Rand Fishkin Interview with a BlackHat SEO

Edit: This was also published on PRweb and was also posted to Moz, but they did a bait and switch by replacing the content with an interview about Aaron wall. Original Here. Bait and switch version here.

Article below for posterity

During a conversation at SeoChat™ about the types of promotional methods that are acceptable to use, Earl Grey (aka Mick), a self-proclaimed professional Search engine spammer (and operator of the Black Hat Syndk8 forums), and I (randfish) a self-proclaimed professional white-hat SEO, decided to have a public debate over the pros, cons and issues surrounding white-hat vs. black-hat optimization.

What follows is the text of eight back and forth e-mail dialogues that touch on many of the most contentious and important issues surrounding the ethics, practicality and financial issues of the two different styles of optimization techniques.

Both of us attempted to approach this without hostility or preconceived notions of the others point of view, and in the end achieved a great rapport. I hope that this dialogue can serve as an example of how people with radically opposing viewpoints can converse openly and without contention.

No Such Thing as Bad Publicity

Mick: I think there is no such thing as bad publicity at all. I come from a car sales background and when the company I worked for was prosecuted for underhand sales techniques we did more sales the next week than we had ever done. It was on the front page of the local newspapers and there was a small clip on a news report on local television showing the owner coming out of court. The power of Any advertising is a wonderful thing 🙂

The Risks of Spam

Rand: I have to agree with you from a publicity standpoint here, but that doesn’t translate to the use of black-hat techniques in SEO. When you’re called out by Google or Yahoo! or any search engine for spamming, you get no press, no traffic, nothing.

In my opinion, the risks of these types of techniques simply aren’t worth the small, short-term payoff. You can’t build a business, a website or even a consistent paycheck in the long-run with these types of tactics. That’s not to say there aren’t effective ways of using black-hat techniques to rank well, but the serious question you need to be asking is – am I building long-term value. If you aren’t, then what’s the point?

A quick $5,000 or even $20,000 every few months as websites jump into ranking positions for viagra-spam doesn’t carry nearly the value of a long-term, invested site that will rank well in the SERPs and generate steady income, along with greater and greater opportunity 3, 5, 10 or 20 years from now. I generally see black-hat as a very interesting way to ensure that the search engines stay on their respective toes, not as a well-thought-out business model.

Profit & Traffic Numbers from a Spam Site & Chart of Spam Site Performance

Mick: First part I will educate you on 🙂

“I have to agree with you from a publicity standpoint here, but that doesn’t translate to the use of black-hat techniques in SEO. When you’re called out by Google or Yahoo! or any search engine for spamming, you get no press, no traffic, nothing.”

This is wrong. Due the fact there is so many scrapers taking text from your sites and links to build their sites a standalone website that has been banned from all the search engines can bring a reasonable amount of traffic.

Press. I had never heard of Syndic8 before it was caught out gaming google and everybody started talking about it. This headline will stick in my mind for a long time “Syndic8 gets Wiped by Google – WordPress Style | Threadwatch.org”.

You very rarely get banned by all three at once so if google drops you there is msn and yahoo to bring traffic.

A banned site still has value until no search engine will touch it and then its time to unhost it and just let go of the $4 you paid for it. Let me give you an statistical example.

A brand new site generated by TrafficEqualizer. This site was a free sub domain on free hosting. So cost so far $0 and 2 hours of my time building it and 5 minutes to get a few inbound links. Thanks to all those nice people that still have guest books and allow comments on their blogs.

Chart of Spam Site’s Unique Visitors

Friday 15th April 200511
Saturday 16th April 2005165
Sunday 17th April 20051045
Monday 18th April 20052309
Tuesday 19th April 20052692
Wednesday 20th April 20052678
Thursday 21st April 20052681
Friday 22nd April 20052308
Saturday 23rd April 20051927
Sunday 24th April 20051888
Monday 25th April 20052681
Tuesday 26th April 20053061
Wednesday 27th April 20052878
Thursday 28th April 20051814
Friday 29th April 20058654
Saturday 30th April 20051552
Sunday 1st May 20051259
Monday 2nd May 20051725
Tuesday 3rd May 20052413
Wednesday 4th May 20052550
Thursday 5th May 20052497
Friday 6th May 20052129
Saturday 7th May 20051527
Sunday 8th May 20051732
Monday 9th May 20052808
Tuesday 10th May 20052822
Wednesday 11th May 20052677
Thursday 12th May 20052506
Friday 13th May 20052328
Saturday 14th May 20051939
Sunday 15th May 20051851
Monday 16th May 20053471
Tuesday 17th May 20053294
Wednesday 18th May 20053310
Thursday 19th May 20052926
Friday 20th May 20052613
Saturday 21st May 20052177
Sunday 22nd May 20052815
Monday 23rd May 20054877
Tuesday 24th May 20051895
Wednesday 25th May 200524
Thursday 26th May 200565
Friday 27th May 200515
Saturday 28th May 200525
Sunday 29th May 200521
Monday 30th May 200534
Tuesday 31st May 200538
Wednesday 1st June 200542
Thursday 2nd June 200544
Friday 3rd June 200547
Saturday 4th June 200515
Sunday 5th June 200531
Monday 6th June 200520
Tuesday 7th June 200534

