Black Hat Social Media Is Here To Stay

by Brandon Uttley on Jul 25, 2012

Black Hat social mediaPssst, wanna know a secret?

“Black hat” techniques for using social media are thriving, much to the chagrin of many social media purists.

It was inevitable for this to happen. For years, the concept of black hat has been tied to the SEO trade.

Those who profess to practice SEO honorably decry these practices and deny that they use them. Yet plenty of upstanding SEOs get smoked by others who don’t agree to play by the unwritten “rules.”

That said, black hat SEOs run a huge risk of having any positive results wiped out overnight for themselves or their clients. We’ve all seen this happen plenty of times, such as the infamous JC Penny’s debacle a few years ago that got them delisted for awhile by Google.

What Exactly is Black Hat Social Media?

I define black hat social media as any techniques that are essentially designed to game the system.

This typically means going against the terms of service or accepted “best practices” of a network. With Facebook for example, running contests directly on your page, without using an app, is against their terms of service. (You do know this—right? wink-wink)

Yet every day, hundreds, probably thousands of Pages do this, unwittingly or not.

Personally, I know a lot of Page admins who do it, knowing full well the potential consequences are having their Page taken down. Surprisingly, I’ve never actually heard of that happening though.

Black hat practices can also incorporate automation, taking the person out of the seemingly essential equation of personal, one-to-one (or one-to-many) communications that one expects with true social media. Like automated DMs for new followers on Twitter.

Why Black Hat Is Part of Social Media Now

It’s easy to speculate why black hat is seemingly never going away in social media.

  1. Companies are demanding results, which unfortunately means “get us more fans and followers” as quick as possible
  2. Meanwhile, social media practitioners—those responsible for running programs on behalf of their employer or clients—face the reality that there are only so many hours in the day, and doing everything purely, manually and organically doesn’t always work out so well
  3. We see people (aka, social media gurus) like Guy Kawasaki laughing in the face of the “rules” of social media and thriving (all Twitter link spam, no conversation)

It’s the same overarching problem public companies in particular face, in demanding short-term profits vs. what’s in the best interest of the company and its customers long term.

Examples of Black Hat Social Media

It’s tough sometimes to draw the line between what is black hat per se vs. just plain bad practices that are not generally recommended for true social engagement (such as spamming links on Twitter all day, see above).

Here are just a few growing techniques I’ve seen that are black hat or darn close to it:

1. Buying fans on Facebook, Twitter and other networks.

Surely this is verboten, right?

Yeah, well try telling that to some C-level executive who keeps seeing your Facebook page sit at less than 200 fans and wondering what the heck is going on. In frustration, you spend $5 on a crowd sourcing site, and suddenly you have 5,000 fan—and the boss is giddy. That’s a common reaction. Never mind that these are likely all bogus fans who won’t engage or convert into paying customers.

Here’s a sad yet true fact: There’s something inherently important about fan counts, and it’s human nature when you’re checking out a company on Facebook or Twitter to instantly judge them based on the metric of followers. Sure it’s dumb, but it’s hard-wired into each of us.

We’ve actually had prospects look at our agency’s Facebook Page and say, well how can you be all that great at social if you only have a couple hundred fans yourselves? Never mind that we got all those the hard way, and they actually care about and support us. So would it help us to inflate the fan count artificially? Maybe. But we’re resisted doing that.

2. Setting up a personal profile for a company on Facebook instead of a Page

On the Marketing Squad podcast, we recently discussed a strange trend of companies abandoning their official Facebook Page and instead creating a bogus “personal” profile for their company.

Several entities we spoke with admitted to getting much better engagement going the “personal” route, and doing it knowing full well it wasn’t supposed to be allowed.

Yet when they were out trying to sell advertising packages, they were told, “Your Page doesn’t have as many fans as X does, so you must not be that popular.” Again, it comes back to the perception of the numbers game. More fans meant dollars in their pockets.

3. Targeting fans of your competitors with ads

Whether this is black hat or not, many are basically feeding off all the “hard work” someone else did to get a bunch of fans by targeting ads at them.

4. Automated following and replies

It’s very easy these days to use services like Twitterfeed, If This Then That (IFTTT) or Tweet Adder to automatically target and follow people, thank people for following or send out messages based on keyword alerts, geography and other means.

Where do you stand?

Is black hat social here to stay? Is it getting results (shhh, don’t tell anyone), or will it backfire on those who do it?

Let us know in the comments.

Social Fresh EAST 2014 is July 16-18 in Orlando. Featured speakers: Spotify, Yahoo, Logitech, Dunkin Donuts, PGA Tour, JetBlue >> Reserve your ticket now.

