Remember those old western movies – the ones where the good guys wore the white hats and the bad guys wore the black hats? People in the digital marketing world have taken that classic motif pretty well it seems, because at some point they re-appropriated that imagery for their own purposes – resulting in the terms “black hat SEO” and “white hat SEO.”
While white hat SEO can be thought of as the “good guy” of digital marketing, black hat SEO techniques are the “bad guy.” They subvert established SEO standards to get higher rankings at the cost of a quality user experience, violating multiple search engine terms of service in the process.
It’s worth noting that a lot of today’s most infamous black hat SEO techniques were at one point considered legitimate SEO optimization strategies, but have since proven to be detrimental to a site’s overall quality.
Even though some of these can temporarily boost a page’s ranking, they generally do more harm than good in the long run, and can even result in a page being banned from a search engine altogether. On the other hand, many have become so outdated that they do virtually no good whatsoever, only serving to annoy visitors and Googlebots alike.
Common black hat SEO techniques can encompass innocent mistakes like keyword stuffing and duplicate content to decidedly sketchier processes like link spamming and article spinning. Regardless of how prevalent any of these strategies may be, each should be exercised with extreme caution—or avoided altogether—if you want to comply with current SEO standards.
- Paid Links / Link Buying: The connection between buying links and good/bad SEO is a bit complicated, but Google’s webmaster guidelines make it pretty clear that buying or selling links that pass PageRank solely for the SEO juice will negatively impact a site’s ranking. However, not all paid links violate their guidelines, as buying and selling links is a normal part of the web economy (i.e., advertising—which is an altogether different beast). However, any scheme that involves buying mass links to fool search engine algorithms is in direct violation of Google’s SEO standards, and you’ll most definitely be caught and penalized before too long.
- Duplicate Content: Since plagiarism is bad and content is king (source: Bill Gates, 1996), it goes without saying that copying and pasting content from one page of your site (or from someone else’s) to another is a big no-go. When search engines detect duplicate content on multiple URLs of your site, they don’t know which URL to show in their results. As a result, they may just show neither. This fact alone is reason enough to be wary. So, if you already see the value in writing content that is useful and relevant to your audience (which you should), you should also see the value in taking the extra time to always create new content that is unique.
- Content / Article Spinning: This practice has become surprisingly common over the past few years, thanks in part to the large amount of software created to help online writers quickly “spin” their blog posts, site pages, and articles into entirely “new” pieces of content just by scrambling words around (with varying degrees of readability). Simply do a Google search for “article spinner” to see the myriad options out there, and you’ll probably start feeling a bit of a sinking feeling in your stomach. The irony is truly palpable.Not surprisingly, these article-spinning tools are just one of the ways that those too-good-to-be-true email marketers can sometimes deliver on their promise to get you hundreds of relevant backlinks. But Google’s getting better and better at detecting spun articles, and recent updates like Panda and Penguin have shown the company’s growing prowess for identifying and devaluing sites making use of them.
- Keyword Stuffing: Here’s an example of one of those black hat tactics that used to be a common practice before becoming universally frowned upon. As its name suggests, keyword stuffing is when you load up your copy and/or metadata with keyword after keyword until it’s difficult to read or just feels unnatural.
Always remember that, as a digital marketer, creating high-quality content and user-friendly experiences are your number one priority, and whenever you stuff a long list of awkward-sounding keywords into your copy or metadata, you’re creating a bad user experience. The result is often penalization. Instead, try to insert keywords into your copy thoughtfully and organically, and always remove them if they hurt your page’s readability.
- Doorway Pages: In the SEO world, a doorway page is a low-quality search engine result that’s been optimized with content that only search engine crawlers can detect. The idea behind this black hat SEO tactic is that these pages will rank higher for one or two popular keywords. Many times, a technique known as “cloaking” is used to pull this off.
Cloaking allows people to build sites that serve a different response to Google’s search engine crawlers than what is seen by real-life users, allowing them to rank highly for popular keywords that have nothing to do with their actual content. Together, doorway pages and cloaking trick Google’s bots into believing your site is more relevant than it actually is while racking up clicks from unsuspecting visitors who are then redirected to an entirely different page than what they wanted.
Needless to say, this creates a less-than-stellar user experience, so search engines tend to penalize its practitioners quite heavily.
- Invisible Text: If you ever doubt how much SEO practices have changed over the years, look no further than invisible text. Not too long ago, getting to the top of those search results was such a free-for-all that even the most questionable could fly.
Enter: Invisible text. It’s exactly what it sounds like, too: Adding copy (usually copy stuffed with keywords) to your site that’s invisible to visitors, but not to search engines.
This was (and still is) accomplished in various ways, but one of the common methods is by making a page’s text the same color as its background so it blends in. Needless to say, this is easily detected by today’s search engines and rarely pays off even in the short term.
- Negative SEO: There are many negative SEO tactics that can be used to attack a competitor’s site, and we advocate none of them. Still, one popular example is using link farms to create spammy, low-quality links to another website, which will eventually reduce its search engine visibility. Unfortunately, negative SEO attacks as a whole have become an increasingly viable threat throughout the industry, and many SEO professionals can’t catch on until the damage has already been done.
Fortunately, there are ways to detect these attacks on your site, with one of the easiest being proactive monitoring. If you have the patience to identify each and every low-quality backlink leading back to your site, coupled with an understanding of how to use Google’s link disavowal tool, a lot of the damage you incur from these malicious black hat SEO techniques can be undone in time. Just be aware that it may take several months until you see your traffic return to normal.
- Spam Attacks: With spam attacks, special tools are used to identify your high-ranking pages, then links and keywords are generated and distributed throughout your comments and forums. This annoying links will help your attacker’s site rank higher in search engines, but at the expense of your own ranking. If you do not respond quickly to such attacks, you face serious danger of being removed from Google’s index.
You can help fight spam attacks in various ways, such as ensuring your forum’s CMS software is up to date, adding CAPTCHA protection, identifying which IP addresses are posting frequently, disallowing links from comments, manually moderating comment threads, and so on.
For even more ways to proactively protect your site from obnoxious spam attacks, check out Google’s Webmaster tips for decreasing user-generated spam.
- Clickbait: While clickbait might not be what people first think of in regards to “traditional” black hat SEO techniques, the clicks still convert, and they still add to your overall traffic. And, since clickbait often leads to high bounce rates (which set off low-quality-content alarms for search engines), it’s never been too great of a long-term SEO strategy to begin with.
Still, Google and Facebook are taking increasingly proactive steps to stop clickbait, meaning many social media pages will soon start getting more serious about things. We can only hope, anyway.
- Private Blog Networks: PBNs are groups of blogs created just to funnel SEO juice to a particular site. They’re chock full of low-quality content, but as long as all the links point to one primary site, nothing gets penalized besides the blogs themselves. Meanwhile, the site—the real culprit here—gets away clean.
This is a fairly new practice, and as a result, it’s become the trend throughout the past several years. But as always, Google is slowly but surely catching up as it finds inventive new ways to tie sites back to these sketchy blogs and penalize them accordingly for all those unnatural inbound links.
As you’ve surely noticed by now, some of these black hat SEO techniques do work, at least for a brief period of time. But nobody likes a cheater, and sooner or later Google’s sophisticated algorithms will catch up, and in most cases, the long-term penalties will be much worse than the short-term rewards. If you want to play it safe, take care to follow the established white hat strategies of the wild, wild west. Or, you can contact your favorite agency to learn more about above-the-cuff SEO strategies.