Developing a strong SEO strategy and ranking high in the search results is essential for any business. However, there’s a right and wrong way of building out your SEO strategy. The frowned upon methods that make up black hat SEO fall under the latter. Black hat SEO aims to hoodwink the search engines instead of solving problems for users. Instead of following the rules and earning the top spots on the SERPs, black hat SEO involves using sketchy tactics to get you there. Furthermore, if you rely too heavily on these non-kosher methods, you will likely damage your standing on the SERPs.
If you’re new to the world of search, the goal of search engines, such as Google, is to provide the best possible results for a user query. Google wants people to have a great search experience and ensure its results are free of spam. They accomplish this automatically via algorithms and manual actions that recognize and penalize sites engaging in black hat SEO.
Search engine algorithms have developed by leaps and bounds over time. This is one of the primary reasons you should avoid Black Hat SEO at all costs. On the other hand, white hat SEO is a far better (and ethical) method to dominate the SERPs. Furthermore, white hat SEO follows the terms and guidelines set in place by search engines. The basic goal of white hat SEO is to create quality content and a better overall user experience.
Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO
Black hat SEO goes against search engine best practices and intentionally manipulates them in order to rank higher. In most cases, search engines will identify instances of black hat SEO and penalize the offending party. Google penalties can range from dropping your ranking for a particular keyword to removing your domain from the Google index. As we touched on earlier, white hat SEO is a more ethical way of developing your SEO strategy. The primary goals of white hat SEO are to create quality content and a positive user experience.
Black Hat SEO Techniques
Keyword stuffing is the practice of filling your content with meaningless keywords in hopes of manipulating where the page ranks on the SERPs. Google will also flag you for keyword stuffing if you add multiple variations of keywords when they add no value and/or create a bad user experience. Keyword stuffing may also result in your content ranking for irrelevant queries.
Google describes keyword stuffing as:
- Lists of phone numbers that do not add value
- Blocks of text that list cities/states that a web page is trying to rank for
- Repeating the say words or phrases so often that it doesn’t sound natural
You can conduct keyword research to identify terms and phrases that people are searching for. However, overusing these keywords in your content is a bad idea. Instead of filling your content with meaningless keywords, concentrate on producing useful content that focuses on topics, not keywords.
This black hat SEO tactic involves showing one piece of content to users and a totally different piece of content to search engines. The goal of cloaking is to make content rank for a variety of terms that do not relate to the content. Spam websites often do this in an effort to prevent search engines from detecting their spam content.
Crafting your content to a variety of audience segments is 100% acceptable. For instance, you might shrink your website when someone visits from a mobile device. You can also change the language of a page based on the country in which a visitor resides. These are two examples where it is okay to alter your content. However, you cannot change the content that appears for search engine crawlers.
There is no accepted definition to determine what’s acceptable or what isn’t. So, I encourage you to ask yourself, does what you intend to do benefit the user?
A redirect is when you send a visitor to a different URL than the one they initially clicked. Black hat SEO employs redirects outside of the means they are intended. Similar to cloaking, this black hat tactic can include redirecting search engine crawlers to one page and all other users to a different page.
Another instance is when you redirect a very authoritative page with a plethora of backlinks into a totally irrelevant page in order to increase its position in the SERPs. A 301 redirect is intended for permanent changes and passes the majority of authority from one page to another. This means that a black hat SEO can use redirects for the sole purpose of manipulating search results.
Low-quality content that’s of little to no value to the user is another common black hat SEO practice.
An example of low-quality content is content scraped from other websites, either by a bot or a person. Back in the day, search engines like Google struggled to recognize content that had been copied from other websites. However, Google’s Panda update in 2011 took care of this issue. Just about every site with duplicate content took an instant hit in search engine rankings when Google unleashed Panda. Since then, Google has improved drastically in terms of recognizing duplicate and low-quality content.
Adding invisible keywords to your content is another banned practice. Websites that take part in black hat SEO do this by making the text the same color as the page’s background color. Doing this means the page may show up in search results for the invisible keywords, even though there’s no visible content related to them on the page. Users are sorely disappointed when they don’t find anything related to their query when they click on a search result that ranks due to invisible keywords. Remember, you should always write content that solves a problem for your audience, so there is no need to hide content on your website.
Bait & Switch
The classic “bait and switch” is another black hat SEO tactic that sketchy digital marketers use to mislead search engines. This tactic involves creating content for a topic for which you want to rank. Once the page ranks for the desired topic, the author swaps out the content for something totally different. This practice creates a negative experience for visitors since the content they wanted to see no longer exists.
Each of these practices deceives users and search engines. In short, they’re not a good way to go about improving your SEO ranking. Instead, you want to write original, high-quality content and engage in white hat SEO tactics. Doing so helps you avoid search engine penalties and help your content rank. Furthermore, producing high-quality content creates a positive relationship with your target audience and helps with converting visitors into customers.
Search engines such as Google explicitly ban the purchasing and selling of links. Google states that “any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.” This includes sending a website free swag in exchange for links. If you’re not sure if your arrangement is acceptable, Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s webspam team recommends that you reference the FTC guidelines.
You should also avoid paying another site to link to your content. Google asks users to inform them about instances of people buying and/or selling links. Google typically penalizes both the buyer and seller of links once they identify the practice.
If you’re reading this post having purchased links not knowing that this is a black hat SEO tactic, you should remove them as soon as possible. You can also use the disavow links tool if you cannot get webmasters to remove the links. This tool tells Google to ignore the paid links when calculating your Pagerank.
Abusing Structured Data and Rich Snippets
Structured data, also known as rich snippets or schema, allows you to change how your content displays on search engine result pages. It differentiates your content from your competitors and gives you more real estate on the SERPs. You can add structured data to a page that displays a podcast, recipe, or book among other products and services. Reviews schema markup is one of the most popular types of structured data.