So if you look at the peak – Friday 29th April 2005 – 8,654.

Nearly 9000 uniques from one site that took 2 hours to build and I uploaded it while I was in bed. That’s with no stock, no staff, no enquiry’s and no overheads. I am sure you can guess who provided the advertisement revenue for that site.

That site earned just under $2000 in its very short life. $1000 per hour I think that’s OK.

Beats the hell out of waiting for the sandbox to release me after a year or so. Yes , short term but the income starts a few days after the site is launched so its immediate.

Rand: In my opinion, the risks of these types of techniques simply aren’t worth the small, short-term payoff. You can’t build a business, a website or even a consistent paycheck in the long-run with these types of tactics. That’s not to say there aren’t effective ways of using black-hat techniques to rank well, but the serious question you need to be asking is – am I building long-term value. If you aren’t, then what’s the point?

Mick: Small short term payoff. Yes but there are multiple payoffs. If it takes 2 hours to build a 30`000 page scraper site you can do 3 or 4 or even more in one day.

The `experienced` search engine spammer or black hat will not just have one site waiting for a payoff they may have 100 – 200 – 500 or even 1000. So the short term payoff ends and starts every day.

I often see people moaning about how their computer generated site was banned and when you dig a bit further you find out they built two and expected long term results and even started trying to build real links to them.

Do the math. A site earns $500 for every hour you put into it and you work 10 hours a day with regular breaks. If you have 4 coming online every day and 3 getting banned a day you don’t have to work very long to get ahead of the game and your income to go up exponentially.

I would say that was a pretty good business model and a very profitable one.

So what if there is an update like the cognac. Out of the 500 sites you have you are not going to lose them all.

So long term business model ,, yes. Short fast term income .. yes. Fun? oh yes.

I built a site for my girlfriend using only white hat legitimate techniques. Can you believe after four days it hadn’t even paid for the domain name and didn’t even earned one cent? Boring. Its ok because I did a few things and now it is earning plenty. The legitimate techniques soon went out of the window when I remembered how little they earn until I get you get the ranking over time.

So what is the alternative? How do I use white hat techniques to earn me $1000 next week from a
brand new site? If I just concentrate on 2 or 3 good ethical sites and the search engines decide they don’t like them and lower the ranking overnight how do I feed my family?

How White Hat Pays Off in the Long Run

Rand: Mick, You make some excellent points about the profitability and effort required to generate a good amount of capital. I have to concede that as far as business models go, this one is not too shabby in the current environment.

However, let’s imagine an equally experienced, wily and bright white-hat optimizer, who targets a somewhat competitive niche like legal consulting for health care cases in New York.

In the short term, there will be hours and hours of work with little pay-off. Perhaps the consultant will get a few jobs here and there at a few hundred dollars an hour, they’ll even get a few noteworthy cases and have more material and clout to write about.

The difference really shows up in 10 years, when subsistence spamming is no longer effective (or not as effective). Let’s just imagine that in 10 years, it’s only 1/10th as effective and profitable to spam.
This seems fair as no market like the one you describe can exist forever without thousands rushing into it (as they are now). Competition will heat up, search engines will get smarter, and the effort necessary to do as well as your optimally described situation will decrease.

In 10 years, we have a spammer who’s putting in 40 productive hours a week might still be earning $500-$1000 per week. The math you’d use to say that only 2 hours is necessary per site is somewhat wrong, as one needs to research each new area, watch for changes in the search engines’ policies, check e-mail, make calls, and a thousand other things a business requires to run.

But, if we look at the white-hat, who started a legal/health-care consulting site all those years ago, we’d see a person with a virtual corner on the market. Links, as we know, tend to go to those at the top of the SERPs. 10 years from now, that massively increased competition and incredible depth and breadth of links will be benefiting our white-hatter, who’s been building them up, along with fantastic content, for 10 years.

