What is Black Hat SEO
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Exploring Black Hat SEO: What It Is and How to Avoid It

When it comes to an SEO campaign, there are many strategies that can get you to an end result.

It’s like driving a car. You can get to a destination using a variety of different routes, but you want to pick the route that is most efficient and gets you there in one piece—this route can be thought of as white hat SEO.

Conversely, you could take a more direct route that might entail driving through peoples’ backyards, but this could result in severe damage to your car which could hurt your ability to drive long-term—this is like black hat SEO.

In this driving example, it’s easy to see right from wrong, but SEO isn’t always that simple. There are many shiny objects being pushed by gurus on YouTube and fads that may seem clean cut at first, but upon further review they are not long-term solutions and can result in negative outcomes for your site.

Deciphering between positive and negative tactics is one challenge, but then there are those tactics that land somewhere in the middle, forming a gray area of SEO. These ‘gray hat’ tactics might have some naturalness to them, but they are also likely to incur some negative costs.

Understanding what’s involved in each SEO tactic will give you a better idea of what pitfalls to avoid, keeping you in a better standing with Google and maintaining your website’s health for the long haul.

Types of SEO - What is White Hat SEO

Types of SEO

What is White Hat SEO?

White Hat SEO is the use of natural tactics aimed at improving a website’s organic search rankings. These strategies most closely follow the search guidelines set forth by Google This includes creating quality content that naturally attracts backlinks, rather than paying money for links or manipulating link building efforts via PBNs.

White Hat SEO is a long game though, making it an irritating roadmap for impatient people. The mindset revolves around creating steady, high-quality content and slowly building an organic presence. It’s not a prescription for immediate rankings which is why many people will opt for more gray or black hat tactics.

Any brand that is thinking of long-term growth should start employing the following white hat SEO tactics:

  • Write Natural Content: it’s tempting to delegate content creation to AI tools and content spinners, but Google is smart. They will make it hard for you to rank and sustain rankings unless you are creating high-quality, natural content.
  • Earned Link Building: it’s somewhat of a chicken or the egg scenario, but creating high-quality content will help get you more backlinks. This is especially true for written content that’s stats-heavy or includes visually appealing infographics (infographics get shared regularly).
  • Pursue Relevant Links: you can still build links, but it’s important to pursue links that are relevant to your niche. HARO is a valuable resource for this, as it allows you to reach out to journalists and reporters offering constructive content contributions. This results in a backlink and brand mention, and it’s completely free to use.

What is Black Hat SEO?

Black hat SEO is the use of SEO tactics that fly in the face of Google’s guidelines in order to cut corners and get a site ranked faster.

Admittedly, black hat tactics used to work quite well. Back in the pre-Panda days of Google’s algorithm, websites were able to spam keywords and backlinks in nonsensical ways. Many brands employed content farms, with the goal of pumping out as much keyword stuffed content as possible to rank for more keywords.

black hat SEO techniques

Here are some of the top (or most notorious) black hat SEO techniques used over the years:

  • Invisible Keywords: spamming keywords throughout a webpage using text that matches the page background. This was only effective back when Google would rank a page by the amount of keywords used.
  • Cloaking: using server-side scripts to present different title tags and meta descriptions to what the page is actually about. This was a tactic used to boost click through rates (CTR) to the site, even though the landing page would cover an entirely different topic.
  • Link Buying: probably the most pervasive black hat tactic used today. Link buying is the practice of purchasing link placements on other websites in exchange for a link to their site. The most common types of link buying are:

    • Guest posts: articles written on another website with the sole purpose of linking back to yours. Note that guest posts aren’t always a black hat tactic, they can also happen organically to provide value on another website.
    • Niche edits: getting backlinks added to existing articles on another website. This happens when you find an article that is somewhat related to your niche, then reach out to the webmaster offering payment for them to place a backlink onto that existing content.
    • Link farms: a series of websites (like a private blog network) that link together for the sole purpose of manipulating SEO rankings. These aren’t as trendy as they once were, especially since Google has caught onto this method and has rendered it relatively useless.

