The Secret Life Of The Black Hat SEO

The black hat SEO flies under the radar. He doesn’t want to attract too much attention — he knows attention brings bad things. Essentially he lives in the shadows. He doesn’t speak at conferences. He doesn’t publish articles. He hangs out with other black hats at conferences and road trips.

In my opinion, an affiliate-oriented conference like Pubcon or Affiliate Summit is much more up his alley than traditional search marketing conferences like SMX West. Regardless of the conference, the real intel is obtained via networking — especially when booze is involved. No black hat is stupid enough to share their secrets in public.

The black hat SEO believes a healthy dose of paranoia is an essential ingredient to black hat longevity. He thinks trusting Google with your email, documents, or analytics is insane. When he approaches a Google employee to ask a question at a conference, he makes sure his badge is turned over.

The black hat SEO is the king of offshoring. Whether it’s programmers from Russia, Latvia, the Ukraine, or content creators from the Philippines, he knows how to create leverage and do it on the cheap.

In actuality, the life of the black hat SEO isn’t all that glamorous or exciting. He’s not a jetsetter; you won’t bump into him in Monte Carlo. Certainly he’s making a good living, building wealth, and taking care of his family. With that comes a definite sense of satisfaction, comfort and freedom. But he doesn’t see himself as some sort of 007 secret agent.

The black hatter is the ultimate pragmatist. He doesn’t concern himself with the ethics of spamming. He sees Google for what it really is — a global corporation looking to maximize its profits and its return to shareholders. Google Inc. isn’t the government — their “guidelines” are driven by profit motives not by ethics or by the rule of law.

The black hatter focuses on what drives the bottom line. If email spamming drives the bottom line, they’ll very likely partake in that too. And, of course, the focus is on what works. Everything needs to be field tested. You don’t just rely on what somebody’s word.

Cost-benefit analysis underpins all activities. It could be an unsustainable tactic that burns the site to the ground within weeks, and that can be totally fine if the ROI is there. Many of the black hat tactics are short-lived, but yet many work long-term.

What are the tactics of the black hatter? Well, if I told you I’d have to kill you. Seriously though, do you think a black hatter would actually list them all out for me to publish in an article that Googlers are going to read?

Still, several black hatters were accommodating enough to give me a few teasers at least, but careful enough not to give the farm away in the process. Here are a few of their dirty little tricks:

  1. Hacking .EDU sites for links: Hiring Russian and Ukrainian hackers to gain access to EDU sites for link building purposes.
  2. .EDU alumni account identity theft: Hijacking existing alumni accounts or setting up new alumni accounts by creating fake online personas based on resumes, FaceBook, LinkedIn, and other info gained using social engineering.
  3. Aggressive link reclamation (i.e. link hijacking): Identifying noncommercial .COM sites with powerful link profiles that don’t have .ORGs registered, setting up .ORG clones and contacting their link sources asking them to update links from .com to .org, claiming you’ve moved.
  4. Building/buying links to competitors: Attacking the competitors trust and authority with bad links — from poisoned link networks, or by building thousands of nasty footer and comment spam links to the competitor’s site with the same optimized anchor text.
  5. Gaming Google Suggest: Stacking Google’s search box auto-complete for your competitor names with such unsavory suggestions as “[Competitor name] scam”
  6. Submitting fake consumer complaints: Ranting about competitors on — it’s very difficult for the competitor to get these removed.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO


About The Author: is the author of Google Power Search, creator of the Science of SEO and co-author of The Art of SEO now in its second edition, both published by O'Reilly. Spencer is also the founder of Netconcepts and inventor of the SEO technology platform GravityStream. He also blogs on his own site, Stephan Spencer's Scatterings.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn


Get all the top search stories emailed daily!  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. Comments may also be removed if they are posted from anonymous accounts. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • Nick Oltvoort

    Woow options 4,5,6 are really nasty!

  • Myron Rosmarin

    Thank you for posting these Stephan. It would be great if this became one of your signature series columns. I think it’s especially valuable to the white hat community to be aware of these tactics. I’m continually amazed at the creativity and cleverness used by black hatters. If only they’d use their powers for good.

  • firestorm

    Outbound links to bad neighborhoods will and should hurt a domain. But, I don’t think that incoming links from bad neighborhoods can harm you as far as Google is concerned. I’ve been to a few of the conferences, both Pubcon’s (and met some unsavory characters), SES and SMX. I’ve heard Google say they do NOT count income links from bad neighborhoods against you.
    It’s just too easy to do. Join a link farm and ruin your competitors domain. I don’t know how Yahoo/Bing, Ask, … deal with it, but a decent search engine should know better.