It doesn’t really come down to unknown math equations about how much a spammer or a white-hatter MIGHT be earning in 3,5, 10 years. It comes down to a difference in business philosophy. Should I sell my seeds for $50 each right now, or should I invest my seeds in growing plants that will produce ever-increasing returns over my entire life?

The white-hat philosophy is fundamentally opposed to the churn-and-burn attack because of the great loss that is experienced over time. Your hours and hours spent making sites, creating bogus content, finding the next great way to spam are always going to be the target of the search engines, the bane of searchers and will never bring you long-term credibility, recognition, or visitors. The white-hat who builds smart, long and hard will have an enviable body of work in years to come – a body of work that doesn’t blow in the
wind, but continues to reap ever-increasing rewards.

I don’t disagree that a black hat can make more money than a white hat in the short term, but if stability and investment are your goals, white-hat is for you. Personally, I’m excited about having sites that will create wealth in the long term, and excited about the prohibitive of one of those properties becoming something truly amazing – an enormous resource that spawns an entire company made up of dozens of
employees and generating millions in revenues each year. With black-hat, that opportunity never exists.

Money in the Bank is Better

Mick: What you describe as your opinion of a good business model is a business model I would consider a living nightmare.

Ten years of solid optimization to end up with employees, buildings for them to work in and rent rates wages and overheads. Wow that would be terrible.

Give me a laptop and a DSL connection any day over all that hassle. I will sit on a balcony in the sun churning my spammy pages out all day long.

The www as it is was really formed from what I understand, was when the people used to post one message to a bulletin board. As you will know they then connected the messages together and made the basis of a web page. There was profitable bulletin board spamming then and there is search engine spam now. To say the search engines will stop it is in my opinion a nice dream for the people who don’t profit from the spam but not something that will ever happen. Over the next ten years the search engine algorithms will evolve like they have over the past 25 years before they were called search engines. How will they stop search engine spam in the next ten years when they haven’t managed in the last 25?

Search engines will become bigger and smarter and the search engine spammer will also evolve.

I don’t know when the first spam email was sent but I still get lots of them. As the mail filters become better the mail spammers become better.

We will grow together in unison. The content generators are becoming smarter and the people that build them have the same skills as the ones that work for the search engine companies.

I couldn’t care less about stability and long term income. I know I will get a long term income from the web because as long as people have guestbooks and blogs as an open invitation for me I will spam them.

Lets look at this from a much wider perspective. There is a `white hat` and `black hat` divide. People say that its stupid to label these names. I personally like it.

Lets step out of our little comfortable lives here and jump into another world.

The world of a Romanian or a Bulgarian. The average wage of a Romanian is as I understand it $300 a month. Yes,, about what I spent on the chair I am sitting in. For them to buy a website and be a black hat for 2 months is probably enough for them to live on for 5 years. Problem is , how do you spend your entire income on setting up a website when you need the money for food and rent.

They can get themselves some free hosting and go down to an internet cafe and pay for 1 hour connection. In that one hour they can do enough guestbook spamming and blog spamming to get some income from their website to buy a real site or to buy more food.

For somebody in that position to spend 8 hours a day getting backlinks for their site is not an option. There is more to this than meets the eye. Would you look badly towards the guy that took the initiative to spend the few `Euros` that he can scrape together on one hours connection to earn a months wages?

There are professional black hats which I would consider myself to be as I chose to go for the fast income due to finding the `normal way` a bit boring and there are people who can only take that path due to time constraints. If you look at the demographics of where a lot of the blog spam comes from you can also link it with a low income country.

Those seeds you mentioned. In mozambique they need to eat the seeds they should be planting to grow crops or they will die of starvation. Short term yes but they get to live another day.

I just cannot be bothered planting the seeds and waiting for them to grow. I would be looking at them every day wondering why they weren’t growing faster. I would want to harvest them a few days after they are planted and sell them because until you have the money in the bank you haven’t made any money.

The long term strategy is all very nice. But its not money in the bank. It is investing in yourself and your future. But it is not money in the bank. It is reasonably secure and very good strategy. But it is not money in the bank.

I was once a shares trader. I bought, sold and reinvested. I had a nice big portfolio and the stock market was on the rise. But it was on paper and not money in the bank. I kept investing and on paper I had lots and lots of money. I could do no wrong. But low, sell very high. Whatever I would touch would just keep on rising.

And then came the day. The day my world fell apart. All the shares that I had bought for 10cents and had gone to $1 + suddenly went down to 1cent. I was wiped out in one afternoon.

What was my error? It wasn’t money in the bank.

