What is Black Hat SEO? How to avoid bad site practices

“Black Hat SEO” is a term used to describe unethical SEO practices intended to increase a website’s search engine ranking. These shady strategies generally provide no additional benefit to the user, are a violation of the search engines’ terms of service, and are purely intended to “beat the system.”

The term “Black Hat” refers to old Western movies where the “bad guys” wore black hats and the “good guys” wore white hats. “White Hat SEO” refers to ethical SEO practices that are in-line with the search engine’s terms of service and actually provide added benefit to the website’s end user. Nowadays, “Black Hat” is more commonly used to refer to virus creators, hackers, and people who engage in unscrupulous online practices.

John Wayne as a “black hat” villain, 1948

Image Source: AMC

Don’t be the bad guy

Engaging in Black Hat site practices is not only unethical and dishonest to your end-users, it can actually get your site banned from search engines. If your goal is to increase your search engine ranking and get more traffic to your site, engaging in practices that could eliminate you from showing up in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) – the number one traffic referral source on the internet –  is a very bad idea.

A good way to tell whether you’re engaging in an SEO strategy that could be considered “Black Hat” is to ask yourself: “will this provide value to my users and allow them to more easily find what they’re looking for, or am I just doing this to increase my search ranking?” If the answer is the latter, think twice.

Examples of Black Hat SEO

Google’s Webmaster page issues the following warning to people who are considering engaging in shady SEO practices:

“We strongly encourage you to pay very close attention to the Quality Guidelines below, which outline some of the illicit practices that may lead to a site being removed entirely from the Google index or otherwise affected by an algorithmic or manual spam action. If a site has been affected by a spam action, it may no longer show up in results on Google.com or on any of Google’s partner sites.”

Specifically, Google advises avoiding the following practices, which violate its posted terms of service:

 

    • Link Schemes – exchanging links for money or goods and services, or engaging in excessive “link exchanges” for no purpose other than link building.
    • Auto-generated content – content that does not benefit the end user and may not make sense to a reader but which contains keywords a site is attempting to rank for.
    • Creating pages with no original content – this includes thinly veiled affiliate pages, scraped content, and auto-generated content.
    • Cloaking – showing a different URLs to users and the search engine crawler.
    • Underhanded redirects – sending a user to a different URL than the one requested.
    • Hidden text – using white text or CSS to position text off-screen to prevent users from seeing it.
    • Doorway pages – multiple domains that direct users to one page, or creating multiple similar pages without a browsing hierarchy.
    • Scraped content – copying and republishing content from other sources without adding any additional value.

 

  • Engaging in affiliate programs without added value to the user

 

  • Creating pages with unrelated keywords

 

 

    • Intentionally creating web pages for malicious purposes, including phishing, viruses,  trojans, and other malware.

 

 

  • Sending automated queries to a search engine without express permission.

Why you should practice White Hat SEO instead

“White Hat SEO” refers to ethical practices that improve your site’s search engine ranking, stay within the search engine’s terms of service, and maintain the integrity of your site. These practices improve the user experience and help your potential customers find answers to their questions quickly and without unnecessary browsing and click-throughs.

A few examples of White Hat SEO practices are:

  • Using responsive design and focusing on mobile-friendliness
  • Creating quality content with useful keywords
  • Using rich, descriptive metadata to make searching your site easier
  • Focusing on user-friendly site navigation
  • Ensuring your site has fast loading times and is accessible for all users
  • Aiming to earn rich snippets that answer user questions quickly

Search engines (and Google in particular, which is visited by billions of users every day) is your number one potential source referral source of organic traffic. Practicing ethical SEO will keep you from being banned by search engines – once you’re banned, there’s no guarantee your site will ever be reinstated. Avoid tanking your site’s traffic by committing to only practicing ethical, user-friendly SEO, and keep wearing that White Hat.

How to report Black Hat SEO

Occasionally, you will come across Black Hat SEO that you will want to report to the search engine. The two main circumstances under which this would happen are:

  1. Your website has been the target of a malicious hack, virus, or a spammy link campaign
  2. You encounter spammy results for a keyword you are attempting to rank for, i.e. one of your competitors is engaging in unethical SEO practices.

