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Fifty Shades of Grey Hat SEO

Jim Seward

by Jim Seward on 4th July 2012

GreyToday Jim Seward has the unenviable task of wading through the muddy waters of Grey Hat SEO including some of the most unethical and most deceptive SEO that is often classed as “grey”. We wouldn’t recommend most of the ideas and some points are pure satire, but as a talking point we would love to hear just how grey you feel each idea is.

Her heart started to beat fast and she drew a sharp breath, she reached out to touch it, tentatively, slowly as if savouring the exquisitve agony. Mr Grey-Hat grabbed her hand and guided it forcefully. Hey eyes widened in shock. The device felt cold to her touch, almost alien. Her breathing was ragged now. Mr Grey-Hat’s hand closed over hers and worked the control. There was a moment of trepidation as the machine started to operate and she closed her eyes in fear…and then she saw it….she was ranking. Mr Grey-Hat smiled almost cruelly, his skills and technique had satisfied another client.

Firstly, I’ve not read 50 Shades of Grey and secondly I’m going to avoid as many possible references to throbbing members as possible in this article.

I’ve always said that there is no such thing as strictly white hat SEO (or black hat for that matter) and everything is a shade of grey. The true white hat SEO would do absolutely nothing to artificially increase their rankings and let Google rank them where they will.

I wrote a blog a couple of months ago about how all quality incoming links are paid links and I stand by that, any SEO who builds links is trying to manipulate the Google results. In fact, pretty much all SEO is a shade of grey. I’m not sure I’ll get to 50 different grey hat techniques, but let’s see how we get on.

DISCLAIMER – I’m not here to judge, lots of respectable hard working and very ethical SEOs use some of these techniques very successfully and if they’re not, then they should at least be aware of them.

Grey Hat On Page Optimisation

On page optimisation isn’t what it was, but here are a few things the enterprising grey hat SEO can do to make your page search engine friendly.

Make sure a search engine can follow your links
May sound simple, and it is! With HTML5, jQuery and CSS, there should now be no excuse for your silly flash-based menu that the search engines can’t follow. Of course, if you’re going to insist on an old flash or javascript menu, make sure you put other links at the bottom for the search engines.

Using CSS to hide H1 tags
Does the design not allow for a properly structured page? Not to worry, just use CSS to embed the H1 tag into a paragraph and job done.

Writing your meta description as ad copy
This one is simple. As meta description does nothing for rankings, simply replace it with ad copy as you would a PPC ad and use it to increase your clickthrough rate.

Using a “KID”
It’s old, embedding your keywords in your domain name, but it’ll make a slight difference. Using a KID is no match for creating a brand though. If a kid isn’t an option, use your keywords in your urls, even if you have to rewrite them.

Fresh content
Got a site that doesn’t change much? You need to make sure you’re adding fresh content regularly, even if you don’t expect anybody except the search engines to read it. A blog can help with that.

If you must have a page that’s just flash or an image. Dump spiderable content below the fold.
This content is there purely for a search engine, a human visitor can read the image or flash. Everybody wins!

Create controversy
Create content that gets people talking, even if it’s not quality content, you’ll get buzz, even if it’s for being a “throbbing member” (wow, I got it in).

If you’re going for local search results
Make sure you talk about the place you’re targeting, again use location based schema.

Doorway Pages
Doorway pages are total black hat…right? But call them “targeted landing pages” and we’re all good!- A good landing page optimised for a high traffic keyword will increase clickthrough from the search engines, and streamline conversion. The difference between them is that there might be five or 10 targeted landing pages, rather than thousands and the content is high quality and unique rather than spammy spun content.

Find all your dead links
And redirect them to your homepage with a 301 redirect so you don’t lose any incoming link equity to a 404

Speaking of 404 pages – Make an awesome one
A Good 404 page can create a lot of buzz. For example, the good folk at Distilled created a great 404 page and got a huge amount of social currency from it as well as it going viral on Reddit #win!

Create a glossary of key terms within your niche
Which is of course a valuable resource and in no way a page filled with keyword rich copy, perhaps with some common mispellings!