What is Gray Hat SEO?

Gray hat SEO represents the middle ground between white hat and black hat. This is where tactics aren’t explicitly disallowed by Google’s guidelines, but there is some potential for trouble if you’re not careful.

Tactics that could fall under the gray hat umbrella include:

  • Guest blogging on low-quality websites: as website owners, we are constantly approached by other sites about guest blogging opportunities. Some of these chances might be genuine, but many are nothing more than spam. Don’t feel like you have to respond ‘yes’ to any guest blogging opportunity that creeps into your inbox. Be selective and choose websites that are relevant to your niche. Check each site’s traffic metrics to ensure they are getting real visitors too.
  • Overly optimized anchor text: anchor text is the text that is included in a hyperlink. There’s a tendency for link builders to try to make every anchor text an exact match to the keyword they’re targeting, but this should be avoided. Exact match anchor text should be used no more than 30% of the time as it can set off red flags with Google.
  • Link building automation: link building can feel like an overly manual process at times, especially when it comes to performing link outreach. There are plenty of automated link building tools that help ease this process, but these should be largely avoided. Many link building automation tools create spammy forum links and other nonrelevant link types that will likely result in a manual penalty at worst, or will just be rendered ineffective at the least.
Understanding Black Hat SEO

Understanding Black Hat SEO

Black hat SEO strategies present a clear example of the negatives outweighing the positives. So, what are the positives?

Well, it’s possible you can get your site to rank in the short-term. But emphasis rests on the “short-term” phrase, especially nowadays.

Let’s say you are a local plumbing business who is trying to rank higher in Google Maps. You decide to change your Google Business Profile (formerly Google My Business) name from “Eddie’s Plumbing” to “Columbus Ohio Plumbers – Eddie’s Plumbing.” While there’s a possibility of ranking higher for “Columbus Ohio plumbers,” there’s also a possibility of getting your Google Business Profile suspended by Google for violating their guidelines—your name should match your business name exactly.

A lot of these violations are self-reported, which means you could get other businesses in your area by sending complaints to Google.

Getting your Google Business Profile suspended can result in significant revenue loss for the company plus a long-lasting hit to its reputation. Reinstating a suspended GBP is often a difficult process as well.

Stay out of trouble by sticking to the proper naming conventions for your business. If you’ve done everything by the book and your GBP still receives a suspension, it should be easy to get it reinstated.

Risks and Penalties of Black Hat SEO

Besides revenue loss, black hat SEO can lead to reputation damage for a business which is oftentimes irreversible.

There’s the local business example of changing their business profile to reflect a keyword stuffed name, but this level of embarrassment mainly lives amongst you and your nearby competitors.

The real reputation damage occurs when a business starts being viewed negatively by potential or existing customers. This can happen when a brand routinely deceives their audience through cloaking, phony link building, or misrepresenting their products or services—this can happen when trying to optimize for keywords that may not represent the brand correctly.

Users have become savvy when it comes to recognizing authentic content versus content that’s trying to ‘game’ the rankings. They will navigate off your site immediately if the text reads robotically or sounds keyword stuffed.

Negative Reviews and Feedback

All of these black hat tactics can culminate in negative reviews and feedback on a Google Business Profile, Facebook page, Yelp profile, and other crucial locations that can deter future business.

This negativity fuels Google to continue demoting the brand as well. Since E-E-A-T is such a powerful metric in determining, not just a brand’s website, their overall online presence, it’s never been more vital to have positive reviews across all online properties.

Legal Problems

Then there are the potential legal pitfalls of employing black hat SEO tactics. If you misrepresent your entity by using another site’s images or likeliness, they are well within their rights to contact you for removal—or potentially for litigation if the offense is serious enough.

Copyright or trademark infringement from using another brand’s images or likeness is always likely to result in a message from an attorney.

Additional Black Hat Tactics

Additional Black Hat Tactics

Aside from cloaking, keyword spamming, and link buying, there are other black hat SEO tactics that can land you in a world of trouble.

