Black Hat SEO: The Dark Side of Marketing
All is fair in love and war, but the same can’t be said for marketing techniques with regards to online search engines.
There are many tactics available to boost your site’s presence online, and using these can have a big impact. Referred to as SEO (search engine optimization) tools, hey can increase traffic, expose new users to your content, and create a lasting impression. Search engines not only approve of many of these marketing tools, they openly encourage them in their webmaster guidelines.
But the truth is that while some may be considered acceptable to Google and the like, others are decidedly not. Tactics that fall under this category are known as Black Hat SEO. Not only are these frowned upon by search engines, they could ultimately end up causing permanent damage to the way you reach users.
Table of contents
- What is Black Hat SEO?
- Examples of Black Hat SEO
- Why is Using Black Hat SEO Problematic?
- White Hat SEO
- Grey Hat SEO
- How to Avoid Black Hat SEO
What is Black Hat SEO?
The goal of search engines is to connect users with what they’re looking for. Each has criteria for what makes a site more or less appropriate for searches of specific terms, and the better a site fares, the higher it ranks in the list of search results. They even have algorithms in place to sift through the massive amounts of content and push the most relevant and helpful sites to the top.
Black hat SEO is the umbrella term for marketing techniques specifically designed to manipulate search engines and their accompanying algorithms. The name is derived from old western tv shows and movies where the good guy historically wore a white hat, and the villain wore a black one.
The basic idea is that by using them, you will artificially boost the site’s presence on a search engine and garner more users. As you’ll see, there are tons of examples of these, and each has its own way of trying to rig the system.
Examples of Black Hat SEO
There are many different black hat SEO tactics, and the list continues to grow. As search engine algorithms get more advanced, so do the techniques of those trying to outsmart them.
The overall theme here is that these are techniques that hope to improve your position in illegitimate ways. Instead of earning a higher rank through informative and quality content, these attempt to essentially cheat their way to the top.
Low Quality Content
Content is one of the factors considered by search engines when ranking a site. Low quality content is one of the most common versions of black hat SEO, and rather than describing one technique, it represents more of a subcategory. In general, these refer to content created by a program or person that is not original to the site.
This can come in the form of content that has either been directly stolen from another, higher-ranking site (plagiarism), or reworded in a way that provides no additional information.
Search engines like Google also tend to disapprove of content that is program-generated. Programs have a tendency to create content that reads robotic, but it can also lead into black hat SEO territory.
One example of this is called “article spinning,” where a program takes content from another site and creates dozens (or even hundreds) of similar posts with insignificant changes in wording or grammar.
Keywords are another useful tool for search engine optimization because they help both the algorithm and the searcher get a better understanding of what the site is about. Black hat SEO interrupts this by using techniques like “hidden keywords” or “keyword stuffing”.
Hidden keywords are typically unrelated text that is hidden in the page by making it the same colour as the background. This is meant to draw in unsuspecting users to the site who searched the hidden term.
Keyword stuffing is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a rather obvious black hat SEO technique, with keywords literally “stuffed” into the content so often it becomes difficult to read or follow. An example might look something like this:
Baseball cards can be really valuable because of baseball card collectors and baseball card enthusiasts. When looking for baseball cards, check out baseball cards at local places where baseball cards are sold and online sites selling baseball cards.
This method may garner a higher search engine ranking, but it comes at the cost of users most likely leaving the site dissatisfied since the repetitiveness adds no actual value. Keywords are undoubtedly a useful tool when marketing your site, but try to only use them where they flow appropriately and add to the content of your page.
Another category of black hat SEO tactics aims to trick both users and search engines into thinking the site contains content that it doesn’t.
One such strategy involves something called a private blog network. This is when expired domains from reputable sites are bought up and then filled with different content and backlinks to another, less legitimate site. Basically, it uses the original domain’s high search engine ranking to get more people to another site.
If such domains are not available, other black hat SEO techniques have alternative ways to falsify content and draw in users. One of these is by using “doorway passages”. This is when pages of a site are dedicated to useless content full of keywords meant to attract search engines. When a user clicks on this link, they’re ultimately sent to another part of the site, which probably has nothing to do with what they were searching for.
