Part of understanding Blackhat and Hacker Spam is to put yourself it their mindset. And that means asking “How Can I Use This For My Benefit?”
Well I have been doing a lot of that lately. And one of the genius ideas that I had was full site takeovers. Then I toned it down. And then I thought of smartening it up. And then I thought of scaling it. The result? Well using a simple flaw in WordPress Plugins, and some clever strategy, I could sit back and game 100,000’s of relevant links to my sites, and control them all from one place.
NOTE: This idea is theoretical, and I HAVE NOT actually developed it any further than having a conversation with a few people, including Joost de Valk, regarding the possibility. All my research indicates, and Yoast confirms it, that it is indeed possible to create something this devilish. There are other versions, of this idea floating around, which I will cover as well.
Side Note: This is HIGHLY Illegal. Don’t freaking do it. In fact I am doing blackhat a disservice, this is downright Exploit and Hacking.
While back Yoast warned about a really dodgy SEO plugin being pimped out called Blogpress SEO Plugin. He found that amongst other devious things:
Next to that, the plugin is kind of enough to add a link back to itself on your blog’s homepage, in a hidden div of course, because that’s how smart people roll, right? Luckily, that makes it even easier for Google to find all the sites running the plugin and ban them all in one big sweep.
That is the level of control that you could unleash when you install a third party plug-in to your site.
There are a few things to remember:
- Apart from basic security checks and looking for dodgy programming scripts such as the use of Base 64, not much else is done in the way of security checks.
- WordPress plugins that are not hosted on worpress plugin depository, aren’t put through ANY paces, this includes “Free” and “Paid” plugins.
- There isn’t a verification program for plugins for legitimacy and safety, and anything you install is at your own risk.
- Just because you have used a plugin for years, doesn’t mean that a new update is automatically safe to install.
- Once a plugin is installed, It can do ANYTHING to your site. Remember the Blogpress SEO example above.
So I questioned myself on what I wanted to do. Here I am talking to myself:
- What we want: Links
- What type of Links: Thematic, fresh, blog links.
- Are they detectible? Probably, and am guessing easily.
- Boo. So what else do we want? Loads of Thematic 301 redirects.
- Are they detectible? Probably, not too easy to spot all the time, but still.
- Crap, so what else can I use that isn’t detectible? Rel Canonical. Simple command, looks fine to the user, but means a lot to search engines. Users hardly check their code once it’s live as long as page behaves normally.
Note: I have intentionally added a massive flaw to this methodology to trip up people who do ass hat SEO. Learn all search engine directives, what they were meant to do, and what they are capable off. I refuse to elaborate anymore, except that the method I am highlighting is very limited in its effect if you haven’t got a clue what I am talking about in this note.
If I can create a WordPress Plugin that is really popular, and gets installed on thousands of sites, then by simply inserting a backend piece of code, I can control anything on their site.
Easy. Run PPC Ads. Get it ranking in SEO. Pay people to install it, pay bloggers to review it. Make it a really cool plug-in.
Run a search of the WordPress Plugin Directory. Find old plugins no longer updated. Select those that have high installs. Offer to buy from original Author. Boom.
So above is my theoretical tool management centre. What does it do?
- Lists all sites that have the plugin installed
- Lets me pick which site I want to build links for
- Finds all tag pages that aren’t blocked by meta robot or robots.txt per site
- Themes the site by looking at over all keyword density.
- Lets you pick all the tag pages you want by selection
- Highlights when the last post under that tag was
- Let you either pick a rel Canon or a 301 destination for that page.
- One button push
The result could be devastation on all the poor unsuspecting blog owners, or may not even register on their radar! All you are doing is manipulating their tag pages… If you rel Canon them, most blog owners won’t even know anything is wrong except they may lose traffic to their tag pages from the SERPs.
Unlike ordinary category and actual post pages, I have found that these are the least monitored WP pages. Also, for people who love tagging, you can end up with hundreds of variations, hence more pages per site. And apart from those people who have either decent SEO knowledge, or a decent SEO Plugin, tag pages are often left open to search engines.
However this exploit can be used for any part of the site, including actual post page as well as the site home!
Is this a flaw? Yes. Can it happen to you? Yes.
WordPress or at least people passionate about it need to find a way to work on verification of plugins and maybe create a “Trust Worthy” verification for plugin release. Till then, I will rely on my network of people such as Yoast, or freelancer WP Plug-in devs or my Birmingham based Development team who I have worked with for years to test and check anything I install on my sites.
- Injecting Malware.
- Cookie Stuffing.
- Webmaster Tools Takeover.
- Sale hijacks.
- Password and Login Hijacks.
Don’t install any old crap you find on the internet. Check it. If you suspect a dodgy plugin, contact Yoast who will run a WordPress Plugin Review.
I often say that you need to try new things, test new theories, play with the SERPs as often as you can. After all, if you blindly follow what others, and don’t try your own experiments, you won’t be a competitive SEO. At the same time, read others experiments, learn from them, but try and replicate your own.
