Recently I had a very interesting discussion with a friend of mine who happens to be a journalist. He writes mostly for financial journals but he has an interest in all things online, including marketing.
We talked about the various ways I’ve made money online and how I’ve marketed websites.
I don’t know how, but we came onto the subject of black hat SEO techniques.
When I uttered the words he looked at me blankly. After a couple of seconds he said “what the f*** is black hat SEO?”.
Initially I was surprised he hadn’t heard of it. Then I realised, why would he? I realized it’s the kind of thing you’d only know about if you’d been online marketing a while.
So for those who don’t know, what follows is an exploration of black hat SEO techniques. I’ll look at what they are and how they search engines perceive them.
Of course the main benefit of understanding what’s acceptable is it can save your site from a Google penalty.
An Overview of Black Hat SEO Techniques
Black hat SEO is the name for techniques used to influence search rankings using methods that break the terms of service set out by search engines.
It’s the polar opposite of white hat SEO. In white hat SEO, someone promotes their site in line with search engine terms of service.
Interestingly, the white hat and black hat terms use the imagery of old cowboy films. In these movies the hero always wore a white stetson hat and the villain a black one. It was always clear from the outset who you should root for and who was the baddie!
This is reflected in SEO today: anything white hat is good whereas black hat SEO techniques are bad.
SEO Techniques Considered Black Hat
To give this area some logical sense I’ll separate out the on-site black hat techniques from the off-site ones. That’s to say, the things done on a website itself as opposed to the things done away from the website. Remember though, both on and on-site black hat techniques have the same end goal. That goal is to manipulate search result positions in a way that breaks search engine terms of service.
On-Site Black Hat
Most on site black hat SEO involves what we might think of as:
- over optimizing on-page elements
- or being deceitful with content.
In the case of over-optimization, search engines look at certain page elements to determine relevancy for a given search phrase. Black Hat SEO marketers attempt to exploit this by over-optimizing these elements for keywords they target.
As for deceitful content, this is any technique to add text to a site with the explicit purpose of ranking for keywords but without providing value to a human visitor.
So what are these techniques?
Like the main heading in a magazine article, the H1 tag is one of the most important on-page elements. Usually there is only a need for one main heading in a magazine article. Similarly there is only a need for a single H1 tag on a web page. Historically, multiple use of H1s indicates a page is deliberately over optimized. This is especially true when the H1 tags contain the same keywords.
Have you ever read an article that looks something like this?
This paragraph stuffs the keyword phrase “chocolate sauce”. The result is text that offers no value to the reader. It solely intends to manipulate search engines to rank the page for the keyword phrase it repeats. We might consider this as thin content, which Google’s Panda algorithm picks up very efficiently and penalizes accordingly.
We might also consider other items as keyword stuffing, such as:
- long lists of irrelevant phone numbers
- the names of regions, cities or towns alongside the target keyword phrase.
Both of these listing techniques aim to increase a page’s ability to rank for long-tail search phrases without adding value to visitors.
Keyword stuffing is one of the oldest and most unsophisticated black hat SEO techniques. Do it at your peril!
ALT & TITLE on Images
ALT text provides alternative information about the image it relates to. This is useful for visually impaired visitors using screen readers. It’s also useful for people who’ve switched off image downloads in their browser settings.
Image TITLE text on the other hand is the tooltip text you sometimes see when you hover over an image. TITLE text does not serve as important a purpose as ALT text. However, it can provide useful, interesting or even fun information about an image.
However, black hat over-optimization of these elements results in long strings of irrelevant text or keyword stuffing populating these attributes. Again this is a technique providing no benefit to page visitors.
Rich Snippet Spam
Rich snippets are additional details shown in a search result for a given website. The snippet details come from the Structured Data found in a page’s HTML. This gives search engines more rich information about the page.
This is not detail that visitors see on the page itself. However, it’s information that search engines see behind the scenes. Search engines also sometimes publish rich snippets alongside the page title and description, making a result stand out more. Structured Data usually includes details such as:
- review ratings
- business operating hours
- and information about events or promotions the site or business is running.