  • Shawn Collins

    Stephan – so black hats are into affiliate marketing, but not white hats?

    I don’t follow your theory that black hats are more likely to go to Pubcon or Affiliate Summit.

  • streko

    This is the most uneducated finger pointing post I have ever seen on this blog.

    “An affiliate-oriented conference like Pubcon or Affiliate Summit is much more up his alley than traditional search marketing conferences like SMX West. Regardless of the conference, the real intel is obtained via networking — especially when booze is involved. No black hat is stupid enough to share their secrets in public.”

    With a link to register to SMX. Can the ass kissing be any harder?

  • Rae Hoffman-Dolan

    Agreed Shawn. As a matter of fact, I’ve repeatedly remarked that I was shocked at how few SEO people – period – attend Affiliate Summit. It seemed to me that the large majority of folks I met did their affiliate marketing via PPC. SEO seems to be a minority method of attendees (not said in a bad way). Those who attending the SEO clinic I spoke on were actually looking for ways to make their affiliate datafeed sites add extra value. I’m not saying there were no blackhats there, I’m saying they certainly weren’t the majority or even a noticeable group of the people “into SEO” that I personally came across.

    As for PubCon, I completely agree there is a difference in attendees, much like there is a difference between PubCon and SES. Additionally, remember that PubCon sprouted from a gathering of WebmasterWorld members and I believe it has a different feel as a result – and always will to a lot of early starters in this business.

    I don’t think blackhats “live in the shadows” LOL… I think those who are public know what to say and not to say. Those who are private (like tons and tons and tons of whitehats) are because they have no interest, need or “happened to fall into it” regarding the limelight.

    Until you got to the shady tips, frankly, your article sounded like “the secret life of the good SEO who isn’t seeking to redeem his high school years by being SEO famous.” My two cents. :)

  • Stephan Spencer

    @firestorm, Sometimes what Google says is not what happens in the real world. That’s the case with acquiring bad inbound links for a competitor. If the site doesn’t have strong enough domain authority to withstand the attack, the black hatter can hurt the site with poisoned links. I know black hatters who use this technique successfully time and time again. It works. They told me of at least one tool they use to do this (but I wasn’t allowed to mention it in this article). Another case in point of what Google says not happening in the real world: their recent post ( on the Google Webmaster Central Blog about H1 tags.

    @Shawn Collins, Hi, thanks for stopping by! See you soon at Affiliate Summit! it’s not a theory just anecdotal reporting based on interviewing some black hats for this article. My sources also listed several other conferences they asked me not to mention in this article. Of course white hats are into affiliate marketing too. Affiliate-oriented conferences tend to look like safer venues to black hatters than traditional search conferences. They don’t like conferences where Googlers are everywhere.

  • Shawn Collins

    Hi Stephan -

    I’ve got to say it sounds more like conjecture than anything, and it comes off as something of an infomercial for SMX West.

    Oh well.

    I’d be happy to provide you with a pass, so you can see what really happens at Affiliate Summit.

  • Bofu2U

    I would really appreciate it if you would do a tad bit more research into the subject before you make a post about it.

    There’s a HUGE difference between Blackhats and Blackhat SEO’s. Much like how there’s a difference between Blackhat’s that do SEO, and Blackhat SEO’s. They are COMPLETELY different in all ways except the mentality on how to game a system.

    I would NEVER hack ANYTHING for links. Everything I do is 100% legal. But I will sure as hell automate link building. 90% of what you’ve said is about Blackhat’s that do SEO, not Blackhat SEO’s.

    My “enemy” per-se is Google, not the law. That’s the difference. But then again, what do I know?

    And I’ll stick with Shawn Collins on everything he suggested. I’ll continue to attend Affiliate Summit, but eventually I’m sure I’ll get around to an SMX if it looks more my style. (Judging by this line I bet my comment won’t get accepted).

    Oh, and Happy Holidays! :)

  • kingofsp

    I think the reality is that the attendees at aff summit are just a little bit more badass. I don’t do anything illegal when it comes to my marketing techniques, but I have no reservations whatsoever about manipulating search engine results by utilizing my various forms of internet trickery. It has nothing to do with ethics, it has everything to do with innovation, IMO.

    Although I would like to get out to other conferences, Affiliate Summit will always be on my calendar.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Catching up to comments here. Sorry, been tried up with a variety of things as the holidays have approached.

    First, we say this at the end of every column:

    “Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.”