If your site has been the target of an attack, first remove the malicious code on your site and then request a malware review from Google. You should also use the Disavow Links Tool in Google’s Webmaster Tools after you’ve attempted to contact the webmaster who’s site is posting spammy links to your site.

There are several ways a hacker can use Black Hat SEO to damage your online reputation. Below, we’ll discuss a few of the ways this can happen and what you should do about it if it does.

4 ways hackers can use Black Hat SEO to attack your site:

  1. Framing you as the bad guy through spammy backlinks. A hacker might try to “digitally frame you” by directing a large number of spammy backlinks to your site to make it look like you’re the one driving this sketchy link-building campaign. They’ll often repeat these backlinks across a range of untrustworthy sites, making it easy for the search engine to flag and penalize you. The solution? Use a traffic monitoring system so you can easily tell where your site traffic is coming from so you can detect spam early. When you notice sketchy sites linking back to you, report these domains through Google Search Console and disavow the backlinks to avoid their bad reputation from tarnishing yours.
  2. Spammers duplicating your original content and distributing it through link farms. Creating high-quality content is difficult and time-consuming, so it’s especially frustrating when someone plagiarizes your work and tries to pass it off as their own. To make it even worse, some hackers scrape your content before Google even has a chance to crawl it, making it impossible for the search engine to tell where the content actually originated. This puts you at risk for being penalized for content scraping. If you notice your content is being duplicated on other sites, your first step should be to contact the site, make them aware of the situation and ask them to remove the plagiarized content. If this doesn’t work, however, you should use Google’s Copyright Infringement Form to report yourself as the creator of the content and protect yourself from being penalized.
  3. Your site being hacked and its code altered. One of the most nefarious ways scammers can infiltrate your site is by hacking it and changing your site’s content or even it’s code. They often start by altering pages that are older and not as heavily trafficked, so you may not notice the changes at first. Or, they may go directly to your site’s source code and edit it at the HTML- or CSS-level, meaning if you’re not a software engineer, you may not notice until your site has already been flagged for bad SEO. To keep this from happening, keep a close eye on your site traffic for unusually large traffic spikes on old pages, and high volumes of new backlinks. It’s also a good idea to control who has access to the source code of your site. Often the person who can do the most damage to your online reputation is one you’ve willingly handed the keys to.
  4. Scammers posting fake reviews about your site to harm your SEO. One of the oldest tricks in the book is poisoning the competition’s reputation with false reviews. It’s relatively easy to do, and a lot more irritating to fix. You can spot fake reviews by unusually high numbers of reviews in a short period of time, and watching for reviews that are short and non descriptive – these fake reviewers don’t have an actual negative experience to describe and it’s difficult to manufacture one. If you notice fake reviews clogging up your Yelp or Google Reviews page, be diligent in flagging them to the review site so you can have them removed before they cause undue damage.

 

If one of your competitors is using Black Hat tactics to improve their search engine rankings, you can file a webspam report through Google Webmaster Tools. Use caution when using this option, however. While you shouldn’t have to tolerate other sites that use sketchy means to rank above yours, falsely reporting your competitors for Black Hat SEO is considered Black Hat SEO and may get your site banned from the search engine.

Improve your SEO without donning the Black Hat

Bottom line: always use ethical, value-added SEO tactics to improve your rankings and help your customers find your side. If you’re looking to build a long-lasting business built on trust and authority, stay as far away from shady Black Hat SEO practices as possible.

Want to improve your search engine rankings without resorting to unethical tactics? Sign up for a free Big Leap SEO consultation and get a leg up on your competition without becoming a bad guy.

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Meg Monk
Meg Monk is a freelance writer and content strategist based in Salt Lake City. When she's not writing about marketing strategy, she's camping in Utah's mountains in her 1976 Airstream or planning her next international trip - 29 countries and counting! You can find more of her work at megmonk.com.

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