Black hat SEO doesn’t seem so bad, until you actually understand what it is. Then it becomes obvious why it’s bad SEO.

When you see something on TV about how cheap hot dogs or chicken nuggets are made (mmm… pink slime), it doesn’t exactly make you hungry, does it? Ignorance is bliss. Black hat SEO is much the same way in a number of respects. Getting a behind the scenes look at the whats and hows of black hat practices makes it apparent why they’re considered problematic, and why Google has taken such a merciless stance with websites that use them.

There are many different flavors of black hat SEO practices, so many that a lot of them can’t be explained in a brief overview. Instead, let’s talk about a single type that gets relatively little time in the spotlight, despite having been an integral part of unsavory SEO practices for a number of years: “content spinning,” sometimes known as “article spinning.”

Bad SEO - Content Spinning
Dear website, those are some pretty nice search rankings you got there… it’d be a shame if anything were to happen to them. Love, Google.

Low-rent SEO marketers advertise that they can get your business relevant backlinks in hundreds or thousands of related blog posts and pages. That’s great, but the trick is, they’ve got to be able to generate all of that content quickly in order for it to be worth their while. They can’t just write one blog post and throw it up on a thousand different pseudo-blogs and low-grade article collection sites. Google would quickly recognize what was going on, and punish all the sites sharing that duplicate content. And your site would be punished as well for being linked to by all of those copy-paste articles.

So, how can our cheap SEO guy cook up a whole bunch of articles that are different from one another? This is where content spinning comes into play.

Content spinning is simply taking something that is written one way, and rewriting it so that it sounds different.

People spin content all the time when they write. It’s what students are taught to do in English class in order to avoid plagiarizing research sources. Say that little Johnny is writing an essay on Shakespeare, and he wants to include a detail about Shakespeare that he found in a book: “Shakespeare created thousands of new words which are still used in the English language today.” If Johnny just lifts that sentence straight from the book and puts it in his essay, he’s gonna get an F from his teacher if he gets caught. Dang it, Copyscape.

So at the bare minimum, what Johnny needs to do is communicate that idea without using the exact same sentence. That’s easy. There are almost an infinite number of ways to do it, just by playing around with word choice, or the structure of the sentence. Some examples:

Thousands of words that Shakespeare invented still exist in the English language.

Shakespeare contributed to the English language by creating thousands of new words.

Thousands of the words in the English language were coined by Shakespeare.

The English language owes the creation of thousands of words to Shakespeare.

You get the idea. Every one of those sentences, and hundreds of other possibilities, are different from one another while still communicating the same general information: A whole bunch of English words were made up by Shakespeare.

That brings us back to our black hat SEO guy who needs to generate mountains of seemingly unique blog posts and articles that link back to your site. Now, he could contract out to an Indian company and have a roomful of semi-sorta-fluent writers spitting out all those articles for a few pennies a person. Or go full-blown Mr. Burns. That was the name of the content game for a long time. But that cost scales up pretty quickly–the more posts you need, the more writers you need, the more money you have to spend. And our black hat SEO guy wants to make money, not spend it. He can’t raise his rates much, because his cheap prices are what make him attractive to customers in the first place, and there are plenty of competitors who will gladly underbid him. So what can he do?

What’s cheaper than a roomful of people writing a thousand unique blog posts? A single computer program that can take one unique blog post, and turn it into a thousand. It may be a magical sounding idea, but such programs exist. In fact, dozens and hundreds and thousands of them do. A quick Google search for “content spinning programs” turns up 8 different ones on the first page of results. They feature a wide array of features and differing levels of automation (and article quality). The less sophisticated ones operate by changing words out for synonyms–“the man runs” becomes “the guy runs” or “the man jogs”–or by haphazardly scrambling the word order (just about always resulting in a messy-looking, meaningless word soup).

But, some of these programs have become very good, especially the ones that incorporate a certain amount of creativity on the part of the people using the programs. These content spinning apps require the human user to specify how a sentence can be changed, and what words or phrases can be swapped out for alternatives. This sort of content spinning has become so common that the writing format used to tell a content spinner how the content can be spun (say that three times fast) has its own name: spintax. The term “spintax” is a portmanteau–two words combined to create a new word–of the words “spin” and “syntax.” The word “syntax” refers to the rules of a language; how words and phrases are put together in order for them to have a comprehensible meaning.

Let’s say that our black hatter is doing SEO work for a client that markets chewing gum on their site, and so he needs to cook up a bunch of blog posts that discuss chewing gum, with all of those posts linking back to his client’s site. He starts off by spending a little time writing up a reasonably decent blog post that involves chewing gum. One of the sentences in that blog post might be:

Max taps his pencil against his desk and chews gum when he’s bored.

