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The Art of Black Hat PPC Management

Applying Black Hat SEO techniques to PPC

by Mikkel deMib Svendsen - March 2005

At the recent Search Engine Strategies conference in Chicago in December 2004 I participated in a controversial session headlined: "Black Hat, White Hat & Lots of Gray". It was very good session covering various techniques, strategies, and, of course, a lot of opinions about so-called Black Hat and White Hat SEO. However, there was one topic that was not covered at all; neither by the speakers or in questions from the audience: PPC engines! In this article I will take a closer look at the much overlooked magic of "Black Hat" PPC management.

Definition of Black Hat Search Engine Marketing

There are many different opinions about what constitutes Black Hat SEO. I think most of us can agree that it is essentially this: any activity in which search engines do not want us to engage, namely hidden text, link-spamming, cloaking, extreme reversed engineering and such. Search engines basically don't want us to know too many details about their technology because we will then be tempted to manipulate it to our advantage.

Some might say that all SEOs are Black Hats - that's what SEO is: manipulation of search results for your own benefit. Some SEOs are just more "black" than others. In any case, I think most of us can agree that some of the Black Hat techniques have proven to be very effective although sometimes for a limited time.

Black Hat PPC Management in Perspective

The primary reason for not covering PPC engines in the Black Hat session in Chicago is because most people don't think in such terms when it comes to paid advertising. You pay, get listed and that's it, right? Wrong! Very, very wrong!

Paid placement, like organic SEO, has rules. In fact, the rules and guidelines applied to paid advertising are often more clear and precise. But, they are still rules. Some of the rules are good and some of them outright stupid. Some rules or guidelines will help you run a better campaign and some of them not. Some of the rules will limit your ability to compete the best you can.

Black Hat PPC management is the art of getting around stupid rules and restraining guidelines to gain a competitive advantage over your competitors in PPC engines.

Spamming PPCs is (almost) Risk Free!

As we all know there are certain risks in spamming search engines organic indexes. Search engines don't like it and they will do their best to try and stop us. Fine, that's how the game is. But when it comes to paid advertising the rules are enforced in a completely different way.

PPC Search engines may pull a campaign if it doesn't follow the rules but unlike organic SEO they will tell you if they do so and most often also tell you what to do to fix it and get back on track (back to spending money with them).

I have yet to see one single example of any advertiser that ever got a permanent ban in PPC engines for not following the rules - no matter what he did! It just doesn't happen. And why should it? Once you adjusted your campaign and it follows the rules again why would the engines not want to take your money? Trust me, especially if it's big money, they will take it.

Profile of an Effective Black Hat Artist

To become a good Black Hat artist you need first of all to be curious. Very curious! Some technical skills are good to have as well. Also, an anarchist attitude might be helpful. At the very least, you need to be that kind of person that questions every single rule around you, evaluates it and decides for yourself if you think it should apply to you or not, and then does something about it! Some call us "creative" and some "a nightmare" I just call us "go-doers" with a target in life too important for little details (such as restrictive regulations) to get in our way.

Once you are in the right mindset and know what route you want to take; what rules you want to break and which guidelines you don't want to follow you need to figure out how to go about it. That's when your curiosity genes come into play and you can put your technical skills to use.

Don't worry too much if you don't have any technical skills; just be sure to make some really good geeky friends! Some of the best Black Hat SEOs in this industry - organic and PPC - have no or very little technical skills but they have great friends that do. Personally I am kind of in the middle; I do have some technical skills but I often need the help of hardcore engineers when it comes to the really geeky stuff. That works fine for me. You have to find the balance that works for you.

Great Black Hat PPC Techniques That Work

Now you are probably expecting me to tell you all the cool little secrets about what you should actually do to tweak the systems for your advantage. Sorry, but I will have to disappoint you. I will give you a few tips but the problem with any Black Hat technique - PPC or organic - is that once it is out in the public the effectiveness of the method usually dies out fast. Search engine editors read articles like this, too.

So, the general disclaimer for this article reads: Don't do it!

As my old accountant said when I first engaged him almost 20 years ago: "Mikkel, I don't mind if you take "black" money. Just make sure nobody finds out about it. Don't leave ANY trails behind you" If you want to rob a bank the least you can do is wear a mask and don't talk about your plans in public.

However, in the following paragraphs I am going to give you a few ideas and hints about how Black Hat PPC managers work and some of the barriers we attack. Use at as a starting point for your own creative solutions.

Never Use a Direct URL!

One of the most annoying rules at PPC engines is the fact that they want to re-review your target pages if anything in the URL changes. I do understand the reasons as they want to know what pages they send users to but why on earth does Google have to reset my hard earned high CTR if all I change is an added tracking parameter? In any case, I am not going to pay for it!

