Search Engine Optimization is a practice that has existed for more than a decade. This length of time has allowed webmasters and SEOs to create innovative, unique, and effective strategies to take their websites to the top of the search results. Even though search engine optimization is a relatively straightforward practice, it allows limitless possibilities and immense flexibility in terms of creating and innovating new processes and strategies. This is one of the main reasons why SEO will always be one of the best digital marketing facets anywhere in the world.
However, with these possibilities and flexibility come people that aim to achieve results in a shorter time frame. This is all because SEO is a long-term game – monumental results will only be gained through multiple months or years of effort. This is why people aimed to take advantage of the system, doing unethical practices to gain results faster – in other words, a shortcut. These unethical practices in the industry came to be called Black Hat SEO, which led to the ethical and upright practices to be conversely called White Hat SEO. In this article, we’ll be talking about everything about Black Hat SEO, its history, different black hat strategies, and even a video where SEOs give their opinions on what we should do to Black Hat practitioners. Let’s start.
What is Black Hat SEO?
It is a practice that deals with unethical strategies that are geared to increase the ranking of a particular site in the shortest amount of time. Those who use these kinds of tactics do not follow the search engine guidelines which has a high chance of getting a penalty from the search engines.
History of Black Hat SEO
Webmaster’s Note: Parts of this is from a Guest Post by Thomas Bagshaw, owner of The Search Marketing Shop
The early Google algorithm was a less sophisticated creature. In the wake of the search engine’s birth in September 1998, the development of search keywords and pay-per-click advertising by the year 2000, the black hat SEO industry soon followed.
The following are brief examples of some of the black-hat tactics, against which Google sent out named algorithm dates over the last ten years:
An early tactic that gained popularity with black-hat practitioners was the hiding of text or links – especially the overuse of keywords – intended only to be picked up by Google bots, and not visible to human readers.
Methods included concealing colored text behind a background of identical color (usually white) or an image, using CSS to hide text by creating tiny hyperlinks (such as a hyphen), or even setting the font size to zero.
In January 2004, Google sent out the ‘Austin’ algorithm, which aimed to penalize the use of hidden text as a way of keyword stuffing not only in the body of page text (by as much as 50 percent in some instances) but also within meta-tags too.
The main casualties were sites weighted down with “on the page” keywords and those containing exchange links with unrelated content sites. Some of the larger brand retailer sites and directories appeared to be unscathed.
Link spam, whereby keywords are inserted within a page of text completely unrelated to the subject on the page or on the site itself is, of course, a major enduring plank to black-hat techniques. The creation of large-scale link farms and the consequential volume of spam back-links connected to suspect sites of questionable quality and ranking have come to dominate the increasing attention from Google in recent years.
Between September and November 2005, Google released a series of three updates, known collectively as ‘Jagger’, which were mostly aimed at dealing with the growing problem of low-quality links and the use of paid links, reciprocal links, and link farms in black-hat practice.
However, as seems to be the way with Google algorithm changes, which can confuse site owners and webmasters because the reasons why sites are penalized are not always clearly defined, universal and uniform.
Observations mentioned the removal of duplicate content from same-owner sites with identical subjects/themes, the disappearance of main revenue earning keywords, and page-rank reduced to zero. Elsewhere, site owners decided they should remove affiliate page content supplied entirely by affiliate scheme vendors before making a ‘re-inclusion’ request with Google. However, the problem of link spam has been an enduring constant on the web to this day.
In February and March 2006, Google sent out “Big Daddy” – a change in Google’s data center infrastructure, which contained new code for increasing capacity to evaluate and index web pages. By seeking to deal with potential spam problems such as 302 redirects or canonical URLs more efficiently, it would be looking at the abuse of ‘redirects’, which would also involve ‘doorway pages’ and the black-hat practice of ‘cloaking’:
This tactic would display ‘keyword-stuffed landing pages, which quickly ‘redirect’ to the required actual page. They invariably do not contain content of relevance but are for the sole purpose of gaining a high position in search engine results pages.
Generally set up in groups to target similar and related keywords or phrases, the links on these pages connect to other pages in the same group aimed at creating a set of a false linking relationship. The redirect can occur by movement of the mouse while on the redirect page, by command, or even automatically.
Another popular black-hat tactic, where site pages are created, sometimes by using software to generate ‘orphaned’ pages, i.e. not belonging to the site’s regular navigation, where most of the content is duplicated from other site pages.
A widely used black-hat tactic of creating web pages, which display a completely different set of content to a human reader than it shows to a search engine. The aim is to try and deceive the search engines to display the page. Inevitably, the ‘cloaked’ or concealed page is ‘stuffed’ with keywords for the purpose of obtaining high ranking.
The Big Daddy structural overhaul once again affected those sites employing black hat tactics by making unscrupulous use of another site’s content with 302 redirects and the removal of spam sites and link farms, stuffed with purchased keywords and phrases.
