How Shady Web Design Sites Get High Search Engine Results

How Shady Web Design Sites Get High Search Engine Results

There’s an unspoken understanding amongst web designers that the most valuable marketing real estate is Google’s "web design" front page. With over 300,000 searches monthly and thousands of dollars spent in search advertising on an hourly basis, the value of a top placement for terms like "web design", "website design", and "logo design" can often be financially crucial to web design businesses.

You’d think, then, that Google and other search engines such as Bing would spend their time monitoring the top web design pages for link spam and other unethical, black hat search engine marketing tactics. However, it appears that Google’s "web design" results are fairly unfiltered and loosely regulated, as a quick scan of their inbound link profile will show.

Armed with Yahoo Site Explorer and a desire to see what makes the most valuable keywords in the web design industry tick, I checked the first page for any unusual rankings, unethical marketers, and interesting search results.

What I discovered was quite alarming: The same black hat SEO tricks that have been used for years are still helping short-term search engine marketers make their way into the top search engine results page (SERP).

From link spam (also known as spamdexing) to manipulative page widgets, there’s an alarming amount of dark SEO tactics going on in the web design world.

This article discusses SEO techniques that a few disreputable web design companies are using, and what they mean for ethical web designers.

Backlinks from Blog Comments

Almost all of the top-ranked results for the search term "web design" showed some signs of proactive search engine optimization. Many used HTML and content optimized for search results. In other words, most had content that was specifically designed to target terms such as "web design" and "website design", and the majority made use of interlinked pages and cunning anchor text. That’s all well and good — I guess — at least in the eyes of Google’s auto-indexing bots.

What’s a little more surprising is that many of the top-ranked web design sites appear to have built at least some of their inbound link profile by using blog comment sections that allow the commenter to leave a URL, as well as placement of links in blogrolls–a list of other blogs that a blog recommends to readers. This tactic has been around for years and can be used to improve a website’s search engine ranking, but in Google’s terms, isn’t natural link-building.

Blog comments, sometimes automated, are still used by shady sites.Blog comments, sometimes automated, are still used by shady sites.

It’s quite unnerving to see such low-level SEO tactics working for these artificially promoted sites. Does this type of strategy really work for such competitive terms? While it makes up a small percentage of their total link profile, it’s still an interesting thing to see for an authority website.

Manipulation of Anchor Text

Google’s stance on manipulated anchor texts is somewhat murky. The search engine has punished websites in the past for exploiting inbound link texts (e.g. the fake credit card story of a few years back), but generally accepts that site owners will try to influence users into picking a specific link text. Some of the websites ranking for the term "web design", however, appear to be taking things too far; well beyond Google’s motto of "Don’t be evil."

These links were spotted in the footer of a client's website, and use an obvious manipulation of the designer's company name.These links were spotted in the footer of a client’s website, and use an obvious manipulation of the designer’s company name. Notice how the first letter of the company name was left out of the anchor text.

A quick scan of the backlink profiles of many top-ranked web design sites shows that unscrupulous web design firms are using their clients’ websites to build their backlinks.

While third-party websites produce links with normal, generic terms such as "website" or "info" to link out to commercial websites, most of the inbound links to design sites use ultra-specific anchor texts and appear to be self-created.

Social Media is Used to Manipulate Search Engine Results

Back in 2006, the SEO community was obsessed with manipulating PageRank through MySpace by using graphics and widgets. The images, often embedded in a table, would appear on profiles and other high-value pages with an outbound link placed below them. This could, theoretically, give a higher PageRank (PR) value to the linked website and increase its placement in search results.

For the most part, these manipulative tactics aren’t that effective anymore. Google’s algorithm has evolved beyond the days of PageRank manipulation, or at least the unsubtle manipulation seen in the days of MySpace.

While outdated PR-boosting techniques have died out, some shady web design companies have found a new way to gain inbound links and trickle-down PR through site widgets that display Twitter and Facebook updates.

More obvious anchor text manipulation; this time in a Twitter widget that's used on thousands of popular websites.More obvious anchor text manipulation; this time in a Twitter widget that’s used on thousands of popular websites.

Check the screenshot above for an example — the linked page has gained most of its "web design" links by distributing a branded Twitter widget. What’s interesting about this example is how their outbound link is displayed — while it’s technically branded as their business name, the first letters from their name have been excluded to ensure that PageRank is passed with the right anchor text. Shady, right?

This type of manipulative inbound linking has been used on all the major design-related terms, making it difficult for organic search engine results to break through.