Black hat SEO incorporates providing inaccurate information in structured data to trick search engines and users. For instance, someone engaging in black hat SEO might write a five-star review on a fake review site and add structured data so they stand out in the search results. This is an extremely risky tactic since Google encourages users to report the misuse of structured data.
This should not deter you from marking up truthful, accurate information on your web pages. In fact, it’s a wise idea to add structured data the white hat way.
You have nothing to worry about if you provide truthful information that is helpful to users. Google has documented the guidelines regarding adding structured data to your website and have also provided a helpful tool for testing your structured data.
Blog Comment Spam
This black hat method involves including a link to your website in blog comments. This happens less often since Google has updated its algorithms to discount links in blog comments. Most respectable blogs make links in comments nofollow by default. This means that Google does not follow the link nor does the link pass any authority.
While the number of people engaging in this practice has plummeted, you’ll still find countless people on Fiverr advertising blog commenting services. Blog commenting is a cheap way of getting links to your website and it is highly frowned upon.
If you own a publication, forum, or community that allows comments, you need to make sure that your comments section cannot be spammed by either bots or people. Google will demote or totally remove pages with spam from their search results. Using tools such as Google’s free reCAPTCHA tool is a great way to reduce the risk of spammy user-generated content.
Links farms are a website or collection of websites designed for the sole purpose of link building. Each website links out to the site(s) they want to rank higher on Google. One of the key factors that Google looks at when determining how a page ranks on the SERPs is the number of links that point back to a website. Black hat SEO takes advantage of this by using link farms to inflate the number of backlinks to a site.
Link farms typically feature low-quality content and lots of links. The links usually contain the keyword they want the site to rank for in the anchor text. Google can easily detect link farms and you should avoid them at all costs. Instead, you should employ white hat SEO methods, such as creating stellar content, graphs, data, interviews, or any other content that allows you to acquire backlinks naturally over time.
Private Blog Networks
A private blog network (PBN) is a collection of authoritative websites designed solely for link building. They’re similar to link farms in that they both aim to inflate the number of links pointing to a website. Each PBN site links to the site they want to boost in the SERPs, but they do not link to each other.
Black hat SEOs will purchase expired domains that have already built up authority. They’ll then write content similar to what already existed on the domain before it expired and include links to their own site. They then hope that the search engines don’t realize they’re controlling a network of sites and rank their primary website higher in the search results.
Over the years, search engines have evolved and are now really good at spotting PBNs. Google could hit your primary site with a severe penalty if it believes you’re using a PBN to improve your search presence. Instead of investing your time and effort into concocting fake websites, you should focus on creating quality content on your own domain instead. If you house all of your content under one domain, your site will become more authoritative since everyone will link to a single domain.
Why You Should Avoid Black Hat SEO
While black hat SEO isn’t explicitly illegal, it does violate the guidelines published by the primary search engines. In the simplest sense, black hat SEO is against the rules. This means that if you decide to engage in black hat SEO, you open yourself up to the possibility of the search engines hitting you with a nasty penalty. If a search engine does hit you with a penalty. your website will drop in the search results. If your infraction is extreme enough, the search engines may remove your site completely. Regardless of the penalty, you will attract less traffic, which, in turn, results in fewer customers.
The primary search engines have evolved by leaps and bounds over the years. Today, they’re more than capable of identifying black hat SEO tactics. So what does that mean for you? Just say no to black hat SEO! Black hat SEO fails to solve anything for the user. Furthermore, the search engines will likely catch your sketchy SEO methods and penalize you for violating their guidelines.
While the results of black hat SEO tactics are attractive, the potential penalties far outweigh the short-term gains. Remember, SEO is a marathon, not a sprint.
Grey Hat SEO
Ah, yes…the tactics that fall somewhere between black hat SEO and white hat SEO. If you find it hard to categorize an SEO method as either black or white hat SEO, then it’s likely a grey hat technique.
Grey hat SEO dances along the edge of black hat SEO. These tactics are not explicitly listed as prohibited practices in any webmaster guidelines. However, they are less than 100% kosher. In most cases, the search engines eventually tag grey hat SEO techniques as black hat once they’re identified.
How to Avoid Black Hat SEO
There’s no getting around it – black hat SEO is a sketchy business and it isn’t worth engaging in it. Here are a handful of best practices that will help you avoid black hat SEO:
- When crafting your content, treat the user and search engines as equals. Avoid cloaking or deceiving search engine crawlers by redirecting them to a different page. You should always focus on solving problems for the user and creating an amazing end-to-end user experience.
- Write high-quality content and avoid keyword stuffing. Never scrape, duplicate, or rephrase content written by other people. You may find Google’s content guidelines helpful.
- Always follow the rules for structured data. Make sure that any markup schema that you add is accurate and not misleading to users.
- Never buy or sell links. Remember, money isn’t the only currency involved in a black hat exchange. Offering free products in exchange for links is also prohibited. If you’re unsure if an exchange is less than ethical, you should reference the FTC endorsement guidelines.
- Avoid setting up a private blog network for the sake of generating backlinks. Instead, you should differentiate your website and content so that people naturally link to your site.
- Stay current on webmaster guidelines and avoid any black hat techniques that the search engines prohibit.
Now that you have a well-rounded understanding of everything related to black hat SEO, go forth and produce awe-inspiring content via white hat SEO techniques!
If you ever find yourself questioning whether a technique falls under the umbrella of black hat SEO, it probably is. A white hat strategy always trumps any black hat tactics when it comes to search engine optimization. Engaging in white hat SEO typically pays dividends and you can rest easy knowing you will likely never see a dip in your rankings due to a harsh penalty. So, for the sake of search engines, never engage in black hat SEO.