Post Author

Brandon Uttley is a social media, marketing and public relations professional with 25 years of experience. Uttley is past president of PRSA Charlotte....

  • http://twitter.com/social_reflex Matthieu Thomas

    Oh yeah a page has been take down one time in France : Kiabi with 130.000 members…
    http://www.numerama.com/magazine/17669-kiabi-se-fait-couper-sa-page-facebook-avec-130-000-membres.html

  • http://twitter.com/social_reflex Matthieu Thomas

    Oh connexion problem : my real Twitter is @social_reflex ;)

  • http://twitter.com/social_reflex Matthieu Thomas

    By the way another black hat social media is to create fake Facebook profiles who interact with our page for the goal of a best edgerank. You can serach the Orangina french Facebook page case ;)

  • Overcast87

     I totally agree with you here Brandon. I see so many wrong uses of contests on Facebook I made a video tutorial covering how to do them correctly. I haven’t seen anyone’s page be shut down for doing this. Only heard the rumors. http://blog.netbiz.com/facebook-promotional-guidelines/

  • http://www.commandpartners.com/ BrandonUttley

    Thanks for the comment! Somehow, I think Facebook just doesn’t have the resources to truly police their own policies about contests. It’s just smoke-and-mirrors legalese.

  • http://www.CoreyCreed.com Corey Creed

    Great post, @BrandonUttley:disqus.  It’s a subject we talked about during the Advanced Facebook Ads conference.  Black hat is a term that often has a very negative connotation.  But in reality, it’s just doing something that another company does not want you to do.  Black Hat SEO means doing things Google does not want you to do.  Black Hat Social means doing things Facebook (or Twitter, etc) does not want you to do.  (That’s my definition.)  It’s not necessarily morally wrong.

    That being said, it’s typically not wise to go against what companies like this want us to do when they send our sites the most (and best) traffic.

  • http://www.CoreyCreed.com Corey Creed

    During the Advanced Facebook Advertising conference, it was often noticed that building a clean list of fans on Facebook gives you the opportunity to advertise directly to them.  Ads can often bring them back to your FB Pages better and more frequently, which increases your EdgeRank, which increases your opportunity for your free content to be seen more often.

    “Buying Facebook Likes” would hurt this ability.

    Then again, building this list of “real likes” organically gives your competitors the ability to send ads to them also.  This is a strange conundrum.  Building a quality email list is great.  Building a quality list of Facebook fans is similar.  However, you are not the only one that can reach out to them.  With Facebook Ads, any of your competitors can reach out to them also.
    For this reason, I have seen very competitive businesses buy Facebook Fans.  They are in effect trying to sabotage any competitor’s ability to reach out to their loyal “fans” that really do “like” their business.

    This seems strange, I know.  I don’t advocate the idea.  But I do understand why they do it.  Call it black hat social if you like.  :)

  • http://www.commandpartners.com/ BrandonUttley

    Corey, I agree and that’s a reason I mentioning targeting competitors with ads. It can be pretty effective even though it falls in a similar vein as taking out Google AdWords with your competitors’ terms. But at least on Facebook, they don’t see it being done as overtly.

  • http://twitter.com/OptMyBiz Opt My Biz

    “well how can you be all that great at social if you only have a couple hundred fans yourselves? Never mind that we got all those the hard way, and they actually care about and support us. So would it help us to inflate the fan count artificially? Maybe. But we’re resisted doing that”
    Yes! Social media is all about the engagement. Spam followers don’t engage. You have 2,000 spammers following you, you won’t get the engagement that will ultimately help your business. If you have 30 genuinely valuable followers, who are passionate about the same things you are, and care about your content, the content will spread where you want it to, and your business will grow its awareness and influence online. 
    Personally, black hat techniques may be here to stay, but that doesn’t mean they are successful. 

  • Dan J Mckee

    Hmm… there’s nothing wrong with targeting fans of competitors. A) it works B) it doesn’t violate any rules. 

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    You make an important distinction here, Corey. Wrong in the eyes of Google vs. wrong morally/ethically are very different. The trouble is many people can’t decide which compass guides their behavior.

    It’d be nice if more marketers adhered to a Code of Ethics, rather than a “As long as FB or Google doesn’t shut me down, I’ll do damn near anything” ethos, but that’s just wishful thinking.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    Good stuff, B.