While SEO is very much an effort-based marketing field, it’s unlikely that Google and other search engines appreciate this kind of PageRank manipulation. It would be interesting to see how long these types of links will remain valuable, as search engines tend to use disincentives and penalties to push down websites that manipulate their anchor text in this way.

Bad News for the Good Guys: Organic High Rankings Are Unlikely

What does this near-constant search manipulation mean for ethical web designers and web design companies? Unless you plan to target small, niche search terms like affordable web designers that love cats almost exclusively, the likelihood is that your website won’t rank well for volume-based keywords without the same SEO work.

Without an active SEO campaign, it's unlikely you'll rank for anything more than ultra-niche search terms.Without an active SEO campaign, it’s unlikely you’ll rank for anything more than ultra-niche search terms.

Are these disreputable web design companies affecting the relevancy in search results? Possibly. While there are some relevant results in the first page for terms like "web design" and "website design", such as the Wikipedia entry on web design and the pages for web designers, many search results are of commercial websites that have participated in unethical SEO practices. It’s possible, though, that Google actively monitors some of the more popular web design keywords, which could potentially limit the effects of these black hat tactics.

Linkspamming and Other Blackhat SEO Tactics Are Still Effective

Comment backlinks, manipulative links, and self-created links are one thing — and their effectiveness is questionable due to no-follow rel attributes that most blogs implement — but spam, what’s known as link spam or spamdexing in the context of SEO, is another game entirely.

While most web design company sites appear to have gained their backlinks at least somewhat ethically, there are two results found on the first page alone that have gained their positions almost entirely through link spamming.

It's rare to see a service-based business resort to keyword spam, but this Chinese web design firm has succeeded in doing just that.It’s rare to see a service-based business resort to keyword spam, but this Chinese web design firm has succeeded in doing just that.

One is an offshore Chinese design site, which appears to have gained the bulk of its backlinks by publishing automated blog posts. It’s not often you see "web design" listed alongside common spam terms such as "levitra" and "Louis Vuitton Replica" if your backlinks are organic. Check the screenshot above for a quick look into this website’s backlink profile; it’s quite alarming on such a competitive search keyword.

What’s clear is that unethical search strategies — spammed links, PageRank manipulation, and other shady tactics — still work. And, often, very effectively. If it’s possible to gain a front-page SERP listing with little more than automated blog posts and spammy links, it seems unlikely that legitimate and ethical design company websites could ever rank well, let alone for a competitive and valuable search term like "web design".

Organic SEO campaigns Aren’t Likely to Succeed in Web Design

Can a natural link profile compete with the big players? Unlikely. Search appears to be an area that is lucrative for those with questionable ethics, given the amount of websites ranking for high-value terms in the web design industry.

It’s troubling and saddening to say this: It seems very unlikely that a small site, particularly one that hasn’t been aggressively marketed because of budget restrictions or because of ethical beliefs in artificially growing their search engine ranking, could ever rank well for major design keywords.

And that sucks because amazing web designers are out there, but are being outcompeted by those who would rather spend their budget in gaming the system rather than investing in things that improve their products (such as hiring talented designers).

It's difficult for an ethical design firm to compete with opponents that use linkspam, automated blogs, and other nasty tactics.It’s difficult for an ethical design firm to compete with opponents that use link spam, automated blogs, and other nasty tactics.

However, there’s still hope of success on the front page. Advertising is available through Google AdWords, albeit frightfully expensive for those based in large markets like ours.

Similarly, the amount of time and effort required to compete in organic search results just isn’t realistic for many small web design firms. Freelance designers and small boutiques studios, it seems, just can’t compete with big companies and shady spammers.

Is There Hope for Web Designers with a Conscience?

Possibly. At this point, it’s hard to tell how Google will react to the latest wave of link spam, although given their history, it appears that the links in question could be devalued.

A case about search results in the UK last year suggests that Google does take an active approach to monitoring specific keyword phrases, although with the quantity of design-related link spam, it probably won’t happen soon enough.

Google occasionally removes offending pages, although it's rare to see it in service-based industries like web design.Google occasionally removes offending pages, although it’s rare to see it in service-based industries like web design.

The ideal way to get good search results is by focusing on your products and hope that they’re good enough to gain organic links from high-ranking, reputable websites that deal with web design topics; but with the current situation, it seems even that isn’t enough.

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About the Author

Mathew Carpenter is an 18-year-old-business owner and entrepreneur from Sydney, Australia. Mathew is currently working on Sofa Moolah, a website that teaches you how to make money online. Follow Mathew on Twitter: @matcarpenter. Follow Sofa Moolah on Twitter: @SofaMoolah.

