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Jim Seward

Fifty Shades of Grey Hat SEO

4th Jul 2012 SEO | 26 Comments


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.

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Jim Seward About the author

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.

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