(This blog post was originally published on May 13, 2015, and has been updated to be even more comprehensive!)To some, search engine optimization is lawless territory, kind of like the Wild West. These SEO “experts” will tell you that it’s OK to improve your website’s ranking by any means possible, including using questionable practices that are collectively referred to as “black hat SEO.”
But just like the sheriffs of the Wild West, search engines are policing the methods people use to promote their websites, and if they find out you’ve been using tactics that don’t fit with their guidelines, you could get your website penalized or even banned from search engine results. For the sake of your website, your marketing, and your practice, this is a fate you want to avoid at all costs.
What is black hat SEO?
Black hat SEO is a practice that involves improving the ranking of your website or pages by means that violate search engines’ terms of service. Black hat SEO techniques can be successful in the short term, but they have serious consequences in the long run, and they are considered by many to be unethical.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t use any techniques to improve your SEO. As long as your strategies fall within search engine guidelines, using SEO strategies is not only acceptable, but encouraged. SEO tactics that adhere to search engines’ terms of service are referred to as white hat SEO.
Fun fact: The terms “black hat” and “white hat” come from old Western movies, where the bad guys were often identified by their black hats, while the good guys wore white hats.
Why is black hat SEO bad?
So we’ve determined they’re the bad guys, but why? Well, black hat SEO is often used to boost pages that don’t necessarily provide the most value to users. Common black hat practices aim to impress search engine robots, but they don’t always provide the best or most relevant content to their human readers. Search engines fight black hat SEO because their ultimate aim is to provide searchers with the most useful content.
Using black hat SEO doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have relevant content, but it does mean you’re cool with cheating and breaking the rules – and if you get caught as the search engine algorithms wise up to your tricks, your website could end up in the search engine jailhouse.
Ideally, if you’re providing content the users want to see, you shouldn’t have to resort to such unethical techniques.
Black hat SEO tactics to avoid
These are tactics that could get your website penalized or banned by search engines. Some of these techniques are a little technical, and you might be thinking “I wouldn’t be able to set this up anyways. It won’t be hard to avoid these!” But if you’re considering hiring someone to help you with SEO, make sure they aren’t suggesting or using any of the following tricks:
1. Keyword Stuffing
Once you’ve created a list of keywords that you know your (potential) clients are searching for, it can be tempting to add those keywords as often as possible. After all, the more you add them, the higher your ranking on Google, and the easier it will be for your clients to find you, right?
Well, not exactly. First and foremost, your content needs to read naturally. Keyword stuffing can work in the short term, but does it even matter if your viewers have trouble reading your content? Here’s an example of a keyword stuffed sentence:
“Visit Wild Wild West Animal Hospital in Green Creek for pet care. At Wild Wild West Animal Hospital in Green Creek, we care about the health of your pets. We are open to all small companion animals in Green Creek. We also offers the best nail trimming and grooming services in Green Creek, so bring your pet to Wild Wild West Animal Hospital in Green Creek!
Annoying, isn’t it? When faced with a keyword that many times, readers may become irritated or confused. Likely, some will abandon your page. Sounding so robotic can also hurt your credibility. And of course, if the search engines catch you keyword stuffing, it’s going to hurt your ranking.
In addition to keyword stuffing in your content, make sure to avoid overstuffing your meta tags and meta descriptions with keyword or keyword phrases as well. While search engine crawlers are more interested in your site’s content than they are in your meta descriptions, you could still be penalized for trying to trick the search engines with too many keywords.
2. Invisible/Hidden Text
Invisible/hidden text is any text that search engines can view, but readers can’t. Usually, black hat SEO uses hidden text to incorporate extra or irrelevant keywords to boost the page’s rankings across more search terms. There are a few different methods of incorporating hidden text that are against search engine guidelines. If you were to set the font size to zero, make the text white on a white background, use CSS to make the text appear off-screen, or hide a link by only attaching it to a single character (e.g., a period), those would all be black hat examples of hidden text.
There are actually instances when hidden text is OK, such as when it’s used for accessibility purposes. Alt-text for images can be read by search engines, but it also describes the images for people who use screen readers and people who turn off images on mobile.
3. Link Buying or Exchange
Google looks at inbound links as a method of ranking your page – the more people that link to your page, the more relevant your content presumably is. But these inbound links must be natural. Links to your web pages are available for purchase, but one of the things that search engines take into consideration is the context of those links. If the source of the links is irrelevant to your site, that could have a negative impact on your SEO, so link buying is not a good SEO strategy.
4. Social Networking Spam
Posting links to social media isn’t a black hat tactic; at LifeLearn, we do it all the time! But constantly sending people links in social media comments or messages without including any sort of relevant information is. Essentially, if you’re spamming people on social media with links to your web pages, you’re also wearing a black hat, and search engines will penalize you for it.
With this strategy, your web pages are coded to show one set of keyword-rich content to search engine crawlers and a different set of more readable content to users. This strategy is more reader-friendly than keyword stuffing, but it fails to pass search engine guidelines, which dictate that you should only create content specifically for humans, not specifically for search engines.
6. Article Spinning
Updating or adding new content to your website on a regular basis is a good SEO practice. However, article spinning is a technique designed to get around having to produce fresh content. Article spinning uses software to take a single article and rewrite it into several different new articles. The new articles are often terribly written and don’t provide any new information to readers. Black hat SEO professionals upload these articles to new pages on the website on a regular basis, trying to create the illusion of fresh content.
7. Doorway/Gateway Pages
Doorway pages are keyword-rich, content-poor pages designed to trick search engines. They contain tons of keywords, but no real information, focusing instead on calls-to-action and links that send the users through to a landing page. These pages aren’t intended to provide any value to readers, and they are often frustrating to encounter.
8. Unrelated Keywords
It can be tempting to add in keywords you know people will be searching for, even if it’s unrelated to your business (e.g., Dwight Schrute is a big fan of grooming services like ours). While such tactics might help your page gain traction under new search terms, it’s ultimately not a good move for your business or your SEO.
9. Link Bait and Switch
If you manage to attract a lot of inbound links to one of your pages, congratulations! That’s great for your SEO. Avoid squandering that opportunity by making sure that the content on that page also links to other pages on your site. That’s white hat SEO. But the black hat version of this strategy is to attract a lot of inbound links to a page, and then replace all the content on that page with advertising for your services. If people are linking back to a blog post on your website, never switch that blog post out for an advertisement of your practice. This is a black hat technique that can lose the trust of your supporters, the last people you want to annoy.
Also to avoid
You might stumble across websites that announce “Black hat SEO techniques that still work!” or “Black hat SEO tricks you can get away with!” When you see these headlines, run away as fast as you can. Some techniques haven’t been caught by the search engines yet, but that doesn’t mean they won’t. Don’t risk having your site penalized or even banned from search engines. The short-term gain is not worth the long-term consequences.While white and black hat SEO may be named after it, search engine optimization is not the Wild West anymore. Search engines are well aware of and constantly on the lookout for unethical strategies. Don’t land your website in the slammer. Play by the rules, produce great content, and reap the long-term benefits of wearing a white hat.