As a result, "I get a call about once a week from firms that have tried black-hat methods and their ranking got hurt when Google found them out," Fox says. "If you were really egregious and not trying to build content at all, you will be yanked out of the index entirely. If there is actual value in your site, you will be demoted in ranking. You must fix the problem and then file a request with Google to get your ranking back. It may take some time to do that.
"It can put you out of business," Fox adds. "I have seen it where the traffic drop-off was so severe that by the time they fixed it, they had had to lay everyone off. In other cases, they saw from the start that it would take too much investment to fix the problem. But most of the time you will see the site come back -- it can be done in a few weeks."
Getting reinstated can be a Kafkaesque process, Fishkin notes, since webmasters are not informed of the specific complaint against them.
Google's Ohye confirms that this is intentional. "Since we are trying to protect our algorithm, we cannot tell you that you have not done X, since you could be a spammer trying to find out where the line is," she says. But Google does give webmasters as much information as possible if their site has been hacked, she adds.
Gray-hat SEO: The Twilight Zone
Between white-hat and black-hat SEO lies the gray-hat area, where questionable practices may look very similar to acceptable practices.
"The difference comes down to your intent and to the technical application," says Fishkin of SEOmoz. "If you follow the search engines' guidelines and you intend to provide value to your visitors, you will generally be in the white-hat world.
"Suppose I say that in order to enter my contest to win a new iPad, you need to re-tweet my link. That is common," continues Fishkin. "But if I say that you need to link to my Web page from your blog in order to enter, Google might consider that to be against their guidelines, since it is a financial or in-kind reward for linking.
"Or I might go to a magazine and say that I want to buy some ads on its site for $3,000 a month, and the magazine thinks that's wonderful," Fishkin explains. "But then I say that the links from the ads back to my site can't go through ad redirection -- they must appear to be editorial links. This is technically against the rules. Unfortunately, it does happen quite a bit, but in the last few years ad departments have been getting savvy about it."
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