This was published on Nov 12, 2010


David Nov 12 2010

Nice article matt..

I’ll give this backlinking a try!! ;)

Superijur Nov 12 2010

I entirely agree with you, Mathew. It’s really hard to compete with those shady web design “companies”, if you yourself rely on ethical seo.

Maybe we all should stick together and create a site which lists all the good web design companies out there, link to this page from our sites and make it #1 in “web design”… :-)

However, it’s even hard to rank well in search terms related to a design niche. So, let’s think you make web design exclusively for dentists. You won’t have any longtail keyword phrases you could rank for, as none of the dentists would search for something like “web design for dentists”. They all just search for the regular terms, which makes it easy for the shady companies to flood these particular terms with their spam.

Dianne Nov 12 2010

I am having a real problem with this. One of my clients has a really great, content rich website, and we went for “honest”.

He is consistently on page 2 on his core competence keywords, while page 1 is filled with half A4, one page websites with link stuffing. These sites might not be getting business from their crummy unprofessional sites, but it’s driving my client crazy that a one man show working from a garage has been top of page one for almost a year now.

Thomas Odelay Nov 12 2010

Spamming ? Ok, why not … but what about the public image ? Can’t people get tired of your agressive marketing ?

Robert Jakobson Nov 12 2010

Mathew, just take a look at the comment spam in the offical Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools blogs.

The only way a legit. “nice” design oriented guy has a chance is to either use WordPress or Drupal, depending on one´s CMS needs with their respective SEO solutions.

And even then one needs to a crazy amount of split testing to catch up.

Robert Jakobson Nov 12 2010

needs to do

the top ranked web design company does get its high ranking thanks to its Twitter widget, as their page is linked to by high PR pages (Page rank 5,6, & 7) which mostly are pages from the joomla domain.
they also have a very old domain age, which is an important factor for ranking too.
so making a joomla extension seems like a great stratgegy! or maybe joomla should not allow this type of backlinking in their extensions

the second site is also Joomla related as they sell templates and get their backlinks through the templates being used on high PR sites.

the third site has 2 edu/gov backlinks that have a lot of authority for google

I don’t think the blog commenting strategy plays a big part in their ranking, because 1 high PR backlink is worth thousands of 0 or 1 page rank backlinks.

it is interesting to analyse these results indeed and it seems a good strategy to offer free joomla extensions and themes for the high PR backlinks!

I’m a web developer that is currently contracting at a web marketing company. I can can tell you that not one of the things you mention in this article are considered “blackhat”.

I don’t mean just where I work, I mean in the industry, it’s all standard stuff and the reason it’s standard is because it’s fine (not punished) by Google.

If you want to pretend you’re taking the moral high ground when it comes to your SEO, feel free, but you’ll also be taking the low ground when it comes to getting visitors to your site.

Anonymous Nov 12 2010

It’s worth noting that these tactics are not new – they’ve been followed for years by the likes of Creare Design, WebCreation UK, Pom Design…all have been indulging in this kind of footer link manipulation on their client’s websites. It worked, too, for a while. Then Google realised, and they’ve dropped off page 1 for ‘web design’ searches – the highest now being page 2 (I think).

What’s more disturbing is the widgetised link approach: that feels newer/more subversive.

One could argue that truly great web designers will get business through word-of-mouth and recommendations (indeed, this is how I know the majority of my freelance designer colleagues get their business).

Huge generalisation here, but the people who search for ‘web designer’ on Google are either new businesses that need a website and have zero web knowledge, an SME that needs a new/updated site that has less than 10 employees, or another web design firm looking at their own rankings. You won’t find big businesses doing this kind of search.

Mike Dexter Nov 12 2010

@Robert Jackson

WordPress or Drupal have nothing to do with it. As long as you understand the SEO basics, you can do just as good a job, and arguably better, with manual on-page optimization of your content. The problem is that blackhat techniques, particularly in terms of link building, aka off-site SEO, still trump ethical SEO in organic SERPs.

Anonymous Nov 12 2010

Oh, and it’s also worth noting that the vast majority of blog comment spam is ‘nofollow’ anyway.

How did you know that I was aiming at the term “affordable web designers that love cats”?

WhineAndDine Nov 12 2010

Sites use these blog backlinking schemes in two ways:
– They hire a shady linkbroker that promises them hundreds of links, and delivers on the promise with these crappy links
– They do it to mask their backlink profile, so you can’t use yahoo site explorer to clearly analyze the good costly links between the crud. This also gives a more varied backlink profile, that looks more natural, as opposed to manipulated.

