#33 – Black hat online reputation management tactics you should avoid

#33 – Black hat online reputation management tactics you should avoid


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There’s the right way to do online reputation management and then there are these black hat tactics that you should never employ.

Each week, Erin Jones and I take a look at the most interesting reputation management stories, answer your questions, and share valuable ORM tactics. In this week’s episode:

  • We share more than a dozen black hat tactics that you should never use–or let an ORM firm use–to rebuild your online reputation.

If you have a question you would like us to tackle, please leave a comment below or on my Facebook Page.

Transcript (forgive us for any typos):

Andy Beal:                  Thank you for joining us. We’re going to do something a little bit different this week. Erin and I have both had kind of a circumstances, situations where we’ve been exposed to the black hat side of reputation management. Now neither of us condone that kind of thing. We don’t use any black hat techniques, but you don’t necessarily know what’s black hat, i.e, stuff that you shouldn’t do, and what is often called white hat, which is the good stuff that you should focus on. So, there’s been some stories about that. Erin, you had a particular run in as well that kind of made you go, “Is there kind of a stigma that we need to correct about what good reputation management people do?”

Erin Jones:                  I did. It was really interesting to me, because I’ve been very fortunate to be on the positive side of ORM, working with positive techniques and staying above board. A few weeks ago at a networking event that I was at, a local designer/social media/SEO person wearing a lot of hats, implied to the group that because I do ORM work that I participate in black hat techniques, that was one of the first times I’ve actually heard of an ORM professional being accused of doing black hat work. Typically, I heard about company owners trying to get the jump on things and trying something and making a terrible choice.

To have it being done intentionally, it offended and it also kind of hurt my feelings because I work really hard to try to make sure that I keep my clients above board. I don’t take on clients who won’t be above board, so that really shocked me.

Andy Beal:                  Whenever you get somebody that has multiple slashes in their title, they generally don’t know a whole lot. Because they don’t know a lot about a particular subject, they’ll often just throw out this kind of, “Hey, you must be using black hat voodoo techniques.” We used to see it a lot in the search engine optimization space. So, SEOs would always get accused of doing black hat by webmasters. Really, when you looked at it, it’s just that webmasters didn’t know the great techniques to use. So, they just thought it was all magic, all voodoo, and it must be negative. We’ve seen over the years that there’s been an education where, “Hey, not all SEO is bad. There’s a lot of great SEOs out there doing a lot of good work.”

The same goes for reputation management. People have this perception that if you’re trying to push something negative down off of Google or trying to improve someone’s reputation, you got to be doing something that is at worst illegal or at best somewhat shady. So, what we thought we would do is we’re going to put our white hats firmly on our heads and go through a list. We got 10 or 12 different tactics that we think you should never do and hopefully this would be something that if you start your own reputation management campaign, you’ll have these list of things … hey, I should avoid this.

Or if you hire a firm, then you’ll have a list as well to kind of check off and make sure this firm’s not going to do any of these tactics. So, let’s kick it off. Number one: I’ve got creating fake or spammy-looking social media accounts. So, trying to create an account where just for the sake of having another Facebook page that shows up in your search results or you create a second Twitter account just for the purpose of trying to get it to show up in Google and you think, “Hey, if one my Twitter accounts is showing up in Google, then if I have two that’s even better.” So, creating fake, spammy content, Erin, is what I’ve got for number one.

Erin Jones:                  On top of that, I want to know who has time to create multiple social media accounts, because managing mine and managing them well for myself and my clients I feel like is a full-time-and-then-some job. So, if you’re creating multiple social media accounts and using them to comment on other pages, you need to find a hobby because you have too much time on your hands.

Andy Beal:                  Yeah. People are smart. When they see that Facebook commenter coming to your page, giving you a five star review and just saying, “How wonderful you are,” but then they go and look, and that person’s only two friends, is somewhat ambiguous about where they were, who they’re related to. People are smart. They figure out that, hey, that’s probably not somebody that’s real. It’s probably a fake account. Number two-

Erin Jones:                  [crosstalk 00:05:17].

Andy Beal:                  Yeah. Along similar lines, creating like these empty websites. These thin sites or thin blogs. It’s a good strategy to maybe create a second website or use a subdomain, but I always say, “It’s got to pass the Google sniff test.” If a human at Google were to do a manual review, is there a legitimate reason for you to have a separate site for your blog or a subdomain, whatever it may be. Now, if you’re a publicly traded company and you’ve got investor relation information, sure, you don’t want that on your ecommerce shopping site. So, you have a good reason to build investors.companyname.com.

If you’re just registering lots of domain names and putting up one or two pages hoping they’re going to rank, it’s just not going to work too well. Is it, Erin?