Shift towards content quality…
Google now modifies its search algorithm by over 500 times per year, and updates which were originally infrequent since 2007, have been more apparent. And according to Google, updates have been happening on an average of “more than once per day”.
From 2011 onwards, the Panda and then the Penguin updates have stepped up Google’s determination to deal with unnatural links and unrelated or ‘thin’ content.
In doing so, Google has crucially indicated a shift away from user interface changes and user experience improvements towards content search quality.
Google Plus One Button
Back in 2011, Google introduced the Plus One Button. It was the craze of both the SEO world and the social network marketers back when it was rolled out and it worked wonders! It allowed us to share content and increase our rankings in the search engines according to the quantity (and perhaps, quality) of the +1 of a webpage. The problem with this was that a lot of black hatters came into play. How did Google control the spamming of the Google +1 button?
Abusing the Google Plus One Button
Warrior forums is even selling +1’s like pancakes.
Why not sell a Google +1 service when it works? And that’s just what happened when many people wanted to try and abuse the ability of the +1 button to increase search engine rankings.
Quality as an Indicator
One of the ways that Google claimed to clean this rampant abuse is by looking into the quality of +1’s by the relevance of the user who +1’d a page into all their other +1’s – kind of like how Facebook’s Like button worked. Since the history of a user’s +1 told a lot about the preferences and (for a lack of a better word) ‘likes’ of that certain user.
Google saw spam activities either by the rate of +1 a user gave (and the quality of those +1’s) and by the rate a website was getting +1’s. Google can also make the +1 of all the other people in the Circles of that certain user as an indicator of the quality of that user’s +1. Relevance set the tone for quality – and quality can set the tone for spam indication.
Google is really tried to make the Internet reflect Real-life
Social signals were based on people (and spammers). Twitter re-tweets, Facebook likes, and Google +1’s were all action buttons executed by users for anything they wanted to share. Thus social signals was a very powerful, user-driven factor – usable for search engine rankings. Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people – namely, black hat spammers.
Search engines are made for People and for Real life
These are some of the major events that transpired in the history of Black Hat SEO. Of course, Google continues to combat black hat SEOs up to today, but if we’re going to compare how rampant black hat SEO was back then, today is much better with the number of white hat SEOs being immensely larger than black hat practitioners. We were able to touch up on different black hat seo tactics so let’s expound on the different, well-known black hat tactics:
Black Hat SEO Practices
Keyword stuffing is the art of packing keywords into your site even when it’s not making any sense anymore. It greatly lowers user-friendliness and information reputation and quality of your site in exchange for a temporary increase in rankings. While this is something that Google can sniff out much faster nowadays, it is still very likely that users can encounter this issue.
While it is important for keywords to get ranked, it is also equally important to ensure that the content you would be writing comes off as natural and informative instead of something that would only generate a temporary spike in traffic.
Invisible Texts and Links
Using invisible texts is simply putting some keywords with the same color as your background so that it would be invisible to the site visitors. At a glance, these web pages may look similar to regular pages, but a simple hover over your mouse (or by pressing ctrl+a) and you would be able to see the hidden text. This is an attempt to add more characters and keywords to a web page to increase rankings but is also a tactic that tries to take advantage of Google’s algorithm.
Likewise, hidden links are another issue as well. There might be times when you will encounter a page that suddenly takes you to a different page despite not being able to see the link on which you clicked on. This negative link-building technique not only aims to mislead but also create low-quality web pages that would not get traffic.
Recently, this is something that Google will instantly be able to track down and penalize, but many web pages that apply this technique remain.
Doorway pages are web pages or a collection of web pages that are merely put up as a dummy. This is done for search engine spiders to crawl links and keywords for the main site (which the doorway page would most probably point to). Usually, the users would never see or find these pages.
These are just some of the practices that a black hat SEO practitioner uses. There is so much more. And even now, new ones are in development.
One of the oldest black hat SEO techniques, cloaking is the act of misleading users into content that they did not search for. Imagine searching for a keyword like “school” and clicking on a link to a related website, only to lead to an entirely different set of content. This is a practice commonly done to generate traffic to a website. However, this technique is misleading, which seriously dampens the user experience, and can lead to Google penalizing your website.
Website quality and authority are measured through trustworthiness and informative content, which means any form of deliberate misinformation will always be negative on a website. It is best to make sure that your links get to the right pages, as this would not only allow GoogleBot to crawl, but also bring in more traffic and much-needed link juice.
Links are essential in generating traffic to any website and allow users to discover and connect new content. This makes a link-building team a very crucial element to any SEO effort, as tactics like guest blogging and outbound linking are some of the best traffic-generating methods. However, some people have created methods to abuse this system, leading to web pages whose purpose was to only place an abundant amount of links, with barely any relevant and informative content.
These web pages are called link farms and are examples of black hat SEO. While most of these websites have been made harder and harder to find thanks to Google’s strict standards, these remain a common issue. Other than having low-quality content, some of these links can lead to malware and other similar kinds of software that can harm your computer.