Sneaky redirects also fall under this category, and this is when the link listed on the search engine redirects users to a different page on the site or another site altogether. Redirects can be a useful tool when a site has a domain change, but using it for this purpose falls under black hat SEO.
Sometimes this method is used specifically to throw off search engine crawlers looking for black hat SEO. The code of the site is adjusted to send crawlers to one site, and users to another, so that it can evade detection and still boost its rating. Cloaking takes this a step further by purporting to have a totally different content to search engine than what is shown to users.
Another technique involves something known as a “bait and switch”. This occurs when content relating to a specific topic is purposely put on a site to improve its rank on a search engine. Once the site ranks high enough, the content is switched out for something else, but continues to take advantage of the high ranking. As an example, Groupon was accused of this a few years back when it continued to advertise a voucher for the San Francisco Comprehensive Tours even after the promotion had ended as a way to entice users to the site.
Rich Snippet Markup Spam
Markups make it easier for search engines to understand what the focus of a website, and what parts of it will be most relevant to searchers. For example, if your website focuses on great white sharks, but includes a section on how often they eat seals, you would mark up the sharks, but probably not the seals.
These markups are then used by the search engines to create their rich snippets- also known as structured data- which are those lines of text featured beneath each link in a search result. The purpose is to give users an accurate look at what the site is about before they click on it.
Rich snippet markup spam attempts to outsmart this by using markups for irrelevant or inaccurate information that will hopefully land them a higher ranking. One example is including a fraudulent review from a fake site that raves about your content, just so it will show up under your link in search results and give users a false impression of your reputation.
Illegitimate Building Links
The outreach of a site is also important to search engines when determining the proper rank for it. Essentially, if the link to a site has been found on numerous reputable sites, that helps to improve its own ranking. The thinking behind this is that if those notable sites are linking to it, it’s probably a good source. This practice- referred to as link building- has become a essentiamarketing technique for sites to move up the results page.
Black hat SEO techniques developed a loophole by putting the links of sites in the comment section of respected blogs. Search engine algorithms would pick up these as mentions by the blog, and the site would get a higher ranking. Fortunately this has been mostly eliminated as a method to improve search engine optimization because the algorithms now ignore links in blog comments when considering a site’s ranking.
It should also be noted that even if the link is listed by the actual blog/site (instead of the comments), it is still considered black hat SEO if done through what is considered illegitimate means. For example, if you pay someone to post the link to your site on their platform, or exchange it for a free product, that is still labeled as black hat SEO. This is because the link is being posted for the product/money, not because of its merits.
Another example of this includes a practice known as “Guest Posting”. Instead of exchanging money or free products, the link to your site gets posted when you “guest post” on the blog. Just like the prior example, this is considered a black hat SEO tactic since your link is not being posted because it provides informative and interesting content.
Why is Using Black Hat SEO Problematic?
When you decide to utilize search engine optimization, it can be tempting to use black hat techniques to gain an edge over competitors, but it is important to understand the consequences.
Search engines do not appreciate when you try to deceive them. Black hat SEO violates their terms of service, and they take these very seriously. They have constantly evolving algorithms in place to seek out sites that participate in these tactics. And just in case any slip through the cracks, they openly encourage searchers to report offenses. The consequences for this can range from docking the site’s ranking when a search is conducted to being indefinitely banned from the site altogether.
From an ethical standpoint, it’s easy to see why respectable sites do not engage in black hat SEO techniques. They violate the idea that a website should be boosted because it is actually more suitable to the user and their search. Instead, these tools rely on shady ways to get often undeserving attention from both the search engine and those searching.
Black hat SEO techniques also tend to give users a negative experience. They often use trickery to lure in users, and ends up leaving them confused or frustrated. If users are on your site because of tactics like a bait and switch or a sneaky redirect, they most likely won’t find what they’re looking for. When a user is unsatisfied with a search result, it’s very unlikely they will stay there, or return at a later time.
Using black hat SEO can seem like the easy solution to getting more traffic to your site, but consider the short term benefits with the long term costs. Even though it may cause users to click on your site more often, it can also lead to a negative user experience, something you definitely want to avoid.
White Hat SEO
White hat SEO are techniques that are considered acceptable by search engines and the online community.
Search engines want legitimate, reputable sites to succeed. They realise SEO is an important part of that, and encourage it as a marketing technique, but they ultimately want the right sites to be reworded for their hard work.
