Some people will do anything to improve their site performance, including engaging in shady SEO techniques. Such practices are called black hat SEO, and those who use them show no regard for the search engine guidelines that most of us adhere to.
While some website owners readily employ these tactics, determined to game the system to get more traffic, it’s possible to dabble in underhanded SEO techniques without realizing it. As you enthusiastically dive into all the tasks that will improve your website’s performance, it’s easy to wander into unsafe territory when it comes to SEO.
If that happens, you may discover it only after your site has been penalized. You’d check your rankings one morning and find that your site has dropped to the bottom. Even the ranking that you achieved through legitimate means would be gone.
The most common ways that a site owner can get into that situation is by relying on outdated information about SEO best practices, mistaking it for current advice, or by implementing SEO tricks that came from a disreputable source.
In this article, we’ll get into a lot more detail about what black hat SEO is and how you can stay away from it. One of the best strategies is to know what not to do, so we’ve described a number of black hat SEO tactics that should be on your radar.
Here we go!
What is Black Hat SEO?
Black hat SEO refers to questionable practices that are designed to manipulate how a website ranks on search results pages.
Getting to the top of search results for certain keywords is a primary goal in almost any business’ growth strategy, but achieving that the wrong way can blow up in your face. If you use unethical methods to improve your SEO, any gains you see will be very short-lived. Google and other search engines will detect your tricks and penalize your site because of them.
Black hat SEO not only results in lower search rankings, it creates a deceptive or off-putting experience for site visitors.
Search engines stay on top of black hat SEO techniques, always improving on their ability to detect these unethical practices. Getting caught is a foregone conclusion. The short-term spike you may see after using black hat SEO tactics will not be worth the irreparable damage to your presence in search results.
Seven SEO Tactics to Steer Clear Of
As suggested in the introduction, there are some black hat SEO techniques that someone could employ without realizing it. Other black hat SEO tricks, like automated Google queries and page hijacking, are so obviously wrong that we’ve left them out of this round-up.
Read on to get a summary of seven bad SEO tactics that might be mistaken for the right ones or that you could engage in by accident.
Doing research to identify good target keywords for your site is at the core of good SEO, but what you do with those keywords matters a lot. In a desperate attempt to gain traffic, some site owners cram keywords into their content everywhere you can think of, including some places that may surprise you.
Publishing content that contains multiple variations of your keywords is a sure way to make it less readable for humans, and it won’t please search engines either.
Some website owners go so far as to include a block of keywords in a text color that matches their background color, making the text invisible. Anchor text is another popular place to pack keywords. Both of these strategies are incredibly easy for Google to discover and are a sure way to damage your SEO.
Whether the keywords are visible or not, the practice of forcing them into your content is called keyword stuffing, and it actually used to work. For a while, Google would see a high density of keywords as proof that a site was associated with those search terms.
But now, that search engine’s sophisticated algorithms can sniff out this unadvisable practice, and sites that engage in it are heavily penalized. Keyword density is closely monitored, and if your content is too keyword-heavy, Google will relegate your site to the bottom of search results.
Sending Search Engines to One Place and Humans to Another
When you’re trying to improve your SEO, seeing your website the way search engines see it can be helpful. Tools like BROWSEO allow you to do just that. It’s a great way to identify legitimate opportunities to improve your ranking.
But, if you end up creating two versions of your site, one that looks good to humans, and one that’s just for search engines, you’ve gone down the wrong path.
This strategy is called cloaking, and practitioners pull it off by detecting the type of user that’s making a request. If it’s a search engine, then a script on the web server sends a counterfeit version of the site contents. The fake version includes content that the real site doesn’t.
The goal of cloaking is to mislead search engines. When a page is returned in search results that would otherwise not be there, that means this black hat SEO technique has worked.
There are valid reasons to redirect search engines based on who’s accessing your site. For example, sending a mobile device user to a version of your content that’s optimized for mobile platforms makes a lot of sense. Redirecting international visitors to a version of your site that’s in their language is also acceptable.
Provided you aren’t creating a version of your site that’s just for search engines, you’re not guilty of cloaking.
Prioritizing SEO Over Content Quality
In a frantic chase for higher rankings and improved performance, some site owners lose track of what’s really important. Their primary focus becomes SEO, with the content of their website turning into a secondary concern.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, but, before long, it will end up hurting your site’s ranking. Here are a few ways that ignoring content quality can turn into black hat SEO:
- Article spinning—This lazy technique involves grabbing content from a high-ranking page (on someone else’s site), making a few changes, and using it as your own. The worst offenders simply have a bot do the work, and the results, while keyword-packed, are often laughably unreadable. Whether it’s done manually or using an automated approach, the goal is to change the content just enough to trick the search engines’ duplicate content check. Recent changes to search engines’ algorithms have made this ploy very easy to detect.
- Publishing duplicate content—This is a cousin of article spinning, but you’re borrowing content from yourself. If you’ve written a few paragraphs of pure gold for your home page, but you end up using versions of those sentences all over your site, search engines notice the redundancy and lower your ranking.
- Keyword stuffing—We mentioned this practice above, but it’s so common, it deserves extra attention. If your content is so crammed with keywords that it makes it unreadable, you’ve strayed from acceptable SEO practices and created an unappealing site for your users. Talk about a lose-lose scenario!
You should publish content that’s worthy of a high ranking. If you follow that simple rule, you’ll delight your visitors, and you’ll give search engines what they’re looking for as well.
