22 May Five Signs of Black Hat SEO to Avoid
There’s a popular meme based on a 1980s commercial for a career school in which the celebrity spokesperson asked, “Do you want to make more money? Sure! We all do!” The question can now easily be rephrased as “Do you want your website to rank on page one of Google?” Sure! We all do! But what are you willing to do to make that happen? If you’re ready to work hard (or have your digital marketing agency do the heavy lifting), you can get results, but it will take time. Or, you can take some “shortcuts” – otherwise known as black hat SEO practices.
As opposed to “white hat” SEO – which follows the best practices established by Google and other search engines – black hat tactics are designed to work much faster, but at the ultimate cost of your website ranking and credibility with your target customers. The following five methods are the most common in the black hat playbook. Whether you naively thought they were standard practice or have just been trying to see what you can get away with, here’s the breakdown. But first things first.
Why is black hat controversial?
After all, yours is just a little website in a great big World Wide Web. How’s Google going to know? Because Google’s business is basically about knowing everything. Each of its major algorithm updates since Panda in 2011 has focused on SEO best practices, ever improving its ability to suss out unethical techniques.
Writing for Entrepreneur, Scott McGovern – founder of NDXBL – notes, “Today, Google algorithms are some of the most sophisticated in the world … for people using unethical optimization techniques, the chances of receiving a Google penalty for black hat SEO increase with every update.”
The main differentiator between white hat and black hat SEO is that the former provides content that’s useful and relevant to what members of your target audience are looking for, while the latter manipulates content to achieve the single goal of search engine page ranking. “This means misleading both the humans and the algorithms,” McGovern writes.
For example, if people go to your website expecting to find home accessories but instead find hardware, they won’t be happy. Their thought process won’t be, “Hey, I could really use a hammer, now that I’m thinking about it!” They’ll feel deceived, and not buy from you even when they do need a hammer. Eventually, Google will notice, and issue a penalty. This is typically a rank demotion, or complete removal of your site from the search engine results pages (SERPs). Either action is extremely damaging to your website, and therefore, your business. Search Engine Land provides an informative guide to Google’s penalties, which is well worth reading in full.
Now, On to the Black Hats!
Hard to believe, but this ancient dark art SEO practice remains popular. It became widespread during the early days of SEO, when improving a site’s rankings was supposedly as simple as repeating your target keywords enough times to convince the search engines of yesteryear that your page was relevant to the search terms. Google lists the following examples of this offence:
- Lists of phone numbers without substantial added value.
- Blocks of text listing cities and states a webpage is trying to rank for.
- Repeating the same words or phrases so often that it sounds unnatural, for example:
We sell custom cigar humidors. Our custom cigar humidors are handmade. If you’re thinking of buying a custom cigar humidor, please contact our custom cigar humidor specialists at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As we covered in our blog post – “Are You Losing Money Writing Your Own Website Copy?” – Google and visitors want website copy written for people, not web crawlers. Google’s algorithms favor “long-tail” keywords that are terms potential customers are likely to search for, such as, “What are the best noise-canceling headphones?” This is where writing, branding and marketing expertise come into play. Keyword stuffing requires no talent or specialized knowledge. The copy your visitors find should show them that they came to the right website.
Invisible text and links
“Hiding links and text for the sole purpose of building links comes in different sizes and shapes,” writes Razvan Gavrilas, founder and chief architect of cognitiveSEO. Like keyword stuffing, this practice has been around a long time. Again, Google covers this topic in detail in its Quality guidelines, which we provide verbatim:
Hiding text or links in your content to manipulate Google’s search rankings can be seen as deceptive and is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Text (such as excessive keywords) can be hidden in several ways, including:
- Using white text on a white background
- Locating text behind an image
- Using CSS to position text off-screen
- Setting the font size to 0
- Hiding a link by only linking one small character – for example, a hyphen in the middle of a paragraph
When evaluating your site to see if it includes hidden text or links, look for anything that’s not easily viewable by visitors of your site. Are any text or links there solely for search engines rather than visitors?
