Black hat SEO: beware of forbidden techniques on Google
Looking for shortcuts and quicker solutions to achieve a goal, even daringly, is perhaps a natural human trait, and the field of SEO is no exception. Alongside regular and official practices, i.e., those that comply with the limits marked by the Google Guidelines, a great many techniques with blurred lines or openly in violation of the rules have developed, which are called black hat SEO.
This expression is used to group together a number of highly manipulative techniques and tactics that exploit certain features of search engine algorithms to try to force a site’s ranking, pushing it up in Google’s SERPs. Over time, the search engine has become good at identifying and penalizing such black-hatted techniques and deploys a number of tools to beat this scourge, and when it discovers these manipulative attempts it penalizes the site and its pages, but that still does not stop people from trying them while exposing themselves to the risk of an algorithmic or manual penalty.
Why is it called black hat SEO?
From a grammatical point of view, the expression black hat SEO refers back to the symbolism used in American Western cinema between the 1920s and 1940s in black and white: as stated in Wikipedia, black hat was the symbol of the bad guys, distinguished in this way from the good guys who instead wore a white hat (white hat). And so, the Black Hat SEO takes its name from the old cowboy movies in which the bad guys wear a black hat and indeed those who perform such techniques risk ending up-sometimes even unknowingly – in the list of bad guys according to Google.
What is black hat SEO and what it means
Today, black hat SEO refers to a set of practices and techniques used to boost a site’s or page’s search engine rankings through means that violate the terms of service of Google and other search engines, and that consequently expose the site to penalties or bans from search engines, the primary source of Web traffic.
To continue to be the world’s most popular search engine and provide users with the most useful results, Google must continually update its algorithm and try to limit the presence of irrelevant or overtly spammy results. The rules of the game – so to speak – are set by the various guidelines that are open to everyone from web developers to SEO professionals.
Nevertheless, there are many people who want to win the game by circumventing the rules and thus deploy illicit techniques: that is, Black Hat SEO professionals know the rules of search engine optimization, but they use this understanding to take shortcuts that are not exactly provided for in Google’s best practices.
This mode is in contrast to white hat SEO professionals, who to win in the SERP instead follow Google’s webmaster guidelines, promote high-value content, engage in in-depth keyword research, and so on.
Black Hat SEO vs White Hat SEO
Still in the cinematic field, for those who have seen the Star Wars saga the quote comes easily to mind: just as in the movie there is a light side of the Force represented by the Jedi and a dark side of the Force embodied by the evil Sith, so in the world of SEO we find white hat SEO (the one we tell from the pages of our blog and put in place with our Web Agency, Seo Cube) and, in contrast, the set of black hat SEO tactics.
Black Hat SEO and spamdexing
How to recognize illicit techniques
There is one question that can make it immediately clear whether or not an SEO technique can be considered black hat: “Is the work I’m doing adding value to the user or am I just doing this for the search engines?” That is, are the optimization techniques I am implementing designed only to increase page and site rankings, or am I also providing benefits to users by simplifying the user experience and providing useful content?
Black hat tactics are typically used by SEO specialists, consultants or webmasters who are looking for a quick payoff on their own or clients’ sites, rather than waiting for the results of a medium- to long-term strategy and larger investments.
The examples of black hat SEO
The main black hat SEO techniques are a dozen, and include the use of hidden text, shameless link buying, developing different pages for users and search engines, but also more mundane techniques such as keyword stuffing (which we have talked about several times in the in-depth reviews on quality content and SEO copywriting) or comments on blogs. Many of these discouraged practices we have already encountered in the guide to ranking factors on Google, in the section dedicated to spam and penalization factors, but still it is good to devote a few more words on the topic.
The main black hat techniques discouraged by Google
If the abuse of repeated keywords in the text, title and description is a technique easily detected by Google and of little effectiveness, the other black hat tactics refer to more technical interventions.
This is the case with cloaking (showing the visitor a standard web page and presenting a different, more optimized one to search engine crawlers) or boilerplate (set of links inserted into the layout of all web pages to push a limited number of pages), which are no longer very common, however. Then there are the methods of negative SEO, which consists of alerting Google to an alleged illicit behavior of a competitor in order to disfavor it.
Recognizing prohibited tactics
Other examples of black hat tactics are those of duplicate content creation or article spinning, variations of the same web page that are supposed to allow you to “play more cards” with Google, or the strategy of desert scraping, the purchase of expired domains. By buying expired and non-renewed domains (and performing 301 redirects on incoming links) you try to transfer the power of previous backlinks to your project, but even then Google becomes increasingly adept at ferreting out those who use these means, not to mention that sometimes you risk buying a site already penalized by Google or with a very poor backlink profile.