Rich snippet spam is the exploitation of this feature to stuff Structured Data with keywords in an attempt to influence the relevancy of the page for specific search terms.
Over Optimized or Spammy Footer Links
This is something I’ve seen a lot in my time. Some site owners build long lists of links in their footers. The links use keyword stuffed anchor text designed to help the site ranks for key search terms they want to target.
Since the footer appears on every page in the site, populating it with dozens of links that do not relate to the information architecture of the site creates an unnatural internal link profile. Search engines are smart enough to identify this practice so it’s a fairly unsophisticated black hat technique that’s easy to spot and penalise.
Perhaps you’ve visited a webpage before and seen lots of apparently blank space between blocks of visible text? Or maybe you’ve seen a large amount of space at the bottom of the page?
This might indicate that someone has added text and / or links in those areas but changed the font to match the background color. Effectively this hides the text from human visitors but search engines can still “see” it.
How do you imagine that copying content from an indexed page to another page will benefit anyone? Duplicating content requires minimum effort from the black hat publisher but actually gives little long-term benefit as well.
For anyone who builds out duplicated content in bulk this may not matter. They put the duplicated pages up and may pull in visitors over a few days that perhaps they can monetize well in the short term.
However, the pages will not remain indexed for long and when discovered they’ll be deindexed and the domain likely banned. This isn’t perhaps the biggest danger though. Copied content may be copyrighted, and if published elsewhere might be a violation of the law and result in criminal proceedings.
Content spinning is a way to produce multiple variations of the same article. They basic concept of spinning content is creating a basic original article, and then using a find and replace function to substitute words or phrases with something very similar. You do this over and over again to create alternative versions that can appear to be completely unique.
Black Hat SEO marketers may use these versions on the same domain. However it’s more likely they’ll use the original version on their own domain and submit the spun versions to directory sites. These spun articles will have links back to the original. The idea behind this technique is to generate large numbers of backlinks from many different domains.
I mentioned Google’s Panda algorithm earlier which looks for thin content, a category which spun articles fall into. However, Google’s Penguin algorithm might also detect spun articles having the aim of building a high volume of backlinks.
As with duplicating content, content spinning SEO techniques might work for a while but it’s unlikely to last long.
As anyone who writes content will know, it’s very tough! It takes time to properly research and write something of any quality.
Things that take a long time such as producing unique, high quality content, are a barrier to black hatters. These barriers are something black hat SEO techniques seek to overcome.
There are tools which you can use to search for web pages that contain certain keywords you’re interested in targeting. These tools can take the pages they find and jumble them together to create unique and substantial content. This scraped content (so called because it’s scraped from multiple sites) may be substantial but it is often nonsensical when you read it.
People that publish scraped content often do this on a very large scale and can produce thousands of pages very quickly. However, quantity in this case does not equal quality and so serious bloggers need to think long and hard about whether they should build their blog using scraped content stolen from others.
Publishing scraped content is not just against search engine terms of service. If the content scraped is copyrighted the content owner could seek financial reparations through legal channels.
Cloaking is a black hat technique whereby the content a human visitor sees differs from that a search engine spider sees. The aim is to encourage search engines through fraudulent means to list a specific page in the search results, where it would otherwise not be shown.
Cloaking is carried out by a script running on the site. The script effectively looks at the visitor’s header request for page access and identifies from that any visitors that are search engine spiders. If they are spiders, the script redirects them to an active page on the site, but not the actual page that human visitors will see.
Cloaking any content on your site is a technique that can result in a slap for your blog. Google is explicit about this:
Cloaking and sneaky redirects are a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.Google
Search Engine Baiting & Switching
Baiting and switching is an old marketing technique translated to modern black hat seo!
Traditionally bait and switch occurs when a vendor offers to sell you a product you are searching for at a good price. The vendor then proceeds to try to sell you a different item. It’s worth noting that the vendor may never have had the specific product you want or has the product but wants to sell you another for a higher price.
In black hat SEO terms, baiting and switching means presenting content to you suggesting the page will satisfy your needs but then proceeds to provide you with something different.
