Black Hat SEO Techniques: How to Identify and Avoid Them

Wednesday, January 17th
Content Manager

Mark Wilson

If you’re already familiar with Search Engine Optimization (SEO), you probably know some common tactics used to help your website rank highly on search engines such as Bing and Google.

Most of these tactics are uncontroversial and are considered standard best practices, and you’ll never have to worry about their use.

Black hat SEO is the other side of that coin, though, and a discussion of it will take us into the shadier practices on the internet that businesses or individuals use to promote their digital presence.

What is Black Hat SEO?

Black hat SEO is any online practice that is considered unethical or misleading by search engines, and is used to boost a website’s rankings in some manner.

If you’re wondering where the line is between black hat tactics and others, the search engines (or rather, the companies who create and maintain them) are the best source to follow. Google is of course an industry leader in this area, and many others like Bing and Yahoo have followed with similar proclamations of tactics that are considered unethical.

These restrictions aren’t arbitrary, though. Deeming black hat tactics as detrimental to search rankings is with the end goal of creating better online experiences for users.

This is because most black hat tactics make websites actively misleading to visitors, and damage the usability and usefulness of someone trying to find credible information or services.

It’s important to note that search engine companies aren’t lawmakers, and that the most recognizable black hat SEO tactics aren’t technically illegal. That doesn’t make them ethical or advisable, though.

Dangers of Black Hat SEO

Simply put, the danger of using black hat tactics is that the major search engines will nuke your website back to the stone age if they’re detected.

Even minor infractions can come with a penalty where your website is deranked for weeks or months. And the time it can then take you to regain the rankings and search traffic you previously had can be months or even years.

If you think this is hypothetical, Google itself has been guilty of a black hat tactic that got them a penalty! So no one is above being harmed by the use of such tactics.

Black Hat vs. White Hat vs. Grey Hat SEO

Black hat, as described above, are tactics considered unethical by search engines. White hat tactics are considered ethical and are encouraged. Grey hat SEO is somewhere between. These are usually tactics that haven’t been officially denounced by search engine companies, but are considered shady or misleading in some way.

You’ll hear these terms thrown around sometimes, and the first two should be fairly self-explanatory. Grey hat SEO is the only area that can be somewhat confusing.

It’s important to mention, however, that most black hat techniques were once considered grey hat, so using them to boost your website’s search rankings can be risky. There’s no guarantee search engines won’t consider this a black hat offense at some future point.

Black Hat Techniques

Now that we’ve talked about black hat SEO in abstract terms, let’s dive into the details. What constitutes black hat, and why is it frowned upon? Here are some common examples.

Keyword Stuffing

Keyword stuffing is the practice of including numerous words and phrases you want a page or website to rank for, but that has little or nothing to do with the actual content of the page or site.

Occasionally, these words and phrases can still be relevant to the website, but the words are repeated to an absurd degree. This is done solely for search engines, and is often detrimental to the users who visit a site, since the content was not created to help them but rather simply to attract clicks.

This is possibly the most well-known black hat tactic, though it’s one that search engines (such as Google and Bing) have cracked down on considerably. Variations exist like invisible keyword stuffing, where the words exist on a page for search engines to read but are invisible to human visitors.

Using relevant keywords to describe pages and sites is a good, non-controversial tactic. You should be doing this with every page on your website. But your site should be written in a way that is optimized for the user experience, not for a search engine crawler.

The difference can be gigantic. If a website is bad for users, they’ll stop visiting and won’t stick around on pages for very long. This is a metric that search engines calculate (it goes a long way toward thwarting keyword stuffing). And if you’re losing visitors quickly, your site will lose search ranking swiftly.

Redirect Manipulation

It’s possible to redirect pages on your website. Maybe an article is no longer up-to-date, and a newer version of it exists. So whenever someone would have visited the old article, they’re redirected to the updated one.

This is a good thing, and can help you to keep your site’s navigation clean.

However, it can also be used to manipulate users into viewing content that is unintended.

When a page is redirected, the new page will largely inherit the SEO value of the old page. So it’s possible to build up the search rankings and traffic of one page, then redirect it to a new page that has nothing to do with the old page.

This often leads to pages filled with ads or offers, which artificially inflates advertising revenue.

When Google or another search engine detects this and determines that the redirect is not legitimate, the page and sometimes the entire site can swiftly be deranked.

Backlink Purchasing

Backlinks - links from other sites to yours - are good for your website. But are you starting to see a trend in these examples? Black hat tactics usually involve getting something that is good for your site, but in a way that is disingenuous or misleading to the users of a website.

In this case, backlinks are only uncontroversially good when two things are true:

  1. The link exists on a page or site that’s relevant to yours in some way, and linking to it makes sense from a reader’s perspective.
  2. The site doing the linking is reputable.

There are services that will let you purchase thousands of backlinks instantly, all of which will link to your website. And you might even see a small, temporary boost in traffic from them.

The downside, though, comes when search engines look in more detail at the sites doin the linking. If you’re getting thousands all at once, you likely aren’t earning them naturally, and even worse, the vast majority of those sites probably have nothing to do with whatever your site is about.

It’s a recipe for disaster, but does exist to tempt the unscrupulous.

Backlink Spam

This is a related tactic, though it’s one you won’t see as often anymore since most websites are savvy about shutting it down.

If you’ve ever been to a discussion forum or blog that allows comments, you’ve probably seen users who only comment so that they can post a purchase link to some product or service. They’re not there to engage in a discussion, but are merely there to promote their unrelated product or website.

