Hey, psst Buddy! I can make you rich. I’ll have all the review sites say your product is the best. I’ll increase your web traffic by a gazillion percent. I’ll do this for cheap. Really, really cheap!
Have you ever heard this pitch before from a digital marketing agency? Maybe not said in such creepy words but the essence was the same. I really hope you ran the other way. Otherwise you don’t need to read this post. You have already shot yourself in the foot and know the pain.
Such agencies or marketers offer black hat or shady marketing tactics. They most often offer results that are too good to be true. They will even offer you proof which consist of short term results or big web metrics that will blow your socks off but, in the end, bring no or negative results for your business.
What is black hat marketing?
Black hat marketing tactics are those that are clearly against the law or search engine rules. They can also be legal marketing tactics that are meant to deceive the buyer in order to increase your sales.
The Competition Bureau of Canada and the US Federal Trade Commissioner (FTC) have regulations regarding deceitful marketing tactics. As a company, if you are caught not respecting these regulations it can cost you…a lot.
The Competition Bureau handed down a fine of $1.25 million dollars to Bell Canada in October of 2015 for suggesting to their Bell Mobility employees to post glowing reviews of their services on social medias.
Bell Canada was found guilty of astroturfing; the practice of posting, yourself or via a third party who is not a customer, a fake review of your product or service on the web.
The term comes from the Astroturf product or fake grass. Online reviews are considered grass root marketing, hence the reference to fake grass.
Given current studies show that anywhere from 70-90% of consumers’ purchase decisions are somehow influenced by online reviews, astroturfing can seem like a harmless and a great idea to promote your business. In the long term, it really isn’t.
The reasons are quite simple. First it will incite your competitors to do the same thing. When most of the reviews are faked, customers begin to notice and discard them. The second reason carries a much greater risk. If you get caught either by the competition bureau or FTC you will be fined, which is bad enough, but your name will also be everywhere in the medias. Your company will be identified as a cheat and the trust relationship, necessary for potential customers to become customers, broken.
Asking your legitimate customers to post online reviews, if they appreciated your product or service, however is not considered astroturfing.
The grey zone begins when a business would somehow remunerate their customers to post favorable online reviews or, as it’s been observed, threaten retribution for unfavorable reviews.
Flogging simply means fake blogging.
Fake blogging entails you, or a third party you hired, ask a blog to write and or publish a post on your product or service, against remuneration. In order for it to be flogging, the site’s sole purpose must be to publish such posts. This is prohibited by the FTC (hopefully the competition bureau will follow suit) if the financial arrangement is not disclosed to the readers.
This same FTC restriction applies to advertorials (advertising disguised as a blog post) on legitimate blogs that do not disclose the commercial relationship between the sponsor and the blogger.
Undisclosed flogging or advertorials is subject to stiff fines in the US or a reprimand in Canada. Both of which are also published on their websites. This not only hurts the product or service but also the reputation of the blog that uses such tactics.
You are certainly familiar with this tactic as you have been a victim of it. Spamming is the act of sending unwanted promotional emails in very large quantities to mailing lists you have somehow acquired. Unwanted email means that the recipient did not willfully sign up or accept to receive emails from your business.
Spamming is prohibited under the Canadian anti-spam legislation (C-28 law) and the CAN-SPAM act in the US.
There are numerous other black hat marketing tactics which could fill multiple books, including black hat SEO tactics which are aimed at fooling search engines. Most of them have not yet been categorized as illegal. Using black hat SEO tactics can however get you delisted from a search engine which will kill your web traffic for up to a year.
Shady marketing tactics
Not all deceitful marketing tactics are aimed at your customers. Some are designed to fool you.
Rigging SEO metrics (not the same as black hat SEO) and click-through rates are two methods of choice that dishonest marketers will use to fleece their customers.
Surfing on the fact that most small business owners do not understand how to interpret their website metrics, SEO consultants will use various tactics to inflate the numbers. These tactics include not removing dark traffic from their numbers, making it appear as though visitors are spending more time than they actually are on your site or showing bloated goal conversion rates.
Cyber-rigging of click-through rates
If you or your agency are using a programmatics company to do web advertising you (or sometimes your agency if it’s not on top of things) can fall prey to tactics which are used to inflate the number of clicks on your ads.
Some of these tactics include pushing your ads on sites that are only visited by bots or by audiences that you did not specify (different age brackets or even different countries). It can also take the form of having bots and/or people click on your ads against remuneration. The lattter will usually be undertaken by website owners who get paid to run ads. If done in moderation, it is undetectable. Programmatics and web agencies do (or should) have standards or industry data however to validate whether the click through rates they are getting are legitimate.
This is why it is a safer option to pay your SEO or advertising agencies based on sales results, despite this being a more expensive option.
Campaigns aimed at other types of goals should, as much as possible, be done internally or with the help of a highly trusted consultant.
If you are undertaking a web campaign yourself and have little experiment, ask other similar businesses what type of results they are getting. Educate yourself on how to recognize anomalies in your metrics.
If you are dealing with a consultants or agency ask them to give you a detailed report of their results and explain them to you. If they refuse or tell you it would be too expensive then look for another supplier.
As in every other aspect of life and business, if the results you are getting with your marketing and advertising tactics are too good to be true, then they most likely are.