Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Black Hat Marketing Techniques Exposed and Why to Avoid Them

Exposing Black Hat Marketing Techniques

Well, I said nearly a week ago that I would put this post online. This post has implications that go far beyond online marketing and economics into the realms of politics, ethics, and even religion. I'll leave it to the reader to make those connections and associated implications for him or herself.

There is a principle I've found to be valuable throughout my career called "work." I remember sitting in a physics class at Butler Middle School when Mr. Browning said, "you can't cheat work." As a principle of physics, he was absolutely right. And the principle also applies to online marketing and life in general. If you want to succeed in the long run, you have to work for results and to build long-term value.

Yes, you can innovate and find seems and creases to exploit and make money through improved efficiencies. That's a great guerrilla marketing strategy I have employed when creating search-term optimized awards programs, niche interest pages, and directories of user-generated content. But those projects all had something in common--they provided added value to the economic system. Partners, customers, and search engines loved these programs for improving relevancy and access to valuable content.

Most black hat marketing strategies drive results through unfair or unethical practices by ultimately attempting to cheat work. And what most of these approaches share in common is that they are only effective for a short time before they are exposed or lose their effectiveness (requiring just as much or more actual work than legitimate marketing methods).

Here are a few examples of black hat marketing to consider:

The Bump

A bump is an offer added to the end of a lead or CPA offer to essentially get people who have just signed up for something to (usually unwittingly) sign up for a second or third offer as well. When implemented, the bump offer usually appears as a required step in completing the initial registration process. Typically, this offer is pre-selected on the first confirmation page with "hidden" billing terms. In essence, the customer is now being billed for two different offers by completing one. Credit card information entered for the first offer is usually shared with the owner of the second offer as well, so the user doesn't have to go through more than one registration process (or see that they are actually going to be billed for subsequent offers).

I think was the first company I saw effectively employ a bump offer when signing up for a free site membership. Upon completion of the registration, the site made it appear that you needed to complete a credit card application to before the process was completed. This offer was presented as a way to receive access to their premium services or to receive a $15 credit. They implemented this offer back in 1999, so the details have become fuzzy in my mind. I just remember being mad when I clicked through and saw what they wanted me to do. This old bump offer, however, wasn't nearly as slick as current bump offers. You still had to complete a second form rather than being opted in automatically to participate in the offer.

Shared Billing

This is very similar to a bump but comes in a few different forms. Many offers I've seen recently promote free access to a premium service. The catch? To receive the free premium service, you must sign up for one or more partner offer. Similar to the bump, you are often caught in a seemingly never ending cycle of registrations to get what you thought was a straightforward offer. Those who are most effective include a page where you can sign up for multiple offers and then enter your billing information once for all of the offers.

This practice of sharing credit card information across vendors is dangerous. It also tricks the consumer who is just trying to get a free offer into paying for service he or she doesn't want or need through a confusing registration process.

You can read about one such program, run by Affinion, that was recently exposed and featured on Good Morning America among other media outlets: Co-registration probe. Evidently, companies including 1-800-Flowers, Orbitz, Shutterfly, VistaPrint, and more than a dozen other companies made more than $10 Million from this program. is included in the $10 Million circle. Dozens of other companies earned more than $1 Million from the program.

Advertising and Referral Arbitrage

This is a rather simple and unsophisticated tactic that employs PPC advertising and SEO pages to generate incremental advertising revenue from Google AdSense and other advertising networks. The tactic usually consists of creating SERP (Search Engine Results Page) spam pages tied to specific keyword where advertisers are paying a high cost per click. The trick is to then get traffic to these pages that have little value in themselves and then get people to click on the ads.

You've probably visited dozens of these sites. Most make little sense or are simply directories of keyword categories with advertisements. What's wrong this this tactic? The "marketer" is not adding any value and is actually frustrating the customer who is looking for legitimate, valuable content. The advertisers also lose because their ads are getting additional clicks from customers who are tricked into clicking on ads rather than actual product links.

In the past, I have literally clicked through up to a half-dozen lead referral and directory sites before getting to a page where I could actually purchase the product I had search for in the first place. Far from adding value or efficiency, the companies that run these sites are simply inserting themselves as "value sucking" intermediaries.

Cookie Stuffing and Other Affiliate Fraud

You're on a site looking for a new phone service because you're not happy with the one you have. You find a site that lists six competitive services. You click on one to check it out. The site you are on is an affiliated site of the six services you are comparing. They have signed up to receive a commission from each of the six competing phone companies any time someone they have referred makes a purchase. But they want to be sure they get credit for making the sale . . . whether or not they actually do. So instead of setting a single cookie that tracks the affiliate click to a single company, they run a script that sets cookies for ALL SIX COMPANIES before handing the customer over through the first link. They may also set a few cookies for phone conferencing or other phone-related products as well just for good measure.

What's more? The site is most likely masquerading as a review site, so you believe you are getting an impartial review of the products in question. In this case, all of the products probably sound great, but the service that provides the best commission probably sounds just a little bit better.