Deceptive Headlines
Write your headline to draw attention, even if it isn’t strictly true or representative of the article. Classic examples of this are the ubiquitous “SEO is Dead” articles, which then go on to talk about how SEO is alive and kicking.

Link Building & Outreach

Link Building is the cornerstone of any successful SEO campaign, you can optimise on page as much as you like but without a decent back link profile, you’re going to struggle to rank. Let’s take a look at some of the different shades of grey you can try to build links.

Directory Links
Directory links are not worth what they were, but there are still some quality directories that provide some link equity and are a quick win. Personally, I still look at DMOZ, Yahoo Directory, Best Of The Web, business.com etc. however there might be some directories that are well respected in your niche that are worth submitting to. Remember that you’re paying for your site to be judged, not to list your site. This in no way makes it a paid link.

Incentivised Links
This could be any form of incentive, from physical to virtual. Remember, I’m not talking about a paid link here, but if I send you a games console and ask you to review it on your web site and you can keep it if you link, is that a paid link?

Guest posting
Ah, the guest post, the corner stone of modern link building. We’re all taking the time to do initial outreach, building the relationship with the blogger, suggesting a couple of blog ideas, researching them, writing them, doing amendments, resubmitting them and finally getting them published for the sake of the blog owner aren’t we? Of course not, we do it because we’re after a link. It’s probably one of the most ethical current link building techniques, but it’s still slightly grey.

Running a competition
Run a competition for blogs in your niche. Give them badges to include on their site to say they’ve been shortlisted. Get people to vote for them through tweets. The winner can then be chosen by incoming link profile at the end.

Using Personas
When you email someone and say “Hi, I’m Jim and I’m really into putting ferrets up my trouser leg the same as you and I really love your site about Ferret Love. Perhaps we can connect on Twitter and talk about our shared love of ferrets. Giving them my Twitter handle @jimlovesferrets, we then bond over our shared love of ferrets and I ask for a link to my pet food website. Not against Google’s terms of service, but is it really moral to mislead webmasters for a link, you may as well go the extra step and claim you’re a Nigerian prince.

Stalking
Stalk your link target round the internet…It’s not creepy at all!

Get loads of negative press
Nothing builds link and buzz quite like negative press. If your brand can stand it, all these links are great for SEO. An example I can give is a well known company goes out of business. Lots of press attention. Company gets bought and rebranded and rises from the ashes but there’s still a link talking about the crash of the first company on the BBC news site. That’s good link value you can’t buy right there.

Submit your PRs to newswires and make sure you embed those links
This one is common sense (I hope). A lot of Newswires will allow you to embed links such as sourcewire, PR Web etc. If your PR people use systems like Vocus, a quick chat on the benefits of embedding the links before they get sent to journalists can achieve wonders. Remember, the PR team are your friends.

Do a silly survey
Survey results are great link bait and the sillier, or more salacious the survey, the better.

I’ve seen one that talked about Apple users having more exciting sex lives based simply on server stats that created some great links and lots of social shares.

Create your own directory
I did this once and made some great links: Create a directory on its own domain, make sure to put your keywords in the domain. Add it to directory lists as a free reciprocal link directory. Slavering SEOs submit to the directory giving you a reciprocal link. Stop six months later when the directory is chock full of reciprocal links. Kill the directory and 301 redirect the domain to your main site. Link-tastic!!!

Buy dropping domains that still have link equity
Then forward them to your site. Domains drop every day and the big players (such as Pool, Snap etc) aside, you can still pick some up for pennies. A great tool like Expired Domain Sleuth will let you find the ones that are worth buying. Do it fast enough and you can pick up some domains that still have domain value for about six quid each. Try to go for domains related to your site as it means some of the links you get may contain keywords.

Sell something you just can’t deliver.
Wish.co.uk did this brilliantly with their 10 Downing Street Experience for £250,000 – Lots of links and social buzz and pretty much an iron clad guarantee they’ll never have to deliver…Genius!

Make your own links
The internet is full of places that you can create your own links. Squidoo, Tumblr and wordpress.com are all great places to make your own links.

Make sure your RSS feed contains links
At some point, you’re going to get scraped. If this happens, make sure you get the recognition your site deserves buy including links back to your site in the RSS feed. For WordPress, a plugin called RSS Footer will do this for you.

