The Newspaper vs. The Black Hat SEO

Note: I have a policy of not linking to or otherwise promoting services that provide black hat SEO and similar services. As such, I will not be linking to any of the sites in question and will identify the person only by their initials. If you feel the need to learn more, please see the complaint in the footer of the article.

On Tuesday, the Dallas Morning News filed a lawsuit (complaint embedded below) against HS, a Wisconsin woman, and a company they believe she is connected to, alleging rampant copyright infringement of their content.

According to the complaint, HS is a self-described “Black Hat SEO” that that specializes in helping sites bolster their ranking through unethical and even illegal means. As part of that operation, HS operates a “News Network” a collection of dummy websites, many of which are filled with content copied from the various sources.

At least two of those sites target the Dallas area with names that indicate that they provide local news coverage. However, much of the content on those sites was copied content, with hundreds of articles coming directly from the Dallas Morning News.

This prompted the Dallas Morning News to file Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices against the site. However, according to HS Facebook post, she responded not by keeping the content offline, but by switching hosting. She claims to have switched at least 5 times before finally landing on an overseas host that would willingly ignore DMCA notices.

Image from Complaint

Responding to those moves, the newspaper decided to file a lawsuit against HS and her company. The newspaper is seeking an injunction barring further reproduction of their content, as well as unspecified damages.

The websites that were mentioned in the complaint are currently down. However, other sites of hers do remain online at this time.

HS, for her part, has not responded to the lawsuit.

This still leaves many questions open. First and foremost, just what is HS (and other black hat SEOs) doing? To get that answer, we don’t have to look that far back into our archives.

The Black Hat SEO Problem

Just last week, we took a look a statement by John Mueller, Google’s Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst, where he explained why, in some cases, plagiarized articles that appeared later can outrank original material in Google search results.

However, this has long been an issue for Google and many webmasters/creators. Even when Google isn’t deliberately showing preference to copycat sites, it is imperfect in determining which is which. This has long been something that unethical SEO experts have exploited.

The idea is fairly simple. If you copy and republish enough content, Google will eventually rank some of it well and even above the source. Once that happens, the site can gain trust with Google, and then they can either harvest that traffic directly through ads or, as HS does, sell links to other sites to help those sites gain trust and ranking as well.

Those links often come in the form of guest posts, which may or may not actually be written by the identified author. Either way, it’s a tool used to insert links to client sites that is less suspicious to search engines.

For journalists, bloggers and other original creators, this has long been a source of headache. Not only do many webmasters get a constant deluge of “guest post” requests, but it’s possible for spammy sites to copy their content wholesale and achieve a higher ranking for the relevant keywords.

And, as Google said last week, that sometimes happens deliberately.

However, even among the world of black hat SEO, this case is very bizarre.

Why This Case Stands Out

Though operations such as this one have been going on for decades, they rarely have led to any kind of legal action. To understand why this one did, we have to look at several factors.

  1. The Method: The wholesale copying and republishing of content, often through RSS scraping, was common in the early to mid-2000s. However, by the end of the decade article spinning, the automated rewriting of articles, began to take off. This was seen as a means to avoid both legal issues and duplicate content penalties. Automatic content generation also began to grow in popularity. However, as Google updates have targeted those kinds of sites, content copying has fallen back in favor with some unethical SEO practitioners.
  2. The Refusal: Most spam sites, when confronted with a DMCA notice, will simply remove the content. One of the advantages of being a spammer is that there is a nearly limitless supply of content available, and most will do nothing to protect their work. It’s generally easier to move on than it is to risk legal issues.
  3. The Public Figure: Most spammers and black hat SEOs work to protect their anonymity. HS did not. She even posted about her activities on public Facebook and hosted livestreams where she discussed it. Most practitioners work to keep a much lower profile, and many are in jurisdictions where it would be difficult or even impossible for a U.S. based rightsholder to target.
  4. The Strange Countermeasures: The Dallas Morning News isn’t exempt from behaving oddly. While filing a DMCA notice with the host is ideal, if it doesn’t work, the paper always had the option of filing with Google and getting those pages removed from the search engine. While not ideal, it eliminates the major purpose of such SEO efforts and is not something that can be prevented by just moving a host outside the U.S.

In short, this case is a very unusual one. Despite these practices being fairly common, they rarely make it inside a courtroom, specifically because of all the hurdles that are normally in the way. However, they were removed here, and we will now get to see this one play out in a court of law.

Bottom Line

Virtually every webmaster, blogger and creator has dealt with this problem, even if they don’t realize it. What’s unusual is for these matters to make it to the inside of a courtroom.

Many, myself included, were hoping that the upcoming copyright small claims court could help address some of these kinds of infringements, but, as things sit now, it’s rare for a case to tick all the boxes needed to become a lawsuit.

However, this one did and that will make it one to watch. No matter what kind of work you do online, this will be one of great interest.

That said, there really isn’t much defense in what HS did. She’s openly admitted to copying the content, she’s publicly admitted to moving hosts and acting to avoid DMCA notices. Furthermore, she has talked publicly in many places about her practices, acknowledging that they are both illegal and unethical.

There’s just not much doubt that she has committed copyright infringement, and that is solely from her words.

In the end, the most important thing to watch in this case may not be the legal outcome, but the impact on her networks. If this approach is effective, it may be something others will use to target such spammers. If not, then it’s back to the drawing board in future cases.

Hat Tip: I want to give a major hat tip to Kathryn Goldman at the Creative Law Center for bringing this story to my attention.