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Real Black Hat SEO
Last month Sunbelt Software published some very scary information on their blog. The idea it represented was very worrying indeed and extremely simple to implement.  To summarise people were using simple SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) tactics to spread malware or viruses. The concept is simple – a web page is set up in order to distribute malware – fairly common place however in order to trick people on to these sites – SEO tactics were employed. Web pages were created which targeted certain phrases or words. One of the examples specified listed a search expression for the netgear ProSafe DD-WRT. This term would be extremely simple to get listed high in most search engine rankings – a first page ranking could be achieved by very basic on-page optimization techniques. What better way to distribute your malware than piggybacking the legitimacy implied by appearing high up in Googles listing. Obviously other more popular search phrases would require more work but I suspect the pay off would be much better to the distributor than multiple email bombs. Read about Sunbelts research here.

The possibilities are very worrying – search results for simple technical queries could become infiltrated with multiple malware sites. We would have to analyse our search results and treat them with the same caution we treat unsolicited emails with attachments. Imagine the scenario where a specific security vulnerability is targeted – say a certain driver or router has a serious security vulnerability. The malware distributor targets this and creates a web page to specifically attack the vulnerability. Then he optimises the page so that anyone searching for firmware to update that router is instead offered the malware infected page on page one of their results. Google would inadvertently be driving vulnerable people into the arms of the malware distributor. If the page was presented professionally it could even pretend to deliver an update or the patch whilst in fact installing some form of harmful code onto your computer. How many of us have searched for drivers and codecs and then installed them directly from the resultant web page? The concept has far reaching possibilities – the very fact that it is fairly simple to rank highly for unpopular searches make these sort of attacks very efficient for any distributor of malware. However combined with spamming attacks and an army of automated bots to post and create external links on blogs and guest-books etc even popular keyword searches could be affected. How long before we see the criminal gangs and phishing scams using the very same technique. A little research could produce some uncompetitive keyword searches that would produce highly targeted ‘victims’. Much smaller numbers of than the vast phising email attacks although I would suggest a much higher success rate than the .5-1% allegedly obtained by some of these.  Of course even with its vast resources Google can’t be expected to vet every page it indexes although it will obviously remove sites which are found to have malware. It does sometime become very difficult to wonder what we can actually trust on the internet!!!

Google Search
Googles goal is to give the searcher the correct results for their query.   This relies on a certain amount of guesswork even with the most advanced algorithms.  For instance if I search for the word 'Bass' - I could be a keen fisherman or play in a band and of course the search results would be completely different.
The only way Google can tell which is correct is to know something about you.   The algorithm can do a much better job if it has access to your search history - the web sites and search history would give the algorithm a good idea of whether to return music or fishing sites.

Of course there are some very important privacy issues here - our search history tells an awful lot about us.  Our interests, hobbies, financial situations and a whole lot more can be gleaned from monitoring our web history. 

 Google already customises it's results based on your IP address and location.   If given access to your web history it would customise even more - a search enquiry on the same keywords could be completely different to every person.  Of course this has massive ramifications for the Search Promotion industry - reaching number one in 'google' will be difficult when every users results are customised !

However the principles will remain of professional and legitimate Search Engine Promotion specialists - the content will be paramount and links will need to be relevant to affect the results.    We can't fight or trick the Search engines we have to work with them to ensure we appear in the results of the correct searches. 

I think the main concern is privacy - Google ensures us that this behaviour is under our control - but then I don't remember being asked whether they could use my location to customise the results.  Search results would obviously be more relevant and targetted but I wonder if the loss of privacy is a price worth paying.

Read more about this at the Google Blog

SEO Keyword Obsessions
The world of Search Engine Optimisation is obviously primarily focussed on obtaining high ranking positions for keywords.    But often the business impetus for this is flawed - often you will see proud claims for acheiving first page ranks for customers keywords - which are irrelevant to the business.  Try to think - who do you really want to visit your site then try and imagine what keywords they would search on to find you.   If this process is not thought through you will merely drive up your bandwidth costs with a lot of uninterested visitors - your optimisation will actually cost you money !!

Take an example like Digital camera - a highly targetted keyphrase - if you owned a camera shop in Liverpool how many of these searchers would actually convert to customers on visiting your site - Hardly any is the suspicion !!

Often the keyword selection process is difficult - a handy tip in keyword research is to actually ask your customers or anyone what keywords they would use in trying to find your product or services.  You will often be surprised at the responses - people will use a variety of approaches depending on many factors  - for instance many inexperienced web searchers will tend to use more words and real language phrases than an experienced web searcher.

Don't spend a fortune targetting highly competitive keywords unless you know you will see a real business benefit.   Often selecting a set of uncompetitive keywords will bring a simpler and cheaper business benefit.

Psychology of the Search
Google and Search Engine scientists and SEO professionals spend a lot of time pondering this.   After all when we cut through all the marketing and techniques and link building - the bottom line is that the search engines need to deliver the information that the searchers want. If acheiving a HIgh ranking in Google could be summarised it would be simply deliver the best results for the enquiry.   Herein lies a dillema with one of the primary factors that defines the importance of a web page - back links into that page.

Take an example of a hugely informative but badly optimised page of information written by a subject expert and compare with a page of processed, copied information delivered by an SEO professional - which do you want to read ?  Probably the first but which one will rank highly in the search engines - almost certainly the SEO page - a fundamental problem.    Often if the content is good enough this situation will reverse with natural interests and links gradually overtaking the SEOs more artificial efforts - but many, many excellent sites exist in obscurity compared with an SEOs three page optimised site with hundreds of targetted links.

Of course life is not fair but the lesson to be learned is that the vast resources of Google et al are focussed on removing the artificial relevence of SEO to the Organic search engine results - we should remember this always in our optimisation work.   If Google changes the rules - pages will drop into obscurity over night - which can be traumatic if a business is involved.   Black Hat techniques used on a site to acheive a high rank will almost certainly have this effect eventually.  Improving content may not bring the fast results of an aggresive link building campaign but they may well be longer lasting.