Black hat SEO still goes on, it still works (for a short time), is still successful at zooming a website up search engine rankings, and still makes some people of lot of money… until they get caught.
As an inbound marketing agency in London, we’ve seen all sorts of dubious (sometimes outright illegal) black hat SEO efforts attempted in our time. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s this: trying to game Google and other search engines with black hat SEO is never worth it.
The risks are simply too high. And, let’s be clear, a lot of black hat SEO practices require webmasters to put in just as much time, money and effort in order to be “successful” as above-the-board, ethical, white hat ones. The difference is that when you don a black hat and attempt to cheat the system, everything that you’ve invested into climbing search rankings can disappear in the blink of an eye if Google catches wind of what you’re up to, at which point you’ll have to start all over again from scratch (or just call it quits – and perhaps file for bankruptcy while you’re at it).
What Is Black Hat SEO?
Here are two pretty good and succinct definitions.
“Black hat SEO refers to a set of practices that are used to increase a site or page's rank in search engines through means that violate the search engines' terms of service.” (Source: WordStream)
“Black hat tactics are ones that use deception, manipulation, and gimmicks to trick search engines into ranking a site higher than it otherwise would rank.” (Source: Forbes)
In short, black hat SEO practices are simply about cheating search engines in order to make your website more discoverable.
How Search Engines Work
Try to imagine the internet as a huge city containing millions and millions of buildings. Now imagine that your website is one of those buildings, and from it, you make a living selling strawberry jam.
Your building has its own unique address – if a potential customer knows your address, they can hop in a taxi and go directly to your front door, purchase some of your delicious strawberry jam, and enjoy the rest of the afternoon scoffing cream teas and making Victoria sponge cake.
But what happens when they don’t have your address? How do your customers find your building amongst the millions of others in this vast, vast city?
Answer: search engines.
Search engines exist to make the process of finding your building – or rather, your website – much easier for people who don’t know your unique web address.
Search engines have primarily two functions. The first is to create an index of all websites published on the internet. The second is to provide users with a ranked list of relevant websites based on their search queries – and here’s where SEO comes in.
When a search engine hunts through its index of billions of webpages (a process that takes less than a second) in response to a search query, it does two things, as Moz puts it: “first, it returns only those results that are relevant or useful to the searcher’s query; second, it ranks those results according to the popularity of the websites serving the information. It is both relevance and popularity that the process of SEO is meant to influence.”
Relevance and popularity are not determined manually. Rather, search engines make use of algorithms – i.e. mathematical equations – to do the job automatically.
Building relevance and popularity are the fundamentals of search engine optimisation.
(Image source: searchengineland.com)
Black Hat SEO Techniques
Let’s begin with an old school black hat SEO technique – keyword stuffing.
The two most important factors for SEO are content and backlinks.
In terms of content, keywords play a critical role in making your website discoverable. Let’s go back to your strawberry jam business. In order to help search engines (and, by extension, web users) find your strawberry jam company on the web, you would create content on your site that contains plenty of instances of the term “strawberry jam”, so that when a web user searches for that term, Google crawls its index, finds that your website is relevant to the search query, and returns a link to it amongst a list of others.
This list will be ranked in order of relevance and popularity, and, naturally, you will want your strawberry jam website to feature somewhere near the top of this list. Now, some black hat SEO practitioners attempt to trick search engines into “thinking” that a website has more relevance to a search query like “strawberry jam” by jam-packing as many occurrences of that keyword into their websites as possible.
In days gone by, this used to work. Not anymore. Today, this practice – known as keyword stuffing – will earn you a Google Penalty if you get caught, which will see your website either temporarily or permanently removed from Google’s index – and how will users find your building in the vast internet city if that happens?
