Engadget Black Hole SEO

Every morning I usually start with reading the headlines on my favorite TechNews aggregator Techmeme. It has become an obsession for me to get up to date on the News and stories which broke over night. This morning was not different at all, and with the Jetlag from Europe kicking in, getting up at 5.30 am does give me plenty of time to read, analyze and investigate here and there.

I was amused to see a story from Engadget featured on the homepage with eBay in it. (full disclosure at the bottom of this post). When I clicked through the story, I could read that Barnes & Noble was selling it’s Nook Color on eBay for $249, where you could get an extra $50 off to get it for a total of $199 with free shipping. (see the original item here: Nook Color on eBay for $199)

A great story and exposure for both eBay and Barnes & Noble, however what triggered me to write about it is not the deal or the fact that Engadget was not the first to break it, nor the fact that Techmeme highlighted Engadget as the first one where they clearly were not. I was interested in the fact Engadget did not even once linked to eBay nor the Nook Color which was for sale!

Instead, the three links in the story are all internal links, leading the readers to internal Engadget pages where an aggregated list of stories on Engadget are displayed. Here are the links with the Anchor text (links to tag pages are nofollow):

  1. Barnes & Noble; Links to a tag pages for all stories about Barnes & Noble on Engadget http://www.engadget.com/tag/BarnesNoble/
  2. Nook Color; Links to a review of the Nook Color on Engadget http://www.engadget.com/2010/11/16/nook-color-review/
  3. eBay; Links to a tag page for all stories about eBay on Engadget http://www.engadget.com/tag/eBay/

This technique is called Black Hole SEO

Photo credit: thebadastronomer under CC2.0

Black Hole SEO

To my knowledge, one of the first people who called out Black Hole SEO as a technique gaining traction Eli on BlueHatSEO.com to describe various aggressive SEO techniques. A good description of Black Hole SEO is given by Quadzilla from SEOBlackHat.com. He describes the technique as:

Black Hole SEO employs a technique that causes the normal laws of Google Physics to break down. Link juice flows into a massive body, but can never escape. When employed on a massive body, it tends to dominate the SERPs.

A number of people in the SEO industry have written about Black Hole SEO, where Aaron from SEObook.com describes the technique to be used by large sites:

  • Uber-black hole, The New York Times, seems reluctant to link to anyone but themselves. This is especially annoying when they write about websites.
  • Wikipedia no-followed their links some time ago, thus forming a PageRank variant of the black hole.
  • The mini-me black hole, as practiced by TechCrunch. Rather than directing you to a site mentioned in an article, TechCrunch would direct you to their own CrunchBase entry instead.
  • Aaron always brings a great perspective to the table, he describes why linking out to sources for more information will bring you an advantage over time and is keeping the foundations of the Internet alive. (you can read the full entry about BlackHoleSEO on SEOBook.com).

    What Does Google Say?

    Google has spend a great deal of time describing how to link from and within your site. You can find the following advice with regards to your internal linking structure in the Google Webmaster Guidelines:

    Make a site with a clear hierarchy and text links. Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link.

    Keep the links on a given page to a reasonable number.

    About getting links from other sites Google has dedicated a whole section:

    Your site's ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to you. The quantity, quality, and relevance of links count towards your rating. The sites that link to you can provide context about the subject matter of your site, and can indicate its quality and popularity.

    The best way to get other sites to create relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can quickly gain popularity in the Internet community. The more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it. Before making any single decision, you should ask yourself the question: Is this going to be beneficial for my page's visitors?

    Especially that last paragraph is important. Is this going to be beneficial for my page’s visitors?

    Engadget User Experience

    Now, in the light of that last paragraph, let’s look at the user experience on the Engadget page:

    Imagine you are a Nook Color fan, and stumble upon the story on Engadget. You would like to have a quick look at the offer on eBay, where a link to the actual item for sale, or the daily deal page where the item was featured is actually in the body of the text. However, since there is no link, you would be forced to find the deal yourself!

    IMHO this is a very bad user experience and counter productive in making the reader a happy customer. It also shows the nature of the business AOL, parent of Engadget is in;

    SERP domination using established brands with domain authority through Black Hole SEO

    Black Hole SEO Violations of Quality Guidelines?

    If you read the quality guidelines with regards to the Link Schemes; you can interpret these in different ways;

    …some webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites.

    If you would rewrite this you can see what I mean:

    …some webmasters engage in link exchange hierarchy schemes and build partner internal pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites.

    If you reread the above paragraph, slightly re-written, I would argue that linking out to original sources of information or in this case to the eBay item would add value to the end user, and should be seen as valuable both from an user experience and from a SEO perspective.

    Is Black Hole SEO for you?

    The question remains, what do you do on your own site, and can you create a big enough brand to engage in Black Hole SEO yourself?