Create a page on Wikipedia
Wikipedia links are nofollow but can provide some great direct traffic. If your company is particularly noteworthy, create a wikipedia page for it. If it’s not, get some buzz in the press through newswires (see 22) – Then create a Wikipedia page for it.

Make sure you follow Wikipedia’s guidelines and do not spam. If your hat is feeling particularly dirty that day, link related articles back to your company’s Wikipedia page or create some research about a related subject on your site and then link the Wikipedia page to it (remember, it has to add value so survey results are a good example).

Comment on other blogs
These will provide you with little or no search engine value (depending on whether that blog has switched off nofollow or not) but it can provide you with some direct traffic, especially if you’re a real person who’s actually read the article and can offer valuable insight. Don’t be a “throbbing member” and spam blogs, people work hard on them and deleting huge amounts of spam every day just gets tiresome. I’ve known quality blogs that have been abandoned because the owner couldn’t deal with the amount of spam.

Come over all altruistic
Surely there must be a local charity or charity event who needs some sponsorship?? “What, because of my generous donation, you want to link to my site…thankyou!”.

Got some design or coding skills? Release a site template or plug-in.
Remember to include a link in the plug-in which is embedded in hundreds or thousands of blogs using your anchor text.

Hold a contest
Give away a couple of hundred quid’s worth of stuff and you can get lots of links. Let people in your niche know about your competition…perhaps they’d like to tell their readers, perhaps submit it to competition sites like loquax to get thousands of visitors to the site.

Don’t be stingy with your link equity
You link out, you’re more likely to get links coming back. Some good old fashioned flattery helps with this. Perhaps a blog post detailing the most influential bloggers in your field??

Throw Away Domains
Buy KID domains to tap into trends with a microsite. Such as bankerinterestrates.com – Once the buzz goes down, just forward it into the main site. You’ll have made some nice links and a short term massive traffic site. Keep an eye on what’s trending on Twitter to see what the latest URL to buy is.

Rewriting affiliate links so they’re search engine friendly.
A product link using your keywords to your canonical URL is a great way to create a link and if you rewrite your affiliate links using a tool such as Post Affiliate Pro to remove the tracking string, that’s exactly what you’ll end up with. Nice clean links as far as the search engines are concerned.

Usurp quality links
Scan high quality sites in your niche for broken links using a tool such as
Screaming Frog or Xenu – Let the webmaster know of any quality broken links – Go to archive.org and check what was on that link back in the day- recreate the page using the content from the original page and contact the webmaster letting them know the “new home” for that content. On your site! You’ve helped them make their site a better place and got a high quality link, don’t you feel warm and fuzzy?

Just make something damn cool
Probably the whitest hat technique on this whole list, the ultimate in white hat SEO. Make something so frickin’ awesome that other people will link to it in droves, millions of people will share it and use it and you get to spend your days as you sipping Mai Tais in Bora Bora. Plentyoffish.com is essentially run by one guy, for next to nothing, who works an hour a day and makes millions.

Use memes that are already popular
Simply tap into memes that already exist and use them for your own nefarious purposes. A quick way to do this is to use Meme Generator here.

Author markup
Make sure your articles are linked to author data in Google Plus. Having a picture next to your article in the serps will really increase your clickthrough. This goes double if you’re attractive!
Thankfully I’m gorgeous.

The below tactics are ‘fifty shades darker’, the darkest shade of the lot – and especially not something we’d recommend you do. However it’s very easy to see how someone could persuade themselves that these were not “black hat SEO” tactics and carry on regardless.

Dodgy Sales Tactics

We work in a field that has some cowboys, and even a couple of dastardly men tying helpless maidens to railroad tracks whilst twiddling their waxed moustaches as the steam train is heard in the distance.

Here’s a few of the things that whilst not actually related to our day-to-day work as SEOs, blight the industry as a whole and taint it:

Spamming
Whilst I agree that pretty much every industry has its spammers, the SEO industry is probably worse than most outside of pharma. The amount of times daily I get emails and automated form submissions selling SEO services is incredible. These people fail to see the irony of spamming people selling a service that should mean they shouldn’t have to spam anybody.

