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The search engine optimization (SEO) industry was worth almost $80 billion in 2020, with businesses spending on average $5,000 a month on SEO efforts.
With all this money at stake, it’s tempting for marketers to use any technique available to get their pages ranking, including black hat SEO techniques.
These techniques might have worked well a decade or two ago, and they might give you short-term wins, but today they can ultimately poison your search engine rankings, killing your organic traffic, leads, and sales.
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What is black hat SEO?
Black hat SEO is the use of SEO practices that go against the guidelines of search engines. Google, Bing, and other major search engines have (mostly) clear guidelines on what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable when practicing SEO.
Attempts to circumvent or go against these guidelines are considered black hat SEO tactics. The problem is that they can work — briefly. However, it’s often the case that black hat SEO techniques will lead to penalties, up to and including deindexing (having your website or web pages removed from search engines entirely).
Search engines have these guidelines to ensure searchers get the best possible results when they input a search query into a search engine. Their algorithms are designed to reward useful, valuable, original content that is trusted by other sources.
When you go against these guidelines — when your content isn’t the best possible content that a searcher is searching for or is low-quality content — you provide a poor user experience, which is what Google and other search engines want to avoid.
Black hat SEO techniques should be avoided completely to ensure your website continues to be indexed and to rank.
Black hat SEO vs white hat SEO vs gray hat SEO
While black hat SEO is an SEO strategy to be avoided, white hat SEO techniques are digital marketing strategies that follow search engine guidelines as closely as possible, usually resulting in the production of high-quality content that meets searcher’s expectations.
In between these two is gray hat SEO. Gray hat SEO is the use of SEO tactics that are not clearly going against search engine guidelines, but might be problematic enough to get your website penalized or deindexed.
Some may argue that these tactics are not necessarily bad, but the rewards are generally not worth the risks.
Gray hat SEO is risky because, while it may result in short-term wins (similar to black hat SEO), the chance of having your website penalized and losing your site’s rankings (or being deindexed) is such a severe consequence that it’s usually not worth the trouble.
White hat SEO tactics ensure your content has the best chance of showing up on a search engine results page (SERP) when a searcher is looking for content. Following search engine guidelines is always recommended.
If you’re unsure if you’re using black hat strategies or gray hat strategies, always check Google’s guidelines, and avoid tactics you’re unsure of.
What are the penalties for black hat SEO?
There are two ways that Google penalizes your website: a manual Google penalty, which is where someone at Google reviews your web page or website, finds that Google’s Webmaster Guidelines have been violated, and then penalizes your website.
You can also be penalized automatically by Google’s algorithms, like Panda, Penguin, or PageRank, for the same reasons you might receive a manual penalty.
There are several types of penalties. One type is where your rankings are affected. This is where a high-ranking page may be given a much lower ranking.
Another type is called deindexing, where a page, or even your entire website, is removed from Google’s index entirely.
It’s possible to recover from penalties, but it depends on the type of penalty that you’ve experienced. For example, you might have to disavow some backlinks and then submit a reconsideration request to Google.
A reconsideration request is when you fix whatever the problem is that caused you to lose rankings and then ask Google to look at your website again and decide if it should continue to be penalized.
Black hat SEO techniques that can poison rankings
Black hat SEO techniques include on-page SEO techniques, off-page SEO techniques, or technical SEO techniques.
On-page means everything you control on the page, like internal links, outgoing links, and keyword usage.
Off-page usually refers to link building—getting links from other websites to your website.
Technical SEO refers to technical aspects of a website that affect rankings, like how quickly your website loads or if you have an SSL certificate.
Link farms/private blog networks
One of the most important ways that Google and other search engines (especially Bing) decide how your web pages should rank is by looking at backlinks — links from another website to your website.
There are many good white hat SEO strategies for link building, like guest posting (blogging for another website) or a broken-link strategy (searching for broken links on another website and then suggesting your content to replace the links).
Link farms and private blog networks (PBNs) are link schemes. They’re websites whose sole purpose is to generate thousands of links that point to pages on your website (and they usually all point to each other as well to increase their domain authority).
The goal of this technique is to get Google search to take all these spammy links into account and rank your page highly as a result.
However, this goes against Google’s guidelines and can get your web page penalized.
Buying links is another link scheme and usually relies on link farms and private blog networks. It’s exactly what it sounds like — you pay a fee, and you get a link back to your website. You can even pay for specific anchor text that you want to point to a web page.
Buying links goes directly against Google’s guidelines, but that’s not the only reason you shouldn’t do it. A bought link also lacks a very important aspect that a natural backlink does not, which is, it drives more traffic to your web pages.
Backlinks do increase your web page’s likelihood of ranking higher, but only if they come from high-quality, reputable websites. One of the biggest benefits of getting a high-quality backlink is that you’re going to get traffic from that page to yours — quality traffic.
Buying a link (usually) doesn’t get you any traffic, so in addition to breaking Google’s guidelines, it doesn’t do anything positive for your website.
Keyword stuffing is where spammers will put keywords into a page in large volumes, often in a way that sounds unnatural.
