Black Hat SEO has become a hot topic in the last year within mainstream society. Stories about Overstock.com, J.C. Penney and others have further muddied the public's perception of search engine optimization as a respectable profession and legitimate way for companies to earn new business. And as social media continues to influence search results more and more, there are now two big players in social media who may be openly encouraging black hat SEO tactics. Specifically, it now appears that Facebook and Twitter may be endorsing black hat social SEO.
What is Black Hat SEO?
SEOs know that the most important factor in our profession has traditionally been the number of quality links from other pages on the web that point to our websites. Google sees links as votes, and rewards the most popular pages with the coveted spots in the top of the search results.
Black Hat SEOs have tactics that typically involve creating links (or votes) artificially as a way to trick Google's algorithms. Buying links is like buying votes in an election. It's easy to see how they would be considered artificial.
But other types of artificial links are less intuitive. Overstock.com didn't actually buy any links, but rather gave universities' students big product discounts that the colleges could post on their websites in the form of links to the Overstock product pages. Overstock gave college kids 30% discounts in return for nearly doubling their average monthly web traffic from around 10 million to 20 million visitors per month. Ultimately there was a quid pro quo, discounts for links, and Google stepped in and penalized Overstock (and others).
So Then What is Black Hat Social SEO?
Search engines confirmed they are using signals from social media in the search algorithms. The number of Likes and tweets containing links to a particular page are making a big difference in the search results. It stands to reason that Likes and tweets are being looked at by search engines more and more just like links in terms of importance. And yet the tactics behind acquiring Likes, tweets and links are quite different.
Search engines discourage getting links in any way that is deemed fake, paid or spammy. On the other hand, Facebook currently permits compensation in exchange for a Like of a page. From their Promotions Guidelines:
"You must not condition registration or entry upon the user taking any action using any Facebook features or functionality other than liking a Page, checking in to a Place, or connecting to your app."
In other words, you can't ask people to do some things, but compensate people all you'd like for Likes.
And Twitter's guidelines aren't much different. While they discourage repeated tweets, it's perfectly acceptable to ask someone to link to a page and include a hashtag in return for entry into a contest.
Do Facebook and Twitter Endorse Black Hat SEO?
This is where it gets tricky. Facebook and Twitter have developed their own user communities and customs over the courses of their respective histories. Facebook has obviously found something that works for them, as their users number well past 750 million. And Twitter's no slouch either at around 150 million users. They've got a good thing going on, so why should they have to change?
On the other hand, shouldn't there be the same level of authenticity on the social web as what Google attempts to drive within the search results? Astroturfing is disapproved of as a way to get fake attention in social media. Should it be just as taboo to get paid attention through contest Likes and tweets?
What do you think? Should social media sites continue to condone compensation for tweets, Likes and other social engagement, or should Google's concept of an authentic vote drive a change in Facebook and Twitter's black hat SEO-friendly contest rules? Share your thoughts in the comments.