As most these blog comments are nofollow, and Google isn’t stupid, these tactics do NOTHING for your rankings. SEO’s know this, but for reasons mentioned above it still continues.

Don’t make the logical error of thinking it is THESE practices that gave the sites its ranking. For all you know, it is what is holding them back for even greater rankings.

Google motto, dont be evil, is for its own practices, not the practices of webmasters. For them the motto is: Write for users, not for search engines, and keep content accessible to all.

Using good anchor text in backlinks is smart SEO, not evil SEO. Using your clients site to provide an attribution link (like this very site, does for Mobify) is a fair trade, be honest about it, explain the need to sign your art, and it is no problem at all. From a business ethics viewpoint and Google’s viewpoint you are doing no wrong.

On the widgetbait: Read SEOmoz’s widgetbait gone wild. Its a perfectly fine method to gain backlinks. Like releasing a free wordpress theme with a backlink in the footer. As long as its visible to the user of the widget or theme, and you make it possible to delete the link: There is absolutely no problem. Look at the widget for Google Maps. Find the attribution link to Google with some nice keywords, and start coding a twitter widget, instead of complaining about a perfectly valid tactic.

Listen, if you are not in viagra or casino’s, you can rank with perfectly valid tactics. Look at smashing magazine and their lists. Short-term success is short-lived. There is no other way to build a successful website on a grand scale, without putting a focus on good solid whitehat SEO and providing relevant linkworthy content.

Developers without a conscience are the ones swimming up stream. All new Google updates point to rewarding those that adhere to Googles guidelines, and destroying sites of low worth and relevance.

You are also not realistic if you want to rank for Web Design, from You know how many web design firms there are in america or in the world? And you want to be number one, because you have a conscience?

It’s about local SEO. It’s about designing for a niche (wordpress, rock band sites, a social media platform). If you don’t know how to distinguish yourself from the herd, be the purple cow, don’t moan your 1-person company isn’t ranking nr1, don’t moan adwords is too expensive (how is adwords expensive if you ROI is positive? How is your marketing strategy, product and brand effective if your ROI is negative?).

Blame yourself, push yourself harder, stay close to Google’s mindset and best practices and profit: build something that lasts for years, instead of ranking 2 weeks for a certain term and flushing your authority and integrity down the drain.

There is a reason people call Whitehat SEO, Good SEO. Its good because its effective. Lamenting about Bad blackhat SEO isn’t effective.

richard carpenter Nov 12 2010

Good read. thanks matt.

also seems we have something in common

alineseo Nov 12 2010

I also get frustred with this blackhat guys!
It is hard to explain to a client that he is not in first page because others are using suspicious technics that I wont use.
Google should care more about it!
People are more interested now in how create another blackhat technic than using the whitehat ones and creating good content.
I suggest report these guys:

See ya

Reed Botwright Nov 12 2010

Being a boutique shop, we find it quite difficult to compete with the larger (even just the local) web dev houses that have dedicated SEO budgets. We try our best to get featured on blogs for high PR sites (like NotCot and the like). That being said, we find the attention we get from organic search traffic is the same a retailer gets in a mall from a father is looking at your electronics store while the wife is shopping for hand-bags: low yield and frustrating. Long-tail search terms, albeit very focussed, provide an inherent interest on the part of the searcher. We try to avoid the big terms, like “graphic design” or “web design” or even “[local] web design”. Instead, we try to write interesting content through our blog (and comments on other blogs like this) about what makes us different, like working in the wine world and designing wine labels. I don’t know how well it will work long-term, but we would rather commit to a qualitative approach with our integrity intact than turn into another spammy web firm. Kudos for the great article.

Brian Nov 12 2010

Nice article. I’ve noticed a lot of the same things, and for may other very high end search terms. I feel this is all the more reason for the “little guys” to focus on truly providing exceptional services and customer service, and growing their reputations in a truly organic matter – that being mouth to mouth, peer to peer, and by using social media to target extended markets. Ultimately, focusing on the clients you have currently and exceeding their expectations in an attempt to solidify long-lasting business partnerships is never a bad idea for the smaller players. “Old fashioned” marketing can still be perfectly sufficient for smaller businesses if utilized appropriately.