Erin Jones:                  It’s not going to work and it’s also you’re diluting your content. You’re diluting your message. So, some people do this unintentionally and you kind of want to think about where is your value going to be. Your customers or your investors don’t want to be clicking from website to website. So, give them what they want. If it makes sense, put it in one place. If it doesn’t, put it in two. I really thinking through what you’re doing can avoid an inadvertent version of this happening.

Andy Beal:                  Yeah, good point. All right. Number three. Erin, what do you have for that?

Erin Jones:                  Number three: Bait and switch, also known as page swapping. So, some shady people will get a website indexed and ranking and then they’ll change the content on the page. It’s one thing to update our content. It is a completely different thing to start ranking for something and then completely change the industry. So, when a user clicks on a result in the search engines and they ended up looking at something that they have no idea how they got there.

Andy Beal:                  And using misleading title tags or H1 headers to try and trick the user into clicking through, or even along those lines, buying PPC ads that are bait-and-switch as well. So, think they’re going to a site that’s going to be critical of a brand, but then it turns into something really positive, because the brand itself has purchased it. It’s okay to buy PPC ads to promote your positive size, but just avoid making it look like you’re another attacker and then switching over to something positive.

Erin Jones:                  Absolutely. If I get to your website and the first paragraph looks like gibberish, I can see that you’re doing that for your benefit and not for my benefit as the reader so I’m going to move on to someone who’s looking to get a reader’s attention.

Andy Beal:                  Good point. Number four is along similar lines of what we were talking about, but creating fake review profiles. So, you’ve got one-star Yelp reviews or you got one-star Amazon review profile and you think to yourself, “Well, why don’t I just create 10 different accounts and then post positive reviews?” Then you think you’re really clever. You’re thinking you’re outsmarting Yelp, and Google, and Amazon, because you’re going to use different IP addresses and you’re going to space them out over a period of time and you think you’re really clever. Trust me. These sites. Whether it’s Yelp, Amazon, whoever it is. They have seen it all.

It is very difficult to create a brand new Yelp profile and actually get your reviews to be trust. Yelp is going to sit around and wait to see what kind of friends you add, the places you check in at. All these points, these triggers to say, “Is this reviewer trusted?” Even if you do make it past that, the worst thing that could possibly happen is someone figures this all out and then busts you for astroturfing, which is, basically, hey, instead of creating real green grass, you’re just using fake stuff to try and make the grass look greener.

Erin Jones:                  Yes. Don’t do it. It’s not worth it.

Andy Beal:                  It’s really not. Whatever you’re trying to cover up will be worse if you get found out that you’re trying to cover it up by having fake review profiles. All right. Moving on, number five. Erin, what do you have for number five?

Erin Jones:                  Number five is duplicate content. Sometimes people will see a website that ranks really well, and say, “Well, they’re doing it right so I’m going to copy what they’re doing.” They copy it verbatim. Don’t do it. Whether it’s your own content that you’re copying over to get a new website to rank or someone else’s, it’s just not a good idea. Write your own content with your voice. Make it fresh. Make it relevant. Then if you are going to pull content from another site, quote it, and site your sources.

Andy Beal:                  That’s a good suggestion. Then, along those lines, don’t duplicate your own content. So, you’ve got this great About Us profile that you’ve got on your website and then you decide, “Hey, I’m just going to cut and paste this and put it on everything else I own, because hey, this is our information. This is about us.” Well, think about it. You’re taking the exact same content and putting it into your Facebook profile or your LinkedIn page or whatever it is that you’re building and it’s technically duplicate content. Now, I’m a big fan of congruence across your different channels.

So, that does mean you want to have the same tone of voice. You want the similar kind of facts and figures and the highlights, but don’t just do cut and paste. Consider putting in the effort to actually write new, unique bios and About Us information for each of these profiles or websites.

Erin Jones:                  Absolutely. I try to usually think of it as who I’m talking to when I’m writing the content. Maybe your main website is in a really professional tone and a really professional voice and then you have a voice that’s for current clients or members or shareholders. You can use a little bit more of a conversational voice, because they already know you. So, you’re using the same … like you said … the same content, but your tone is going to change a little based on how well you know the audience.

Andy Beal:                  Yeah, that’s fantastic. You’re absolutely right. Pick the voice that matches the media and you’ll be good to go. Number six, we’re going to look at low-quality link building. In particular, just trying to throw out a whole lot of just bad-looking links. Whether or not that’s leaving comments somewhere or just kind of going to a link farm. Erin, you had some ideas on this.