    In addition to “black hat SEO” and “black hat social media,” I think we should also acknowledge “black hat use of social media for the purpose of SEO.” That is, companies that use misleading or deceptive social media tactics to build authority for ranking purposes. I may be splitting hairs, but as search and social become more intertwined, I’m more attuned to how the short cuts in one discipline are becoming short cuts of the other.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    It’s like the NFL: The rules are there…it’s up to the commissioner to enforce them. The commish turns a blind eye to rule-benders and rule-breakers until it starts to jeopardize the game (translation: Costs someone $$$).

  • http://www.commandpartners.com/ BrandonUttley

    The Commish being Zuck I suppose…

  • http://ApeSmith.com/ April Smith

    Great post, @BrandonUttley:disqus 

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ve noticed more and more “Black Hat Social Media” tactics popping up each day. Sure, I could post contests and giveaways “illegally” as so many other business do but I play by the rules just in fear of what MAY happen. I will say, though, that the majority of the smaller businesses who play dirty are doing so because they just don’t know the regulations of the networks and aren’t true marketers. In the past I have had potential or existing clients ask me about buying followers and creating a profile as an individual person but in each instance I’ve firmly explained why those would be terrible ideas. 

    I don’t think that Facebook will ramp up their efforts to control those who bend the rules so this sort of behavior seems to be here to stay, unfortunately. And don’t even get me started on the Auto-DM’s and follows! ;)

  • http://ApeSmith.com/ April Smith

    As soon as I posted the comment below I received this little spam gem. Oh, the irony!

  • http://www.nxtsm.com Victor Canada

    The invisible metric is the number of legitimate potential community members and customers who are turned off by these tactics. The black hat tactic gets you artificial numbers which will not likely convert to real value and you’ve turned off an unknown number of people who would have converted. When you think about the lifetime value of a customer you discover how costly these tactics really are. Good topic Brandon.

  • Guest

    I have often considered following those “mega spammers” who have seemingly massive numbers of followers. And the logic is sound:

    “Even IF only 1/10th of their followers are real, if that spammer (like Kawasaki) follows me back and RTs one of my posts, I’ll reach scores of people I wouldn’t have normally reached. What’s the harm?”

    Sure, if we ever get to a point in our organization where we’re combing our Twitter Followers to try and generate sales, then yeah…that’ll be a problem, but until that happens, I don’t see the practical downside.

    Still though, I haven’t managed to convince myself that it’s the right thing to do.

  • http://www.CoreyCreed.com Corey Creed

    I guess.  Google has some policies in place for trademarked terms.  But on Facebook, it seems to be fair game.  I don’t know that it qualifies as black hat, as Facebook seems to have no problem with it.  It could be considered as a best practice for Facebook advertising.  Ironically, the flip side of buying likes is probably considered black hat, when can just be a counter-move.

  • http://www.CoreyCreed.com Corey Creed

    True.  Of course, everyone’s personal morals are different unless they are guided by a touchpoint of some sort.  So I guess it is to be expected.  It happens in real life. It will happen online.

  • http://www.CoreyCreed.com Corey Creed

    How would the average person know that a Facebook Page has “artificial numbers” when they visit it for the first time?  Just curious.  You mention that they would get “turned off”.  How would they know.  (Honestly asking.  Not meaning to be antagonistic. Just curious.)

  • http://www.CoreyCreed.com Corey Creed

    Interesting.

  • http://www.CoreyCreed.com Corey Creed

    Good comparison.  However, the NFL has 32 teams, right?  How many pages does Facebook have?  That is why Google tried to “catch black hat” programmatically.  That just makes the game more challenging for the black hat community.

  • http://www.commandpartners.com/ BrandonUttley

    Victor, great point on the long term cost of fake vs. real customers!

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    Aren’t you a Patriots fan, Corey? I thought you guys believed the NFL has only one team? ;)

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    I agree with Corey (I think we’re agreeing here) that targeting ads at your competitors’ customers isn’t really black hat, per se. I’m not even sure it’s bad practice. It’s COMPETITION. The goal of competition in the marketplace is to show our company is better equipped to meet your needs than the other company.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    I don’t think Victor’s saying the average person could look at a Facebook page and recognize an artificially high number of Likes. I think it’s more that the number of likes is artificially high due to unsavory behavior and practices, which a person could detect. Spotting fakery isn’t hard…the recent Chick-fil-A example is proof (though I’m not entirely sure who’s culpable in that case).

  • http://www.CoreyCreed.com Corey Creed

    Haha.  Yea.  We acknowledge that there are other teams.  How could the Patriots win so much without them?  The one we would like to see go away is the Giants.  :)

  • http://www.CoreyCreed.com Corey Creed

    I respectfully disagree.  I have no idea how the average person could determine if a high number of likes are obtained by paying or not.

