Recently, I visited my son's school for an awards ceremony. As we walked through the halls to the auditorium, I saw poster after poster on the walls advising the kids not to put up with bullying, and not to become bullies themselves. From what I hear in the media and what I saw at my son's school, it appears bullying is a big problem (or at the very least, school administrators believe it's a big problem).

Previously, I talked about how sometimes we think of our websites as our “children.” So what do you do when your website-child is getting pushed around by the online equivalent of a playground bully?

Maybe a competitor is using black hat techniques, spam or other nefarious tactics, targeting you specifically or simply seeking to gain the upper hand against everybody. Either way, they're not playing fair, stealing your kid's lunch money and generally being, well, a bully.

Just as with our human kids, it's a tricky sitatuion. It's difficult to know what to try in the first place, and what might work great under one set of circumstances can backfire horribly under another.

Don't rush in where angels fear to tread

In the first place — online as well as in real life — I think it's important to make sure you have accurately assessed the situation before you go charging in with both barrels blazing. You don't want to falsely accuse some innocent kid of being a bully, when it turns out your kid actually spent his lunch money on candy bars and comic books and made up the bully story to cover his tracks.

Online, make sure it really is some nefarious technique on the part of your competitor and not something you're doing that's causing your problems.

There are too many potential “oopsies” you could be committing to mention them all: robots.txt that excludes the spiders, unspiderable JS / AJAX navigation, all-Flash no-content splash page, nothing but low-quality links, crappy content with no keywords, same title tag used throughout site, etc.

It could be pretty embarrassing if you start accusing somebody of spamming or using black hat tactics when it turns out the problem was of your own making. So if you think you're in a bullying situation, it would pay to first go over your site with a fine-toothed comb and make sure there are no issues. If you're not sure how, this would be a good time to hire somebody to do a thorough site audit for you.

So what if there really is a problem?

Well, frankly, this is where it gets tricky. I've thought of a number of different bits of advice I could potentially give my son, should he ever find himself on a bully's hit list.

  • Take the high road: I could advise him to try to ignore the bully.

    The problem is, this leaves my son alone and unsupported dealing with the bully. I want him to learn to stand on his own two feet of course, but I'm not sure I want to give him the message that if he gets in a dangerous or scary situation he can't call on his dad and me as reinforcements. If the bully decides he's an easy target, he could get seriously hurt or worse. And it doesn't do anything to solve the problem.

    Likewise online, if you ignore a web-bully, you could find your site falling further and further down in the SERPs, or your online reputation severely damaged. Doing nothing just lets the problem fester until recovery may become impossible.

    I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable with this tactic, myself. I guess I just prefer to be a little more proactive.

  • Fight fire with fire: My husband studies martial arts with an internationally-recognized instructor who in real life has won the competition dramatized in the movie Blood Sport. It would be easy enough to teach our son some extremely effective maneuvers he could use to fight back.

    Of course, the problem with this is obvious: the bully will likely escalate the violence before he backs down (assuming he ever backs down at all, that is). Either my son or the bully — or possibly both — could end up injured or worse, and if a confrontation took place on the school campus they would both likely get in trouble with the school administration.

    Online, launching your own counter-strike black hat campaign to deal with a sneaky competitor might feel satisfying at first... but after both your sites get banned by the search engines, maybe not so much. I'm not saying you should never fight back, but be sure you know what you're getting into.

  • Appeal to a higher power: I could report the situation to the school principal or to his teacher and demand they take action.

    While this may help, they can only take action on things they witness. Knowing they're watching, the bully may simply get even sneakier, and find ways of tormenting my son when teachers and administrators are out of the way. I'm also concerned about leaving my child's fate in the hands of others who, dedicated as they may be, probably don't care about my son quite as much or in the same way I do.

    Online, you can report the spammers and black hats to the search engines. This may make you feel better for having taken some kind of action, but there's no guarantee they'll do anything about the miscreants quickly — or ever, for that matter. And the other webmaster may simply take his black hat tactics even further underground.

    I'd report the spammer, certainly. But I wouldn't make that my only reponse, and I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for the search engines to take action based on my report.

  • Learn how to take a punch: One thing my husband's Kung Fu instructor is fond of saying: “The best way to take a punch is to not be there.” In other words, if the bully's jabs never connect, his ability to inflict damage is limited.

    So I could help my son avoid situations and venues where the bully is likely to be. For instance, if the bully rides the bus, we could start picking our son up after school ourselves. If the bully is in our son's class, we could park ourselves in the school principal's office until one or the other of them is transfered to another classroom.

    Naturally, he probably won't be able to avoid the bully entirely without, say, moving to another city. The bully may misinterpret his avoidance as weakness and beome even bolder. And sneaking and hiding his way through the school day is no way for my son to live. But we could also find it's a case of “out of sight, out of mind,” and the bully moves on to pick on more visible, easily accessible kids and leaves my son alone.