Giomar B. Nov 12 2010

What a great post, I really like the excellent information you post in your blog, with interesting topics, accurate and quality information is sought, congratulations and thanks for your input. Greetings

Bill Nixon Nov 12 2010

As long as Google continues to count links towards ranking, it will exist and it will almost certainly never hurt the target website. The reason is that if inbound links could harm a company’s efforts, then competitors would build unscrupulous links to hurt their competition.

Then compound the issue by giving so much weight to links as Google does. Links are so important to Google that there are thousands of companies who will buy them, put them on blogs, and everywhere else just to get ranked.

I don’t foresee an answer to this problem in the near future.

Yeah, good work Matthew.

Your research goes to show how important other marketing activities – in addition to search marketing – are for a business to survive in a competitive sector like Web Design.

I totaly agree with this view Mathew. But I must say I don’t blame those who profit from a faulty system. I see it like lawyers that look for holes in the law.

I think Google is to blame. They write the law but fail to uphold it. As far as Google Adwords is concerned, that one is not much better. By raising the price for keywords they make it impossible for small business owners to profile themselves on a same level. An advertisement on the first page of a newspaper will cost a multi national as much as a small business owner. That’s fair I would say. In short; Google kills the small business owners.

Louis Nov 12 2010

Matthew, thanks for the effort you put into researching this. Just wanted you to know first of all that I think this is a very important topic and that you’ve done a good job in getting this discussion going.

Unfortunately, I cannot agree with much of what you’ve said here. In fact, I think the problems your discussing are not problems at all, but as was mentioned by the commenter “WhineAndDine”, most of these things are not unethical, and are part of what is common in SEO practices.

Yes, it is slightly unusual to exclude the “i” in the anchor text when linking the words “iWeb Design”. Maybe it’s a bit shady. But we cannot think that Google’s algorithm is not smart enough to figure out that anchor text with a stray letter in front of it (with no space character) should be given less weight. Also, that company really is a web design company, and so there’s nothing wrong with using the anchor text “web design” or “web design company”. It’s ridiculous to say that a company can’t link back to their own site using the words “web design” even if they are a web design company. It would be shady if they were using the words “free web design” in their anchor text, but were actually charging for web design, and did not offer any free options.

Using “web design” is not shady. The only thing that makes that example somewhat questionable is the stray letter in front of the text. But most companies don’t do that. I used to work for a company that added the words “designed by [company] a web design and SEO company” on each client’s contact page. The words “web design” and “SEO company” were linked to their pages. This is discussed with the client, and the client agrees to this endorsement. This is perfectly acceptable and ethical SEO practice.

But then you might respond by saying that this type of endorsement should be natural. People should naturally, without the influence of the company involved, be linking to the best web design companies. There are so many problems with that argument.

First, even if a client were to figure out that they can endorse their web design company (without any prodding from the company), do you really think they would be smart enough to use the correct anchor text? Not in a million years. Most likely they’d write something like: “Site designed by Jacob Gube at Six Revisions”, with just the words “six revisions” linked. Now, all they’re doing is helping people find Jacob’s web design company using the words “six revisions” which doesn’t help in the least.

Second, Google does not to my knowledge consider it “black hat”, “unethical”, or “shady” for a company to ask for an endorsement, or to include it in widgets. The widget text is there for all to see. As long as it’s not in 1px text or white on white, then there’s nothing wrong with that.

And putting aside the fact that comment links are almost always “nofollow”, even if they were “full follow”, the owners of those websites have the option to moderate those comments. Look at the rules for comments on my website; I don’t allow any keywords, only business names or aliases. The comments get deleted if they do that. And they re nofollow, so they get nothing. Also, by now Google will have lots of measures in place to ensure that comment links will never get anyone link juice. I can’t imagine that the Google Bot can’t recognize the difference between content and comments.

But don’t get me wrong here: I do consider it somewhat questionable to only link portions of text; but it’s not black hat, and it’s not unethical. If it is blackhat, Google will see it. Google bot is not blind. I also consider it unethical, as you pointed out, to link the words “web design” on a page that also links “Louis Vuitton bags” and “Viagra” and whatnot. But again, these are non-issues because Google has measures in place to ensure link juice isn’t collected on these practices.

As WhineAndDine mentioned, good practices will prevail. If those companies are still at the top, it’s not because of their bad practices succeeding; it’s because of the good they’re doing, or because of the lack of good SEO on behalf of others. Remember that you were able to figure out that these things were “unethical” based on manual checking. Google’s automated and much more complex system will also figure out if these things are unethical (but as I mentioned, a lot of what you discuss here is not unethical).

Thanks again for writing this. While I largely disagree, I do think it’s an important subject, and discussion on it is great.