Selling SEO services that will make no difference whatsoever to the bottom line
This one makes me angry. The aforementioned emails often contain concepts such as keyword density, meta tags, and other outdated SEO concepts. Often they’ll just grab a few scary SEO buzzwords and string them together.

I swear, I’ve actually had a mail claiming: “On visiting jimlovesferrets.com, I notice that you don’t rank for “completely unrelated keyword” in Google. This is down to the canonical issues of your meta tags negatively affecting your Pagerank leading to a post penguin penalty.” *sigh*

Choosing keywords that are really easy
Step 1. Choose long tail keyword with no competition that nobody searches for.
Step 2. Sell SEO service to gullible business owner.
Step 3. Make keyword rank easily or offer money back if it doesn’t.
Step 4. Rake in cash from gullible business owner.
Step 5. Laugh as the business owner wonders why his wonderful new rankings aren’t making him any money.
Step 6. Repeat.

Choosing variants of the same keyword
I took over once from a firm who got paid a large bonus for every keyword they ranked. As a result they chose lots of variants of the same keyword to get paid on. They basically got paid for:

  • IT outsource
  • IT outsourcing
  • Outsourced IT
  • Outsource IT
  • outsourcing IT
  • Etc etc etc…

Automation
Some automation in SEO is great (although you’ll get told off for spamming Google with automated searches) and any SEO who doesn’t automate some tasks is missing a trick. When I put Automation in here, I’m referring to things link automated comment spam, automated article spinning and submission.

Spoofed rich snippets using schema
Simply put review schema markup on your page and let Google use it in your listing putting five lovely gold stars under your listing and really making it stand out from the crowd. I did this on a site and got a quite lovely 25% increase in clickthrough. Kerching!!!

Didn’t quite make 50, but by using the tip (Cause controversy) this blog has probably got more buzz than it would have at 45 Shades Of Grey. Thanks for reading all and thanks to the folks at Koozai for letting me post on their blog :-)

The views expressed in this post are those of the author so may not represent those of the Koozai team.

Jim Seward

Jim Seward

Jim Seward is currently working as in-house SEO Specialist for document management provider V1 Ltd. Jim has been working exclusively in organic SEO since 2002 working in a number of niches and prior to that he was a web designer with an SEO slant and has been working on the internet since 1995.

26 Comments

  • Mike Essex

    Mike Essex 4th July 2012

    Thanks for such an interesting post Jim. I think “grey hat SEO” is really interesting as a concept and you’ve certainly illustrated that what some points people see as grey as very low risk and sensible ideas, whereas others are borderline scams.

    Ultimately it comes down to the type of business you are optismising, the type of tactics you feel are fair on the web, and the type of risk you are prepared to take on. Then you can use the tactics you need based on that.

    Reply to this comment

  • Kevin Wiles 4th July 2012

    Brilliant Article, I am going to look into some of those before I launch my new site.

    Reply to this comment

  • Jim Seward 4th July 2012

    Thanks for the comment Mike (and posting the blog for me)

    Agreed, some of these are excellent SEO Tips and Tricks that any SEO can use…Others are very dodgy indeed.

    SEO comes down to risk Vs Reward, Some of these tactics, I wouldn’t use in my day job as it’s not worth the risk, but if I was trying to make a huge amount of cash very quickly through affiliate or Adsense and I don’t care if my site gets banned in a week….Rock and roll

    Reply to this comment

  • Boomer 4th July 2012

    Really? Using a popular book to gain popularity lol. How many times does this list need to be regurgitated? If you’re in the SEO industry, then you know this stuff backwards.

    Sad to piggyback of something more popular than yourself.

    Reply to this comment

  • Martin Macdonald 4th July 2012

    Grey Hat? Really? Apart from automated comment spam I thought the rest of the list was white-hat…

    …maybe thats just me though!

    :)

    Reply to this comment

    • David 4th July 2012

      Ah yes I agree most of the points are just common sense… only issue I would flag is redirecting all your broken links to the homepage… much better to redirect them to the next most relevant page…

      Reply to this comment

      • Jim Seward 4th July 2012

        Of course David if the relevant page still exists

  • Laura Phillips 4th July 2012

    Entertaining post, thanks! Great for helping noobs understand the confusing colour chart that is SEO & no harm in reminding the rest of us.

