potential in retired domains that have solid authority. Giving geezer websites another chance to satisfy searcher needs with relevant content is the right thing to do.

(OK, so this is directly from the black hat forums and exploits a big search engine weakness: inherent cheapness in the face of an exponentially growing Web.)

According to Eric Enge in his homage to Google on Search Engine Land, "Google Is Not Broken" indicates that Google has found over 100 trillion pages on the Web. That is one big police state to police. There’s no reason that those who want to recycle domains could not do so as long as it is in the interests of the common good. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

SEO has been static for too long

Today, we’re paying the price for coasting along on the trade winds of easy SEO, keyword “placement,” anchor link “optimization,” text formatting and other tools of our old trade. However, the longer we stay in that place, the more we will miss up ahead.

Google is pervasive, not omnipotent, smart yet without focus, massive and not agile. They serve up the Web and do not control it.

We, the people (and that includes us Gangstas) should control the Web. Not the algorithms or search engine companies with a monetary interest in selling ad clicks. Let's stop whinging, and just do it!

Author bio:

Marianne Sweeny is a Search Information Architect at Portent Inc. She is passionate about optimizing the user search experience on the Web or inside the enterprise firewall. Marianne’s last article for SEMrush was “SEO in 2014: Let Go and Let Google."

Like this post? Follow us on RSS and read more interesting posts:

Marianne Sweeny is VP of Internet Marketing for Strategic Edge Partners, a medical marketing agency. She is passionate about optimizing the user search experience on the Web or inside the enterprise firewall. Marianne’s most recent article for SEMrush was entitled: "SEOs, Guns & Religion."
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Greg Gillespie
Wow Marianne, you are a mind reader. I feel like this all the time and find it hard to articulate to non-seo types who are cast under the Google spell.

Glad to know there are other clear thinkers out there riding the range for the common man...and not THE man.
Justin McGill
Haha - great stuff. The headline had me hooked, I had to see how we related to "gangstas"!
Justin McGill
Hello Justin, I am doing my best to learn from my marketing colleagues. :) However, that is how I have been feeling as an SEO focused user experience professional for the last few years. It doesn't seem to be a matter of right or wrong for the user any longer with regard to search engines. Any attempt to influence ranking is seen by Google as manipulation and therefore bad. That seems to paint with a broad brush as we thought-processing bipeds are in a better position to understand relevance than an algorithm.
Kathleen Garvin
Justin McGill
Glad the headline roped you in, Justin. Thanks for reading!
Hi Marianne,

It's nice to see someone from a major site express viewpoints like this. I provide SEO services to local and national US clients. Hearing and watching the endless parade and evolution of Moz, SEL, SEJ, rhetoric about jumping through Google hoops and focusing exclusively on content, content, and more content paired with an untenable hope that the local plumber or shoe store will strike it rich with a viral campaign (and consequently buzz, links, and rankings) is tiresome. I'm sure so many of these people have good intentions, but quite frankly it reminds me of followers. The party line. Smells like BS.

First, for most small businesses that can afford $1000 / month at most and more often, $300 monthly, it's totally unrealistic to create strong content and social camnpaigns that will push massive rankings. We have to use shortcuts, like working with bloggers to get contextual links and other tools of the trade.

Second, I've heard for 2 years that keyword anchor text is dead and while I agree that it is totally dangerous and unpredictable, exact match KW anchors still play a significant roll in rankings - and I'm speaking from experience as of today.

I could write for days and days on this subject but I'll just say in closing that I hope to see some of those SEO's who now call themselves inbound marketers or content managers or whatever, start to have their bubble burst and realize it was a gigantic lie they told themselves about their "white hat supremacy" all along. At sometimes, the condescension even seemed morally motivated - like real seo is immoral. Like SEO is has anything to do with our souls.

Anyway - thank you.
Greetings Aaron
Thank you very much for your kind words and insightful comments. Information retrieval (search) has gone through a strange evolution and likely because the song is right and money changes everything. Google monetized search with keyword associated ads and there was no looking back after that. Goodness has come out of this.Search engines are "smarter" in their capacity to deliver contextually relevant results. The price we paid for this is that searchers have become lazier, accept without question Google's dominance and therefore promote an unfair landscape.

We're not done yet though. Smaller and niche sites have a great competitive advantage in their agility to meet the emerging interests of their customers. As the sun sets on the link-based relevance model, smaller sites no longer have to feel at a disadvantage because they do not have a gazillion links pointing to them. The price we pay for this is a realistic goal for ranking.

Now that the short-term tactics of keyword stuffing, relentless formatting, link buying are wearing thin, we must take the long view for our smaller and niche customers with focused and informative content that is part of a related content model that sees customers engaged and moving further into the site. If your plumber wants to rank for their services in their area, they must have content on the site to support ranking. It amazes me how often I ask a client for hat searches do they want to see their site and find out that many of the terms on the list they provide are not found anywhere on the site. Woody Allen was right that 80% of success is showing up.

And, if we want to dance to different tunes, we've got to support the other bands. I have not used Google as my default search engine for over a year. I start with Duck Duck Go, then Bing and then Google. 95% of the time, I don't need Google. Using competitor search engines enables their technology to "learn" from us in the same what that Google learned from our behavior.