  • http://www.commandpartners.com/ BrandonUttley

    Hey, those spammers are ON IT! LOL

  • http://www.commandpartners.com/ BrandonUttley

    Scott, great point. In addition to making things “easier” (seemingly, from a time standpoint), lots of people want to shortcut the process of getting backlinks, and social sites can potentially make that happen faster than other methods.

  • http://www.commandpartners.com/ BrandonUttley

    Dan, agreed it’s not necessarily “black hat” but it might be more akin to hitting below the belt, taking advantage of the work someone else did to build their fan base. But this has been done for eons by marketers I suppose.

  • http://www.commandpartners.com/ BrandonUttley

    I agree, it’s not all about the numbers. Numbers do lie. And it seems like all the big names (Brogan, Gary V., etc.) all preach it’s better to have a small group of real engaged fans than a big mass of people who don’t pay attention and with whom you have no true interaction.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    Three signs you’re resorting to less than above-board methods:

    1. You’re a mommy blogger in Charlotte linking to “Tampa personal injury attorney” in your post.

    2. Your blog post about Portable Swimming Pool Fences went live half an hour ago and already you have 17 comments.

    3. The woman leaping to the defense of your embattled brand created her Facebook account yesterday. Her passionate defense of your brand is her first comment on Facebook.

    I’m not talking JUST about the buying of Likes here. There’s more to blackhat social media than buying Facebook fans. And let’s make sure our language is clear here: There’s a difference between “buying fans” (i.e., paying someone to Like your FB page) and buying Facebook ads with the sole objective of gaining more Facebook likes.

    I don’t support paying someone to Like you on Facebook, and I don’t support any use of fakery, fraud or deception in support of marketing or PR. 

  • http://www.vonrod.com/ Philwebservices

    That really helps, thanks for sharing this to us. I’ll try this once, and if it works for me then it’s great.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kelvin.myles1 Kelvin Myles

    Interesting post @BrandonUttley:disqus. All very valid points for the ‘proper’ use of social media. As with the early days of SEO the world of Social Marketing has become littered with many ‘experts’ advertising their wares and offering solutions and the only way the majority of them can compete is by cheating.

    As you point out it’s human nature to look at the numbers – until we can educate potential customers to look at engagement that isn’t going to change. We live in a world that demands instant gratification and that alone is enough to persuade the less competent or unscrupulous to resort to ‘black hat’ techniques.

    The only point I’d disagree with is #3 – Facebook actively encourages targeting and it is common sense to target people that will be interested in your product or service. To me that makes commercial sense however much competitors may not like it.

    Automation is an interesting one and I’ve discussed it a number of times. Personally I like the approach that Google takes to actively discourage auto-posts, however, from a marketing point of view it allows people to leverage their time so I don’t see it going away any time soon. One can just hope that people recognise value and ignore auto-spam :)

  • Joe Fusaro

    I disagree Brandon; I think that Facebook has implemented some great spam-blocking features that allow us to ignore and filter out fake profiles – especially those annoying Facebook “bots” that tag you in pictures related to sneakers or pocketbooks or clothing items – and even the less-direct spam like multiple profiles managed by a company or brand to promote their products.

    The second strategy resonates personally with me; during a recent campaign, a competitor used a fake Twitter handle to discount our new product by saying that it was a knock-off of another product. We did a little digging, and found it to be pretty obvious that this was a fake profile created with the intent of bashing us and promoting our competitor. I gave a full recap here: http://sumoventures.com/why-i-hate-black-hat-social-media/

    From an SEO perspective, black hat social media marketers think that by constantly using these fake profiles to re-tweet and Like their messages, they are somehow boosting their organic rankings. Google is apt to pick up on this; rest assured the guys in Mountain View can whip up a quick algorithm change (if they haven’t already) that identifies and demotes unnatural social activity.

  • mediatap

    Black hat as described is a scam. It makes us have to work harder as we have to educate prospects and clients about the differences in numbers. And when they get that glazed look in their eyes, we can’t give up.

    Honestly, I have no interest in just building numbers of friends and followers. I follow people and businesses I really like and I want people and businesses that have a real interest in what I do.

    People are always going to game the system. I think Google does an admirable job fighting off the black hat marketers. Facebook, on the other hand, benefits from them somewhat.

    I would love to build the next-gen social platform. Any deep pockets interested?

  • agentblackhat.com

    I think you finish this comment with the exact reason why Blackhat exists in the first place.

    Deep pockets the reason good content doesn’t surface as well and as often as big brands with big pockets.

    Blackhat techniques game the system, but they simply level the playing field because big brands gain such an advantage in the SERPs.