It might also include listing dozens or hundreds of physical locations so that a web page will rank for people searching for something in specific cities or states. It can even include stuffing a page with phone numbers.
An example of keyword stuffing looks like this.
Keyword stuffing can also include a list of keywords on a web page that are invisible to the user, like using white text on a white background.
Google and other search engines want keywords to appear as natural as possible.
Cloaking is when you show different content to search engines than you do to users. This goes against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines because it’s essentially tricking both the user and the search engine crawler.
The user is expecting to see the content that is shown on the search engine results page, but they end up with something else.
Similar to keyword stuffing, one form of cloaking is to use text that’s invisible to the user. The search engine believes that it’s serving useful, valuable content to the user, but the user sees something that doesn’t give them what they were searching for, like a series of images.
The search engines are only seeing the text on the page because search engines struggle to understand what the images are, especially if alt text is not being used, but all the user sees is the images because the text is hidden.
Gateway pages, also known as doorway pages, are pages that do not offer useful information to a searcher.
Gateway pages come in a number of forms. They might include a page stuffed with keywords in plain HTML that then redirects to another page. They’re designed to rank highly for keywords, but they don’t offer value to the user.
Another example of a doorway page is a number of domains or pages that have keywords targeting different cities and states that all lead to one page.
Gateway pages offer no value to the user. In the image, you can see that the user is expecting a guide or explanation, but they instead end up on a page selling services. The user has been tricked into going to a page that doesn’t give them what they’re searching for.
Negative SEO is when someone attacks your website through a variety of methods, with the goal of causing your website to rank worse (or even be deindexed).
This can come in a variety of forms, including:
- Hackers changing the content on your website
- Attackers pointing thousands of spammy links to your website from link farms
- Attackers creating thousands of fake negative reviews
- Attackers scraping content from your website and creating a duplicate website with duplicate content
- Attackers creating fake backlink removal requests to destroy your backlink profile
These are serious black hat SEO techniques employed by bad actors against their competitors.
Negative SEO is a legitimate threat because these tactics are actually offered as services on websites like Fiverr by hackers and other bad actors. While search engines can often spot these techniques, they can be difficult to prove when submitting a reconsideration request.
Don’t engage in this practice. Hacking and other negative SEO techniques can have serious consequences.
Hidden text is a method of stuffing keywords into a website to get your website to rank higher and involves hiding the text from the user. This often is done on image-heavy web pages where, for one reason or another, the webmaster has chosen not to create useful, valuable text.
Hidden text can be implemented in a variety of ways.
First, as mentioned earlier, white text on a white background hides the text from a user. Font size can be set to zero, or text can be put behind an image, or even positioned off the screen using CSS.
Hidden text also includes hidden links. For example, you might include a link in a period. The goal is to keep something from a user deliberately. This provides a poor user experience.
Get help with white hat SEO
Need help recovering from a Google penalty? Or with white hat SEO techniques? Talk to a proven SEO consultant.
Content marketing is an essential part of SEO. But content will only boost rankings if it’s valuable and original. Accomplishing this at scale is difficult, though, and some people make the mistake of trying to duplicate content to make it easier.
Duplicate content has several forms. First, you might just copy and paste your content on a number of pages or a number of domains. The goal is to get all these pages to rank on a search engine so that your content is all that shows up on a search engine results page.
However, you might have a legitimate reason for having duplicate content on your website. In that case, you’ll want to use canonical tags to show Google and other search engines which page needs to be ranked and which pages to ignore.
Another form of duplicate content is article spinning, which is essentially plagiarism. This can either be done manually, where someone takes someone else’s content, rephrases everything, and then posts it as though it is original content. Software/applications can also be used to spin an article.
Comment spam is when a bot or a person goes onto a website and leaves spammy comments that offer no value. They often contain a link (or numerous links) to spammy websites. The goal of this type of black hat SEO is to generate backlinks to other websites so that they’ll rank higher.
You’ve likely seen this technique on your website, especially if you get a lot of traffic, but even small websites can get comment spam. The best thing to do is to hold all your comments for moderation rather than letting them be posted to your website automatically.
Then, you can delete the spammy comments. You’ll want to do this so that Google and other search engines don’t see your website as spammy.
Structured data misuse
Using structured data to display false or misleading information in a SERP is a black hat technique. Structured data is usually a great white hat SEO technique and should absolutely be included on your website. It can improve click-through rates (CTR) by up to 30%.
Structured data includes more information in your search result, like ratings, as you can see in the image.
Misusing structured can include writing fake positive reviews of your website so that your structured data shows a false rating. This tricks a user into clicking your result on the SERP, only to find that what they were shown on the SERP is misleading.
Get a complimentary SEO audit
Black hat SEO techniques will get your site penalized or deindexed and should be avoided. There are plenty of white hat SEO techniques that you can use to get your site ranking (and keep it that way).
Want to see how you’re doing with SEO? Get an instant SEO audit below. Or, schedule a free consultation to see how intent SEO can boost search traffic revenue by 700%.