Link building and black hat SEO
A separate chapter must be devoted to link building: as we know, the strategy of link acquisitions runs the risk of flowing into ways that are undesirable to Google, which has provided a set of rules to be respected against ranking manipulation. This list includes buying paid links, buying links on sites that specialize in selling links and are created just for this (without offering quality content to users), link exchange or creating link schemes.
Generally speaking, a link acquisition campaign may not be considered black hat SEO if it manages to hold true to Google’s principles on purpose for users and the sites on which the content is published (in topic, with links providing useful pointers, and so on). A fair compromise might be link baiting, which involves writing interesting content for a site to submit to, with outbound links to one’s own project becoming the source of the information.
The risks of black hat SEO tactics
So far we have only hinted at the dangers of black hat SEO, but let’s try to describe what the consequences of using these forbidden strategies can be: while manipulative practices may appear effective at first in the immediate term, it frequently happens that these results are temporary and ephemeral, because search engines take direct consequences (we told about this in the American SEO experiment some time ago).
When it detects disapproved techniques, Google reacts in a very concrete and inflexible way and can penalize the site at the level of position in SERPs or, in the worst cases, remove the domain from its Index. The most famous case study occurred in 2006, when the official site of BMW Germany was banned by Google because it was using doorway pages to improve its ranking (and then readmitted after the German company’s official apology).
Gray Hat SEO, the compromise between black hat SEO and white hat SEO
We can also devote a passage to what is referred to as gray hat SEO, that is, the set of techniques that do not belong to either of the two classical categories of black or white, but move in an indefinite sphere, on the border between what is permissible and what is manipulative.
The name obviously refers to the chromatic characteristics of gray, which arises precisely from the fusion of black and white, and thus gray hat SEO combines permissible and other less permissible strategies that are unconventional but not as extreme as those described. Again, however, Google works to reduce the positive effects of such operations, and the constant algorithm updates always force the basic strategy to evolve in response to the changes.
17 Black hat SEO techniques to know and avoid
However, it is important to preface this with the fact that these prohibited tactics are not always carried out voluntarily, so it is good to familiarize yourself with black hat SEO to make sure you are only proceeding with lawful strategies. Therefore, let’s look at 17 well-known and widespread black hat practices to avoid because they can cause an algorithmic or manual Google penalty, following Jon Clark’s suggestions on Search Engine Land.
The illicit techniques related to links
Because of their weight and value, links are probably the first element on which the attention of those intending to force Google rankings is focused, leading to the adoption of a number of prohibited behaviors.
- Purchasing links
A relevant, high-quality link can drive traffic to a domain and at the same time tell Google’s algorithm that it represents a reliable source.
A good backlink can also help Google map a site so the crawler has a better idea of the project’s central topic, making it easier to decide when and how to show pages in search results.
Link buying, however, is against Google’s Webmaster Instructions and, according to Google, does not work; moreover, those who get caught may suffer a penalty or manual action that affects specific pages or, worse, the entire site.
Google tracks links that “are likely to have been purchased and those that have been earned” and is able to identify unnatural patterns behind backlinks, even to Google’s own properties.
- Product exchange for links
Whether the site is offering or taking, exchanging free products (or discounts) for links is considered by Google to be a link scheme.
To avoid this problem, simply mark the link with a rel = “nofollow” tag to signal search engines not to follow the link for ranking purposes.
- Links in the footer
The footer has often been used as a favorite place for link placement because it appears on every page of a site. However, Google is capable of identifying (and penalizing) the use of links in footers with large-scale commercial anchor text to manipulate results.
- Hidden links
This is a somewhat old-fashioned technique, but one that still happens sometimes: hiding a link in the text of the site or showing the link in the same color as the background. Needless to say, Google may notice these gimmicks and will penalize those who have tried to game the system; moreover, including a high number of irrelevant links also means diluting relevance and giving Google “fewer reasons to direct traffic to your target audience.”
Deceptively hidden links are a violation of Google’s guidelines, and that means:
- Do not hide text behind an image.
- Do not keep text off the screen using CSS.
- Do not use a font size of 0.
- Do not make a link a small string of characters, such as a period.
- Spam in comments
Another technique abused in the past is inserting a link to a site in the comments section of another domain: today automatic systems often block the attempt, but in any case it is better to “avoid doing it unless the link is relevant,” useful and in topic – and in any case it should not generate effects in terms of link building. Otherwise, you risk a spam penalty.
- Abused anchor text
Apparently it makes sense to “match the title of your page every time you share a link to it, because the title is the topic of your page and consistency could imply relevance,” but from Google’s point of view this risks turning out to be lazy spamming.