Erin Jones:                  Yeah. There’s a lot of places where you’ll see people, especially back in the olden days of SEO where you see a chiropractic office linking on a travel website because they set up a little director and let anyone sign up. Google’s not going to give you credit for that and neither am I. Clearly, you put that on there on purpose to get some link backs. I think we all did a little bit of that when we thought that it was working, but now it’s frowned upon, it looks bad, and it looks dishonest. Anything that looks dishonest is not going to gain you points either with your readers or with the search engines.

Andy Beal:                  You are much better off thinking to yourself, “What can I create that’s actually going to get people wanting to link to my content?” Focus in your efforts on that then trying to do anything low quality with link builder. Erin, you had something for number seven?

Erin Jones:                  Yes, domain squatting. I know some people have made a whole lot of money and have made full-time jobs off of this, but people will register domains either with a business name or a trademarked word in the title in hopes of selling it back to the brand that owns that word. That’s not cool. It doesn’t look good. If you try to put content on that site, they’re probably going to win it back. When it goes to court, it’s going to show that you did intentionally take this name and they’re going to move on.

Andy Beal:                  Along those lines, certainly go ahead and register domain names for your own brand, but don’t go overboard. Don’t worry about registering mycompanynamesucks.com. You can’t think ahead of all the iterations that an attacker is going to use to try to get at you, but certainly get the .org, .net, that kind of thing. Number eight. Now, this one is kind of linking. This is getting paid links or sponsored blog posts, something of that nature. I have no problem with you reaching out to a blogger and offering whether that’s flat-out sponsorship or a contest, so you’re going to give them a prize, or you’re going to give them a free product to try.

However, you’ve got to disclose that. That has to be disclosed by the blogger. This would be a technique that you would do before you have a crisis. So, you would want to use this before you’re being attacked, otherwise what could potentially happen is one of two things. If you don’t disclose it and you get found out, hey, there’s another negative thing that someone’s going to attack you. If you do disclose it but you’re soliciting them and getting them posted while you’re in the middle of a attack, your detractor might turn around and say, “Hey, look. They’re trying to cover things up by paying their way out of it.”

Erin Jones:                  Right. It looks like a big PR campaign instead of a positive way to get your name out there. One thing I’ve noticed with a lot of these is that my tendency to look on the bright side is a lot of these things can be done accidentally, or an agency can do them saying they’re doing something on your behalf and then you find out later that it’s making your brand look bad. So, if you’re working with a consultant, please just make sure that they have your best interest in mind and not just your biggest promotion.

Andy Beal:                  Yeah, that’s a good point, because the consultant should never act on their own behalf. You should always know what your ORM is doing for you, because Erin and I, even if we’re doing a specific tactic for a client, we want to run it by the client and get the client’s buy-in, because this needs to be owned by the client. They need to know about it. They need to take ownership of it. We’re just facilitating it. We’re just an extension of their firm, their company. You don’t ever want to have a situation where you’ve got an agency that’s doing tactics, doing outreach, doing promotions on your behalf, and you have no clue what they’re doing.

Erin Jones:                  Absolutely. Especially if you’re a company that is strong on your corporate culture, you want to make sure that what they’re doing is in line with your beliefs and what you would do on your own naturally.

Andy Beal:                  Number nine: Submitting fake court orders. This is something we’re seeing more and more of. The history behind this, if you had a clear case of defamation, you could go to a court and if you proved it, you could get a court order that you could submit to Google and Google would pretty much automatically take down any offending URL that was part of this defamation win. Now, the black hats, the bad people kind of got wise to this and now we’re seeing all kinds of fake plaintiffs, fake defendants. Now, just this past week, fake court orders. There was a guy, a CEO of a company that spent $30,000 to win a court case and he won only because the defendant didn’t show.

So, it’s by default whether or not he had a legit case or not, it doesn’t matter. The defendant didn’t show. He got this court order by default. However, it cost him $30,000, which is about on track. 20, $30,000 for something like this. He was upset that it costs so much. He had some other URLs that he wanted to get listed. So, instead of hiring the attorney to do it the right way, he actually decided to turn to Photoshop and created fake court orders and submitted them to Google. Now, he just pled guilty to a federal indictment.

Erin Jones:                  What blows me away the most about this is not only that he did it. I mean, that is just incomprehensible to me, to think that someone could be that dishonest, but then he went and bragged about it.

Andy Beal:                  Yeah, that’s right.

Erin Jones:                  How much money he saved … No. I can’t believe … that’s like going out and pictures on Facebook of you robbing a bank. I know it happens, but what are these people thinking?

