Black Hat SEO: What it is and What Not to Do

Woman with long blonde hair wearing a black hat

What is Black Hat SEO?

Black Hat SEO describes any SEO practice that goes against search engine guidelines. They’re often unethical and sometimes even illegal, with the main purpose being to help websites rank quickly by manipulating search engines and users.

The opposite to Black Hat SEO is White Hat SEO, which follows good SEO practices. You can find lots of White Hat SEO techniques and tips across my website. You may also hear the phrase Grey Hat SEO, which refers to dubious techniques that aren’t necessarily against guidelines, but may well be in the future.

Effects of Black Hat SEO on Your Site

While on the surface, ‘rank quickly’ sounds great, it will usually have a negative effect in the long run. Search engine guidelines are there to help website owners create positive user experiences and to provide content that is most useful to searchers.

If Google or another search engine finds a site has been trying to take a shortcut, it is likely to issue a penalty, which will see your website rankings drop significantly. Getting your site back up to good standing can take months and even years.

In the meantime, you’re losing traffic, have damaged your reputation, and aren’t making any sales. Black Hat SEO is bad for business.

How to Fix Black Hat SEO

If you have been using – or know that someone else has been using – Black Hat SEO on your website, you should start rectifying it now. Run a site audit and start making changes that follow best practices.

If you have used an SEO freelancer or agency that has implemented any poor techniques, they are doing more harm and good. Make a move to a reputable agency instead.

SEO Strategies to Avoid

Chain link

Bad Link Building Practices

Link building is a good thing when done correctly, but bad link building is one of the areas where many users trip up. In general, links should be earned, not paid for. If a link is paid for or sponsored (for example, through provision of a product), the link must have a rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” attribute. This works both ways, so remember to add this if your site includes paid or sponsored links.

Other bad link building practices include:

  • Link farms: Websites made only for link building purposes. All they include is lots of links to external sites.
  • Private Blog Networks (PBNs): Similar to link farms, but using authoritative sites, usually by buying sites that have a good reputation but are no longer in use under the original guise.
  • Comment spam: Commenting excessively on other blogs with a link to your site. The comments are usually irrelevant and often nonsensical.
  • Forum spam: Link comment spam but via an online forum.
  • Spammy directories and bookmarking sites: Similar to link farms and PBNs.

What to do instead: Focus on reaching out and building relationships with related sites who may include guest posts from you. Create useful and informative content that other sites want to reference via a link. Comment on other blogs, but make sure your comments are useful and relevant, and don’t overdo it.

Word tiles

Keyword Stuffing

Keyword stuffing is the practice of filling your page with an excessive number of keywords in the hopes that you’ll rank better. This is often done with no regard for the usefulness or readability of the page, and will often include a large number of repetitive or badly structured sentences.

In some cases sites will simply list keywords and make no attempt to create useful content.

Another practice is using hidden text. In this method, coding is used to hide text from the user, but not from the search engine. This is an attempt to keyword stuff a page without affecting user experience. However, search engines recognise this technique too, and will penalise you for it.

What to do instead: Pick a small number of keywords and focus on including those through naturally written text. It’s okay to include the same keyword more than once in a page, but don’t overdo it. Read my guide on how to write good website copy for tips.

Duplicate Content

Two identical daisies

Google and other search engines place a lot of importance on good content. That’s why using duplicate content is a Black Hat technique: it’s usually low-effort and done in an attempt to manipulate rankings.

Content can be duplicated across your own website, or from other sites. One common example of internal duplication is when businesses covers a large service area. They might create a separate page for each town served, with the same content and only minor changes to the location. This is Black Hat SEO and should be avoided.

What to do instead: Write original content that isn’t copied word-for-word from other sites, and avoid using the same content across multiple pages. If you serve a large area, include some key locations on a single page. Even if you don’t name every town, village, and hamlet, search engines are now smart enough to recognise the area you cover. You can also make use of a free Google Business Profile if you serve a local area.

Cloaking

Person walking through snowy woods in a cloak.

Cloaking involves showing a real user and a search engine something different. It’s a technique often used to sell illegal items, or to hide from a website owner that their site has been hacked.

What to do instead: Unless you’re doing something illegal, chances are you’re not intentionally cloaking your site. However, if you think you might have been hacked, Google provides useful guidance about spotting and fixing hacked sites.

Sneaky Redirects

Redirecting sends a user to a different page than they originally tried to access. It’s a legitimate SEO technique that helps with site structure, particularly when pages have been removed.

Sneaky redirects, on the other hand, are redirects with malicious intent. It could be to cloak a site or to redirect a user to a completely different page to what they were expecting.

What to do instead: Sneaky redirects may drive more traffic to a specific page (until Google discovers what you’re doing), but if the page isn’t what users want, they aren’t going to buy from you. Remember that more traffic doesn’t necessarily mean more sales. Instead, focus on creating content that is engaging and draws the right kind of user in. They’re much more likely to then trust you as a business, and to purchase.

If you think you already have sneaky redirects on your site, run an audit using a tool like Redirect Checker, which lists any active redirects on your site. Analyse the results and ensure they’re all legitimate and, if not, update them.

Misusing Structured Data

Rich snippet on Google

Structured data is a way of highlighting specific information in search engine results, such as reviews and recipes. It helps you stand out and can increase click-through-rates. Structured data is created through adding code to your site.

Misusing structured data involves adding code to either incorrect or fake information. For example, you might highlight a fake review that has been created deliberately to mislead users.

What to do instead: There’s no easy route to getting good reviews. Work hard to provide an excellent service, and ask your customers for reviews on a legitimate site. Read the guide to using online reviews for SEO.

Doorways

Person walking through a door

A single page will usually rank for multiple keywords. However, the use of doorway pages aims to create multiple low-quality pages that each target a specific search query. The user is then redirected to the ‘real’ content.

Doorway pages are created for search engines, not for the user. As a result, they make for a poor user experience and  can skew legitimate rankings. The main aim is to take up more space in search engine rankings so that competitor sites have less chance of being seen.

Doorway pages often go hand-in-hand with sneaky redirects and cloaking.

Be aware that doorway pages are not the same as purpose-built landing pages, which are legitimate and valuable pages that form part of an SEO or PPC campaign.

What to do instead: Focus on writing a single page that is informative, valuable and well presented for real users. Follow good SEO practices to improve your rankings and to target relevant keywords.

User-Generated Spam

User-generated content is – to an extent – beyond your control. It often includes comments on blogs or posts in website forums. User-generated content can be extremely helpful for SEO as it provides fresh, updated content. However, it can get spammy and, if you let it get out of control, you risk being penalised.

You’ve probably seen spammy user-generated content, particularly if you have a WordPress website. These are the comments that include nonsense text, generic comments such as “wow, this is the best blog I’ve ever read”, and links to external sites.

What to do: Make use of tools like reCAPTCHA (which is free) to add an extra layer of security to your site. If you already have a lot of spam, go through the comments and remove them as soon as possible. The quicker you react to user-generated spam, the less likely it will negatively affect your site.

Conclusion

While this is not an exhaustive list of Black Hat SEO techniques, it covers many of the most common methods that you may have inadvertently used yourself, or come across on your own site and others. These are strategies that should be avoided at all costs, or you risk a huge drop in your rankings that can be time-consuming and costly to fix.

If you – or someone else – have already implemented any of these on your site, make sure you rectify them as soon as possible. Make use of legitimate SEO practices to bring your site back up to scratch.

Remember, if an SEO method promises quick results, there’s a good chance it’s Black Hat.

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