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.
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 or, worse, get wiped off the face of Google 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, 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 keyword stuffing and buying links to content automation and 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 rankings.
Say you want to gain lots of backlinks to rank higher in search engines.
The black hat way is to BUY backlinks, while the white hat SEO tactic is to EARN backlinks naturally by creating high quality content that people want to share and link to.
Here are a few more recognised black hat SEO techniques:
Hidden text or links
Creating pages with duplicate content
Malicious behaviour, such as phishing, viruses, etc.
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 SEO. They’re not necessarily in violation of search engine guidelines, but let’s just say they are questionable.
Black Hat SEO changes the way search engines work
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.
The bottom line?
Black hat SEO is extremely risky business; if you want long-term growth, focus on white hat SEO.
BUT don’t ignore black hat SEO completely.
There are some valuable lessons that black hat SEO can teach us about what works and what doesn’t.
5 Lessons You Can Learn About White Hat SEO from Black Hat SEO
1. Treat the searcher and search engines the same way
One thing all black hat SEO tactics have in common is that they focus on the search engine, not the users.
Keyword stuffing, for example, means cramming your target keywords into content for search engines. The content provides no value to users – sometimes it doesn’t even make sense.
Then there’s “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.
Another black hat SEO trick is to hide anchor text and links by changing the colour so they match the background or making the font size so small that nobody can see it.
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 edging into black hat territory.
Don't make web page decisions based on what search engines want
Don’t hide links and text so only search engines can see them
Do put user experience as your number one priority
Do write content that you want people to read
2. Write good quality, original and in-depth content
On the list of things that Google hates, content spam is probably right at the top.
Case in point, the Panda and Penguin updates both targeted sites relying on thin and questionable content.
Black hat SEO-ers have historically used bad content to rank higher.
You know the type of content we’re talking about. It falls into one of these categories:
Thin content stuffed full of keywords
Duplicated or 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 text provided by the manufacturer.
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.
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 like to receive shares, comments and the all-important backlinks.
Follow Google’s content guidelines. Or better yet, hire a digital marketing agency who specialises in creating unique SEO content.
Don't plagiarise or scrape content from other websites
Don’t produce thin content that has no value for readers
Do keep the content focused on answering your audience’s questions or adding value to their lives
Do use Google’s content guidelines
3. Play by the rules with structured data
You’ve probably heard of structured data by now.
Structured data, AKA rich snippets and schema, allows you to tell Google how to display your content on search engine results pages.
It can help your content stand out from competitors and give you more real estate on results pages – which is how you get noticed by searchers.
It looks something like this:
But some SEO practitioners have taken to providing inaccurate information in structured data to fool search engines and users.
For example, they might award themselves a fake five-star review and add structured data 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 it webmaster guidelines. Moz also has a great guide to structured data.
Don't provide inaccurate information to fool search engines and users
Do follow Google’s structured data guidelines to the letter
Do use structured data to provide more information to searchers
4. Earn links, never buy them
This is a big one. Building backlinks are top of the list in any ultimate SEO checklist.
No surprises that they’re also one of the most common black hat SEO tactics.
After all, if there’s one area 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 buying and selling links to speed up the process.
Now, that’s a massive red flag for search engines.
REPEAT: Buying and selling links is strictly forbidden.
“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 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. If you can’t get your webmasters to remove the links, use the disavow links tool. This instructs Google to disregard the 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
Yes, this takes time and effort, but trust us - it delivers long-term, sustainable results that Google rewards.
And if you don’t have time, hire a white hat SEO agency to manage link building for you.
Don't buy or sell links
Don’t use link circles to gain links
Do earn links using high-quality content and outreach strategies
Do put time and effort into a long-term link-building strategy
5. Stay on top of search engine guidelines
Google has hundreds of ranking factors in its search algorithms – each designed to ensure it is only returning 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. We’ve already talked about some of the major algorithm updates: Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, and Pigeon, not to mention the less publicised algorithm tweaks in between.
Sometimes the Big G does this with warning, sometimes without, sometimes with just a vague announcement that people are left wondering about – like this one about its new broad core search algorithm update in June 2019.
The bottom line? You need to keep on top of the changes if you expect to avoid black hat tactics prohibited by search engines.
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.
Don't leave your SEO to chance
Do keep on top of search engine updates and news (or hire someone to do it for you)
Over To You
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. Download our FREE Ultimate Guide to SEO here.