Search engine optimisation can prove a long, hard slog. From link building to creating high-quality content, it takes time and effort for anyone trying to do it alone.
That’s why, since the dawn of search engines, black hat SEO techniques have flourished.
Dodgy strategies like article spinning, keyword stuffing, buying links, cloaking, negative SEO, and invisible text have all been designed to trick the search engines into ranking low-quality sites higher on search engine results pages.
But the real issue with black hat SEO is that these tactics tend to completely disregard users in their mission to get higher rankings.
This is why Google’s cracked down on shady techniques in recent years by rolling out its infamous updates, like Penguin and Panda.
These days, if you’re caught using black hat SEO tricks, your site is likely to be severely penalised by Google or, worse, get wiped off the face of search results pages entirely.
So, should you ignore black hat SEO completely?
Don’t get us wrong – black hat SEO is DEFINITELY something to avoid. BUT there’s a lot we can learn from these spammy tactics. In other words, learn what to do by knowing what NOT to do.
In this blog post, we define what black hat SEO is, how it’s evolved, how it differs from grey hat SEO, and how to engineer truly sustainable SEO success with white hat SEO.
What is Black Hat SEO?
Black hat SEO is the dark side of search engine marketing.
Black hat SEO tricks include everything from buying links to content automation, web spam and duplicate content/plagiarism – all those things that violate search engine guidelines.
Any tactics deemed deceitful or harmful to consumers also come under the black hat SEO umbrella.
The opposite of black hat SEO is white hat SEO – these are the things you SHOULD do to get search rankings.
How Black Hat SEO tactics evolved
There was a time that black hat SEO wasn’t known as black hat SEO. It was just SEO.
Buying backlinks and creating spammy content was just the way to rank higher in search engines.
But then Google got wise to it.
The search engine started introducing updates to its algorithm that prevented certain black hat tactics from being rewarded in its search engine results.
Heard of the Penguin update?
Google launched Penguin in 2012 to catch sites deemed to be spamming its search results by buying links or obtaining them through link circles.
As a result, a huge number of websites watched their rankings plummet overnight.
This has become a common story over the years.
Google sees a tactic it doesn’t like – usually a tactic that tricks its algorithm and adds no value to users. Then, Google updates its algorithms to ensure these techniques no longer work.
So, sites that have used the tactic to rise the ranks suddenly drop down the page, or worse, get wiped from the results entirely.
Some of the most formidable Google search algorithm updates have been:
Florida penalised keyword stuffing
Panda penalised content farms
Penguin penalised shady link practices
The hard truth is this: if you play in the black hat world, the rewards won’t last long. Expect penalties from the search engines.
And the more penalties you get, the more expensive and time-consuming (not to mention stressful) it is to get your website back in Google's good books and ranking again.
SEO techniques can be defined as "black hat" if they involve any of the following:
1. Violate search engine guidelines
Black hat SEO tactics not only go against best practice, they often involve strategies that Google’s Guidelines directly reference as techniques web pages should not use.
2. Use manipulative tactics
While white hat SEO specialists focus on improving user experience, black hat SEO practitioners use sneaky tactics to deliberately manipulate Google’s algorithm to improve site rankings.
If a tactic is specifically designed to deceive Google into thinking it provides more value to users than it actually does, it is a black hat technique.
3. Focus on “loopholes”
Black hat strategies focus on exploiting loopholes in search engine algorithms. While these tactics work to improve site rankings with little effort, they are almost always a quick fix. This is because Google’s algorithm is constantly being updated to provide the best possible results, prioritising websites that offer a superior user experience.
While black hat practices may provide quick wins to improve search engine rankings, ultimately web owners should avoid black hat SEO tactics and follow google’s webmaster guidelines for white hat practices to improve organic traffic for long term, sustainable results.
Black Hat SEO techniques to avoid
There are many techniques that are widely considered black hat SEO tactics.
One thing all black hat SEO tactics have in common is that they focus on search engines, not the users.
Let’s examine some of the more widely recognised black hat SEO techniques and alternative white hat practices:
1. Keyword stuffing
Keyword stuffing is the process of filling digital content with irrelevant keywords that add no value to the subject matter in an attempt to manipulate google’s algorithms to improve the page’s search rankings. This ultimately lowers the quality of the content and makes for a poor user experience. This SEO strategy can also cause sites to show up in search results for irrelevant queries and ultimately lead to negative SEO.
Some examples of black hat keyword stuffing include:
Lists of phone numbers that are out of context and add no substantive value to the page
Text that unnecessarily lists cities or states for which a page is trying to rank
Unnatural repetition of keywords and synonyms. For example: How many black hat SEOs does it take to change a light bulb, lightbulb, lamp, lighting switch?
Google’s Google's Webmaster Guidelines suggest focusing on ‘useful, information-rich content that uses keywords appropriately and in context.'
Ultimately, creating high-quality content, which uses target keywords in context is an important SEO tactic that will organically improve a site’s rankings.
2. Automatically generated/duplicate content
Poor quality content has increasingly become recognised as one of the black hat SEO techniques that negatively affect search engines. With Google ranking quality content as one of its top 3 ranking factors, content that adds value to the user is essential to rank highly in search results pages.
While content that is packed full of irrelevant keywords falls into this category, so too does duplicate content and plagiarised content.
Check out what happened to this voucher site when the Panda algorithm rolled out in 2011:
Rankings plunged overnight!
The site has a section that linked out to great deals on products from across the web, with the commercial anchor text provided by the manufacturer.
Do you know what this meant? The same text could be found all over the internet.
