Black hat SEO can destroy your credibility with search engines and damage your rankings. Here’s what you need to know to avoid it.
If you’ve heard anything about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) at all, you’ve probably also heard plenty about “black hat SEO” (or its counterpart, “white hat SEO”). SEO, it seems, is a field prone to bad actors. As much as you want to do the right thing, if you don’t know enough about SEO basics, you might make a mistake, or fall prey to bad advice.
The goal of any kind of SEO is to raise your website in search engine rankings. Done right, your website will appear when online users search for relevant terms. So, if you’re a brand that sells sewing machines, you might want to appear in search results for terms like “durable sewing machines,” “home sewing machines,” or “sewing machines for beginners.”
However, you don’t want to appear in searches for car parts, because that won’t have anything to do with your business.
Black hat SEO tries to steal traffic of mislead traffic using underhanded or illegitimate means. It’s either trying to fool Google into ranking a certain site higher, tricking users into clicking on links that lead them to results they didn’t expect, or sabotaging the work of other sites.
Of course, before we get too deep into what bad SEO looks like, it’s worth taking a moment to look at how SEO works when it’s done right, as well as some of the vaguer cases. Let’s take a look.
What’s the difference between white hat, gray hat, and black hat SEO?
If you’re wondering where the terms “white hat” and “black hat” come from, their origin likes in the Western film genre where the good cowboys wore white hats and the villains wore black. The terms are internet slang of longstanding use that are often applied to hacking attempts. As applied to SEO, they’re the difference between following best practices and hacking the system.
White hat SEO tactics
White hat SEO plays by the rules. It’s good for your visitors, and therefore it’s good for your website. Following white hat SEO best practices means you’ll future-proof your SEO game. While other tactics focus on gaming the system, they’ll quickly become irrelevant as Google updates their algorithms. That’s because the last thing Google wants is for websites to be able to exploit its algorithms to gain unfair rankings.
Most white hat SEO tactics are well-known, and hopefully they’re what you’re doing already. They include:
- Original content. Users coming to your website should find new, helpful information related to their search query. The best way to provide this is through your own fresh content, updated regularly.
- Optimized metadata. From title tags to meta descriptions, you want your website to clearly signal to Google and visitors alike what your page is for. Headers, alt tags on images, and anchor text on hyperlinks should all be considered when optimizing your page.
- Keyword research. You want your target keywords to be sensitive to searcher intent. The words you want to rank for matter far less than what a user hopes to find when they click on a link. Maybe you’re a huge Star Wars fan and you think it would be cool if you ranked for Star Wars-related terms. But, are users searching for Star Wars keywords going to be happy to land on your website? Will that help your sales? (The answer is: no.)
There’s a lot more to good SEO than this (particularly when it comes to technical SEO). For now, that should give you a taste for what good practices look like. Now let’s take a look at the gray areas.
Gray hat SEO tactics
Gray hat SEO, as you can imagine, exists in the twilight zone between good and bad practices. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when you’re straying from good practices, but there is an easy rule of thumb: if you’re putting rankings ahead of users, you’re going in the wrong direction.
Here are a few borderline gray hat SEO issues that may or may not be problematic for your site:
- Keyword stuffing. The line between keyword use and overuse can be a bit blurry. Sometimes you legitimately need to use a keyword a lot. Sometimes you just want to squeeze a few more in, even if it’s not great copy. And sometimes you’re fragrantly cramming as many keywords into your page as you can. That’s bad. Stop it.
- Poor keyword targeting. Good keyword research is about finding what terms are most relevant to your business, and which ones are popular among searchers. If a keyword has high search volume but low relevance to your business, attempting to rank for it will just confuse your visitors. It’s easy to do this unintentionally, and it’s hard to “catch,” so to speak. But when you look for keywords, remember that you’re best served by ones that actually match your business to searcher intent.
Black hat SEO tactics
Unlike gray hat SEO, which consists mostly of borderline cases, black hat SEO crosses clear ethical boundaries. Black hat SEO scams aren’t just about gaming the system, they’re often about active sabotage.
- Buying links. The number of links pointing to your site is an indication of its value. Black hat SEOs will purchase spam links from link farms to boost your rankings artificially.
- Stealing content. It’s hard to come up with your own content on a regular basis. Instead, many websites scrape content from other sites and claim it as their own.