    Online, you can stop trying to take on the bully head-to-head, and instead focus on doing an end run around him. Find other directories and search engines where he isn't strong. Identify and target all the “long tail” terms he's ignoring (because I'll bet you when you really start looking, he's zeroing in on just a handful of “money” terms and leaving a lot of lower-volume search terms on the table). Work on improving your conversions, so you make better use of the traffic you do get.

    This could work — in fact, it's likely you'll be pleasantly surprised to find you don't really need those high rankings you thought you couldn't live without. Of course, there is a small risk you may find even combined all these other sources don't bring you the traffic and sales you could get from just one of the “money” terms on Google.

    So this technique could work, but — as with just about anything in life — there's no guarantee. And there's at least a slim chance it could make things worse.

  • Find strength in numbers: I could encourage him to develop strong friendships with a wide variety of people — try to never find himself in the situation of facing the bully alone. Bullies don't generally like to take on crowds. Associate with other kids to offer each other some measure of mutual protection.

    Online, you can become a valued member of the web “community” by linking generously, taking advantage of social networking, and developing useful content, resources and tools that others will naturally want to link to. The more “web friends” you have linking to your pages, the stronger your pages will be, and the more sources of traffic you'll have that don't depend on the search engines. When you get the bulk of your traffic through non-search sites, there's less chance the bully's tactics can hurt you.

So what would I advise my son to do? What technique(s) would I use if my website-kid were getting bullied?

Honestly, I'm not sure. I think it would depend on the circumstances. And in the end, I'd probably go for some combination of tactics.

I'm sure there are other techniques I've left out. What are your favorite strategies for dealing with bullies, online or in real life?

December 14, 2007

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This ended up going in a different direction than I thought. Interesting post. I was enthralled in the story remembering all the bullying I gave out when I was a kid. Or, was it receiving? Who knows... I still like the intent. Being a new guy I still don't know what black hat techniques are... Guess I have some reading to do this weekend.

this is somthing i had never concidered that could be my problem. Here i wes thinking was i something that i had done. Well i will use what ive learned form here and keep up the good work.

Hi Diane

I totally agree. I had some toad at the other side of the country copy most of my content and although it was tempting to rip into the MD of the company, I sent a polite email informing them of the problem and sat back and watched.

At first the guy denied any involvement of copywriting: his defence being he's never heard of me. 5 minutes later he sent me an email saying that his graphic designer had come up with the wording. That afternoon was spent going through the guys web pages (at his request) finding all the snippets of my content.

I think it has made a difference. The last few weeks, I struggled to keep in the top 10 for my main keyphrase, now I am seldom out of it. Having said that I do heed your advice for more long tail keyphrases as that would sort out 2 problems I currently have in the rankings (1 is dominating as a sort of bully and someone else is targeting towns rather than counties).

I found the article entertaining, but not very useful. How can you worry about a bully, when you have no idea what the bully is doing. Diane could have made this much more useful and effective by listing some techniques used and then listing the possible solutions.

Yeah, what are "Black Hat Tactics"? Now, that I am being informed as to what to do about them- never heard of this term. That should have been explained, first, before solutions.

Sorry to those who were confused by the terminology -- I had assumed "black hat" was a phrase most folks would already know. Live and learn! My apologies for any confusion this might have caused.

@Chris and Dr. Cassandra: In the most basic definition, within the SEO industry "black hat" refers to cheating. (Much like how in old movie Westerns, the "bad guys" could be identified because they always wore black cowboy hats.) Black hat techniques are designed to trick the search engines into ranking a page higher than what it deserves, by using tactics that are in violation of the search engine's terms of service or webmaster guidelines.

The term refers to all sorts of tactics, including things as relatively "low-tech" as simple hidden text all the way up to very sophisticated cloaking scripts.

I think it's important to point out black hat techniques are not an automatic ticket to #1 rankings. They are not necessary by any means to attain good rankings, traffic or sales.

Further, black hat tactics require a great deal of technical skill to implement successfully.

And they are very risky -- your site could potentially be penalized or banned outright if you're caught using them. Very few smart black hat practitioners use these techniques on any site they plan to keep and use for the long term.

@Frank: The point is not to worry about bullies. In the *vast* majority of cases I've seen where people suspect they're the victim of a black hat attack, it turns out instead to be a case of the webmaster shooting him/herself in the foot -- technical impediments to spidering/indexing, poor navigational structure, weak inbound links, etc.

Even if you are the victim of a true black hat attack, it's not about a point-by-point counterattack specifically for each technique a black hat might use. If your child is being beat up by a bully, does it make a difference in your response if the bully uses a right hook or an uppercut?

My recommendations are deliberately generic. The core idea is to strengthen your site overall so you're less vulnerable to *any* competitors, no matter what color hat they might wear.

There are plenty of forums and blogs online people can join and read to learn specifically what techniques and tactics black hats use if they really want to know. This column isn't one of those places, though. :)

my son goes to school and we teach him not to let bullies push him around either. thank you

Worth reading..!

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Search Engine Guide > Diane Aull > Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick