The Dark Side of Landing Pages: 4 Dastardly Landing Page Techniques (And How To Beat Them)

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Luke: … Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda: No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.

Leave it to Yoda to talk about internet marketing. No, really. He was.

White hat (abiding by the rules) vs. black hat (breaking the rules) marketers in the online realm are a classic example of a Jedi vs. Sith relationship. The good guys who go by the book, and the bad guys that succumb to dastardly techniques.

The same thing applies to landing page marketing. It’s quicker, easier and more seductive to give in and implement black hat techniques to get results. They’re there because they cheat the system to jump ahead and make their pages more successful.

But I know you’re better than that.

That’s why I want to arm you with knowledge. I want to show you four examples of some big-time dastardly techniques people are using and how YOU can employ ethical alternatives that’ll beat them.

1) Unrealistic Claims

You’ve heard it before.

Lose 58 Pounds in 2 Weeks With This Weird Trick.”

Make $6,290 Per Week Working From Home.”

100% Juice.”

You roll your eyes, as well you should. These are obviously outrageous claims. Imagine losing a 3rd grader’s worth of weight in two weeks. Ridiculous.

But these aren’t made up. I found these on various web pages and banner ads around the web.

Here’s another strange thing: they have a better success rate than you’d think. Of the 52% of US citizens that clicked on spam messaging, 12% actually tried to buy whatever the spam was selling

Maybe if you went on "Survivor" or something.
Maybe if you went on “Survivor” or something.

This unrealistic claim marketing is a pretty grey area, and you see a bunch of variations of it. The “#1 In The ___” claim, “I/He/She did this and so can you” claim, and so on. If you can back up the claim with facts, then there’s nothing to worry about. But the trouble comes when that claim is empty.

And the tough part is the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) doesn’t do the greatest job regulating these sort of claims. They have a PDF that outlines disclosures in digital advertising, but there are only two claims they concentrate on the most:

Ads that make claims about health or safety, such as:

  • ABC Sunscreen will reduce the risk of skin cancer.
  • ABC Water Filters remove harmful chemicals from tap water.
  • ABC Chainsaw’s safety latch reduces the risk of injury.

Ads that make claims that consumers would have trouble evaluating for themselves, such as:

  • ABC Refrigerators will reduce your energy costs by 25%.
  • ABC Gasoline decreases engine wear.
  • ABC Hairspray is safe for the ozone.

That’s tough.

While they look at the health aspect, getting into the numerical-based claims is where the headaches and “compliance” commence. Just walk into a GNC and look at many of their products. The company takes in $2.63 billion per year, yet in tiny print at the bottom of many boxes you’ll see, “These claims aren’t supported by the FTC.”

But there they are. Still raking in a ton of money. Still able to sell products. And that’s GNC. They’re nationally known. Imagine all the landing pages and ads on the entirety of the internet. Not everything can be audited, which is why you still see these claims.

But that’s not what you have to watch out for. The outlandish claims get a few people, but not the majority of buyers. We know they’re generally outliers that aren’t the norm for the general population.

No, where the most damage is done is the little stuff. Adding 5-7% on an overarching conversion claim, a few pounds lost here or there, a couple dollars more for potential revenue. Think about this scenario:

SAVE 85% ON CAR INSURANCE!

and

SAVE 34% ON CAR INSURANCE!

It’s easy to see which one is an inflated claim. But what if they were both lies? What if claim #2 really could only offer 26% savings? THAT kind of claim is unrealistic because it isn’t the norm, yet it would be trusted by even the most savvy consumer. It’s less of a boast than claim #1, yet just as unethical.

How To Beat Unrealistic Claims:

Guess what happens when the FTC comes down on that sort of advertising?

A $16,000 fine per day until you remove your claim, potential fines that range from thousands to millions of dollars and your name on a list of people to “watch” in future business dealings.

Those are pretty stiff penalties. So how do you avoid an FTC firestorm AND outperform the unrealistic claim method?

Be realistic. Seriously. If you’re real with your claims, one of two things will happen: you’ll see your numbers aren’t good and you’ll fail, making you try harder and make a better product that achieves your claim. Or, you’ll get to the point where you have solid numbers that attract quality customers who stay with you because you deliver on exactly what you promise.

That’s where you beat the unrealistic claim method.

Customer retention. Repeat business. Word-of-mouth marketing. All these fall into place when you help your customer achieve what you promised.

If you can help increase conversion rates by at least 13% for every customer, say that. Then flood the page with testimonials that can back up your claim. Unrealistic claims won’t be able to compete with real, happy customers, which will ensure longevity for your product.