Avoiding this is simple – create fresh, unique content that ADDS VALUE for users.
Make sure every piece of content is crafted to ADD VALUE for users and not search engines.
It should answer a specific question, solve a problem or provide “how-to” advice to educate readers (like this article you’re reading right now).
If you craft this kind of long-form valuable content, you’re more likely to receive shares, comments and all-important backlinks.
Follow Google’s content guidelines. Or better yet, hire a digital marketing agency like OMG that specialises in creating unique SEO content.
3. Hidden text
Hidden text is one of the sneakier black hat tactics out there. Hidden text is rendered invisible to users, through either being the same colour as the screen, being positioned off the screen or behind an image, having a font size of zero, or purposefully using CSS to hide from users. While this used to be an effective black hat trick to stuff in extra keywords, search engine crawlers are far more sophisticated than they used to be and will pick up on this quickly.
4. Paid links
This is a big one. After all, if there’s one area where you can make the most impact on your page rankings, it’s with backlinks.
But building backlinks takes time, which is why some SEO practitioners started using paid link schemes to speed up the process.
Backlinks are essentially an editorial vote of confidence from one site to another and should be earned, not bought.
There are several link schemes that are used to exploit the backlinking process.
The first is through link farms. Link farms are websites that have been developed solely for the purpose of building links to improve search results.
Creating or participating in private blog networks is another of the black hat tactics that will lead to negative SEO. Private blog networks work by purchasing expired domains that have existing domain authority and then creating minimal content on each site including anchor text with a self-serving backlink. Site owners can pay to be part of this private blog network, and though it may seem like a small price to pay, it will ultimately end up costing publishers their respect with both Google and users alike.
While participating in a link scheme will help publishers gain links, they lead search engines to view such sites as spam websites, and consequently reduce search visibility not increase it.
REPEAT: Buying and selling links is strictly forbidden.
This also covers sending free products in exchange for links.
If you have bought links on your site without realising it’s on the black hat list, get them removed ASAP, either via your webmaster or by using the disavow links tool. This instructs Google to disregard unnatural links when calculating your PageRank.
The only way to get backlinks is to EARN them using these white hat SEO tactics:
Create unique, high impact content that people WANT to share and link to
Build relationships with the sites and industry peers you want to be linked to
Create an outreach strategy to get mentions and links pointing back to your content
Another black hat SEO technique is “cloaking”, which shows one thing to visitors and another to search engines. For example, visitors might see an image, but in the HTML are hidden links and text that search engine spiders are looking at.
Google’s advice? Just don’t do it!
Google and other search engines want you to PUT USERS FIRST.
Always focus your efforts on answering questions for the searcher and creating a great user experience from search engine to site.
If you find yourself doing something just for the search engines, you’re probably moving away from white hat SEO and moving into black hat territory.
6. Abusing structured data/schema
Structured data, AKA schema, allows you to tell Google how to display your content on search engine results pages. This is often abused in an attempt to manipulate rich snippets and results.
It looks something like this:
However, some SEO practitioners have taken to providing inaccurate information in this data to fool search engines and users.
For example, they might award themselves a fake review and add schema to stand out on result pages.
Obviously, this is a black hat tactic.
The lesson here is to play by the rules with structured data. If you’re not sure what the rules are, Google lays them out clearly in its search engine guidelines.
7. Doorway pages/ gateway pages
Doorway pages, or gateway pages, are pages that target specific search queries with content intended to act only as a funnel to one page.
Every page on your website should have a purpose for your users and not be there merely to tempt search engine rankings.
How to report Black Hat SEO to search engines
Google’s guidelines encourage users to report black hat SEO when they encounter it. If you believe that you are encountering web spam, in the form of paid links, or other black hat SEO exploits, the best way to report it is to file a spam report with Google.
While it can be disheartening to see others in the digital ecosystem exploiting search engine algorithms, publishers should avoid black hat SEO and focus on using white hat SEO techniques to focus on optimising their own site- in the long run this is what ultimately wins out in terms of search rankings and building loyal subscribers.
Google has hundreds of factors in its algorithms that affect search rankings – each designed to ensure it returns websites that are relevant and useful for searchers.
But Google doesn’t stand still; it’s continuously updating its algorithms to provide an even better user experience.
Essentially, if you’re just doing something for search engines rather than to add value to users, you are probably treading a fine line into Black Hat SEO.
Some tactics aren’t so clear cut – these are known as Grey Hat tactics. They’re not necessarily in violation of search engine guidelines, but let’s just say they are questionable.
The bottom line? You need to keep on top of the changes if you expect to avoid black hat tactics prohibited by search engines and achieve the best spots in search rankings.
The last thing you want is to see your page rankings (and organic revenue) plummet without warning.
If you haven’t got the time or resources to keep up to date, that’s where an SEO agency comes in. It’s their job to keep pace with the latest changes and updates to ensure your website is a haven of white hat SEO techniques.
No doubt about it, SEO wouldn’t be where it is today without black hat SEO. Most of Google’s major updates in the past few years were motivated to stop black hat techniques.
Google’s goal is to help each search user find the correct information they’re looking for as quickly as possible.
Live by this rule for your website SEO and not only will you stay in Google’s good books, but you’ll also give users what they want.
Conversely, if you find yourself thinking first about search engine rankings, with your users a distant second, you’ll start playing on dangerous ground.
Whether you’re planning on doing SEO in-house or with an agency, start getting familiar with the honest SEO tactics that get real, long-term, revenue-shifting results and avoid black hat SEO altogether. Download our FREE Ultimate Guide to SEO here.