Justin Roberts Nov 12 2010

I think there is a little bit of bitterness here from people who’s sites do not rank. These methods are not “shady” because they work and are legitimate. Using anchor text is not a black hat method, nor is gaining backlinks from blogs if you leave a legitimate comment. Yes, if you create a whole load of spammy content that makes no sense just for a backlink, I agree, that is spam.

Your forgetting that SEO is all about finding ways to increase rankings using methods that google allows and at the moment, these methods are allowed, so why not use them?

Good points. People definitely need to be mindful of the links in these widgets, which can lead to excessive PageRank bleed. As another commenter mentioned, most blog comments are nofollow, and Google has devalued dofollow blog comments in its latest algorithm update. If only those factors would deter the spambot blog commenting just a little.

Nirmal Nov 13 2010

Really scary how not-so-deserving websites get higher place in search results..

Aaron Nichols Nov 13 2010

This is exactly why it is hard for designers to just break out on their own and make the money they need to make because our small design firms have to stay small too long while we use blood sweat and tears to get our pages in Google rather than just spamming over everywhere.

@Paul: So what you are saying is that the commercial web design companies all take part in this because it is not punished by google? That’s great to know really makes me respect you and those major companies.

Steven Nov 13 2010

This is one of the reasons I don’t specifically target SEO projects. I’ve seen people explain to clients that Google will punish your search rankings for using black hat techniques and the client will invariably respond with a highly ranked competitor using the same techniques they just dismissed. I don’t know how you win on this subject.

In SEO I like to think that you gotta do what works but draw the line at spam. If manually going out and getting links without spamming the Internet works, then do it. I don’t think a widget link is shady at all. It’s just well implemented SEO. They are providing something useful for people with that widget, and getting credit for it. People are willingly using the widget. It’s not that hard to go out and get links without spamming, so if you wanna rank better just go do it, it works.

The spammy links are funny though. However as another commenter said Google probably doesn’t put much weight on those types of links. Even though they show up in the link profiles with other spam type links, there’s probably some other good links in there that are actually what are causing the page (or site) to rank, much more than the found spam links.

Aaron Humphreys Nov 13 2010

I find what you’re arguing, laughable quite frankly. I can’t quite agree with what you’re outlining and find the term ‘shady’ quite offense due to the fact that I find you guilty of the very same ‘issue’ (supposedly).

More to the point, I’ve implemented all of the marketing SEO tactics in the same manner, and received overwhelming results, for myself as a web designer and for my clients. The keyword here being ‘results’, merely a measure of the implementors performance, whether it involved hard work or not. How can SEO be ethical? I suspect you’ve had clients with similar performance requests so in my opinion utilising these tactics is not a thing to be ashamed of, why should it be? You’re getting results based on Google’s algorithms, however tight or lose you choose to follow them. Being noble won’t help you find the results you’re looking for, will it?

James Nov 13 2010

Domain age also plays quite an important factor in the rankings, would love to see some stats on domain names for the various high ranking sites.

BOCO Creative Nov 14 2010

Today I’ve come across this blatant example of keyword stuffing that it just made me LOL >>

Ben Czajkowski Nov 14 2010

As someone who is just getting into dealing with SEO, its nuances, and the rules to the game, I feel almost as though I’m entering a world that already has a stacked deck against anyone who isn’t already in the market.

Large companies are always going find new ways to continue hurting mom and pop businesses. And if you take the large companies that can throw millions into SEO out of the equation, small businesses and designers have to fight against people who are abusing the system and gaming it to the best of their abilities. It hurts everyone but the bad guys. :-(

Lars Ebert Nov 14 2010

Well, I think every web designer using only white-hat-SEO has to fight all this problems. Black-hat-SEO is extremely effective. I think Google should work very hard for banning all those black-hat-SEO from it’s search result.
I mean, otherwise, small freelancers like me have no chance to compete :(

Matt Lambert Nov 14 2010

Nice article, very useful

You would be ridiculous to start off trying to target keywords like “web design”. I’ve personally maintained #1 and #2 positions for web & logo design related keywords for nearly 3 years (each are keywords that are 5 words long) which has generated near a gross revenue of $100k this year alone.

If you can provide a really quality article/guide, and really do the work to submit it to the social networking/bookmarking sites and do things to *ensure* it gets big virally, the backlinks will come and you will rank as long as you’re targeting terms that are realistic for a new site to rank for.

And like others have said, most of what is mentioned in this article isn’t blackhat. Links in widgets, footer links in free templates, all of that stuff is not blackhat.