Promoting Products and Services with Little or No Value

Take a look at the affiliate offers on when you have a little time or want a good laugh. Many of the offers are nothing more than publishing free online content as eBooks or aggregating and selling videos from YouTube as a "video tutorial series." These companies make sure they charge enough for these "products" that they are able to enlist greedy or gullible marketers to push their offers. Is an eBook on how to assemble your own windmill really worth $700? Even when those instructions are found on the Internet for free?

Carefully research any product or service you promote, so you aren't unwittingly associated with a scam or even a horrible product. Chances are, those who sell such deceptive and valueless goods will not survive long enough financially to get around to paying you for your marketing services.

How Black Hat Marketing Poisons the Well

So, what's the big deal?

There are three main reasons to avoid black hat marketing: 1. personal or corporate integrity, 2. buying into a fraudulent ecosystem, and 3. sacrificing long-term success for short-term fixes.

Personal or Corporate Integrity

Do you really want to be associated with any of these tactics? I hope not. I was talking with someone last week who participates in advertising arbitrage. A comment he made when I explained that he should add valuable, unique content to the optimized pages he had created was, "that sounds like work." I can't think of any better personal indictment or clear sign of a lack of integrity than the stated desire to get something for nothing. Someone I admire recently shared something his father had taught him: "any deal that is too good is stealing." He was evidently arguing for the principle of fair value exchange, someone fewer and fewer people seem to embrace.

Buying into a Fraudulent Ecosystem

I've ranted a few times about this point already, so I'll be brief here. Once you engage in black hat marketing practices, you are damaging the economic engine for the industry that is paying your bills. You are also swimming with sharks and shysters who are also trying to do the same thing. The borderline between what is ethical and what is legal can quickly become blurred, and you may find you have been treading on the wrong side of that line.

Another risk is that all of the revenue you are "earning" may never actually make it into your bank account. Why? Merchant accounts in shady industries are often frozen or suspended, marketing partners may not pay in a timely manner, and many companies that sell products or services that are "too good to be true" will fail financially or be shut down. This is an ecosystem in which you can't afford to participate, even as a little fish.

Sacrificing Long-Term Success for Short-Term Fixes

Yes, any company can get drunk off of their own bad revenue. Such a drunken stupor nearly always results in bad decisions that stifle the long-term success of the company.

I am aware of a company that was making money on ads that promoted trivia quizzes, IQ tests and that like that found it very difficult to ween themselves from the revenue these ads provided. What seemed like innocent ads were actually powerful and deceptive tactics to get people to sign up for paid services to receive the results of their quizzes. Wouldn't you want to give your cell phone number to receive your IQ results if you just spent the last 20 minutes completing the evaluation? Evidently, lots of people wanted the results of their quizzes. The fact that they were signing up for a monthly recurring bill was hidden in the small print.

They were so successful with their offer that they were willing to pay an $8 CPM (Cost Per Thousand impressions) to any website publisher who would run the ads. But it didn't last. After some time, they decided (probably with help from the FTC or FCC) that they needed to make the terms of service in the small print more obvious. This reduced their conversion rate and the rate they were willing to pay for CPM advertising. They were probably still getting tons of complaints and credit card chargebacks because they soon added a phone text verification to the process. This again drove down the conversion rate and CPM they were willing to pay.

Meanwhile, the website publishers who were making money on these offers were reluctant to shuck the ads from their sites, even after receiving angry complaints from site visitors. Why? Because they had gotten drunk off the revenue and didn't have a good revenue replacement. And the downward spiral continued. The publishers with foresight focused on improving their services to get more qualified visitors and expand their advertising inventory. Those that reacted poorly focused on increasing the number of ads units on their sites and on other short-term strategies to temporarily prop up revenue that had been too good to be real and sustainable.

In another instance, I worked with someone who was promoting his product through a bump offer. In the end, he had so many credit card chargebacks (for what could have been successfully marketed through legitimate methods) that the merchant account provider assessed him with a huge fine and canceled his account with more than $20,000 in frozen funds. After several months it appears he will be able to collect most of the money that was frozen in his account, but the cost of the lost cash flow was tremendous. In the end, the decision was made to shut down the site rather than open a new merchant account and start over.


After reviewing the tactics listed here and several others, I am still of the opinion that there is no free lunch when it comes to internet marketing. I don't believe people who engage in these practices will ever enjoy long-term success. Instead, they will continue to hurt consumers and the economy at large as they exploit their next opportunity and execute their next scheme. They merely understand how to combine technology with the art of deception to line their own pockets at the expense of customers and the very companies they promote. They engage in changing the dynamics in a zero-sum game, where if they succeed everyone loses.


  1. Hey Jim, nice article. Do you have any examples for the Advertising Arbitage? You wrote that they create SERP with spam content, but obviously it's not a google SERP but simply a website with a SERP, such as parked domain have?

  2. Joshua, yes. It's just a SERP with spam content based on keywords. A few years ago, people were able to make thousands of dollars per month by bidding on keywords and SEO for these "catalog" sites that had no original content. With GoDaddy and everyone else now using this strategy for parked domains and ongoing changes in Google's search algorithm, this strategy is much less successful today than it was two years ago. This is a great example of efficiencies decreasing the effectiveness of a black hat strategy over time.


Thanks for commenting on my blog posting. I will try to respond in a timely manner to any questions or comments that keep the conversation moving forward.

Feel free to contact me at to correspond directly.

Warm Regards,