2) Rorschach Marketing

Lean back in this chair and tell me, young grasshopper, what you see in this picture:

Inkblot-Rorschach-Marketing

Personally, I saw an existential commentary on the post-industrial plight of mankind. Others in the office said they saw a butterfly. The point is, different people will look at this singular, unchanging image and see different things.

Rorschach marketing follows that same philosophy. These are generalized claims that people can insert themselves into. These claims have the same effect as a Rorschach image where one claim can mean so many different things to other individuals.

For example, say you saw this phrase on a marketing site:

“Let me show you how to make $500,000 per month doing what you love.”

Fantastic. I knew sitting in my living room eating Oreos and watching Dr. Who would turn out to be a lucrative career choice. Time to roll in the piles of cash I’ll be making.

Yet, for Sarah, that same phrase means she could finally pursue her love of saving the environment through sustainable recycling initiatives.

Saying “what you love” is where this phrase gets in trouble. It’s not specific, and lends itself to being an extremely subjective siren call. Something that seems to offer so much without explicitly offering anything at all manipulates our basic emotion of desire.

Plato knew the importance of desire when he so famously said, “Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.” Desire is a very strong emotional appeal to play off of, and this sort of claim plays in the shadows.

A lot of major advertisers even practice this in the form of puffery. Alka-Seltzer with “Try It, You’ll Like It.” AllState with “You’re in good hands with AllState.” Wheaties with “Breakfast of Champions.” In all of these, you can insert yourself into the generalization. Tastes differ, good hands is situational and who wouldn’t want to imagine themselves as a champion?

There’s nothing inherently illegal in this, as long as they could back the claim up.

While Rorschach marketing is technically more legitimate than an unrealistic claim, you can see why this is still argued as unethical. You’re counting on the consumer to fill in the blanks themselves for what you offer, which can and will lead to unfulfilled wishes.

But there’s a way you can still fuel desire while being ethical.

How To Beat Rorschach Marketing:

Be specific.

A specific claim leaves little doubt as to what you offer. Specificity is one of the most powerful tools a copywriter has in their arsenal. It increases credibility because there’s more comfort in specific details than broad generalities.

Don’t believe me? Which one of these headlines would you click on?

Get More Email Subscribers Than You’ve Ever Had

or:

Gain 6,500 New Email Subscribers in 2 Weeks

In a study I ran, literally 100% of respondents at LeadPages chose the second option.

Some responses I received:

“The number just makes it more concrete. I can believe that more than the arbitrary claim.”

“What’s ‘more than I’ve ever had’ even mean? Can’t that be different depending on your point of view?”

“Specificity always rules.”

Behold the power of specificity, folks. The first claim is Rorschach marketing at work, promising an amount that can vary from person to person.

The second claim, however, tells you exactly what you’re going to get. 6,500 may not be a lot for a worldwide company, but at least you know what you’re signing up for.

The known beats the unknown.

3) Gateway Pages

Remember the trouble Best Buy got into a few years ago for their Black Friday shenanigans?

Their advertisements said they had adequate quantities of televisions available, yet when customers came in for those TVs Best Buy was magically “out of stock.”

How unfortunate. But those customers already fought their way through the mobs to get in the store, so they might as well buy SOMETHING, right?

Bait-and-switch achieved. And that technique made its way over to the landing page realm in the form of gateway pages.

Also known as “cloaking,” a gateway page is a page completely optimized for search engines, but you don’t see it because it redirects over to a page that’s completely different.

It looks something like this. You’d search for something:

Page-Cloak-Search

Then click on a high-ranking link:

fake link

Once you clicked on that link, though, you wouldn’t be taken to the page you thought you’d get. No, you would end up on a page like this:

Mortgage-Cloaking-Page

It’s completely different from what you expected. That’s because a gateway page has been set up to redirect to that mortgage page.

Page-Cloaking-Example

A redirect is is put in place on the SEO-friendly page, which takes you to the high-converting landing page. The redirect happens so fast you don’t even see the gateway page, but it’s all the search engine sees. The invisible gateway page ranks high because it’s chock-full of keyword-rich content, even though the user never actually sees that page.

This is a quick way to get a big rank for a landing page in non-competitive keywords. Yet, even as powerful a technique this is, it’s the easiest one to beat in the group.

How To Beat Gateway Pages:

First off, just sit back and let Google do its thing.

With updates like Penguin and Panda in the SEO algorithm, these gateway pages are getting phased out quicker than zubaz pants. Other search engines are following suit, dishing out severe penalties that banish these pages from any sort of search result relevancy.

