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My Brief Experience Working at a Black Hat Marketing Firm (and Why I Quit)

There aren’t many things that make a marketer struggle to sleep at night if you ever listen to Bill Hick’s famous rant about marketers. We’re all about creating leads and sales for our client and everything else is just collateral damage, right? Despite the importance of hard analytics, my passion has always been in branding – Building the brand through positive reinforcement in treating customers right and associating that brand with good feelings (it helps if the product is also good!). My problems started when I took on working for a client that took me down the dark path of black hat SEO marketing.

Black hat SEO marketing is the practice of unethically manipulating the search engines to better serve your website or brand. This includes:

  • Creating fake review websites to positively review your products/services
  • Using fake online personalities to create new user reviews, comments and create a brand’s persona behind a fictional figure
  • Create websites and hire out content writers to bolster certain keywords and increase brand value artificially

 

Now the last one doesn’t sound too bad. Why would a marketer’s goal not be to increase the reputation of its brand? Well these websites aren’t the brands – They are being sold as objective websites under fake personalities that all work to boost a particular “unaffiliated” brand.

I became the guy that hired out and managed content creators (bloggers/vloggers) to manage half a dozen websites and their content to boost certain keywords. I even used the increase in traffic to negotiate new ads, bring in (some) ad revenue and work with affiliates from other companies. That’s the least dirty thing they asked me to do.

Create fake review websites
Listen to any article about Yelp and the biggest issue today is that the credibility of reviews is in question. Yelp may be (allegedly) charging customers just to feature positive reviews. On a website like Yelp that has built itself up to be the biggest collection of user reviews out there, the quality of the reviews can make or break a small business. Review websites of every niche out there have popped up in response to the success of Yelp. Many of these aren’t even trying to hide where their interests lie and black marketer SEO marketers are no different.

I created a website to collect “reviews” of certain consumer products and hired out writers that have likely never tried the products to create them. Don’t worry, I wasn’t faking prescription reviews or anything that could kill someone – but it was still pretty unethical. This collection of reviews went to create a believable review website that’s goal was to purposely rank the company’s own products the highest. Many industries are actually notorious for being full of these kind of “review” websites.

Ever been asked to photoshop the watermark out? It stinks. Don't do it.

Ever been asked to photoshop the watermark out? It stinks. Don’t do it.

Create fake online personas
Whether it was a person “just passionate about (fill in the blank) products” or the brand’s personality – They were all virtually fake. Using stock photos, I created or managed fake brand personalities on Google+ and more social networks to create a highly believable individual that’s opinion is to be taken seriously. These personalities were made to be influence leaders in their field.

For all the time I put the word “create” in this write-up, I didn’t really “create” a whole lot. Sure, I made brands out of thin air, managed informative content that may have actually helped some people but it was mainly a creation of nothing but deception. This wasn’t a case of creating a company blog just to encourage customers to read through content and make a purchase decision – This was created under the guise of deceiving people into leading them in one direction.

Good cop, bad cop… Different methods to the same devious goals
The equivalent in real life is the good cop, bad cop routine. Both use different approaches towards how to treat the suspect just to get them to confess to a crime. They both are in on the routine. Black hat marketers are operating under different personalities – Ones as “objective” viewpoints and another as the official brand’s voice. Both have the same goals and that’s to get their greasy fingers in your wallet.

One of the reasons why I detest this form of marketing (besides the deception part) is that it takes away the credibility from real online reviews. It tarnishes brands that do things legitimately, takes away the power of the customer and hinders online reviews from meaning anything. Without online reviews, we’d have to go back to the day of customers being uninformed about where they get their services. If everyone hired an unethical online manipulator, it will simply become the norm.

One web store’s products I manage depend on legitimate reviews. I bust my behind everyday trying to please customers and create the best products. The magic side effect (and why people even hear about the products) is positive online reviews. These online reviews are the lifeblood of most small businesses like mine. This is why my brief stint as a marketer at a black hat SEO firm was just that – brief. I left to take on new freelance clients in the hope of succeeding where black hat marketing fails – Creating informative value for the customers.

The last straw / What I learned
I quickly learned I’d never be happy working with a client like this. the last thing I was told to do was send fake cease and desist letters using a fake lawyer’s name. This isn’t the Boiler Room, I had to get out of there. Sure, I’m learning valuable copywriting skills, all kinds of coding and software development that content marketers rarely get the opportunity to learn and worked with some young, motivated people… But this was at the cost of ruining everything I preach to other clients.

I took the client because it’s a job that seemed fine at first but quickly soured. Am I proud to announce to the world that I made a mistake and quit? No, but I learned a lot about what to look for in the integrity of a client. If you’re working for someone that is willing to do anything to make that dollar then you have two choices: Work your ass off and be not much better than the one you’re working for, or half-ass it and work without your heart in it. It’s a no brainer choice for me – I chose to bail and I couldn’t be happier.

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