Securing the top spot in a Google search is a huge traffic boost. A whole industry, called Search Engine Optimization or SEO, has sprouted to help website owners reach this goal. Every kind of SEO is about getting more links to your content, and making your code and content more palatable to search engines. But some SEO guys are willing to infringe Google’s terms of service to buy or build their own network of “backlinks”, artificially propelling websites up the search results. These people have been labelled the “black-hat” SEOs. I had a drink with one of them, and, with a certain amount of bluster, he gave me a crash course on his art.
Growing a network of fake links seems like a huge amount of work. Some do it the old-fashioned way, asking highly ranked sites for “link-exchanges“. Some–and that was my interlocutor’s speciality—go fully industrial on this process. He mentioned a few of the software he uses: Xrumer, ScrapeBox. Dabbling, I found a bunch of others: AMR, SENuke X, along with tutorials and testimonies. Here’s how it work.
Pick the page you want to bump in the search results, and the query you wish to optimize for. You can’t just build pages filled with links to your “money site” (your target), as Google’s antispam features can detect those from afar. You need a network of pages that link to one another in a way that looks real to Google. A large number of sites will link to a smaller number, which will link to your money site. Everything is arranged in a pyramid that the black hat apps can conveniently help you design. This way, each level enhances the ranking of the level above it, and the few sites that do link to your target will deliver a huge boost.
Those fake sites have got to have some content, that will hold the links, right? Feeding each page with the same material won’t work, as Google tries to detect duplicate material to de-rank it. Not a problem, as those apps that build empires of links provide the ability to “spin” an article by replacing each word with synonyms, generating as many variants as needed. So you end up with scores of fake websites, filled with barely legible “spun” text peppered with links. And if you can’t bring yourself to write the source article, fear not: for cents, you can outsource its production on services like Textbroker or the Amazon Mechanical Turk.
Once you’ve got the article, you shouldn’t build the network of sites in a hurry. You should do careful, progressive runs over days or weeks, so as to look inconspicuous to search engines. Once again, most of this is automated: design your pyramid, your content and your schedule, and push the button. Or nearly so: while apps generate huge quantities of backlinks, my guy says he always creates and animates a blog on his subject matter “by hand”, so as to increase the quality of the backlinks.
And that’s just the first round of the game. Obviously, search engines try to identify these maneuvers, and scrap websites associated with them, as they mess with the quality of the results. But shady SEO guys don’t stop at building fake websites. They also infest forums and comment threads with fake entries, sometimes skillfully written so they look like multiple users interacting. All of this is automated by the same apps, which can register user accounts on a variety of online places. It’s a cat and mouse game. A forum sends a confirmation request by email? These apps can click it. A CAPTCHA (those annoying garbled letters that you have to write down when signing in for about anything) has been set up to prevent spam? Those apps have algorithms that can break the most common CAPTCHAs. And for those that can’t (yet) be broken by computers, it’s always possible to rely on CAPTCHA solving farms that employ third-world workers, paid trifles for this fascinating job.
Thanks to the solving farms, CAPTCHAs don’t distinguish machines and humans anymore, as they were designed to do. They merely distinguish those who can pay to solve them en masse, and those who can’t. The same goes for search rankings. Google wanted them priceless, removed from the economy: the black-hat SEO consultants give them a price. At least until the algorithms catch up with them.
Asked whether he felt bad about “polluting the web” with spammy comments and fake websites, my interlocutor had a collection of ready-made answers: he was servicing customers with a real business need; the fake websites he created were almost never seen by users, being destined solely to the Google crawler; the people he paid half a buck to crack CAPTCHAs and create crummy content were doing so of their own accord. And he got paid a lot for the job, so. Yet search results are increasingly tainted by irrelevant, spammy links rife with ads, which could only have risen so high because of efficient search engine optimization. These people have cracked Google. Sure, the company has repeatedly excluded offenders—including big names such as BMW, JCPenney —from its search results when presented with evidence of black-hat abuse, a move that really is the web’s equivalent to an embargo. But for one detected fraud, how many more remain?
My own private SEO consultant wouldn’t tell me his fees, neither how much money his clients made thanks to him. But he had a story about a client who slammed the door on him. The client wanted his site at the top of every search result page, for every query imaginable. When my buddy told him he couldn’t comply, the client simply replied: “you don’t know your job.” See? Not everything can be bought. Yet.