That gives you a tremendous leg up in your landing page efforts. All you’ve got to do is practice white hat SEO. That includes:

  • Title and Header Tags – Your page titles should be between 50-60 characters and include your business/product name and the main keyword in which you want to rank. For header tags, only have one H1 tag per page (containing your main keyword) and spread your use of H2-H5 tags in pyramid order.
  • Keywords – Target 2-4 main keywords you want to rank in for your landing pages. When writing keywords in your content, once every 20-30 words is a good ratio for clean keyword use. ABSOLUTELY DO NOT stuff your content, meta descriptions or hidden HTML elements with keywords.
  • Link Building – Generate links from other websites that link back to your own landing page. Linkbacks increase your traffic and help you rise up the search engine rankings.

Speaking of link building…

4) Link Building

Links are a powerful thing. Very, very powerful.

Take this story as a testament to that statement. Back in the early to mid 2000s, the understanding and practice of SEO was huge. In the practice of car insurance, one of the most competitive industries on the web, SEO experts were fighting like crazy to get that elusive first page result on Google.

One day, completely out of nowhere, a site appeared on the first page of Google. The next day, it was the 5th result. A few days after that, the top result. In a hyper-competitive SEO field like car insurance, a seemingly unknown brand shot up the results in a way that shouldn’t have been possible.

Funny thing, though. When you clicked on the link for that site, all you were greeted with was a blank login page.

How could that be possible? The page didn’t stuff keywords, nor did it hide elements on the page that covered up spammed content. It was literally a blank page.

Needless to say, competing SEO experts were less than enthused. And if there’s one thing you don’t want, it’s some of the smartest minds in SEO banding together in a momentary truce to look into your site.

They took a deep look at the backend of the site, and what they found absolutely shocked them.

The site had tens of thousands of backlinks. Site after site on the web — even well-known, high-traffic pages — all had links that directed back to that blank page site. Turns out, they wrote a Joomla plugin virus that penetrated these thousands of sites and placed a link on their pages. Once the SEO experts found this out, they got Google to manually take the page off the entire Internet for unethical practices.

Just imagine that. No content, no keywords, no nothing on that page. Yet the power of links pushed them to the top of the search pile in used car sales.

Link building is massively important if you want to:

  • Build credibility with search engines
  • Increase your traffic from referrals
  • Rank well in search engines.

Getting these links ethically is a full-time job in a lot of organizations, which goes to show just how vital links are.

With this sort of emphasis, you can imagine the rampant black hat SEO techniques being applied to hit this goal. Stuff like:

  • Paying for Links – Paying for a link on a page or within content is a staple black hat SEO move. Prices range from $15 a link all the way to $350 and higher.
  • Joining Link Programs – There are businesses that own thousands of web pages and, for the right price, will include your link on every one of them. The theory behind this is building enough linkbacks to overcome bad SEO like the Joomla example above.
  • Building Fake Pages – Some forgo the link program option and simply create their own separate domains. These “Web 2.0” pages are content-rich and solely exist to point links back to the original, revenue-garnering page.

Luckily, Google has made competing against these practices as an ethical marketer a whole lot easier.

How To Beat Black Hat Link Building:

As with the case of gateway pages, Panda and Penguin updates from Google have severely penalized the black hat SEO techniques I listed above. These updates identify paid links/link networks and systematically weed them out.

That’s great news, because it means you can build links methodically. Google looks more at the quality of your backlinks now, so this methodical approach will guarantee you won’t suffer any unseen, unintended penalties if you follow this handy format:

  • Identify Key Offering: You have a great product. But if you want quality links, you need to be able to convey WHY your product is so great. Write down the biggest benefits your product offers and why another website would want to promote you. This process will help big time when you’re ready to write your pitches.
  • Research Related Sites: Find blogs, articles and sites featuring topics that relate to what you offer. If you offered soccer training and you got linkbacks from Soccerworld.com and TruckersUnlimited.com, Google will prefer the Soccerworld.com domain because it matches more closely to what you offer.
  • Build a Tailored Pitch: When you send your pitch to another site, show you’ve done your research. Send your email to the correct person, talk a bit about your use/interest of their site and mention how a link to your site could benefit their content on a specific page. This all shows you’ve taken the time to research the business and you aren’t sending a blanket email request. Here’s an example of such an email:

Subject: Outdated Article Link

Hey Dave,

One of my clients that I shared your “10 Ways to Bike Better” article with sent me an email today (I send this thing out all the time, nice work!). She pointed out the fact your link under the sixth point was driving to a resource page that was written back in 2001. It’s a good resource, but a bunch of the things they offer are a bit outdated.

I know the page was published a while back, but I know it’s pretty popular and pulls in great readership (I should know, I’ve read it and sent it out countless times!). I’ve got an up-to-date link that actually fits perfectly in with what you’re getting at with that point:

www.streamtires.com/alloy-tire-advantages.

It reinforces your argument about why alloy-framed tires are better and offers a couple suggestions for tires to buy.