  • Content Scraping: the practice of grabbing content from other websites and copying text verbatim, without sourcing or citing the resource. Aside from being highly immoral, content scraping is easily identifiable for Google, making it nearly impossible to rank a page using scraped text.
  • Private Blog Networks: while PBNs were once a purposeful ranking tactic in the 2000s and early 2010s, they have largely become obsolete. A private blog network consists of a series of interconnected websites that link back to the ranking website. The goal is to build SEO juice by manipulating the content on each PBN site. With Google’s ever-increasing emphasis on authority metrics, it’s become nearly impossible to see positive results from employing a PBN.
  • Doorway Pages: pages with low-quality or low value content that are designed purely from the standpoint of ranking for keywords, without the user in mind. Doorway pages are one of the easiest black hat mistakes a website owner can make when they are trying to create content that ranks. Just remember that every page should consider the user first and foremost, before it considers ranking. Rankings will follow UX.
  • Clickbait headlines: there’s nothing wrong with creating titles that grab attention, but do this without being misleading or providing inaccurate information that could lead users down the wrong path. Clickbait is a misunderstood term, largely with a bad connotation. But for many SEO professionals, this simply means improving a page’s click through rates (CTR) by making the title more user-friendly.
  • Negative SEO: instead of focusing on your own brand’s positive SEO efforts, negative SEO involves trying to denigrate your competition by building spammy links to their website, leaving negative reviews (that are fake), and scraping their site’s content. This is another tactic that is largely becoming obsolete since Google is able to decipher spammy links from authentic, earned links. Brands can also dispute negative reviews with more authority than in previous years.
  • Bulk Link Building: there’s still a tendency among some marketers to think that more is better when it comes to backlinks. But this quantity over quality approach comes with repercussions. Bulk backlink building where hundreds or thousands of links are built at a time can be detrimental, even resulting in a manual penalty from Google.
  • Unsolicited Comments: it used to be a conventional practice for brands to spam the comments section of a site in hopes of acquiring a backlink. Not only is this practice highly inappropriate, but it’s very ineffective. This will not move the needle of your SEO campaign and it will oftentimes do more harm than good.

How and Why to Avoid Black Hat SEO?

How and Why to Avoid Black Hat SEO

Success and sustainability are key for your online presence, and black hat SEO provides neither. Although these tactics may seem tempting for their allure of quick rankings and less work—even though a PBN network takes a long time to set up—the juice is not worth the squeeze. Google’s cracking down on these tactics increasingly by the day and they can serve as detrimental to your brand’s success.

Reputation and credibility are two of the biggest casualties from running a black hat SEO campaign. This is where brands can put themselves in a tough spot and dig themselves an insurmountable hole. If negative Google, Yelp, and Facebook reviews accumulate, customers will stop dialing the phone. It’s that simple.

Best Practices for Avoiding Black Hat SEO

Staying out of black hat areas is simple if you abide by the mantra of ‘great content and links.’ Focus your energy on creating high-quality material that people will be eager to share organically, whether this is blog content, videos, infographics, or newsletters. Pick the type of content you are best at creating and start adding to your brand’s portfolio everyday. This will eliminate the need to have to delve into bad tactics.

On the link building front, there’s nothing wrong with white hat outreach as long as you are doing it for the purpose of sharing your knowledge rather than purely to build links. HARO is a terrific resource for doing this in a natural fashion.

Learn the Specifics of Your Agency’s SEO Roadmap

It’s important to know exactly what your SEO agency is doing to boost your organic presence on a monthly basis.

Make sure they share the SEO roadmap with you before proceeding to build out the campaign. This way you can ensure that their tactics are white hat and will not jeopardize the health of your website and brand.

Don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel they are navigating in muddy waters. Refer back to this guide to confirm whether a specific action item falls under the umbrella of gray or black hat and discuss your concerns openly.

It’s better to do things correctly from the start of an SEO campaign. This will save you energy and stress in the future.

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