Most legit SEO specialists have been taught the importance of white hat (ethical) SEO, in fact, that’s what the majority of Noved Solutions’ blog and services focus on. We know all about the search engines and how they work. But that stuff is boring! What we’re going to talk about today is the dark side of SEO.
My Journey in the Black Hat SEO World
Story time! When I was first getting started with SEO, I was in-house with a fairly large (and outdated) company. I was hired on as an intern to help with SEO and PPC, while learning from some people who have been in the industry for a while. Sounds great, right? It’s all fun and games until the main SEO “trainer” decides to quit and leaves you to fend for yourself.
I now found myself having to learn how to do my job well on my own. The only other person that knew about SEO was the owner of the company, who’s views on SEO were extremely outdated. I knew something was off, but couldn’t argue against it because the owner was always right…
I was told to stuff keywords, spam forums, and use other outdated tactics to boost our rankings. And then they couldn’t understand why we weren’t moving up in the rankings, in fact, we were losing rankings every day. But why?! This worked perfectly 10 years ago!
Keeping Up with the Black Hat SEO Times
In my solo learning (mostly through YouTube, SEO groups, and my favorite at the time, the Moz blog), I discovered that these tactics were old black hat techniques. Tactics that Google learned about and corrected in their algorithm while punishing sites that still employed them. We were shooting ourselves in the foot by using outdated, “illegal” (to Google) techniques to manipulate the rankings. AKA: black hat SEO.
Since I knew the owner wanted to employ black hat techniques, I decided to build my own test websites to test out the newer, more effective black hat tricks. And oh boy did I learn some fun stuff. Some worked, a lot ruined my rankings. It was a real crapshoot, but I can tell you, it does work if you do it carefully. As an SEO agency, we don’t perform black hat SEO for clients unless it’s specifically requested (but we’ll try to talk you out of it!). The risk is great for an established website/business, but if you’re planning on starting a simple blog of eccommerce site, the risk might be worth it.
What is Black Hat SEO?
Black hat SEO isn’t something new. In fact, it’s been around since the beginning of SEO. The difference is that, before, it was a tiny subsect of the SEO community. Today, it’s big business, and many concentrate solely on black hat SEO to rank up their sites. If you don’t know what’s going on, you could accidentally fall into the black hat trap and accidentally (or purposefully, we don’t judge) ruin your website’s rankings.
Black Hat Search Engine Optimization (SEO) refers to techniques used to manipulate search results so that they place higher in search engine rankings than would otherwise be the case. Black hat techniques include keyword stuffing, link farming, forum/comment spamming, link bombs, purchasing links, and many other techniques that manipulate the results of a search engine.
What are Some Black Hat SEO Tactics?
Black hat link building
- The idea behind black hat link building is to use manipulative techniques to generate as many links to websites as possible. Since backlinks carry so much weight in Google’s algorithm, people exploit that to trick Google into thinking their content is more popular than it actually is. Buying links, trading links, and even reaching out to authors for backlinks (this one is more “grey hat”, we’ll get into that later). According to Google, any attempt to “build” links is seen as manipulative. But that’s just the way all SEO is done today, so many of these techniques are not going to get you in trouble, even if they do catch you.
- This one still happens quite often, but Google has reduced the link power from comments even if they are dofollow. There are also spam blockers in most website CMS platforms, so it’s less prevalent these days. It’s now mostly used as a free advertising tool. Use an automated tool to automatically crawl websites in your niche that have open comment sections, then post your website/link in thousands of comments all over the web. In theory, people see your comment and go to your site. It doesn’t have much SEO advantage anymore, but it’s basically a free pay-per-view ad.
- Basically the same concept as comment spamming, but on forum/discussion websites. Again, it used to be beneficial for SEO, but not so much anymore. Free garbage ads though?
- Now this one is just all around bad. At the first in-house position I mentioned earlier, I had to deal with a continuous link bomb attack and it was awful. This is using Google’s spam link algorithm against a competitor by building (usually through automation) or buying thousands upon thousands of links that are extremely low quality and spammy and pointing those links at your poor, unsuspecting target. The one I dealt with was tons of links, every day, from “adult” websites, scam sites, casinos, and pharmaceutical sites. These links look terrible when you’re a legit business, and Google will smack you down if the majority of your link profile is just spammy, scammy, garbage links. Luckily, Google gives us access to a link disavow tool in Google Search Console. You can upload a list of domains for Google to ignore links from. A very helpful tool, and one that I am extremely familiar with considering I had to upload a new list of 1000+ domains every week for about 2 years. Noved Solutions will NEVER use this tactic. Even if your main competitor kicked your puppy, we will not link bomb their site.
