A History Lesson of Black Hat SEO

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The other night, I had the pleasure of catching up with a friend that acts more as an uncle. He’s a true pedal-to-the-metal business man that typically can be found planning his next venture before the rest of the city wakes. The majority of the conversation he was flipping through his iPhone showing me old photos of his three daughters and advising me on my next vacation destination. Towards the end of the conversation, I got an unexpected history lesson.

Somehow we got on the topic of when he purchased an olive oil company as an investment back in 1988. After he acquired the company, he made the wise decision of hiring someone to build a website in the 90s (wise then, and critically essential now). The guy that built the website had some thrifty black hat SEO techniques up his sleeve that shot the rankings of the website to page one for branded terms of his competitors.

“Oh yeah… I hired this guy and he did some pretty cool stuff” he explained further, “People coming to the site saw one thing, and then on the back end this guy had all my competitors listed and olive oil this… olive oil that. Oh yeah, I was showing up for everything. I was all over the place!”

Well well…. Looks like we have a case of some black hat cloaking on our hands. Or I should say, just plain old cloaking as Matt Cutts explained last month, “There is no such thing as white hat cloaking.” As such, all cloaking is simply black hat practice.

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Now before we start pointing fingers and shaming my friend, I have to say that this all made too much sense from a business perspective in the 90s. My friend wasn’t alone – there were countless sites that implemented these black hat SEO tactics. After all, Google still allows companies to bid on their competitor’s branded terms in PPC campaigns.

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So, where do we draw the line?

My friend’s company did very well and was sold in 2001. While there are no analytics available to back up this theory, it is safe to say that his online visibility most likely drove a substantial amount of customers to his brand.

This “history lesson” reminded me of how much our industry has changed over the past two decades and how much more it will change. Even as a younger “SEO” I have seen drastic changes to search engines throughout my career: social integration, Panda and Penguin updates, The Knowledge Graph, Google Authorship, etc. There are updates in our industry every day that are constantly changing the search landscape.

The history of our industry shouldn’t be overlooked as all of these updates are trying to determine two crucial things: Are you relevant? Are you valuable? While many are questioning what our industry will become in 10 years, 1 year, next month… it’s important to know where we’ve been to know where we are going.

What do you think? What do you think the past reveals about the future of SEO?

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