The Read Aloud Creative Nov 14 2010

I would not regard any of these techniques as “Black Hat”.

To be honest, I find it difficult to agree with you. Like Thomas Odelay said, it’s also about public image. I don’t see the whole issue threatening at all.

PennyPR Nov 14 2010

Is anyone thinking about what the potential clients think? Ghastly-looking websites on #1 of Google for the term ‘web design’?
Back to old-fashioned mates recommendations and looking at the design credits on rival sites…

Good article, I would change the title though. We can all sit here crying about how Google works or you can get over it and rank your website/clients websites.

In SEO remember what people tell you to do and what they do themselves are often going to be two very different things. Quality content and linkbuilding will win in the long term.

Anchor text is how the internet works, google couldn’t judge websites without it. It’s not blackhat to describe what your site is about in anchor text. It’s crazy not to from a user and a SEO point of view.

Nick - BittenByDesign Nov 14 2010

Honestly as a designer, I would have to spend an insane amount of time tweaking my site to get even close to the top sites for design. I can see that there are a few which shouldn’t be in there, but I had assumed that they would eventually be replaced by other people who were doing different things to get above them. I would love to hit the first page, but I really don’t have the time to spend checking out the various Black Hat methods to do it, and the fear is that if Google bans people for doing it, you may end up out of the index entirely. Me, I am happy to have good content and keep plugging away at it until hopefully I start seeing better results in the next algorithm update by Google.

Peter Belot Nov 14 2010

There are two problems here.
1) The globalisation of the market.
Its a big world and now the bar has raised, because your competing with people you never had to compete with in the past.

2) Google is currently broken. SEO Manipulation is at an all time high.

If anyone wants to see the best example of SPAM in the Web Design Community in Australia its this guy.

John Hacking.
Thats right John, im watching you :P

Check the back links to his site:
johnhacking [dot] com

There are tonnes of really dodgy domains all interlinking posting the same duplicate content. Does Google Care?
Obviously not?

Why dont all the Good White Hat Web Designers and Developers BAND together and form an alliance where we help purge the top #10 from spam.

We could all agree to not spam our rankings with dodgy tactics, anyone found breaching this would get kicked from the group. AND then surely Google would listen to our collective reporting on our own industry and move quickly to delist bad guys.

Its the only way really, to fight back with our numbers.

Thoughts guys?

The NoSpam Alliance?

#1 is big business, so as long as theres money to be made their will be corruption.

I think Social Media might really be our only saviour here in the long run, using human identity to value things.

After all its fine to throw away a website or a domain, but what happens if your personal identity got trashed and people stopped respecting you in other avenues of your life because of poor/ dodgy online tactics. Obviously there would be a lot of exploiting the 3rd world in the short term like now, but surely eventually things may balance out again.

David Nov 14 2010

Good analysis Mathew, Google is definitely not caring about these spam results. They are happy with the Big Advertising Dollars they earn from Big brands. One more example of link spam is Paid Links and they still work.

One of the worst spam sites is Mahalo, which continues to dominate the SERPS.

I think the most relevant point is

“The Google Webmaster Guidelines are an arbitrary device used to oppress the small and weak, but do not apply to large Google ad partners.”

Especially now that Google answers to it’s shareholders, sites that are generating good ad revenue are going to get a pass on the quality guidelines be they as large as Mahalo or smaller MFA sites that add no value. The only thing I see stopping this is the general public getting so fed up with crappy results that they vote with their feet (or their mouse) and go elsewhere. It doesn’t matter to Google what a few SEOs think, as long as the masses keep clicking those ads.

Mark O'Leary Nov 15 2010

Thanks for this interesting article. Like some others I must agree with some points. A backlink to a web design company that uses “web design” as anchor text is definitely not black hat as it explicitly informs the user as to the content to be found by clicking the link.

I agree that page 1 of Google is the holy grail, but don’t forget the customer base to be built by creating interesting content on your website and networking with potential clients in the social sphere.

My client launched their website in January 2010 and the site has gone from 0 to 10,000 Visitors (not hits) per month by using these methods.

My client works from home and blogs 3 times a week as week as being active in Twitter, Facebook, Linked In and You Tube.


Joe G Nov 15 2010

Good read. Working on several SEO projects myself, and finding how client competitors are creating fake websites just to build backlinks is another one of this tactics that I find disturbing.

Davor Nov 16 2010

Very well said, im planing to write a SEO article and you give me some ideas, thanks!