Creating a positive environment for users is one of the best ways to improve a site’s search engine rank while staying within the boundaries of what is deemed white hat SEO. This means filling your site with complete and interesting content, making it easy to navigate, and having a viable mobile version of the site. Use appropriate and enticing meta tags and descriptions and make sure your site has fast loading times. All of these are totally acceptable methods of search engine optimization.
Legitimate link building is another way to improve your search engine rankings. It improves the site’s credibility and allows it to reach a broader audience throughout the internet. Just remember this does not include links that are exchanged for services, goods, or money.
Grey Hat SEO
As the name implies, this is the term used for SEO tactics that fall somewhere between black and white. Grey hat SEO may not make the list of search engine “no-no’s”, but that doesn’t mean they won’t land you in trouble.
Search engine guidelines make a point to say that their lists of unacceptable SEO practices are not comprehensive, and they reserve the right to punish any site participating in tactics they deem inappropriate or going against their terms of service.
Additionally, algorithms are advancing every day. So just because it may not be something that will get you caught today, there’s no guarantee how long that will last.
How to Avoid Black Hat SEO
The easiest way to avoid using black hate SEO to improve your site’s ranking is to hire a professional. Agencies with expert SEO skills are there to help you with this aspect of marketing while also keeping within the guidelines set out by search engines. They can give advice about the structure of the site or keyword usage, and can assist with content development. Some even provide training so you can learn to optimize your search ranking for years to come.
If you’d rather fly solo, the internet has plenty of tools to help you market in the right way. The best resource is straight from the horse’s mouth. As mentioned, search engines like Google and Bing have helpful webmaster guidelines with examples of what does and doesn’t violate their terms of service.
It’s also important to monitor your site for hackers and spam that might be using black hat SEO to tank your rating. This is considered “negative SEO” because it is done with the intention of hurting the rank of another site (usually a competitor), rather than trying to boost their own site, but it could still be seen as black hat SEO to search engines. For example, by purchasing spam links to your site, they are essentially setting you up to be flagged by a search engine, and that could land you in trouble- even if you aren’t responsible for putting it there.
Repeat after me: I will not exchange money or free products to have my link posted on another site. It may seem obvious that buying a mention is not the same as earning one, but this goes beyond an ethical issue. Search engines take this so seriously they typically punish both parties.
The main thing to keep in mind is that if you improve your rank through providing solid content, you don’t have to worry about black hat SEO at all. Create a clear and engaging site that focuses on topics rather than keywords, and uses tools like link building, markups, and redirects wisely.
The impulse to use some of these techniques can be strong when striving to reach as many customers as possible. Even the most reputable sites have been caught doing some of them- including Google itself! Still, it is vital that you avoid black hat SEO to ensure that your site is earning its spot at the top of relevant searches in order to be respected by both search engines and users.
Q: Is black hat SEO illegal?
A: Technically no, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have a negative impact on your site. It isn’t against the law (yet), so you won’t have to worry about the feds showing up at your door with a warrant. However, it does violate the terms of service for all reputable search engines. If their algorithm catches you using black hat SEO, or if it’s reported to them, you could see your site lose its ranking on the site, or be banned from it altogether.
Q: What is the difference between black hat and white hat SEO?
A: Black hat SEO techniques are those that use illegitimate means to achieve a higher ranking on search results. They are often explicitly forbidden in the search engine’s terms of service and could result in the site being bumped to a lower ranking or banned from the search engine. On the other end of the scale are white hat SEO techniques, which are extremely useful tools for marketers and encouraged by search engines as sound marketing practices.
Q: What if I’m unsure if something is black hat SEO?
A: The best answer for this is that if you’re unsure, don’t do it. Check out the search engine guidelines for more details on what they do and do not allow. It also helps to consider your motivations for the technique in question- are you doing this to better your user’s experience, or to improve your presence on a search engine? If you answered the latter, assume it’s black hat SEO, and go a different route.
Q: Is link building black hat SEO?
A: Not when it’s done through legitimate means. If your link is being posted because it is being genuinely endorsed by the site posting it, then there’s no problem. If the link is “sponsored” i.e. posted in exchange for money, free products, or a guest blog post, then yes, this is considered black hat SEO and should be discouraged.