Getting Cute with Redirects
When a user clicks a redirected link, it will automatically take them somewhere they didn’t think they were navigating to.
It may seem like there’s no form of that practice that could be considered acceptable, but there are totally valid reasons for employing a redirect. In fact, it’s a normal part of running a website. Redirects are used legitimately when a site owner has changed domains, for example, or has combined two pieces of content into one.
Unscrupulous site owners, however, commonly misuse redirects. They’ll employ them as part of an ill-conceived cloaking scheme, redirecting a search engine to one page and everyone else to another page.
They might redirect a high-ranking page to a low-ranking page in a shameless attempt to increase the lesser page’s place in the search results.
People engaging in black hat SEO will even use redirects to fool users into visiting a website without realizing it. While that can result in temporarily improved rankings and a flood of traffic, it’s a boldfaced violation of Google’s terms of service. Sites found to be using redirects in that way will be harshly penalized.
Buying or Swapping Backlinks
Backlinks, or links between websites, play a major role in how search engines rank your site. Some backlinks help your ranking, while others can hurt it. Backlinks from high-authority websites are the ones you want.
Backlinks let the search engines know that others approve of your content. Search engine algorithms assess the number of sites that link to you, weighing the quantity and quality of the links. The quality factors that search engines look for include age, authority, relevancy, and content length, among others.
Search engines expect you to publish high-quality content that organically attracts great backlinks. If you obtain links any other way, your site will be penalized with a lower ranking.
Here are some things you should avoid:
- Link swapping—This involves finding any site (even completely irrelevant) whose owner wants a backlink as much as you do, and swapping. Search engines detect that, and it’ll hurt your ranking much more than it will temporarily help it.
- Link farms—A link farm is a collection of websites that exists for no other purpose than to direct people to your site. It’s a numbers game, where each referring page eventually gains a little bit of relevancy for its niche, and that’s passed on to the target site.
- Private blog networks—A private blog network (PBN) is a group of websites that are created solely for link-building. Black hat SEO practitioners will build the network using high-authority domains that have expired, keep the content flowing, and load it with links to a target site. Much like a link farm, a PBN’s purpose is to make it appear as if a website has earned a lot of backlinks. However, search engines can easily sniff out a PBN, and sites that use them to get links are severely penalized.
- Pay-for-play directories—If you pay to be included in a low-authority directory, that will be a low-quality link, and it will damage your SEO. Such links usually don’t cost much, and you get what you pay for. Since Google knows what to look for when identifying purchased backlinks, it’s smart to avoid buying links from any source.
It’s possible to engage in these black hat SEO tactics without realizing they’re wrong. Site owners, especially those who are new to the game, can get carried away in their attempts to boost their website’s performance. If you have swapped links with more than one or two sites, or you paid for a backlink, ask that those links be removed immediately.
Spamming of Any Kind
Spam is the bread and butter of black hat SEO, and social media outlets are a prime target. Site owners using this trick will broadcast a ridiculous number of links via social media, fully aware that their posts have no real value, but greedy for the temporary bump their site will get in search results.
Guest post spam is also common. Site owners will publish other people’s guest articles and ask sites to publish their own guest articles, all with the intention of gaining a backlink. That’s fine if the shared content is actually relevant to the two sites involved. But, if there’s no reasonable connection between the sites, it becomes obvious that the posts exist exclusively for SEO purposes and will add no value to either site.
Another form of spam that will harm your SEO is comment spamming. You see it all the time—a blog post with multiple comments that seem off-topic or contain keywords that have nothing to do with the post. Sometimes these comments include telltale signs that they’re bot-generated. Misguided site owners use comment spam to hoard backlinks and attract traffic to their site.
Google sees all spam-based tactics from a mile away, and practitioners can expect severe repercussions.
Fudging Your Structured Data
Have you ever noticed that some sites appear in search results with all kinds of extra elements in their listing? It may be a product image, a review, or a short excerpt straight from the home page; those things can draw the eye and make a listing much more prominent than others around it.
Savvy website owners use a specialized form of markup called structured data, or rich snippets, to improve how their site shows up in search results. It’s a perfectly valid thing to do, but some people abuse it.
They’ll stuff keywords and include inaccurate or misleading information in structured data as a way to get a higher ranking. Invalid claims and falsified reviews in rich snippets are common, and this black hat SEO tactic can fool the search engines and humans too.
A bogus five-star review in a site’s structured data will not only give the site an undeservedly high ranking (for a while), it’s also likely to drive traffic to the site, only to result in disappointed visitors when the truth comes out.
Google has asked people to report websites that abuse structured data, so if you get involved in this shady practice, be prepared for consequences.
Organic SEO Strategy Is Best
Quality content with an appropriate keyword density, trustworthy redirects, and backlinks from high-authority websites—that’s how you improve site performance. Shortcuts don’t pay off.
Even the laziest of black hat SEO tactics requires effort—the effort that’s much better spent on improving your SEO through legitimate means. Any spike in performance gained through black hat SEO will not last very long, because the sophisticated algorithms used by the search engines will notice the ploy almost immediately and penalize the offending site.
Taking an honest approach to SEO is the right thing to do. You’ll be able to rest assured that your high ranking is fully deserved and won’t disappear overnight due to search engine penalties.
Have you ever unknowingly done any shady SEO?