Google trips us up with our semantics. They are correct that it is not possible for us to "optimize" the search engine. They do that (and well) with their relentless algorithm tinkering and tuning. Our job, as search professionals, is to know how search works and optimize the SITE and the CONTENT to achieve maximum visibility. Search engines are software. We are thought-processing bipeds with opposable thumbs. Game. Set. Match Us and well it should be.
Hive Digital, Inc.
Even Google is black hat now - but, of course, they don't get punished for it:
Hive Digital, Inc.
Yes, Russ. It is good to be king and make your own rules. :) The NYTimes has an excellent article, The Plus in Google Plus? It's Mostly for Google ( that further illuminates an uneven hand when it comes to the purity of relevance ranking.
Breaking the rules with the end user in mind...makes sense to me!
Thanks Elliot. It sadly makes sense to me also. This is the path that is left to us, the true user advocates, in the binary world of engineering.
Google should be more transparent so that the SEO Gangstas can “eat their own,” those who might ruin it for the rest of us. For some reason that methodology seems more in keeping with the intention behind the development of the Web, of TBL’s Magna Carta on its 25th anniversary and a novel change from corporate paternalism.
Thank you Marianne for stating the obvious, the emperor truly does have no clothes. So glad, like others reading here, that someone of your statue has the guts to tell it how it truly is. The Google mantra of "Don't Be Evil" seems to not apply to themselves, as we see the massive amounts of evil they have poured out on businesses decimated by their Penguin algorithm used by evil people with Negative SEO purposes on their minds, and Google don't do a thing about it. Don't start me on the Disavow Tool - what a joke, why not just disavow these links in the first place so no one has the boost or bust effect at all?. Awe, is that too hard for them to do? Come on don't they hire the best engineers on the planet and they can't figure out something that simple? Now I am starting to rant...
Greg Gillespie
Rants are good Greg. Every revolution started with a rant, the product of getting fired up mad. I do not see Google as evil so much as misguided in their paternalistic intent that we like the world they want us to want. Evgeny Morozov made the strong case for this in his recent book "To Save Everything, Click Here." The engineer culture survives on black and white, 1 and 0, good and bad. There is very little nuance allowed as that is too hard to code. Hence the unintended consequences that you reference, e.g. sites unfairly tagged with Penguin Penalty (such as our own As Monty Python famously said: "No one expected the Spanish Inquisition." And so it is with the Web, no one expected it to explode into trillions of pages that are impossible to control by any entity. The best that the brightest have come up with so far is to try to exert control with intimidation.
While not disagreeing with the general point, keep in mind Gangsta's eat their own. No one is safe when everyone goes rogue.

Google once had the mission to make the cesspool of the web into something that is navigable and easy to use. They accomplished this by establishing their rules.

Your post, and the comments, paints a picture of Google becoming too arrogant to stick to their own rules and that it has instead added senseless rules or at least self serving rules.

I would approach both of those assumptions with caution. First of all, because if either are true we are really left with a cesspool and either an incomprehensible system to get on the map or a system that rewards those who pay to get on the map.

I would like to think we are smart enough to see when an entity is providing their picture of the internet and not granting a view of the whole picture. We did survive AOL after all. Eventually Google will have to swing the pendulum back from their complete pursuit of avarice to their pursuit of making the best web possible or they will likely suffer the same fate as their willing replacement is reading to step in. And whether that be Amazon or Bing or some other player that has been underestimated all this while, it is a big web and it seems to cause clumsy giants to fall.
Points well taken Karl although you lost me at Google swinging the pendulum back to the pursuit of making the best Web possible. IMHO they believe that the can eat their cake and have it too, have the best Web because it makes them money. There is often the justification that the Web was a cesspool before Google's dominance. I'm not sure I buy that or Eric Schmidt's claim that emphasizing brands over other sites is the answer. It seems to me that some pretty large brands, and, were caught with their hands in the links cookie jar.

Maybe Google should be more transparent so that the SEO Gangstas can "eat their own," those who might ruin it for the rest of us. For some reason that methodology seems more in keeping with the intention behind the development of the Web, of TBL's Magna Carta on its 25th anniversary and a novel change from corporate paternalism from a company whose stock is trading at over $1000 a share.
Wow, that was controversial :)

I feel your frustration, but seeing as "pervasive" as Google still is, I think there's a lot to be said for trying to play by their rules. As far as I can see they aren't going away any time soon. My two cents. Looking forward to other comments.
Hello George - I don't mind playing by the rules as long as the rules make sense. However, over the last 4 years, Google has been laying down the rules as if this is one big game of CalvinBall (from Calvin & Hobbs). In a landscape where Google arbitrarily favors brands because brands are better, sometimes coloring outside of the search engines lines is the only remaining recourse for those of us who represent legit businesses that are not IBM.
Ahhh CalvinBall ... perfect analogy.

My thing is just this; if you are coloring outside the lines in Google's own coloring book, they're going to catch up with you eventually. Google lays down rules (which admittedly they break from time to time themselves) for ranking well in their own eco-system. They have that right, they built a tool that gradually gained favor over their competition.

I remember a time when I used IE and Yahoo. But now it's FireFox/Chrome/Chromium and Google. If someone can do a better job maybe one day I'll be using Opera and DuckDuckGo - but in the mean time I'm just saying I'd rather bet on putting for the effort to build a brand rather than try to exploit loopholes which they will not be ignorant of forever.

Still, great article ... good enough to get me to comment :)

Ball is in your court ;)
Hello George - I am so glad that my rant and rave inspired you to reach out as I enjoyed our conversation. You are correct that we cannot keep ahead of technology developments and changes and we'll never catch those algorithms, no matter how hard we try. Google puts out its FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt)to make up for its own inadequacies at indexing, let alone policing, a multi-trillion page Web. Many (if not most) of the instance of folks getting caught, e.g. JC Penny,, Rap Genius, are from competitors telling Google about the "crimes." Otherwise, Google relies on "fear of Google" to enforce its dictums. I am not advocating that our colleagues break the user trust in promoting their sites to search technology. I AM advocating that we stop taking direction from an entity that has a profit motive behind its advice and recommendations. I am advocating that we become more proactive engaging with users and with our colleagues in content and development to create great site experiences for people, by people and not for algorithms by algorithms.

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