For example, Shark SEO posted about Multiple meta descriptions. This is a technique others in SEO, including old school SEO superstars such as Greg Boser and Dave Naylor have been playing with meta descriptions for years. Greg has even advised up to 5 meta descriptions on a page, if I recall our twitter conversation correctly (see this tweet from Joost) , while Dave has been playing with Snippet optimsation for as long as I can remember.
Simple: Show a different, more relevant meta description for a page for different queries. AKA Dynamic Meta Descriptions!
Why? To improve your click through rates of course!
In a nutshell, I don’t take anything as gospel – I try and test as much as I can. In this instance, I did, and it works!
The below is a search for my Brand: Explicitly Me.
See that meta description?
Explicitly Me is an experiment on exposing weakneses in Google, Bing & Yahoo. Visit the site at Explicitly.me to get awesome Blackhat Tips.
Now let’s run a search for my name: Rishi Lakhani
Rishi Lakhani (rishil) is a specialist SEM consultant, working on Paid, Organic, Affiliate and Social Media. To find out more, feel free to get in …
How cool is that? Its picking this up again from my meta description, and serving the right one for the query.
Here is a Screen shot of my meta description, but if you don’t believe me, check it yourself:
Now that I have validated that you can in fact have dynamic meta descriptions, I feel justified in deploying them for a number of sites and clients. Some example situations in which I would deploy these:
1. Brands Home Page – Brands home pages tend to rank for all sorts of stuff, from brand name, to top level generics. How cool would it be to have the home page meta showing a brand message when a brand query is entered, and showing a generic offer led copy when a generic keyword is searched for? You then please both the Brand Police, and your SEO CTR requirements.
2. Top ranking generic pages – although I need to test this a bit more, I also think you can optimise the copy to show smaller variations in the description tag, for example, when a Car insurance page ranks for both, Cheap Car Insurance, and Car Insurance Comparison – traditionally you would optimise ONE meta description for that page to include both keywords. But how cool would it be to show TWO separate ones which are query dependant? E.g.:
Read your peers, keep an eye on what they are trying and testing. See their results, then try and replicate as many as possible, as long as the results they get are something you can use.
Paid search gives you many options to test and play with the SERPs and Keywords in a way that SEO cant. I have used PPC on several occasions to make decisions around SEO, and quite successfully. It is often hard for businesses to understand the “value” of SEO, and I know for a fact that most big brands use Paid Search as a medium more extensively than Organic Search. The budgets for SEO are often a fraction of those allocated to PC. Yet businesses are still to understand that Paid Search budgets have a “one hit” shelf life, while SEO ROI is for much longer periods.
In financially motivated businesses often SEO is undervalued when the SEO teams fail to show profit / ROI centric nature of organic search, and I often end up reaching the benefits of looking at SEO from the lens of a Paid Search marketer. SEO should not focus purely on traffic potential of keywords, but on the profit potential of keywords. In the past several studies have shown that PPC gets more budget than SEO.
Some of the areas that you can use Paid Search for include:
Your Meta Description and Title tags are important from a User Click Through point of view. Using PPC copy tests you can determine what messages get better click throughs from the SERPs – especially testing variant permanent Title Appends. For example I found that a brand that used “official” in their PPC copy gained a CTR upwards of 5% better than previous.
So we switched the PPC messages from the “brand keywords” to more sales oriented copy, while switching the home page title tag to include the words “official site”. Organic SEO from branded keywords grew, while PPC traffic dropped, and the joint traffic improved.
Results? More free traffic for their branded keywords.
It’s not always easy to determine which long tail or three word / four word phrases to target, ideally you want them all, but sometimes time and budget limitations won’t let you target all the variants. In my experience any keyword can have between 10-50 variations, especially if you start looking at adding location modifiers to make up phrases.
How do you determine the rate at which to attack certain sub sets of keywords in terms of optimization priority? I use PPC to help me.
Create lists and ads for your target KWs and run them for a decent time frame – for high volume phrases (between 1000-10000 a day) I am usually happy to use a two week timeframe. Let those keywords float in ideal positions (1 and 2) on PPC. You will often find that the site converts better on some, while not on others. There could be many reasons for this – but at least you will find the most profitable key phrases in any subset to determine your rate of optimization.
PRO TIP: You can use this technique for brand new key words that the business never considered to see if they work – you often find what I call “Eureka” keywords that the site never thought of, but become very profitable.
This exercise is similar to the one above, but in this instance you can use C to determine ROI and budgets. Now I am not unilaterally saying that PPC and SEO ROIs are interchangeable – they aren’t. But you can often work out some sort of a standard variant where ROI of PPC=(x)SEO (on SERP #y). This sort of formulaic working from historical data could help you determine what to expect when certain keyword sets move up in organic results.