The best way to outline this is to use an online seller as an example. An online widget seller might understand from keyword research that the term “blue widget” drives a high number of searches each month. However, the seller doesn’t sell blue widgets, she only sells red widgets. The seller optimises her page for the term blue widgets, only to present you with options to purchase red ones.
This tactic deliberately misleads both search engines and potential customers. Aside from bad SEO techniques likely to get you a domain slap from Google, this is a tactic likely to generate bad reviews.
Off-Site Black Hat
Off-site black hat SEO largely focuses on building links back to a domain. We know that Google considers links to a site as signals indicating its importance. As a basic rule, the more backlinks a page has, the more likely it is to appear higher in the results for a given search.
Black hat marketers try to build backlinks in a manner that goes against search engine guidelines. Search engines have very sophisticated models as to how backlinks to the average site tend to grow. If a particular site’s backlog profile deviates far from these models, it tends to send a red flag that the site might not be playing fair.
Search engine algorithms look at backlinks to determine how “real” they are. One such algorithm is Google’s Penguin. Released in April 2012, Penguin specifically looks for unnatural link profiles and discredits any bad link it finds. Unnatural link profiles suggest the linked site is trying to manipulate its ranking. As such they are one of the biggest indicators of black hat techniques.
What Link Building Techniques do Black Hat Marketers Use?
A trick as old as the hills! Some website owners will put a link on their site to a page of your choice… for a price!
The idea is to benefit from the authority of the linking site, since the links from some sites pass more link value than others. The linking site may or may not be in a related niche as the site it links to. However, links from pages or sites in a related niche carry more value.
Since paying for a link does not represent an impartial vote for a site, any paid links found are ignored. Habitual offenders (both link sellers and buyers) risk a Google penalty or complete removal from the index.
As a further note on this, buying links extends to the practise of sending free products to people in exchange for reviews with links back to their site. Nowadays there is a legal requirement for reviewers to explicitly state where they receive financial reimbursement or free products if they are making reviews.
Excessive Reciprocal Linking
In a sense reciprocal linking can be a natural thing. It’s flattering to receive a link from someone and tempting to repay the favor by linking back to them. The odd reciprocal link is no bad thing, especially when there’s a mutual benefit based upon useful content for visitors rather than trying to game search results.
Having said this, when a site appears to excessively link to other sites that link back to them, it suggests the site is engaging in cynical link schemes.
Excessive reciprocal links give a site an unnatural link profile that’s easy to detect. It’s not the smartest black hat trick in the book.
Web Rings, Link Farms & Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
Web rings are groups of sites that link to one another in a circular, ring-like structure. People used them initially in the early 2000s to provide useful links for visitors to other related sites in the ring.
Black hat practitioners recognized the potential value of web rings to pass generate inbound links to sites. Web rings can provide value to visitors interested in a specific niche.
But if you’re going to create a web ring, do so with great care. Black hat technicians used the principles of web rings and developed them into something bigger and darker: link farms.
What are Link Farms?
Like web rings, link farms are groups of websites hyperlinking to one another. Many link farms are auto generated and can be massive, containing literally thousands of mostly unrelated sites.
Since link farms can be auto created with software tools, they are a fast, cheap and therefore appealing way for black hat marketers to build massive numbers of backlinks to any site. Such backlinks do not deliver quality though however they do produce volume.
Private Blog Networks (PBNs) are effectively link farms. However, the main feature of PBNs is that they promote other sites in the same network rather than bulk linking out of the network to generate a high backlink profile for sites outside the network.
PBNs can be very effective. However, Google does not like them at all since they do not reflect true impartial backlink votes for a site. As a result, Google has targeted them since around 2014 and applies penalties to any it finds. These penalties bring down the whole PBN group.
Blog Comment Spam
No doubt you’re aware of commenting on blog posts. Some black hatters use tools that look for blog posts just to automatically add comments to with links back to their sites. The comments will add no value to the blog post discussion thread and are solely designed to create a link back to their site.
As the owner of a blog I see this every day. I never allow comments to publish automatically: I vet them all manually myself. Sadly, some blogs publish comments automatically and these are the types of blog black hat marketers look for.