Now, our author extraordinaire needs to create variations of this sentence, each one of them being unique in some way. First of all, he looks for words that he can replace with synonyms–words that mean the same thing, or close enough for government work, anyways. “Taps” could be changed out for “raps,” or “thumps,” or “drums.” So our black hatter needs to put some instructions in the sentence that will tell his content spinning program to change out “taps” for one of the other possibilities. Here’s what that looks like:

Max {taps|raps|thumps|drums} his pencil against his desk and chews gum when he’s bored.

The curly brackets tells the spinning program to choose only one of the word or phrase options within the brackets for each blog post that it spits out. The vertical lines (sometimes called bars or pipes) are what separates the different options from one another. Because we now have four options for that one word, we can get four different versions of the sentence with slightly different beginnings: Max taps, Max raps, Max thumps, Max drums.

That’s nice, but where the math really gets crazy is when you add a few more possibilities for a number of different parts of the sentence:

{Max|He} {taps|raps|thumps|drums} his {pencil|pen|finger} {against|on} {his|the} {desk|table|writing desk} and {chews|chews on|gnaws on} gum {when|while} {he’s|he is} {bored|tired|lazy}.

Um. Yeah. There’s a lot going on there. Let’s arrange this in more of a Choose Your Own Adventure kind of way.

Content Spinning Paraphrase Examples
Two examples are traced out on the diagram. In red: “Max thumps his finger on his desk and gnaws on gum when he is lazy.” In blue: “He raps his pencil against the table and chews on gum while he is tired.”

Starting at the top with “Max” or “He,” trace a path down to the bottom, with your path intersecting only one of the underlined options on each line. Any one path that you draw represents a different version of the sentence. The math says that there are 10,368 different, unique possibilities. Now, granted, some of those versions are going to be very similar to one another, with the only difference being a change in one word (“Max thumps his finger on…” versus “Max thumps his finger against…”). But this example involves just a single sentence. Apply content spinning to a blog post that’s even five or six hundred words long, and with some more complicated substitution possibilities–we’re just scratching the surface for the sake of time–and you’re talking about literally billions of possibilities. And many of the more sophisticated content spinners have settings that you can change to specify just how different any one version must be from the next, with no two versions having more than 50% of the words in common, or 70%, or whatever you please.

In this manner, it’s very easy to generate tens of thousands of substantially, but superficially different pieces of content from a single written piece of a few hundred words. Our friendly black hatter can then use a number of other applications to automatically upload all these different versions of the document–with the necessary link to your chewing gum site embedded–to a haystack of low-quality blog networks and article repositories.

Then you just wait for Google’s crawlers to stumble across all those different pieces of content, and let Google draw the conclusion that thousands of different people on the internet are talking about chewing gum and referencing your site, and suddenly your site’s rankings are through the roof!

…And then your search rankings crash.

Content spinning might be good for SEO, but it’s extremely bad for the internet.

Nothing of worth is contributed to the Web via article spinning. It’s like a bookstore clogging up its shelves with 30,000 different versions of the same book. No matter how many copies there are, there’s really only one book’s (or blog post’s) worth of information. And it makes it that much more difficult to find other quality sites and blogs on the same topic, because they’re drowned out by all of the nonsense.

Content spinning is easy. That’s why it’s a practice that has existed for years, resulting in literally billions of BS pages that were only created to give the illusion of another website’s popularity. And it has become increasingly prevalent and problematic as automated content spinners have become more sophisticated of late. There are now bot applications that automatically scrape the web for articles related to desired keywords, spin thousands of different versions, embed the desired links, and upload them elsewhere, all without human intervention.

This is why Google has invested vast amounts of resources–time, people, and money–to detect this sort of search engine manipulation, and they’ve gotten pretty good at it. The Panda and Penguin algorithms were specifically designed by Google to detect the sort of fraudulent SEO practices exemplified by content spinning. If you contract with an SEO company that uses content spinning, you’re liable to get smacked with a massive search ranking penalty that could be impossible to recover from.

Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, put Google’s low opinion of content spinning somewhat drily when he said, “…If you’re allowing so many guest bloggers that you allow things like spun blogs, where people aren’t really writing real content of their own, then that is a pretty bad indicator of quality.”

At best, black hat SEO techniques are considered to be temporary fixes, even by those who use them.

They use them knowing that they’ll have to dump the site they’re promoting once Google catches on and blows it out of the water, and start all over again. Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Roundtable (one of many sites that posts frequently about SEO) wrote a brief post about a discussion he came across in a black hat forum. One poster had discussed how they’d had great success with content spinning and had no worries. Another one of the site’s members responded succinctly, “You’re going to get banned [from Google] pretty quickly if you keep this up.”

Your business is your livelihood, something you’re emotionally and financially invested in. So hiring someone who uses get-rich-quick SEO techniques is just about the worst mistake you could make. It’s one thing to dump a site that never had value in the first place, but you can’t just walk away from a business you’ve poured your life into. Bad SEO techniques are often referred to by black hatters as “churn and burn” for a reason: in the end, everything they touch burns to the ground, and you have to start all over again.

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