On the contrary, anchor text should be short, relevant to the linked page, not full of keywords and unique, as well as placed in the context of the surrounding environment, of which it is a natural part.
This rule applies to both internal and external links.
- Harmful backlinks
Google’s focus on links can also be used for malicious purposes: “some black hat SEO professionals may exploit in their own interest Google’s penalty system to drag down your page rank by placing links on Web sites you don’t want to be associated with,” says Clark.
It is for this reason that, for a decade or so now, Google has created the disavow links system, which precisely allows one to disavow backlinks received from any unwanted domains and to disassociate one’s site from the one deemed suspicious or harmful.
- Use of PBNs
PBNs – Private Blog Networks – are essentially Web sites that link to each other; widespread in the 1990s and early 2000s (“particularly among the fan pages of various TV shows, movies, musicians, etc.”), they are not necessarily a bad thing, but these chains are considered a linking scheme when used to manipulate algorithms and rankings.
Content-related black hat techniques
Some black hat tactics instead focus on content and try to exploit certain kinks in Google’s rating system to speed up the climb to the first page.
- Keyword stuffing
It is (unfortunately!) a bad habit that continues to be present: stuffing the text with repetitions of the keyword for which you are trying to rank the page, creating the effect of keyword stuffing that is also annoying to read.
In addition, it starts from two wrong assumptions, namely that you have to build a page/text around a keyword (while instead you have to center the search intent) and that just repeating keywords en bloc is enough to rank first.
In fact, Google rewards those who provide high-quality information and “semantically linked keyword-rich content,” rather than those who “simply bear the superficial signs of it.”
- Keyword stuffing in the alt-text of images
Abuse of keywords in the alt tags of an image can also damage a site’s ranking, in addition to being a misuse of this element and essentially providing a disservice to visitors.
- Hidden content
As with hidden links, hidden content has the same color as the background to “include as many key phrases, long-tail keywords, and semantically related words as possible on a page.”
Obviously, Google’s algorithm can detect the difference between keywords within the body of a paragraph and hidden keywords in the background.
In addition to being intentionally inserted by the site owner, hidden content can also depend on other situations:
- Publication of a guest post that includes hidden content.
- Comment system not being rigorous enough and therefore unable to detect hidden content.
- Website hacked by hackers posting hidden content (parasite hosting).
- Accidental insertion of an authorized user copying and pasting text with CSS styling from a different source.
Not all hidden content is prohibited – the rule of thumb is that “content is okay as long as the content is visible to both the user and the search engine”- and for example, “content that is visible only to mobile visitors, but hidden from desktop visitors” may be considered lawful.
- Plagiarized or duplicate content
Duplicate content – or the result of scraping or outright plagiarism – can violate copyright or branding laws; moreover, since “Google wants to share high-quality domains, plagiarism is grounds for sanction.”
- Article spinning
Article spinning is a technique that involves rewriting content using synonyms, changing sentence structure, or rewriting the text entirely but without changing the information in the source material.
Article spinning can be done manually or using technology, and no matter how advanced it may be, Google will continue to penalize sites that use this technique because such articles “degrade the quality of the Internet.”
- Rich Snippet Spam
Rich snippets are snippets with additional information, which can therefore drive more traffic, but there are many ways in which the schema used to generate these snippets can be manipulated.
Cloaking is an old black hat trick that is still used today: it employs a flash or animated page to hide information from visitors, which only Google can see in the HTML.
If Google notices this tactic it will punish the site with a penalty.
- Doorway pages
Doorway pages are a form of cloaking, designed to rank for certain keywords but then redirect visitors to other pages.
They are also known by other names, such as Bridge pages, Portal pages, Jump pages, Gateway pages, Entry pages.
- Compromised website
Having an unprotected site is not a penalizing factor in itself, but it can cause damage in the event of hacker attacks and breaches, leading to loss of ranking.
If the site suffers an attack or injection of malicious code and Google finds out, it can block the domain for people using the search engine: this “will not only cause you to lose the trust of anyone visiting the site from organic search, but will cause the website to drop in the rankings,” just as if it had been hit by a penalty.
Black hat SEO, techniques destined to be short-lived
The rewards of the black hat route are usually short-lived and “are also unethical because they make the Internet worse.”
However, it is important to be aware that alongside white hat and legitimate tactics, there are also black hat tactics that are wrong and dangerous, which it would be best to stay away from.
Not to mention that in the event of accidental penalties or a decision to change bad practices, there are ways to recover from Google’s penalties and raise a site’s rankings again.