At one point, Google stopped counting links from blog comments toward a website’s authority. This didn’t stop the practice entirely, but it stopped its general effectiveness. That hasn’t stopped black hat SEO practitioners from finding corners of the internet where it may still work in small ways, but it’s become increasingly risky regardless of where it’s used.

Scraped Content and Link Farming

If you track the backlinks to your site, occasionally you’ll see blogs with odd names and oftentimes foreign domain addresses linking to your site. What causes this?

These are often sites that collect (scrape) blogs from across the internet and repost it as their own content, but with links inserted that are backlinks to other sites they want to promote. This is then scaled massively and is sometimes called link farming.

These sites exist only to boost other sites via linking. Those running such sites will often have dozens of similar sites, all set up to boost specific websites.

This is again bad for the user, because the blogs themselves are stealing content, and the sites they’re attempting to promote are trying to gain search rankings without earning it by having useful content.

These sites rarely last long before they’re shut down due to losing search credibility.

Falsifying Information (reviews, etc.)

Anyone can unfortunately make up a customer review to put on their website, which is why third-party review sites can be valuable in assessing a business. But sometimes even this can be manipulated.

One example here would be to set up fake accounts - or even fake websites - to review a business, then to use those reviews as a way to garner favor with search engines.

Without going into too much detail, any reputable review site has numerous criteria for removing reviews, and this will regularly happen with large reviewing sources such as Google. False information can be tricky to spot, but the consequences are as dire as with any of these shady tactics.

Preventing Black Hat Tactics

Prevention is the best medicine, right? At least that’s how I think the saying goes.

Regardless, there are definite ways you can avoid and prevent black hat SEO tactics from invading your brand’s online presence. Let’s look at a handful of them.

Creating Good Content

Consistent, quality content on a website is really the antidote for black hat tactics. The most white hat strategy you can employ is to repeatedly create useful, educational, relevant content that speaks authoritatively on topics that your business deals with.

There’s really no magic formula outside of that. The only key - and where most businesses fall short - is putting in the work to do this consistently.

But if your content is relevant to the audience who visits your website, you’re doing the lion’s share of work needed to ensure that nothing on your site will be flagged as black hat.

Nofollow vs. Dofollow Links

We talked about backlink spam above, and how some will try to create authority for a site by spamming links anywhere they’re able to. One example of this is to spam links in the comments of blogs and discussion forums.

A quick way you can shut this down is to ensure that any links published in your blog or discussion forum are nofollow. This is a simple HTML tag that signals to crawler bots (like those Google uses to scan your site) that a link should not be counted as an endorsement from your site. Most popular blog platforms will have this as the default, but you'll want to confirm with your website manager or team.

This might not put an end to this practice entirely, but more savvy black hat marketers will steer clear, and you’ll ensure that your site isn’t being used as a link depository for unrelated websites.

Avoiding Scams

There are thousands of fly-by-night companies that are peddling services that relate to black hat marketing techniques. They’ll promise you results in your website’s domain authority, traffic, conversions, leads, sales or other related metrics.

Some will be sellers of data. Other times, they’ll want to generate hundreds of backlinks for your site, seemingly overnight, or at least in a small window of time.

They won’t use the terms that we listed above. No one trying to sell you a service is going to admit to link farming, for example. And they’ll assure you that everything is legally and ethically obtained.

They’re not wrong, technically speaking, at least on parts of those claims. As mentioned, black hat tactics generally aren’t illegal. You couldn't be taken to court for them, for example. Even worse, occasionally you’ll see some temporary success with black hat tactics, which these companies can use to try to sell themselves.

But the risks are potentially catastrophic, as we’ve discussed.

So how can you avoid these companies? There’s no simple answer, particularly because many of them have a lot of experience hiding behind industry buzzwords.

The best advice is as follows:

  1. Ask yourself if the results they’re promising quickly could be recreated more sustainably by creating consistent, quality content for your site.
  2. Drill into the company’s processes as deeply as you need to, in order to understand exactly what they’re doing, and how.
  3. If you don’t feel qualified to assess a service’s viability, don’t be afraid to consult a trusted SEO or marketing expert to provide an unbiased assessment of the service you’re considering.

Using Accurate, Verifiable Web Information

It’s a best practice to make sure all digital information about your company is accurate and verifiable. It’s also important that the information is consistent across all channels.

If your business’s address is different on Facebook compared to the footer on your website, this is an example of a discrepancy in the digital information you’re providing.

On your website itself, this also includes things like properly labeling all pages, having descriptive names for blogs or videos, and if you’re getting deep into the technical weeds, proper and relevant schema metadata for pages on your site. If this is all consistent, it sends the signal to search engines that your website is trustworthy.

Black Hat SEO: Conclusions

Everyone wants to get a leg up in the business world, and many industries can be extremely competitive. That’s why black hat SEO continues to exist. There will always be those who are willing to engage in misleading behavior for the sake of a short-term revenue boost.

Fortunately, the major search engines dislike these practices as much as anyone. They’ve taken steps over the years to crack down on black hat practices, to the point where practices like keyword stuffing are nearly nonexistent compared to their peak in the 2000s and 2010s.

However, some black hat tactics still work! That’s what makes them enticing. The harder truth to examine, though, is what risks you’re taking in using black hat tactics. And also confronting the fact that doing things via black hat tactics can often be just as much work as doing things more ethically.

That’s why the best, most sustainable way to grow your website’s traffic (and related metrics like leads and revenue) is to do things the right way: by being honest and transparent about who you are and what you do, and providing value to those who would want to use your products or services.

If you’re ready to take that leap and begin building your digital presence, contact Leadflask today!

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