    Reply to this comment

  • Kieran Flanagan 4th July 2012

    Really ? This is Gray Hat SEO ? What does the person who wrote this post actually do for his clients. Stare at the screen and will his site to move up in the SERPs.

    Odd post. Read like the title was thought of first and actual content was an afterthought.

    Reply to this comment

    • Jim Seward 4th July 2012

      Hi Kieran

      Thanks for your comment. The point I’m making is to be completely white hat, you shouldn’t be doing anything to artificially increase their rankings. Google says “Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings.” which covers pretty much covers all the above.

      Therefore if you are doing any of the above, you’re not completely white hat, you’re slightly grey, or at least off white.

      It doesn’t mean that you’re doing anything wrong. I did state that a lot of these techniques can be used perfectly ethically and most SEOs (including myself) will be looking to do things like the above.

      All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t shy away from saying that the things we’re doing are grey hat or more to the point, perhaps we shouldn’t be putting things into white/grey/black hat folders. It’s all SEO and pretty much everything we do carries a certain amount of risk

      Pre-penguin, people were happily link building using bought links from blog networks.

      Post-penguin, we’re moving away from that as it’s become a more risky technique.

      As I said above, it’s a case or Risk Vs Reward

      As for just willing my sites up the SERPs….I wish ;-)

      Reply to this comment

      • Kieran Flanagan 4th July 2012

        “perhaps we shouldn’t be putting things into white/grey/black hat folders”

        There you go, basically my point :)

        I often sit willing the SERPs to move, hasn’t happened yet, but just like the Matrix, I believe there is a NEO walking among us who can change the SERPs to his will. Just hoping it will be me.

  • IrishWonder 4th July 2012

    Stirring up controversy – you surely do that. So what out of (majority) of what’s listed above is not used daily by majority of SEO companies/consultants claiming to be purely whitehat? (I would have the same argument as you do as to whitehat really meaning doing nothing at all and leaving it up to Google to rank your site wherever it will, while everything else is already grayer than white). On the other hand, I really can’t stand this whole talk of ethical / unethical in terms of conformance to a search engine’s (which is a commercial entity, not a church) game rules. Ethics Schmethics – will we SEOs ever stop making a cult out of our job?

    Reply to this comment

    • Jim Seward 4th July 2012

      Have to say, what a great quote about making a cult out of our jobs.

      You’re of course right. There’s nothing unethical about using any technique you can to rank your site whether it’s in line with Google webmaster guidelines or not. There just has to be an awareness that you may end up kicked out the serps at some point and potentially have to start again though.

      If your client is happy with that and are made fully aware, then why shouldn’t an agency give the client what it wants.

      This is where some SEOs fall down though, they fail to make the client fully aware of the potential risks of the strategies they are using.

      Reply to this comment

  • IrishWonder 4th July 2012

    But then it’s just all about being professional vs being a clueless idiot… My recent rant on the topic: http://www.irishwonder.syndk8.co.uk/2012/07/01/no-this-site-will-not-exchange-links/

    Reply to this comment

  • Egor 5th July 2012

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    Thank you for educating people on evils of “grey hat seo”. Now I can sleep well. There will be no competition.

    Reply to this comment

  • Comparisim 6th July 2012

    Hi Jim,
    I cant help but wonder how much your list of SEO tactics is out-dated. You suggested creating a link directory, killing it and then 301 the whole directory to your target site. Also on another point you suggested buying some dropping domains and forwarding them to your target site. I guess you mean via 301 right? Well I would be very interested in hearing when the last time you did either of these and achieved improvement in rankings because as far as I am aware a 301 between two different domains doesnt carry link equity anymore. Here is a well informed 2009 article on SearchEngineLand where the writer quotes Matt Cutts:
    “The sort of stuff our systems would be designed to detect would be things like someone trying to buy expired domains or buying domains just for links.” So how do you 301 and maintain link equity?