The buying and selling of links is another black hat practice explicitly banned by Google. Click on the link in this sentence to read its lengthy page on Link Schemes in its entirety. To summarize, however, the temptation exists because link popularity is one of the ways in which Google ranks websites. As McGovern points out, “The more websites linking to yours, and the higher the domain authority of those websites, the more authoritative Google will consider you to be.”
As Google states, “Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.” This includes sending a website free products in exchange for links, adds HubSpot marketing executive Padraig O’Connor.
“You should avoid paying any other site to link to your content. Google asks users to tell them about instances of people buying or selling links. They state they will penalize both buyer and seller of links once the practice is detected.
“If you’re reading this having purchased links without realizing this is a black hat SEO tactic, you should have them removed as soon as possible. You can also use the disavow links tool if you can’t get webmasters to remove the links. This tells Google to disregard the paid links when calculating your Pagerank.”
Ironically, businesses selling links can easily be found on Google. So just because you can find Google ads on Google offering “quality backlinks,” doesn’t mean they’re legit.
A blog post for API company Twinword defines copied content as follows:
“Copying content from other sites and posting it on yours as the ‘original’ is plagiarism and Google identifies it quickly. And once Google’s consistently crawling spiders find the duplicate content, it de-indexes them immediately.
“Moreover, there are many plagiarism detectors available on the internet that can check whether your content is plagiarized or not. Most of them also provide the exact source from where particular information has been copied.”
Aside from the dishonesty factor, copied content is damaging because it is of no value to the searcher. Article spinning – the practice of rewriting another website’s content just enough to escape the duplicate copy accusation – is also considered black hat for the same reason. Also in this category is scraped content – which is stealing content from other websites, usually with the help of an automatic program. As Gavrilas notes, this particular black hat tactic isn’t just against Google Guidelines, it’s illegal in the United States and other countries.
Your potential customers are looking for relevant, quality content on your website. Copied content and other types of low-quality content not only anger Google, they offend your target audience. For some guidance on the kind of content you should be providing, our blog post – “What is Quality Content?” answers this question of the ages.
Speaking of low-quality content, clickbait is everybody’s favorite source of cheap laughs. Now a popular meme, the classic clickbait headline typically ends with “Number 5 Will Shock You!”
Clickbait headlines are over-promising and/or sensationalist statements that entice visitors to click through to the linked piece of content. Although intriguing, the headlines often turn out to be misleading and deceptive once visitors realize they’ve been directed to unrelated, unrealistic or false webpage content. As Twinword states, clickbait is a black hat SEO technique because it deceives users for the purpose of increasing a website’s click-through rate (CTR).
While clickbait occasionally offers some odd entertainment value, savvy web surfers immediately recognize it as a waste of time. Do you want them thinking the same of your website – and, by extension, your business?
Beware of blurred lines
Between black hat and white hat, there lies gray hat – SEO techniques that are sort of “iffy.” Writing for Search Engine Journal, SEO consultant Helen Pollitt offers an interesting perspective on the difference among the three.
For example, on the issue of content quality, white hat requires content to be written to aid user navigation, answer questions and otherwise provide value to the visitor. Black hat content exists solely for the search engines. Gray hat content, however, according to Pollitt, “… is written purely for the purpose of ranking the page well. It contains just enough keywords to drive visitors to the page but doesn’t really add much value.
“The page would be just as useful to the visitor without the text but ranks better with it … Is it in the spirit of the guidelines or does it go against them?”
While it’s good to be aware of the gray areas, we advise not attempting this yourself. You need to know the rules very well before you can bend them without breaking them. It’s not worth incurring Google’s wrath to err on the dark side.
The take-home message and our blatant self-promotion
As you’ve seen, it can be hard for a business owner going it alone to determine which SEO practices are best, and which are best avoided. But you can’t stray far from the righteous path if you keep your target customer first in mind and provide content that’s relevant and helpful across the board.
Fortunately, you don’t have to navigate the complexities of SEO on your own! Virtual Stacks Systems specializes in SEO services and all the elements that integrate to ensure seamless optimization – such as website design and website redesign, social media marketing and pay-per-click marketing.
Contact us to learn more and get started!