PPC has a better conversion rate. It’s true that PPC converts slightly higher than SEO in a keyword-to-keyword comparison. But 88% of the traffic comes from SEO and 12% from PPC. Rand Fishkin in his presentation PPC vs SEO
Cross referencing the spend on PPC against those keywords will enable you to work out stronger arguments for determining the potential uplift of sales by targeting certain SERP positions for these keywords. This in return allows you to work out the profitability, and hence desirability of those keyword sets – and in return allows you to allocate more budget towards acquiring those positions.
In a ROI centric business this sort of methodology is essential in working out SEO Budgets and actually increasing the value of SEO visibly to businesses.
Almost half of UK companies (49%) are now spending at least £50,000 a year on paid search marketing, up from 45% last year and 39% in 2008, while there has been a significant decrease in the proportion of responding companies who spend less than £5,000 a year on paid search, from 25% last year to 14% this year. Econsultancy Search Marketing Benchmark Report
I have covered some of this over at SEOmoz on SEO Budgeting.
Of course none of this looks at the long term Branding value of generic searches and determining longer term ROI time frames for generic Keywords:
Only 30% of purchases driven by non-branded Internet searches occur within the same online session when consumers conduct an initial search, according to a study by research firm Compete Inc. (source)
As I have mentioned above, SEO should focus on profitability – and some of the key aspects of profitability are where you land your site visitors on. For Keyword “X” should you land on the “home page”, “category page” or a “custom built to purpose landing page”?
In paid search, you can test all three variants. In SEO you may have the potential to rank only one over the other. By the time you realize you have targeted the wrong landing page, it may be too late or taken too long to switch. This can be a costly mistake, and short of conversion optimization on the target SEO page, you can’t do much in the short term.
I would suggest using PPC testing to determining the best converting pages per keyword sets, you would often be amazed by the results. In one instance I found that the home page is the best converting page – regardless of what you did for a particular generic keyword. In other situations, when we targeted a landing page built for “KW” and “KW+Local Modifier”, where we were targeting both the top keyword and the local area – we found that for the total sets of keywords, it converts worse than the page that WASN’T optimized with page elements for the local modifier. (i.e No mention of the “local” aspect on the page actually helped the conversion, but made SEO for full range of long tail much more difficult). In the end we had to split it into two pages – one targeting “KW” and another targeting “KW+Local Modifier”.
- I am not a great believer in PPC+SEO=More (Synergy), but there have been cases of this being reported, and reported often enough to test.
- Better Coverage of the PPC & SEO Square off in the Battle of the SEM Heavyweights – SES Chicago 2010
- PPC Blogs – check out David Szetela’s BIG LIST of decent PPC blogs on his blog roll. (you should follow him on twitter too.
When I asked Twitterverse the question “Q: Do SEOs use PPC as a research tool?” – I was encouraged by the answers, which proved that I wasn’t the only one using the techniques above:
- staceycav Sometimes…. or at least conversion data from PPC can be useful in assessing potential keywords for a SEO campaign.
- Chris_Dugdale Yes. Always (where possible).
- mmhemani Why not, usually people use more then one tool for keyword research and i think using PPC is also a good idea.
- TomNashUK A: they should do
- justinparks yes. It helps quickly (and sometimes expensively) answer questions.
- firstconversion Id like to more, its not very popular with clients tho they dont like paying for exploratory things
- seoforumsorg yes – its the single most valuable source of information to SEO’s.
- inkodeR I’d hope so – most effective method for KW research available. Can’t trust data from KW tools.
- Searchmetrics Absolutely – knowing PPC data is important for understanding the competitive nature of a keyword for organic ranking
- _robh_ if they don’t they should
- marccclevy when I can afford it! Definitely v.useful.
- LordManley A: Yes. Perfect for honing meta descriptions and titles to maximise CTR, for example.
- gfiorelli1 I do, especially to understand the real value of some middle to long tail kwds that has “officially” no data statistics.
- SamuelCrocker A: When data is available/when I can make it so
- tatiana_london i think it is still used, to find keywords with good ratio of conversion/volume, with less competitive SEO then high volume
- rishi3211us i think most would do.. there’s so much of valuable & proven keyword data in there
- TonyVerre A: YES.
- yrewol yes, and if they don’t, they’re missing out on a lot of the “optimisation” bits of SEO
- PrachiDeshpande I use it as a research tool. Specially, to target best performing PPC keywords for SEO campaign.
- NeilTompkins Yes and no. I normally use PPC to get an idea of how competitive the phrases are.
- olivier_amar For sure. It’s a great tool to see which keywords convert and bounce.
- David_TappYes, as long as we can get the information off of the PPC agency.
- netmeg I do. (I really respect NetMeg by the way!)
- souvikmukherjeewould have loved to but not always possible, specially when you are working with small businesses. Small business clients usually have stingent marketing budgets so you may not get the luxury of experimenting at your own cost.
- Adrac_Ltd Yes. So that we can target keyterms appropriatly on the website and in the link building campaign