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March 27, 2009

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark: Black Hat PPC Tactics in SES NY

By Brian Cosgrove

The "Black Hat" PPC session contained quite a bit of overlap in content. There was a certain risk/reward scenario that followed and for the most part, the panelists agree that it's a good idea to push the boundaries far enough to get push-back, but not so far that you banned. At SMG, we suggest that you use your own best judgment on whether to use these tactics, but also that you keep your eyes open to see whether they are being used against you.

The panelists for this session include:

  • Richard Zwicky: Founder & CEO, Enquisite
  • Jamie Smith: CEO, Engine Ready
  • Kevin Lee: Co-Founder & Executive Chairman, Didit
  • David Szetela: CEO, Clix Marketing
  • Bill Leake: President and CEO, Apogee Search

Among the topics was shelf space. This means getting multiple listings on the same page by the same company. They mentioned that this can occur by working with channel providers, or creating resource portals with a few competitors. In cases where there is a decidedly different user experience; many folks may get away with the multiple listings. Nonetheless, the foot print that would tie the accounts together must be minimized. Also, there may be several situations where a user will click on multiple of your listings on the same results page driving the cost per acquisition (CPA) up. In this respect, it's better to separate the listings (1 and 4 instead of 2 and 3). Note that CPA could go over the top if users regularly click multiple listings; but the vast majority or users click on or under two for any SERP. One panelist mentioned that it may have a negative impact on your brand if low-quality flanker sites or low quality affiliates are taking up the listings. As long as your trying to avoid complaints, you're on a far better path to keep those multiple shelf-space ads alive.

Another topic covered is hiding from competition. To do this, geo-targeting can be applied to exclude your competitor's town. Further, an IP address may be blocked from you campaign and this can be obtained by sending an email to the competitor and viewing its properties to get the IP address of where it went. If the competitor uses an agency, it must be excluded as well. If the geographic region of the competitor is too important of a market, geography-based exclusion should be reconsidered. Beware that affiliates will often use this tactic against you.  This concept is important with black hat PPC because it may reduce the number of complaints you'll receive from competition about black/gray-hat tactics and it hides the successful ads from their view as well. As a best practice the top three to five competitors should be considered. In the same notion as hiding from your competition, one panelist suggested hiding from Google as well (i.e., only violate rules when Mountain View, CA is sleeping.)

Trademarks were covered in length. On the topic, they mentioned that it takes a long time to get trademark usage approved with some companies. Dynamic keyword insertion in one tool that can help to facilitate getting trademarks in the ad copy when they are used in the search. Also mentioned was using hyphens or spaces creatively. For example, if the word "company" was a trademark, someone might use "comp-any" or "c o m p a n y" in their ad. In other cases, there are still companies who haven't or can't enforce a trademark and therefore could be easily targeted. One suggestion was to align ppc spend with the competitor's market spend to capitalize on large marketing campaign pushes that will increase the volume of related queries. Monitoring and syncing with their campaigns will let you harvest the clicks from the entire "ecosystem" of words that they stimulate. Note that re-targeting may also let you connect your ads with competitors' trademarks in an indirect manner.  Finally, use of broad match on mispellings(sic) of names, pieces of names, or pieces of domain spellings can further capitalize on searches intended for competitors. 

On the PR side of things, they suggested using Adwords for promoting negative press about competitors. For example, you could promote your own marketwatch.com article by making a better quality score and higher bid or you could publicize someone else's "statement of truth."

Some tactics were simply around testing boundaries. For example, one was about using special characters and symbols such as bullet points, arrows, etc... in your ads. While trademark and copyright symbols in an ad are a best practice, (and apparently improve click-through rates), they are not only characters that can work. Some such as the # sign will probably not work but by using the Adwords editor, you can test which others will. Similarly, use of superlatives, capitalized words, or CSS-layer styled pop-ups on landing pages are things that can be quickly corrected if you're caught but probably won't result in a ban.

Other areas for gray hat include some light "cloaking" where landing content is different based on geography, time of day, cookie acceptance, ISP, HTTP referrer, or landing page personalization characteristics. In the same way that the self space approach may let you get the right copy for the user, personalization can let you further resolve persona differences and keep your various ads connected with the content on the landing page. One example showed a landing page that simply reproduced the copy of the ad to indicate to visitors that they are on the right page.

Some general best practices were discussed that weren't "black hat" at all:
  1. Take time to strategically plan and organize campaigns.
  2. Examine the visitor behavior to try to figure out what better post-click experiences will improve the conversion rates of that particular ad or keyword.
  3. Use a valid data sample before making a decision (thousands of impressions and hundreds of clicks).
  4. Read organic listings and look for inspiration: those are probably proven performers.
  5. The concept of match type has evolved and exact isn't often as useful. A broad match with lots of negatives may work better for the same terms.
  6. When possible, try to figure out how that term fits into the conversion cycle before assessing its value.

In a bit more detail, they covered trying to measure assists. One panelist spoke of a study of 16,500 sales which showed that 70% included assists.  When a phone number is listed on a site, assists can be measured using unique numbers for keywords or groups. 800 numbers tend to be better than 877, 866 or 888 for the purpose of getting calls. Local area codes tend to be better for local businesses. Note: Free toll free numbers might be available in Google audio ads before they finally turn the entire program off.  Tenchu, Click Equations, Maestro, and Enquisite are some tools that let you measure assists. Some companies may be able to sort their analytics by IP addresses or cookies as well. A self developed cookie tracking system may keep tabs on prior keyword searches.

I wasn't sure what to expect from a "black hat" PPC session and I was surprised to find that among the list of questionable tactics were bits of wisdom and some warnings that anyone competing in the paid search space can use.


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Some great info you have shared here. If that is a snapshot of the information that you shared at the session you refer to then those that were present must have gone away with an absolutely container-load of common-sense strategies of great benefit.

Thanks for sharing,


A lot of these tactics don't seem very black hat at all but there is a lot of great stuff in here that should be applied to your search campaign to increase value from SEM efforts.

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