    A couple of times the AOL brands have been called out for SEO tactics which push the limits, with The Huffington Post in particular as an offender. I tend to agree with Vanessa in this particular case, and actually as well across most of the AOL content sites!

    Huffingtonpost spam tags

    The tags under the Nook Story on Engadget do not all seem to be that relevant, but are creating automatic pages which serve as extra content for the search engine to display.

    I see the techniques from the AOL brands as spammy, and would not be surprised if at one point the auto generated tag pages would be looked at as a spam tactic which can hurt you. Linking out is generally good where it makes sense and the site you link to is providing more information and value for your end user.

    Last piece to pay attention to:

    Avoid Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web

    Future for Engadget as Quality Journalism

    The question is how long the Black Hole SEO strategy will continue to work for sites like Engadget. Two reasons might be causing a fall of the success bandwagon for these sites to embrace the technique:

    1. Google will put an end to the Internal value of sites that don’t link out, or raise the value of site that do link out to credible sources. I’ve seen an increase in specific thought leaders in the SEO space starting to link out much more over the course of the last couple of months.
    2. The editors working for sites like Engadget, who see themselves probably more like journalists than bloggers, cannot find themselves in the strategy of the company they work for. The result might be that the leave to chase new opportunities. Quality of editorial content deteriorates which causes the site to decline with an eventual loss of traffic

    As two of the editors from Engadget already left in the first quarter of this year, there is a sign the second of these two reasons has already started. Specifically one of the two, Ross Miller, called out that the ‘AOL Way’, was simply not his way.

    Aaron Wall from SEObook.com ended his post on Black Hole SEO with a quote from Tim O’Reilly, with which I agree;

    Tim O'Reilly put it well:

    "..... The web is a great example of a system that works because most sites create more value than they capture. Maybe the tragedy of the commons in its future can be averted. Maybe not. It's up to each of us".

    PS> Come on Techmeme, you can do better to link to the original source of the story about the Color Nook on eBay at a discount. Here are some sources if you follow the daisy chain links on the story on Engadget:

    Update: This is quite embarrassing. As Ryan points out in the comments, there is a link to the Nook store on eBay (actually the item, but as I already link to the item above here, I added a link to the actual store). However, I still think that Engadget could have done a better job in taking a customer centric approach and link within the story to the actual Nook for sale.

    Disclosure: This blog and the content on this blog are my own and contains my opinion and observations. These do not neccessarily reflect those of eBay, or its community, investors or clients.

    Comments

    1. Nima says:

      Great Read.

      Agreed. It seems that there is a move towards giving outbound links to high quality links more weight.
      The danger of people not linking out or adding nofollow to all their outgoing links is that it impacts the overall link structure of the Web and shakes the foundations of Google algorithm (PageRank). I found this video from Matt Cutts interesting: http://www.youtube.com/user/GoogleWebmasterHelp#p/a/u/2/EnVEERmbdpo&t=02m15s

      1. Dennis says:

        Hi Nima,
        Thanks for your comment!

        Personally I like the user experience approach.
        I don’t see SEO as a valid business model, strange coming out of the mouth of a SEO, but rather something that comes with:
        – A great user experience
        – A valid business model
        – A brand which is being looked after
        – Social signals where people share the content across the web
        – A technical infrastructure that allows discovery of content & relevance in your site

        SEO, rankings & traffic will follow!
        Good times!

    2. Joram Dees says:

      Great article indeed! UX should indeed always be the norm of good SEO.

    3. Pedro Dias says:

      Hey Dennis, nice post :)
      In my opinion it’s something that falls on the poor user experience as you pointed out, rather than a spam issue or anything that can be considered spam. If I click a link that refers to something external I expect it to behave that way.
      As far as I’ve seen, Engadget is not the only one, I’ve seen others doing something similar too, and I decided to unsubscribe them from my feeds only because of that annoyance.

      In the end it will be a matter of time and user’s choice, and how long they will tolerate that. I got tired, decided to unsubscribe and move on.

      1. Dennis says:

        Hi Pedro,
        Nice to see your comment here, thank you.
        Like I outlined, I first see this as an user experience problem, but I also talk about the intent. What would Engadget have done if Internal Links were not counted in the rankings? Probably not such an aggressive internal tag structure.
        Or better question; what would Engadget do if linking to external quality resources helps you in ranking?

        I also stop reading sites like Engadget because the articles don’t add value. Loosing their two editors was a blow for them, which probably will hurt in the quality of their content.

    4. Ryan says:

      Dennis,

      In your picture, and the actual piece on engadget, the “source” link is Barnes and Noble’s eBay store, which leads directly to the auction. Was that not live before this write up?

      Thanks,

      Ryan

      1. @Ryan,

        Totally overlooked that one link. It’s embarrassing!
        But still, hopefully that says something about the UX on the post.
        I would expect to have a link within the text of the story, pointing directly to the Nook Color for sale.

        Thanks for your comment, I added an update to the post to point to your observation.