The reason that Google (other search engines are available) doesn’t like keyword stuffing is that the practice is only designed to influence rankings for relevance to search queries. But keyword relevance doesn’t necessarily mean that your strawberry jam is any good to eat, nor indeed that you are a respectable and popular company. No, Google wants to ensure that everyone who uses its search engine has a great user experience – and this means that it wants to ensure that only the very best strawberry jam peddlers are rewarded with high rankings.
How does Google know that you’ve got the goods that people want to eat? Well, to answer this, we must turn to the second important SEO factor – backlinks.
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Link Schemes and Paid Links
Your website’s content helps search engines determine its relevance. But when it comes to determining its popularity, it must look to external signals – i.e. how third-parties (that is, other web users) engage with your site. Links are the primary signals used when assessing your website’s popularity.
Search engines “think” of links as “votes”. The more votes a website receives – that is, the more often disinterested third-parties have taken the time to link to the website (directing other web users to it) – the more useful, relevant, valuable and popular the search engine determines it to be.
Naturally, then, link building is one of the most important things that SEO practitioners try and do. Unfortunately, however, black hat SEO cowboys have for a long time attempted to come up with ways and means to cheat the system.
One such method is with paid links.
Paid links essentially refers to the process of paying external sites money to link to yours, thusly tricking the search engine into “thinking” that your website is more popular than it really is. This may indeed work in the short-term – but eventually you will get caught out (Google’s algorithm is becoming increasingly sophisticated as each day ticks by) and you will once again be slapped with a penalty.
The reason that Google (et al) doesn’t like paid links is because they remove the democracy of the system. A company with lots of money could essentially buy its way to the top of search, even though companies with less in the bank might have more useful, relevant and popular information for web users.
US retailer JC Penney famously got caught out for this type of behaviour back in 2011. As the New York Times reported at the time: "At 7 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, J. C. Penney was still the No. 1 result for "Samsonite carry on luggage". Two hours later, it was at No. 71."
Paid links don’t pay – that’s the sum of it.
Private Blog Networks
Another way to cheat at building a link portfolio is with a private blog network (PBN).
These are essentially self-built link building schemes, whereby you create and publish a number (and it will have to be a big number in order for it to work) of faux websites that serve no real purpose other than to link your real website that you want to rank well.
PBNs can be extremely complex, but a basic model looks like this:
(Image source: hallaminternet.com)
Again, this can and no doubt does work extremely well in many cases. But, as you can imagine, it’s an awful lot of work, for each of your faux websites must appear as if they really are doing something useful for web users if the network is to avoid suspicion from Google. This means blogging, social media accounts, virus protection and everything else that comes with running a genuine website – including paying to have it hosted somewhere.
And then, as quickly as you can say “Google Doodle”, it can all vanish in an instant. You may receive an algorithmic (i.e. automated) Google Penalty for doing a bit of keyword stuffing, but PBNs are serious offences, and if yours gets discovered, you will receive a manual penalty, which means that your site may well be permanently de-indexed from Google, essentially making it completely undiscoverable for anyone who doesn’t already know your website address. In other words, you’re out of business. End of story.
Black Hat SEO Is Never Worth It
No, it isn’t. And it’s not just because you run the risk of penalties. But also because oftentimes it just looks bad to your users.
If you think about keyword stuffing, for instance – if you were to strawberry jam pack the words strawberry jam into the copy on your strawberry jam website as many strawberry jam times as you possibly strawberry jam could, who on this strawberry jam-ridden earth would ever take your strawberry jam website or strawberry jam business seriously?
And when it comes to buying links, any company that needs to resort to selling links in the first place will unlikely be worth getting links from anyway (note: the popularity of the site that links come from is also a ranking factor).
And as for PBNs – what a waste of effort and time. Far better to employ an experienced inbound marketing agency to do things properly for you without any risk. The results will be longer-lasting, ethical, and, in the end, far more profitable for you than any black hat SEO shenanigans ever will.
Need help weaning yourself off black hat SEO? You need the white hat SEO experts here at our inbound marketing agency, London. Get in touch with Incisive Edge today.