Anyways, just wanted to bring that to your attention. Great article, and I look forward to sending it out to more people!

-Me

  • In this example, Dave is the original author of the article, so he’ll have more of a vested interest to change out the link than someone else. The intro paragraph shows that I’m a fan of his work and also conveys that his article has something important to fix.
  • The next paragraph offers up the link you want to imbed on their site in a way that fits with what THEY offer, which is very important. After that, I ease the pressure in the last paragraph, reinforcing that I’m a concerned fan (which you should be already) rather than a spammy link builder.
  • Observe: When you get links, watch the traffic level of links and what kind of actions those visitors take on your site. Different sites can offer up different demographics and psychographics altogether, so this is a prime opportunity to watch how these visitors interact with your site layout.

Stick with this guide and you’ll build links ethically, legally and efficiently.

Sound Off!

Now you see why these dastardly techniques just don’t pay off. Google is stamping out a lot of these practices, and time-tested ethical marketing is outperforming the other things Google can’t enforce.

This list, of course, doesn’t cover every dastardly technique under the sun. These four just happen to be the ones I see marketers succumbing to the most. So I’m curious, what dastardly techniques have you seen lately?

NOTE: We created a two-page PDF outline to help you keep these dastardly techniques (and how to beat them) in mind. Click here to get your copy now.

  • Jeff Wenberg

    Sean, love this article. It’s a marketing strategy in a single blog post! Well done sir!

    • Sean Bestor

      Thanks, Jeff! Glad you liked the post.

  • You guys are cool… but you forgot exact match domains for landing pages… they still work great! At least for me, haha. AdWords does work, too

    • Sean Bestor

      Hey Michael,

      Exact match domains are a pretty solid source of an SEO playbook. If you can manage to buy up the keyword in multiple domains and set up the 301 redirect then that’s a great advantage. As long as it doesn’t dip into gateway pages then it’s still a great tactic to use.

      • Did it for several german keywords in 2011 and both landing pages (no gateways whatsoever) were #1 after a very short time period… one is still #1 and the second one is #2 … rocks!

        Did it for another german phrase and page was #7… very competitive market. Did not advertise the site anywhere.

        • Sean Bestor

          Very cool! The power of white hat SEO at work!

  • Link building seems to be the most difficult task for me. I’m glad to see that you recommend the “slow and steady” pace as opposed to giving in to the temptation of the various shortcuts that end up causing so much trouble in the long run.

    • Sean Bestor

      That’s awesome, Laurie! Link building is a beast to tackle. The power of inbound links is crazy, and it’s tough to shut that voice down in the back of your mind that says, “You can get so much more if you just do (unethical marketing thing).” BUT, in the long run, that “slow and steady” way ensures healthy links that won’t get penalized by search engines. Just keep plugging away in your efforts and it will pay off!

  • Rob

    “Here’s another strange thing: they have a better success rate than you’d think. Of the 52% of US citizens that clicked on spam messaging, 12% actually tried to buy whatever the spam was selling.”

    Were you trying to be ironic here by making an unrealistic claim in your unrealistic claim section of your article?

    • Sean Bestor

      Hey Rob,

      Glad you read the article! In that section you’re referring to, I was citing the study from the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group. I was surprised myself to see that many people admit that they’d buy something from spam messages, but I guess they didn’t mind confessing!

  • Josh Wilkinson

    Any form of SEO is black hat, since you are gaming Google’s search engine regardless of the thoughtfulness and ethics you base your methods around. Read their TOS and see how optimizing your site or building links specifically to rank better than other sites for a given keyword is still black hat.

    • Sean Bestor

      Hey Josh,

      I don’t necessarily agree with that point. While black hat SEO is absolutely unethical, I firmly believe the accepted white hat methods are beneficial for the content creator and the user. If you implement white had methods, you’re enhancing the internet experience and knowledge acquisition of a visitor. Google has a starter guide for SEO marketers that explicitly encourages SEO optimization. Though, I’m glad black hat marketing is something you’re against. There’s a lot of unethical search marketers out there and the more people like yourself that try to stamp out black hat marketing, the better.

  • Clinton Kowach

    Great article and insight into building an ethical marketing strategy! This is very important to me and your advise is greatly appreciated. Many times emphasis is focused on rapid results instead of creating a long lasting platform that implements an honest based marketing method.

    • Sean Bestor

      Thanks, Clinton! You’re exactly right, though. It’s a rapid world, and we want rapid results. But some of the most successful sites I’ve seen worked a long time to build up a following. It was like coupons back in the 40s. They drummed up business for that day, but no one would come back unless there was another coupon. It was the stores that plugged along and invested in long-term practices that succeeded.