Christina Nov 16 2010

Black, White, Grey. Maybe its time to be multi-coloured and creative.

Now should I do a bit of Black hat to beat one of my competitors?

I cant believe this guy actually charges to become a “web master”

I cringe, I cant believe I am actually giving this guy traffic…

Mary Baum Nov 17 2010

I still maintain the best search engine in the world is a postcard. Not only are you in the top ten sites listed – you’re the only site listed. You have complete control of the message, and you can put it in front of your target audience anytime you need to.

Feyden Nov 18 2010

I can’t say I disagree with this article. I do have another side to the coin though. Can’t some of this come from our inefficiency as users to effectively search as well? I mean, there are advanced search settings, and specific keywords that people are usually looking for. I ran into problems like this on Google when I was in the 10th grade, but since I started a professional career, and know what I’m always looking for, I simply know what’s misleading. I don’t always just click the first thing that pops up on Google, I often have to go three pages in before I find something that looks tailored to what I’m searching for.

I think that if people are educated a bit higher on the way that they need to go about using a search engine, that we can avoid “Black Hat” sites all around.

wowman Nov 21 2010

you GUESS using HTML and optimized content is OK?!?! Now that’s just laughable!!! The non-linked i- is only tinkering on shady, but nowhere near what google considers shady.. And another thing: you must have been in the blogging game for way too long.. Not natural links!? Try getting a clients site even near ranking in the SERPs if they aren’t willing to promote it themselves, or pay someone the amount needed to do so. Now half of me thinks you wrote this article just for the controversy, but then again.. why would you tarnish sixrevisions name like this. You should probably get out in the field more often with your “site explorer and desire,” and look at some other categories then web design. Try SEO and then try to call this blackhat! I’ll still visit this blog, but you’re really pushing it for the visitors that know seo practices. Good day.

jrieckmann Nov 22 2010

a postcard? seriously?

Bernie Nov 24 2010

What timimg on your part for me… I have continually been in business since 1998, same url, most of my pages even internal are PR4, many many organic true backlinks, anything from the certified developer list (pr7) to microsoft preferred partners.
A new web design company in town launch a website. Day 0ne they have thousands of backlinks and show up higher in google than I do.
How can google allow this to go on? Could it be more obvious that these links are all bought and paid for??
Thanks for allowing me to vent.

Mal Milligan Nov 27 2010

Best article I’ve seen to date on link spamming – bravo! I found it while searching for my post on the subject… I noticed yours is bigger than mine LOL. For our esteemed colleague Louis, if you search on: technology quotes of the day web design – you will easily find the page mentioned with the web design link played over and over again on the homepage. Once is enough or actually more than enough and the rest is pure spam and unappealing seo. You feel it is appropriate SEO to link using the same anchor text 3 times in a row on the same page in close proximity? I’d be upset if I paid a professional SEO firm to see a cheap trick like that right on my homepage. Regards !!

Swopper Nov 30 2010

White hat SEO still works … I might take longer but the results are well worth the effort … Just don’t get frustrated .. Have a little faith with overpaid developers at Google. :)

Howie Dec 23 2010

Great article, I’m always looking heavily into the SEO of other web design companies as I find it strange how many seem to use what I would class as terrible SEO tactics. I have noticed recently though A LOT of the companies on UK searches are dropping down the rankings very quickly (and ones I know are using these tactics) so you never know, google could be doing something about it finally.

Rob Haywood Apr 07 2011

Great article and really interesting comments.
I think one thing I have learned since this article was written is that you need to be flexible and of course, always review!

MightyUhu Apr 10 2011

Great Article! Thank you. =)

STUDIO DAR Apr 19 2011

Very nice article matt!

I’ll give this backlinking a try!

Adam C Jun 16 2011

Thank you so much for writing this article Matthew. And you are only 18? Grats! Writing like a pro!!!
This article had a lot of good key points that I find very useful. You explained everything very well :)

Alex Zagoumenov Aug 22 2011

Matt, thanks for putting together the article. I used to work for a company that targeted terms like “web design” and I was tired of beating my head against the wall. Now I know why :)

My case was a bit simpler as we were dealing with “localized” keywords i.e. web design “city”. But still, the value of your article answers many questions. Thanks again!

Richard Timms Aug 25 2011


A question

Inbound link from blogs does, does it matter if the blog or site you post on has relevance or is it more important for the Page Authority and Domain Authority?


Good job

Tom Smith Sep 07 2011


Your article was a great resource to my own website seo study. I now can understand and use the many free tools to assist me in getting my website to the top. Thanks.

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