If the search engines change as much as we think they might is there any point going for the number one listing 10 years from now? What about the ones that have top listing for the sex words? When the .xxx domain comes out from what I hear eventually all adult content will have to be on them or browsers wont recognize it. What about the guy that fought for years for sex.com ? It is rumored that it will become a redundant domain and will have to become sex.xxx What about the guys that have spent years ranking for the sex terms and will have to start over again with a new domain just so people can view their sites?

There are some evil and despicable people that cheated their way to a fortune in the early days of the internet through porn and now just live on the money they made. They got in when the money was easy and got out when the money became harder. The ones that hung around and worked on their sites are the ones that will lose out in the long term if it is true what I read.

Long term strategy? Keep it short term & fast cash? Money in the bank!

White Hat vs. Black Hat is a Lifestyle Choice

Rand: Mick, I see where you’re taking this, and I completely understand. I’m not saying that there aren’t those who have a righteous claim to their spamming. I’m not even suggesting that spamming is immoral or unethical – at least, no more so than using a tax loophole or exploiting a gap in the currency trade. Calling someone a spammer is no insult, in my opinion – it’s simply a way to make money off the gaps in search engine technology. I believe we can agree that spamming is not even as unethical (for many) as stealing bread so you don’t go hungry. No laws are being broken, no one’s being hurt, and the Internet certainly can suffer a few more clicks of the back button by an annoyed user. If you need to spam and you’re aware of the risks and consequences, I won’t dissuade you from it. It’s my feeling, however, that you need to go into it with your eyes wide open about the long and short term risks and potentials.

There are a few other issues I’d like to discuss about our other topics.

Search engine technology has not been around for 25 years. 25 years is how long IR has been around, but before 1995, it really had no medium like the www. There were no commercial interests, no spammers, no desire for any page to be ranked higher than another unless it was more relevant. The www changed that and so for all intents and purposes, it’s inaccurate to use the figure of 25 years – we’ve only had 10 years of commercial, web search technology development.

In that time, search algorithms have become impressively advanced and if we were to see anything like the refinement and sophistication we’ve seen over the last 10 years in the next 10, I’d be scared to be a spammer. It’s not that I disagree about the fundamentals – there will always be ways to spam and scam. But, it will be more and more difficult to do so, require greater knowledge, expertise, attention, devotion and time. The same will be true of white-hat optimization – everything will grow in competitiveness over time. However, if it were up to me, I’d rather be spending my time building a long-term business and a website that will be exactly what the search engines will want to rank well for years to come (and one that will get plenty of traffic independently of search engines, too).

The real question is… with both options available to you, which hat do you choose?

If I need $2000 right now to keep my house, I’ll spam. But, if I want a successful company with a potential for a six-figure income, stable income sources and a thriving company, I’ll choose white-hat. That, I think we both agree on, too.

One big issue at stake here is getting people who think they’re building the latter (or want to be) educated about why the former’s techniques shouldn’t appeal to them. The un savvy webmasters and business owners of the world have no reason to spam unless that is their intent, and yet thousands of them do, often unwittingly, but many times because they don’t know it will hurt them. This is an issue close to my heart and one that upsets me, because so many are confused about it. I’d like to see greater openness about spam, so that we can better educate a very un-savvy population. Keeping the subject in the dark and treating it like a heroin habit isn’t healthy for anyone.

As for your dream of a laptop and a few hours of work per day to maintain your living, white hat can accomplish this too. You don’t need to run a corporate office or grow into something bigger than you want. A great, white-hat site in a specific niche needs only an hour or two of great content development a day to remain at the top of the SERPs once you’re there. After all, once you build it, optimize it and get to the top, the links roll in naturally and the search engines begin to be less and less important, because you’re getting visitors from type-ins, bookmarks, links and even offline referrals. Great sites build their own market, and if you only want to throw a few hours a day at your site, white-hat can be for you too.

There’s a lot of advantages to white-hat that black just can’t compete with, and a few that black-hat has that white can’t. However, for my style of life, work, ethics and security, white is the best choice for me.

What do You Want out of the Internet

Mick: This is now really a question of what you want to get out of the internet like any other business. Where some people would strive to build a long term income from one business selling a product offline and others would get in on any new thing going. I would and have jumped from one business to the other taking as much money as possible from each one. In the uk there was a craze for selling spray on coatings for walls and it was very profitable till trading standards got involved and closed the companies down.

So all the people involved in spray coatings moved to selling electric beds for old people.

You can either stay in one business and keep working it or you can jump from one business to the next taking as much money as you can out of each.

You are right about the www starting 10 years ago and I really haven’t looked into all that so I will go with exactly what you have said.