- Anchor text is what you see when a URL is linked on a specific word or sentence: like this, I’m anchor text! Manipulating your links with overused, keyword-exact anchors can backfire. Using a nice mix of keywords, naked anchors (just the URL), and branded terms can be extremely helpful in pushing up your rankings. Going overboard on exact match anchors can make it so Google will never rank your page for that term. This one is all about balance. If you have any questions on that balance, just let us know! We love answering questions for curious SEO minds, we won’t even try to sell you anything…usually.
- A lot of black hat SEO techniques center around link building these days since Google places such an importance on link profiles, and PBNs are no different. Private Blog Networks (PBNs) are pretty much the king of black hat SEO these days, when done correctly at least. This involves creating numerous websites, all on different hosting, with different IPs, different classes, and different…well, everything. Making sure Google can’t connect these sites together is the most important thing here. You manage all of these websites, usually with a nice little automation tool, pump content out (usually with article spinning, which is mentioned down below), and make the sites all appear legitimate. Once these sites (could be 10, could be thousands) are set up, you then have your own network of sites that you can build links with. Many sketchy agencies have their own PBNs that they use to build links for their clients. The client might see great results, and if the creators know the tricks, it could be quite a while before Google catches them and ruins their clients’ rankings. But they got the money, so the agency doesn’t care. We’re not jerks, and we don’t use these techniques for clients. Since we’re local to the Albuquerque area, we prefer being transparent and building great relationships with other local businesses.
- One of the most common examples that used to do very well for SEOs back in the day. This involves the overuse of the keywords you want to rank for in the content. If this article had the phrase “what is black hat SEO?” 30+ times, that would be keyword stuffing for the term we’re aiming to rank for (please Google?). There used to be ways to stuff keywords without them being visible to users, so content could read naturally without looking ridiculous, more on that is explained below under “hidden content”. Fortunately, Google has caught on to most of those tricks. There’s nothing worse than trying to read an older article with basic keyword stuffing in the content. It can be quite hilarious in fact.
- Outdated and sneaky, hidden content involves tricks to hide text, usually stuffed with keywords, on the page. A common tactic was to simply make the text the same color as the background. That way, you could make the content readable to the user, but spam the keywords to Google so you would rank. You could also sneak the keywords into the code of the site pretty easily. This black hat technique is basically dead these days though. Using your keywords naturally in the content, which is just regular ol’ white hat SEO, is simpler, and Google loves it.
- Article spinners are tools black hat SEOs use that take an article from one webpage (usually a top ranking page on your particular keyword), rearranging the content and switching out words for synonyms, all to create a “brand new” article for your site. Most article spinners are hot garbage, but there are some fairly advanced ones that write articles about as well as an “average” copywriter can when using the original as a base. It can be a good way to build outlines, or to get a starting point to write off of, but relying on the tool to do all of your writing is generally a bad idea. There are some free ones to try if you’re interested though, check out Spinbot if you’re wanting to test one out.
- Fairly self-explanatory, you steal content from one site and post it on another. Google hates this, don’t do this. In the age of article spinners and copy AI programs, this old tactic is just asking for trouble with Google. If they see that there’s two duplicate pieces of content, they’ll see how much older the original is and smack you down for duplicate content.
- This is one that I have experience with, but in terms of SEO. I’ve used redirect cloaking for Google Ads when the site I’m advertising is considered “against the rules” for Google’s terms. Cloaking is using a redirect, or link, in a hidden way. The user will go to the “money page”, but Google and other crawlers will go to a dummy page that looks normal and unsuspecting. You could rank a page for a bunch of popular keywords, but cloak the URL so that users get sent to a casino or something, while Google just sees a really great article. As a user, it can be annoying if the cloak is misleading; and if Google catches you, your whole domain could be blacklisted. Or with PPC, your ad accounts can be banned….don’t ask how I know that.