The simple solution is to set-up some kind of layer between you and them so the URL you use is actually not the one that shows the content. This gives you the freedom to make adjustments to the URL or content without changing the URL in the PPC engine. This can be done in several ways - both server side and client side. Basically this is how it works:

  1. Find the target page on your site that you want to start out with - for example: www.domain.com/products.asp?p_id=254
  2. Set up another page (so far blank) on a permanent URL to map to the first one - for example: www.domain.com/shoes.asp - only use this URL for your PPC campaign.
  3. User server side or client side techniques to "drag in" the real target page, to show on the new URL. Server-side this can be done with an include statement. Client side this can be done with a 100% frameset. Very simple and easy.
  4. If you need to change the target URL, for example add a tracking parameter to something like this: www.domain.com/products.asp?p_id=254&camp=adwords you just make the change to the mapping-URL (the address you "drag in" - not the URL you use in your campaign).

This way Google won't see that you actually change the target URL and you get to keep that hard earned CTR. I think that's fair.

There are, of course, many other ways to do this - some of them better than my examples and with less chance for error - but the example shows how easily it can be done at the lowest level. Please feel free to be creative and work your own solutions.

Cloak the Editors

I personally hate pop-ups, but in some countries they are still an accepted part of commercial websites. Until recently, this has been the case here in Denmark. However most of the PPC engines, the majority of them being located in California, have decided that they know better and don't want to send search users to sites using pop-ups. Anyway, I don't accept it so, I do something about it (whenever I have to)!

The good news is that many PPC editors are not very technically skilled. So, they are not that hard to fool into thinking that there actually are no pop-ups on the site you are promoting. There are several ways to do this:

  1. Cloaking is usually only applied to organic results but work just as well for most editors - you just need to research and update your IP lists. You can start out with the spider IP lists available from vendors like Fantomaster (http://www.fantomaster.com) or IP-Delivery (http://www.ip-delivery.com). Strip it down to C-classes to target broadly. This way you will get some "false positives" that consequently won't see your pop-ups either, but the majority of visitors from outside the editor room will, and everyone is happy.
  2. A more simple technique that sometimes works is to just submit your page including the pop-ups and wait for response. The second they reject it you go and update the listing (without actually changing anything) and as quickly as possible email them back and say it's fixed. If you are lucky the same editor will come back and check. Now, the trick is that most editors don't know anything about cookies ... get the picture?
Never use the Budget Function

This may not really fall under genuine Black Hat techniques but it is definitely something you should know about. Do not follow the PPC engines advice on this topic! The budget function is only good for one thing: Making more money for the PPC engines! If you want to support them, fine, go ahead and use it. But if you don't, please move on and read up.

What happens when you use the budget function? Well, basically you keep paying the premium CPC all the way to the end of your budget and then you are cut off. That surely makes the PPC engines happy and surely won't disturb the users (too much). However, it will eat up your budget 2-3 times faster than it has to and even worse - you'll end up paying a much higher average CPC this way.

The non-budget-function strategy is simple (using AdWords as an example):

  1. Set up your campaign as you usually would - but with the budget to at least twice the recommended amount.
  2. During the first few thousand impressions, keyword by keyword, you will get a picture of how high the volume is and where your CPC will end up. Using this you can calculate how much your monthly budget will have to be. It is likely that this is much higher than what you can afford and this is when you would usually use the budget function, right? Wrong! Don't do that!
  3. Instead, lower your bids - a little bit day by day - 5-10% reduction per day seems to work fine. If you lower bids too fast you risk losing too much of your hard earned CTR.
  4. Use the same calculations as above (2) day by day as you reduce your bidding until you reach a CPC and volume that stays within your monthly budget.

What happens using this technique is that by lowering the CPC you drop in rank. As you drop in rank you (usually) get fewer click throughs. What I often find is that the first couple of days reducing bids I actually get the same number of clicks - just at a lower CPC. So basically we now get more clicks on the same budget.

However, if your goal is to stay within your total budget you just keep lowering bids until you reach that level. As you keep lowering your bidding ranks and click throughs will eventually start to drop. At that point you will hopefully pay a 50%-75% lower CPC than you would using the budget function.

Black Hat or Professional Partner?

You have to make a choice: once you sign up a direct deal with the engines they've got you and you can't be Black Hat anymore! It will suddenly become a violation of the agreements you made and the consequences can dramatically increase from just being an advertiser. It may hurt your firm if they take the accreditation or agreement away from you.

Personally, I have chosen to stay out these relationships until I can see some real benefits from it. So far it feels too much like a straitjacket. I will be willing to give up some of my "creative feedom" of being on my own if I get something of real value in return but so far I just haven't seen it. However, this is a topic a future article from me - coming up ...

More to come ...

There are many other creative activities you can engage in that will help you run more effective PPC campaigns - much more than I could ever find room for in this article. My intent is merely to inspire you to think outside the box. Don't limit yourself - stay competitive and be creative. After all, isn't marketing all about being creative?

Mikkel deMib Svendsen

© Mikkel deMib Svendsen 2005

Editor: Mike Grehan. Search engine marketing consultant, speaker and author. http://www.search-engine-book.co.uk

Associate Editor: Christine Churchill. KeyRelevance.com

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Editor: Mike Grehan.
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