Sneaky and shady redirects
Along with hidden text and links, there are also instances where web pages would contain sneaky and shady links in places that you might not be able to notice upon first glance. Some of these links are modified expired links aiming to capitalize on the link juice of the previous link to gain traffic. While 301 redirects are a standard SEO practice, abusing the system would lead to penalties you wouldn’t want to happen.
This type of black hat SEO practice is commonly found on websites that are ad-heavy, which means that users would most likely inadvertently click on them. A notable example of this kind of website would offer illegal downloads, as almost all kinds of shady and malicious links would be present whether you clicked them or not. There’s a good reason that these websites do not show up in SERPs that often, and Google would make sure that these would be penalized accordingly.
Comments are some of the best ways to create meaningful discussions that encourage interaction and expand your connections. It is also a sign that your content has constant readers and viewers. This makes comment moderation an important task to ensure that harmful comments will be screened and removed, and only productive and informative ones remain.
This means that other than offensive language and nonsensical discussions, the comments section can also be used to post spammy content that only aims to try and get links to their websites. While adding links in comments isn’t exactly a negative practice, creating comments with the intention of solely trying to get traffic is something that should be avoided. There are times when these comments can come en masse, crowding the comments section with nonsense that people would only avoid. This negatively affects traffic, causing it to get penalties, which means that you would not be appearing on search that often anymore. The best solution to overcoming this issue is to use comment moderation tools, as they would help you filter out comments more efficiently, making sure that spam would not be present. This also means avoiding having a dozen or so comments that would instantly get posted on your content.
Automatically generated content
Auto-generated content is a type of content that has been generated through the use of programming. The main purpose of using programming to automatically generate content is to manipulate a website’s search rankings while putting in less effort. This means that the quality of the content that websites that use these are extremely low and are not able to provide any helpful information to the users that visit them. Google does not condone these types of strategies and will immediately penalize a site that has been found to use auto-generated content. Some examples of auto-generated content:
- Content that has no meaning and nonsensical but still contains keywords that the website ranks for
- Content that has been created through the use of synonymous words – copied content from other websites and paraphrased it using synonyms
- The use of obfuscation techniques to publish content that has no value but are still full of keywords
Participating in link schemes
The very first algorithm that Google used to rank websites in the search results pages is PageRank and link schemes are strategies that specifically try to manipulate PageRank. Some examples of link schemes are:
- The buying and selling of links. From the exchange of money to the offering of goods and services for links, these are all violations of The Google Webmaster Guidelines
- Excessive Link Exchange from the same website
- Excessive guest posting using anchor texts that are filled with keywords used by your website
- Automated link creation
There are other examples of link schemes but these are the most common ones that are done by most black hat practitioners
Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value
Google has always strongly recommended that webmasters should publish original, fresh, and informative content. They give extra importance regarding this recommendation for websites that actively participate in affiliate programs. This is all because most websites that are participating in affiliate programs use the product’s description used by other websites involved with the same affiliate program. This piece of content that is visible in different websites across the internet makes Google deem them as using copied content – unoriginal, used, and possesses lesser value than using original and fresh content that the webmaster thought of through their experience of using the product.
Creating pages with malicious behavior
In relation to shady and sneaky links, the pages in which they are present mostly contain malicious behavior. Other than illegal download sites, there’s a host of other harmful content, including phishing, which attempts to get important and private information to you, Trojan software that tries to get into your computer, and even more damaging computer viruses that would surely damage your experience.
Some of these pages are disguised as blog posts that try to promote or sell something, but would only have links within it that would just link to low-quality websites. The only way to manage all of this is to observe proper content management and create quality content that would not lead to any harmful software that might affect your users, or illegally distribute anything that can cause any legal implications.
What Should We Do With the Black Hats?
This is a very interesting (and funny) video that I stumbled upon on Youtube years ago. The question is: “What should we do with the Black Hats?” Should we kick them out? Hate them? Love them? Give them a job?
I still personally like Rand Fishkin’s answer. Very profitable. But that’s just me. The 50 different SEO practitioners in this video have very interesting answers.
If you’re building a brand or a reputation that you want to keep, don’t focus on achieving short-term, temporary success. Focus on producing content that your audience will enjoy and be able to learn from, optimizing all facets of your website, and build high-quality, authoritative links to your website. These things and the sheer effort you’re pouring to your website will help Search Engines and even the internet will start recognizing you. Stop trying to play Google. That’s why they have certain quality guidelines to help SEOs know what’s right and what’s wrong in the SEO industry.
Certain black hat strategies may work now, but the consequences will definitely catch up to you in the near future. White-hat SEO works better in the long-term and will not bring about a penalty that can remove your site’s visibility in the search engines. Always remember that asking what black hat SEO is, would be essential in order to avoid this type of unethical practice. Learning what they do, their processes, etc. will help you avoid getting penalized. So, I strongly suggest checking out my article on white hat SEO – to know why it’s better for you and all webmasters.