Do yourself a favour and never publish comments on your blog without some form of control in place.
Certain blogging system such as WordPress use a function called TrackBack. TrackBack identifies when someone links to a page on your WordPress site and notifies you about the details. It’s a useful function as it helps you keep track of links to your blog posts. The TrackBack itself is literally a link to the referring page.
Sadly TrackBack is exploitable. TrackBack are like comments, however many blogging systems permit them to publish automatically, meaning a link to the site is automatically published on your blog without your approval.
There are programs that automate this black hat technique to bulk generate TrackBack spam to tens of thousands of sites in one hit.
Guest Post Spam
You’ve probably visited a blog and read an article written by someone unconnected to that blog. In fact that guest writer probably has their own blog linked to from their bio within the post you were reading.
Guest posting has been a hot topic for some time now. Some people believe this is a type of link scheme as it generates a link back to another site.
However, others believe it’s a valid way to promote a site if the guest post:
- Is unique;
- Adds value to the site it’s posted to;
- Is relevant to that site’s readership.
I fall into this camp. To me this is a fair way to promote a site, not just for a backlink but hopefully to get a visit from a highly engaged reader.
however, black hat SEO guest posts tend not to care about uniqueness, the value it adds or the relevancy of the site where it’s published. The aim is solely to generate a backlink. Make no mistake, this is the kind of technique that results in a site penalty.
Another ancient SEO technique is submitting sites to directories. Directories can take the form of straight links to homepages based upon alphabetical lists niche lists to article directories linking to specific pages of a domain.
In the case of straight directory sites, there are thousands. Most sites like this though have very little clout with Search engines: there are in fact little more than link farms. Some directory sites are of course very useful and reputable though, especially some that list local services.
Article directories in general are little more than a breeding ground for spammy link building activity. One particular black hat SEO technique I mentioned earlier was spinning content from an original article and then syndicating these spun versions to thousands of article directories. Each spun article contains an author bio with a link back to the original article or another page in the writer’s site. These links are often very heavily optimized around a specific search term, making the links themselves even more conspicuous.
Many directory sites are very low quality, and some search engines even consider some as bad. For me, mass submissions to high-quality directory sites are a waste of time and give a clear footprint of black hat intent.
Have I ever Used Black Hat SEO Techniques?
Yep. I won’t pretend to be holier than thou. I think anyone who has been in the online game for long enough would most likely answer in the same way.
In the early days, I used black hat techniques without knowing they were black hat. In fact, black hat as a term wasn’t really a thing back then. Search engine algorithms were fairly unsophisticated when I started out and I certainly keyword stuffed pages. Back then I didn’t even try to conceal it… I just published long unordered lists of keywords I was targeting. Sometimes this was enough to rank highly!
I also spun content for submissions to article directories for sites I owned when I started out in affiliate marketing. Again I gave this up as it still took a lot of effort to organize. I figured the effort was better spent adding higher quality content to my own sites themselves.
Do I still use any black hat SEO techniques now? No way… and not since about 2007. Black hat marketing can produce results… sometimes huge results for some. However for me I’d rather build sites that stick around and add value. Not being holier than thou here either… it’s just my preference.
Let’s Get Controversial!
In a sense, all online marketing is black hat! It’s a very broad statement I know, but let me explain.
Pure white hat SEO would be building a website or blog and writing about whatever you wanted without ever having an end goal. Of course you’d want people to read your words but other than that you wouldn’t necessarily use SEO techniques.
However, most of us have heard of keyword research. As a result we produce our content with a bias towards certain phrases we believe are worth ranking for. Ideally these are phrases having a high search volume and low competition.
According to the letter of the law, in my opinion targeting keywords and optimizing pages for them is an attempt to manipulate search results. The very fact that we are optimizing our content to rank for keywords means we are trying to influence search engine rankings. Now… it might not be as cynical as pure black hat SEO techniques, but to my mind it’s certainly flirting with them.
As I say… controversial perhaps!
That’s it for now. Thanks for reading.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about black hat SEO techniques, whether you’ve used them or whether you still do. Drop a comment below and let’s talk!