We all want to believe that the SERPs are a safe haven where users can get what they need and businesses can thrive...but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. There is a dark side to SEO that you may not be aware of…in fact, you could be breaking search engine guidelines yourself.

What is black hat SEO?

Black hat SEO is essentially the use of tactics designed to manipulate search engines such as Google. These tactics go against codes of conduct and are used to improve a website’s rankings in a deceitful way. Whilst black hat SEO may see some initial success, sites found to breach search engine guidelines will be penalised - this could be drops in rankings or even removal from the SERPs entirely.

There was a time where SEO itself was seen as a manipulative digital marketing technique to dominate the SERPs, but this is not the case. All self-respecting SEOs want to help websites rank well as a result of their hard efforts; SEO is about creating killer content and enhancing user experience, not “cheating the system”.

Black hat SEO examples

There are many forms of black hat SEO and ways in which you can deceive search engine’s algorithms, including:

1. Keyword stuffing

Keyword stuffing is pretty much exactly how it sounds - the act of cramming as many keywords into copy as possible. Yes keywords are important to include on a webpage, but there is such a thing as too much. Search engines are becoming increasingly advanced and keywords are no longer the key to ranking success. For instance, Google’s algorithms will look at topical relevance, page usability, location and E-A-T signals.

If you were an ecommerce business selling bean bags, keyword stuffing would look something like this…

Black hat example keyword stuffing image

It just doesn’t read right, and quite frankly, it puts me off bean bags.

2. Hiding text

Now, hidden text is a very sneaky way to pull one over on search engines (and indeed users). Someone may choose to hide text as a means to include more keywords on the page or to include content which is different from what users are actually seeing. It could be hidden by:

  • Using white text on a white background
  • Placing text behind images
  • Changing the font size to zero
  • Using CSS to place the text off-screen
  • Including links but only highlighting part of the text (such as a single letter to make this difficult to see)

Again, don’t underestimate search engines. They are becoming more and more able to understand texts and know when keywords are simply crammed in.

3. Duplicating content

Content should be designed for users, not search engines. Not only should the content you publish on your site be original, it should most definitely not be ripped off of someone else’s site. Google still lists content as one of the most important ranking factors, so it’s essential that you don’t neglect this. I appreciate that it can get tricky for ecommerce sites who are selling a multitude of items but where possible, you should try to focus on creating unique copy. If you’re found to have copied content from elsewhere you may be penalised.

Learn more about how to create SEO friendly content here.

4. Cloaking

This is a tactic which sees users and search engines receiving different content or URLS. Inevitably, this means that users and search engines are getting different experiences as they could be served totally different sites. The reason behind this is commonly to ensure that bots don’t see the spammy content users are getting and to disguise the fact that the content on the page isn’t relevant to the query.

There are however a few reasons why you might want to give users different content (for example, if a user from a different country accesses the page, you may serve the same content but in their native language).

Below is a short video by Matt Cutts at Google Search Central who explains cloaking in more detail.

5. Paid or “unearned” links

There’s a lot of link schemes out there and I'm sure you’re aware of this - but so is Google. This is a very popular form of black hat SEO and it basically consists of people building links which are not earned. Link schemes can include:

  • Paid links (there are such things as “link farms” where sites are willing to dish out links to anyone who pays up, whether the content is relevant or not)
  • Linking in blog comment areas
  • Exchanging links excessively
  • Creating fake forums or other websites which link to the site you wish to rank

You can read our blog on how to build links for SEO (on good merit) or find out more about link schemes on Google’s guidelines.

6. Misuse of rich snippets and structured data

Structured data is great for giving search engines more information about a webpage - but don’t try to disguise the truth! For example, you could use a ‘reviews’ schema markup but a black hatter might just add in some fake 5* reviews for good measure. This is absolutely against search engine guidelines as you’re actively inputting inaccurate information about a site. That said, if you do have lots of positive reviews, adding this type of structured data helps to indicate that your site is recommended and trustworthy.

7. Redirecting search engines and users to different pages

Redirects are common in SEO, especially when sites migrate, however, you mustn’t serve search engines and users different redirects. For example, in black hat SEO, it is hoped that search engines will index the original (non-spammy) webpage whilst users are sent to a totally different URL.

8. Reporting competitors/negative SEO

Whilst you might be cosied up with your hot chocolate thinking “well, i’ve not engaged in any of these malicious tactics, i’m fine!”, put your drink down before you hear this. You could have competitors who are looking to bring you down by sabotaging your website. For example, a competitor could send a handful of unnatural links your way and wait for you to be penalised - in fact, they might be the ones to report you to Google too! This can however be avoided by performing regular checks on your backlink profile and spotting them before bots do. You can then report any spam directly to Google and be free of the dodgy links!

9. Gateway pages

Gateway pages are not valuable to users at all. They’re pages which exist to link to another page (but trick users in doing so, making them expect one result and being served another). Essentially, these are pages which are designed to rank well for certain keywords but don’t consider the user’s needs or intention.

Does black hat SEO work?

In theory, yes, black hat SEO can work…but it has an expiry date. Once search engines discover that you’ve breached their guidelines, you will be penalised (this could mean a dramatic drop in positioning or even total removal from the SERPs). Let’s just say you’d find it very difficult to climb back up from this fall.

Is black hat SEO illegal?

No, black hat SEO is not illegal, however, it does violate Google webmaster guidelines and is widely frowned upon - especially by us SEOs who are dedicated to improving clients’ sites fair and square. As I’ve previously mentioned, you will likely get penalised for adopting black hat SEO techniques…and the wrath of Google could be a lot scarier than a policeman at your door, especially if you run an ecommerce business.

What is white hat SEO?

You may also have heard the term “white hat SEO” and be wondering whether this is much different from black hat practises. Well, it is. It’s the total opposite in fact. White hat SEO is the term used to describe ethical digital marketing techniques. In other words, SEO which increases a website’s position using approved methods which abide by search engine guidelines.

Looking for SEO specialists you can trust?

Here at Adido, we stay well away from black hat SEO techniques. We can help you to improve your rankings and site performance so that you earn you more conversions. Get in touch with a member of our SEO team based in Bournemouth today.

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Meet the author ...

Radina Ivanova

Senior SEO Manager

Radina holds a Bachelor's Degree in International Sales and Marketing and has worked in search for the past 6 years. She is experienced in Technical SEO and loves putting ...