I will always take the short fast income over the longer term income. If I look at one site for too long I go mad and get bored. It is probably more of a personality thing. I like to stick with things for a short time and move on and some people like consistency.

Consistency is boring. Meetings with clients is boring. Phone calls to customers are boring.

I was doing some white had link building the other day and there was no fun just boredom. In the long term this is probably not the best strategy but its all down to what you like. I still think that a search engine algorithm can not outsmart a person because its people that create those algorithms.

Can man beat machine? Yes because man programs machine.

Man will always beat machine because there will always be someone smarter than the one that built the machine in the first place. Wherever there is machines there is loopholes to exploit.

It is easy at the moment to get a fast income from a spammy site and just keep duplicating that so the newbies can get in straight way and make money. As the search engines become smarter it will become harder but for the experienced person will just become smarter with evolution. Its the `long time` and hard work in your sentences that put the fear of god in me. Whenever I see those words in once sentence I cringe.

I don’t like long term consistency and find that a bad motivator. What motivates me is the fact that I may have no money the next day. Everybody has different work ethics and this is something I like about the web. Most of the spammers and deviants I know will make 10k and blow the lot straight away on a new car or a holiday. Same as pressure salespeople. The motivation to sell is a lot stronger when they have no money. They work through the night and get up late in the day. That is their motivation and that the fact that when they have spent their money they need to go and make some more.

I hope it does get harder to cheat the search engines because that will sort the wheat from the chaff and leave me more room to take a bigger market share. It all comes down to what you want. I will agree with you 100% that white hat is `better` in the long run. Until you get a black hat taking over the serps that you have worked so long for.

Final Q+A on Ethics, Demographics & More

Rand: I absolutely agree that the primary disagreement is about the type of business model and business culture/lifestyle one is seeking in life. However, I have some other questions about your motivations and intent over the long term:

Are your life goals in tune with your business model? In other words, are you someone who is adaptive enough in terms of the money you need and save each month that you can survive lean times if you’re
forced to seek another outlet if, for example, search engines stopped recognizing blog & guestbook links entirely?

Mick: I personally live a very frugal existence due to spending way to much time on a computer. Tough times don’t last but tough people do so I can take whatever the search engines throw at me.

Rand: Does it upset you that you rely on the search engines for your living? I know that as a white-hat, my ultimate goal is to have only a fraction of my traffic arriving from the SEs, while the rest come from
referral links, type-ins and bookmarks. In other words, to become a Slashdot or Amazon or Wikipedia – a resource that’s known outside the search engines.

Mick: I suppose it would be nice to have a Slashdot type of site but I get bored of working on one site for too long so if I did aim for a site like that it would just fall into neglect. I do have the odd lame white hat site and I am working on at the moment. Due to it being a music site the perfect way to advertise it by putting posters outside gigs in the town center. Works quite well but is very boring.

Rand: As the industry gets progressively more difficult for search spammers, do you ever become concerned that one of your fellow black-hatters will turn on the industry, work with the search engines,
expose all the best techniques and ruin much of the game?

Mick: I think the search engines are getting worse for everybody. When I browse ’round forums and see the multitude of `my site has dropped` and I am `sandboxed` I thank myself that I am not trying to do things the hard way. Some of the most devious and manipulative people already work for the search engines and also own them so I would think it was the other way round. I bet the search engines are worried that if ever one of their employees left their fold to join the black hats they would be more concerned than the other way round.

Rand: Do you think of spamming as generally a young person’s industry? It sounds like the kind of field where those without much to risk can do well, but once you have a mortgage, wife/husband, kids, dog, etc this becomes less viable.

Mick: Not a young persons game at all. Yes, there probably will be more young people involved because the children now grow up computer literate with Windows XP and 1 gig of ram whereas I grew up with a 1k ram zx81 so I was 20+ before you could really do anything with a home computer. Many of people in the Syndk8.net forums have a wife and children so I would say it is ideal for any age.

Rand: I want to talk about the morality and ethics of spam. There are certainly many in the search engine industry who feel that search spammers are on par with e-mail spammers and should suffer the same
legal penalties and black sheep status as these people. Do you think there’s a separation between e-mail spam and search engine spam? What is it? Is there a moral line that even you won’t cross? Ranking porn
for Barney searches?

Mick: The ethics is a nice topic that causes a lot of people to suddenly become moralistic and start preaching about right and wrong. What’s right is what works for the individual and what’s wrong is that people take a moral stance and knock other people. I don’t really care about what other people do and live and let live so I don’t see why they complain about whatever other people do.