- Cloaked or hidden text. Want to trick a search engine without your users knowing? White text on a white background used to do the trick.
- Link spamming. Ever wonder why there are so many spammy links on blog posts and YouTube videos? Well, if black hat SEOs aren’t trying to fool users into buying bad links that will ultimately destroy their site, they’re actively trying to destroy competitors in the same way.
- Buying/sabotaging reviews. It’s hard to gain reviews for your site. Some people get around this by buying them instead, while others find ways to leave damaging reviews on competitor sites. Either way, it’s playing dirty.
- Cookie stuffing. This is a highly suspect tactic whereby black hat SEOs sell 3rd-party cookies to be placed on anyone who visits a certain website. It’s not only bad practice, it’s potentially illegal.
Some of these techniques are easy to avoid if you just don’t do them. But what if you’ve been misled, or if someone is sabotaging your site? Here are a few responses and proactive measures you can take.
1. Monitor your backlinks and proactively disavow trashy ones.
We’ve already covered why you shouldn’t buy bad links from link farms. While this worked for a brief period, Google soon caught on, and they now punish this behavior severely. It’s easy to spot, because many of the domains these links come from have suspect URLs.
Similarly, if you notice someone is trying to spam your site through by linking to it from low-quality domains, you can submit the list to Google and disavow backlinks you don’t want associated with your site. It’s a huge nuisance, but it will nip attempts from malicious actors in the bud.
2. Establish your authority as an original content creator.
They say that imitation is the highest form of praise, but when someone is outright stealing the content you worked hard to create, they’re not doing you any favors. Duplicate content can be confusing to search results, and if a black hat SEO has intentionally spread your content out to a range of sites, it can damage your rankings.
The content you create is your own, and you have every right to fight for it. If you see someone using your content in a way you deem inappropriate, you should contact them first to ask them to take it down. They may have redistributed your content in good faith, unaware of the SEO penalties involved. In that case, it’s a gesture of good will to give them the opportunity to fix the problem. If they refuse to do so, you can submit a form to Google claiming copyright infringement.
You don’t need to have filed a copyright claim to do this—you already own the copyright by virtue of having created the content yourself.
3. Clean your site of anything spammy.
If you—or an SEO you worked with—has ever engaged in black hat practices (knowingly or otherwise), you will need to clean up your act to show Google you’ve changed your ways. This includes removing (or disavowing) bad backlinks, cleaning up or fleshing out thin content, deleting bad cookies, removing stolen content or automatically generated content, and ridding your website of any cloaked or hidden text.
If Google has caught you engaging in any of these practices, they may blacklist your site, and they have every right to do so. Google doesn’t owe you anything, and if you violate their terms of conduct, they are justified in burying your site in their search results.
However, once you have made a good faith attempt to clean up your site, you can submit a reconsideration request to Google. They will review whatever situation caused you to receive the penalty in the first place, and reinstate you if they see you have remedied the situation.
4. Flag fake reviews and protect your reputation.
We’ve discussed before how important reviews are to building your brands reputation and inspiring user trust. No brand, especially once they become well-established, maintains a perfect review streak. It’s understandable that some unhappy customers will take their complaints out on your Yelp page. When this happens, your best course of action is to respond politely and move on.
However, some people will try to take things a step further by leaving many malicious reviews, or buying fake reviews. This can be dangerous to your business, especially since this attack can be difficult to defend against.
Fortunately, many of the most prominent review websites (Yelp included) offer ways to flag reviews as fake. While you should never use this on any review that is authentic—no matter how negative—you should use this if you suspect foul play.
For the rest, take precautions not to make online enemies, where possible. You can’t protect yourself against trolls who choose to pick a fight in your comments section, but you can disengage. This holds true for authentic customers as well. Ask to discuss the matter in an email as quickly as you can, and look for a way to address the problem outside the public eye.
Good practices always win.
Fighting for good SEO rankings is a hard battle, but remember: Google is on your side. With every update, their algorithm becomes more adept at spotting black hat SEO practices and penalizing those sites accordingly.
Following good SEO practices is the best means to future-proof your business. If you’re doing your job well, your site will only grow stronger with time, and Google’s updates will vindicate your strategy.
And, as always, if you need help with SEO or content creation, we’re here to guide you through it. Read more about it in our content marketing guide to get started.