Andy Beal:                  I have no idea. Then along those lines number 10 is, I’m starting to see people trying to use the DCMA takedown request. The DMCA is designed to help individuals in businesses get their copyrighted content removed from a website or the search results. So, it’s really, if someone’s stolen your video that you created or that has writs … some of the text from your book, or as Erin mentioned earlier, completely copied all of your content from your website, pretending to be you. So, it’s designed to protect for a copyright theft. However, you’re seeing people trying to say, “Well, they’ll create a webpage. They’ll backdate it. Put the same content on it and then claim that the newspaper that wrote the negative story actually stole part of it from their content,” and then try and get a DMCA takedown.

So, that’s really shady. I can’t believe … and whether they get away with it or not, they shouldn’t, but don’t try and say, “Hey, this blogger is attacking me, but he’s using my company name. My company name is copyrighted. He can’t do that. No, that’s not a legit use for a DMCA takedown.”

Erin Jones:                  I feel like I say this a lot, but clever negative use of black hat … I even hate to say, “Clever,” but this is why we can’t have nice things you guys.

Andy Beal:                  That’s right.

Erin Jones:                  Stop abusing the system.

Andy Beal:                  All right. Number 11 is another kind of legal thing that I’ve seen. That is just basically trying to put pressure on a blogger or a journalist with empty legal threats. So, you see a lot … there’s been a lot of firms. Usually, they’re really large reputation management firms that like to use a tactic of just basically sending a threatening-looking letter that looks like it’s come from an attorney that there’s going to be all kinds of consequences if they don’t remove the negative review from a person’s website or they don’t takedown their Yelp review. They’re all unsubstantiated. There’s nothing behind them, but it can work if you get a nervous blogger that has no idea about the law.

It can also backfire because if you actually get a blogger that knows a little something, they’re going to actually end up doing a new post to say, you’re trying to bully them.

Erin Jones:                  Right. When people start realizing that these court cases do cost 20 or $30,000, some people may back down, but some people may call your bluff and then you’re going to find yourself in court.

Andy Beal:                  Yeah. This is different from where you know you’ve got a clearcut defamation case and you want to take the soft approach first to say, “Hey, look, buddy. You’ve posted this information based on a third-party source. It’s actually incorrect. I’ve got evidence here that suggests that. By you keeping this up. It is hurting my business and defaming my name. I’d love for us to get this resolved so I don’t have to speak to attorney.” Something along those lines is fine. Proceed with caution, but generally fine, but out and out just trying to bully someone, absolutely black hat. We don’t recommend that.

All right, lastly, number 12 is, distributed denial of service attacks on negative content. Now this is getting really hardcore black hat. This is where you understand that if the website loads slowly or is often down during the day, then Google might say, “Hey, I can’t trust this site to be around if I show it in the search results.” So, they start dropping off the first page in Google. So, what’s a really nefarious black hat reputation people will do is they actually will create these botnets to try and attack the webpage and the website to stop it from loading to overloaded server and do it on a regular enough basis so that Google that exact stance and stop showing it in the search rolls. I mean, how shady is that, Erin?

Erin Jones:                  It’s beyond shady. I think it kind of crosses line into hacking a little bit.

Andy Beal:                  Absolutely. It’s illegal.

Erin Jones:                  I’ve heard stories about different uses for DDoS attacks because my husband is a network engineer. They’re never good. It’s terrifying to me, too, how … usually the smaller the business, the easier they are to attack or takedown. A lot of my heart is with helping small businesses. It’s just awful. Getting it to stop or finding out who’s doing it is not always easy, especially not with a huge amount of resources.

Andy Beal:                  Yeah, absolutely. Well, we hope you found these useful. These are 12 tactics that we definitely don’t recommend. These are some things that if you’re going to implement a campaign yourself, you can keep in the back of your mind. If you’re going to hire somebody, then you’ll know the questions to ask so that you’d make sure they’re not doing these kinds of things. Incidentally, a lot of these items came from some training I did this week. If you’re not familiar, if you go to andybeal.com/mentoring, I’m setting up a limited number of mentoring spots for people that want to learn reputation management, whether it’s to start a firm or to add to an agency service, whatever it may be.

So, certainly, we talked about the black hat tactics to avoid. Do you like how I snuck a little plug in there, Erin?

Erin Jones:                  It was fantastic, but did you see how above board and honest it was?

Andy Beal:                  It was. I didn’t have to shoehorn it in. You can go to Erin’s new brand, which is repright.com. I’ve updated a link in the podcast page, because Erin has just gone through a rebranding. So, repright.com, if you want to speak to Erin about anything. I think that’s the only blatant plug we’ve done in 33 shows. So, hopefully, you’ll forgive us for that. Erin, always a pleasure to chat with you.

Erin Jones:                  Thank you. I love bring here.

Andy Beal:                  Thank you guys for tuning in. We’ll hope you catch us again next time. Thanks a lot and bye-bye.

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