    Thanks,
    Fion

    Reply to this comment

    • Jim Seward 6th July 2012

      Hi Fion

      Thanks for your comment and interesting debate. 301 redirects will always pass link equity between domains. Otherwise websites would not be able to ever rebrand effectively. Taking it from a more personal “I’m not doing anything dodgy at all” example.

      As I work in-house, our company regularly buys smaller companies. Some of these come with sites with domain equity, some don’t. However always on correctly 301 redirecting the old domain to the new site, I’ve managed to transfer any existing rankings and link equity to the main company domain. As for the last time I did this….About 2 weeks ago :-)

      With the directory example given above, there’s really no difference. The domain in this case hasn’t expired.

      What the article you’re referring to is discussing is dropped domains. Now it can be true that after a domain drops, Google will drop any domain equity it had, however this is a timing thing more than a set in stone thing which is why it’s important to do it quickly.

      A domain owner can often forget to renew his domain (I do it regularly) and accidentally let it drop, if he forgets and then does it on the day it’s dropped, and everything goes back to normal, should that domain owner be penalised in the serps? What if he chooses a new hosting provider?

      The way I would do it is again, use archive.org to see what content was there and recreate the site (at least the pages with domain equity), leave them for a month or two so Google has time to index them and sees that it’s the same content, then forward them using a 301.

      I have links showing in webmaster tools that have come from expired domains that have been bought and are still providing link equity.

      And just because Matt Cutts says something, does not make it so :-)

      Reply to this comment

  • Comparisim 6th July 2012

    Hi Jim,
    Thank you for your response and sharing valuable recent first-hand experience. I will definitely take this on board in my SEO work from now on. Until now I have been wary about expired domains but now since you have made clear the finer details on how to actually go about it, I feel confident enough now to give it a go. One last question about the link directory – have you got any tips on how to go about promoting a link directory to get lots of submissions. The reason I ask is because there are hundreds of thousands of link directories. Other than blood sweat and tears, what will make my brand new PR0 directory stand out from the rest? Would you rely on pure SEO promotion for this, link building comparable to what you would throw at the money site, but with ‘link directory’ related keywords or is there shortcut?

    Reply to this comment

    • Jim Seward 6th July 2012

      Oh….one more thing, when 301 redirecting the name, it doesn’t hurt to do a change of address in webmaster tools. If there’s nothing on the domain, you can put the verification string in the target site and google will follow that fine :-)

      Reply to this comment

  • Jim Seward 6th July 2012

    Hi Fion

    The simplest way to promote a link directory is to get it listed in the hundreds of thousands of directory lists out there. Remember, your goal here is not to create a valuable, well moderated directory as the plan is to kill it in about 6 months, the plan is to gain as many reciprocal links as you can to it and the way to do that is to put it in front of lazy SEOs who still think that submitting sites to lists of thousands of directories will rank a site.

    The simplest way to do that would be to submit it here:

    http://info.vilesilencer.com/

    Use a system like PHP Link Directory which although paid now still gives away an earlier version for free here: http://www.phplinkdirectory.com/phpLD_version_2.php

    Remember that by doing this, you’re not going to end up with high quality links as your link will end up on link pages, but you are going to end up with a lot of links so don’t expect doing this on it’s own to give you huge amounts of domain equity, it should be done as part of a much bigger link acquisition campaign.

    cheers

    Reply to this comment

  • Terry Simmonds 7th July 2012

    As someone who has been doing SEO for over a decade now it’s a pleasure to read posts like this.

    My friend Gerald Duck said he particularly liked the bit about personas and that you’ve given him the inspiration to go and update his blog ;o)

    Reply to this comment

  • Fish Tank Media 9th July 2012

    White Hat SEO is always the best shade. Even if you think it is borderline Grey, if everyone starts doing it than it will become Black Hat. Keep it clean and stay in the index.

    Reply to this comment

  • Sophia 27th November 2013

    This is interesting article Jim with simple way to explain the Grey hat SEO. It’s really helpful and I am going to utilize it in my new website.
    I always use the white hat seo and think grey hat seo technique is not good but jim after reading your post i really like grey hat seo and i would try it.

    Reply to this comment

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