Exact match domains
- This one is still pretty common, and it works to an extent. Say you want to start an online dirt farm. Where you sell a very particular dirt to the peasants to play in, or whatever they do with dirt. Your primary keyword for your site/product is “delicious brown dirt”, and thousands of people a month are searching for it, and dozens of competitors are ranking for it already. How can you get a headstart? Well, just buy the domain deliciousbrowndirt.com and build your site on it. That domain name is your exact match primary keyword, and this can give you a little bump in your rankings. This isn’t some magic bullet, if your site and content sucks, you won’t rank just because of your domain name. I personally think it’s cringey to focus on a keyword domain instead of a branded one. I never click exact match domains in search results, it’s a matter of professional pride…maybe a little jealously too.
- This is last because it’s a grey area in SEO. A guest post is when either you or the site’s writer publishes an article relating to your industry on their own website. This article will also contain a link(s) to your website. If an author reaches out to you and wants to talk about your website in an article and you give them some information to write about, that link would be a white hat guest post link. But if you pay someone to write about your product/service on their site with a link to your page, that’s technically black hat. Many link building campaigns, even from well-meaning yet unaware SEO agencies, are technically black hat. Exchanging anything for a guest post or link is against Google’s policies. The issue for Google is, they can’t usually tell if something was exchanged for that link (unless it’s a link exchange, you link to me and I’ll link to you, don’t do that). As such, this technique is used very often today. It’s the cornerstone of most link building campaigns, whether it’s done wearing your white, black, or grey colored hat.
How to Know if Your Website is Black Hat or Not?
Maybe you’ve hired an agency with a team of people more closely resembling used car salesmen instead of professional SEOs, and you’re wondering why your rankings tanked after a few months of positive gains. Well the most likely reason is that they used black hat techniques to get you all excited about the improvements right away so you’d sign a longer contract, knowing that it would eventually do more harm than good to your site. There are certain ways to check for black hat footprints on websites.
Check the Links
First, looking at the backlink profile of the site; since links are generally the most popular tool for black hat SEOs, that’s where you’ll usually find the signs. Look for any patterns, are all of the websites that link to you also linking to each other? Well that’s not a good sign. Are all of your links coming from sites that have high link metrics (DA, DR, authority, or whatever metric or combination you choose to base this on) but no traffic? That’s probably a site made for selling links. Are there spammy links, or other links to your domain from adult, casino, or pharmaceutical sites? If so, it’s time to bust out the disavow tool on Google Search Console (unless that’s your industry, that’s a whole different article though).
Give the Content Some Love
For content, there are tools like Copyscape where you can see if your content is duplicated anywhere else. If you do find some, check the publish dates to see if your content was stolen, or you accidentally (or not) stole theirs. There are also plenty of free tools that will check the keyword density in your content, to make sure it’s natural and not stuffed full of keywords for no reason other than rankings.
Cloaking and Other Trickery
For cloaking issues, you can check your site out by using the Google crawl agent to see if what Google “sees” is the same as what you see normally. This is less likely to be happening on your site without some pretty obvious signs though.
If you have any more questions on this, or you want us to perform a black hat SEO audit, let us know and we’d be happy to help!
What are the Benefits of Black Hat SEO?
The clear benefit of black hat SEO is an increase in traffic and conversions. Whether you’re selling a product, generating ad revenue, offering a service, or flipping websites, there’s black hat tactics that can help give you a boost. However, each one carries some degree of risk; some more than others obviously. Black hat SEO becomes more of a game of balancing risk vs. reward than anything. You have to understand the risks, the benefits, and whether or not it’s worth the attempt. Certain black hat techniques aren’t ever worth the risk (in my opinion), but some…well some are just commonplace if you want to compete in certain industries.
Should I Use Black Hat SEO?
So, “black hat” doesn’t mean you’re breaking the law, it simply means that you’re going against established guidelines, usually set by Google or another big search engine. This doesn’t mean you’re doing anything immoral or illegal, you’re just risking the longevity of your site by doing it. Maybe that’s worth it to you, maybe not. Only you can answer that question; and hopefully after this article, you’ll be better equipped to make an informed decision about the direction of your website’s SEO journey.