    So Stephan’s assessment in terms of conferences and attendance is his opinion, not that of Search Engine Land. I’ve added “In my opinion” to the opening of his second paragraph, to stress this.

    Next, both Affiliate Summit and PubCon are great conferences. I haven’t been to an AS show, but I know they have an excellent reputation, and we’ve done some cross promotion in the past. I haven’t been to PubCon recently, but it also has an excellent reputation as being a good show. We regularly run recaps of live blogging and other coverage out of PubCon events. By no means would I say that either show is only for black hats or somehow overly focused on black hat content.

    Shawn, I understand you being sensitive, but alternatively, you could argue that this comes off as an infomercial for shows other than SMX West, because it implies all the “good stuff” — for those who assume black hat tactics are the good stuff — are happening elsewhere. I think how you take what Stephan wrote really comes down to your particular viewpoint, which might be much different than his intention.

    Streko, Stephan didn’t link to the SMX West registration page. He linked to the main site, just as he did for PubCon and Affiliate Summit. I think it makes sense for there to be links to all those things. I also think, again, you’re reading his comments as finger-pointing perhaps (I’m guessing) you Pubcon felt Pubcon was being dissed and are feeling protective of it. I appreciate that. I didn’t read it that way at all, but that was my take.

    I can tell you that ever since we had this big fall-out from SMX Advanced 2008, where the Give It Up session and some other sessions were seen as too “black hat”

    I’ve been particularly sensitive to any content on stage that would be seen as promoting black hat.

    When I read the write-up of the “Rogue SEO” session that just happened at PubCon:

    I immediately wondered if we’d have run the same thing at SMX if we’d have had the kind of upset that emerged after Advanced 2008. The whole experience from that left me pretty gunshy about being able to discuss blackhat stuff at all.

    And that’s the bigger issue in all this. I’m not pointing fingers at PubCon for running that session, absolutely not. I’m just struggling with how we can discuss black hat tactics at any conference without the inevitable debate about (1) you’re just promoting black hat (2) there is no black hat, all SEO is manipulation (3) add your own debate topic, because there’s always one.

    I don’t care how white someone thinks their hat is. It is useful to understand what happens in the black hat world. Things like Mechanical Turk are being totally abused right now, which has an impact on Google Suggest (as Stephan is covering), and an advanced SEO should know what’s going on. That doesn’t mean they should follow those tactics. But it does mean they are educated about what can happen.

    So with Stephan’s column, I like it here on Search Engine Land because I think eyes continue to need to be opened. Personally, I’m not advocating that people follow these black hat tactics. In terms of the site (as well as SMX), we advocate white hat tactics because we think it is a successful strategy for most people (and most of our target audience, which continues to grow in the In House space) overall. Plus, personally, that’s just where I fall on the side of things.

    In terms of conferences, I think they should all be allowed to discuss these types of things in appropriate manners.

    As for anyone who really wants to learn black hat tactics, no public conference is going to give you that. You discuss something on stage, it suddenly becomes dead. As for those hallway discussions, they happen at every conference. And you’ve got small, select conferences, as well. But even those tactics that everyone assumes are super secret might actually be known to Google.

  • Thao Tran

    Danny, I believe what Streko was talking about is at the end of the post where the link to SMX West’s sign up page said “register today.”

    Stephan, you’re a very brave man to post something like this. I must say though, I don’t practice blackhat seo but I wouldn’t even trust Google with my email, docs or analytics either.

  • Seo Queen

    It seems that those days have gone passed when we can get to the top of search engined only doing white hat SEO. Now we have to also work on some Black Hat techniques because of so much competition

  • Webmaster T

    Interviews were done? I’m skeptical cuz a sizeable portiont of the blackhat activity mentioned is illegal. For instance hacking accounts? Misleading people by claiming to be a site your not is most definitely fraud. Poisoning link profiles if you get caught to think you have no legal issues is to not have a clue about the law. Again it is fraud… hard to prove but fraud none the less.

    I know some real blackhats and they definitely wouldn’t even do an anonymous interview because they are smart enough to know “the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club”… it’s not just true to the movie but all SEO… anyone who has been around a day knows the shelf life of a techniques that is made public is very short.

  • grnidone

    I’d like to correct one major misconception.

    The hats are not black. They are silver. And made of tinfoil…


Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Search Engine Land on Twitter @sengineland Like Search Engine Land on Facebook Follow Search Engine Land on Google+ Get the Search Engine Land Feed Connect with Search Engine Land on LinkedIn Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Search News Recap!

SearchCap is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!



Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors

Get Your Copy
Read The Full SEO Guide