Like the Wild West, the world of SEO has both good and bad—and that’s exactly why the terms “white hat” and “black hat” SEO emerged.
In old western films, the “good guys” wore white hats while the “bad guys” wore black ones. Paying tribute to these customs, white hat SEO strategies describe fair and ethical practices in search optimization while black hat ones describe the opposite.
Specifically, black hat SEO techniques are those that violate Google and Bing’s webmaster guidelines in the effort to improve a website’s visibility on results pages. These include any illicit attempt to manipulate search engines and make a website rank higher—which, if discovered, will earn your website a hefty penalty.
Why use black hat SEO?
We know what you’re thinking: if black hat SEO puts you at risk for penalties by search engines, then why use them?
Simply put, black hat SEO techniques boast faster results than traditional white hat SEO strategies.
After all, playing by SEO’s rules requires patience—there is no silver bullet for making a new website rank higher on search engine results pages (SERPs) and getting more traffic. For meaningful results, you need to invest both time and effort in creating unique content and conducting targeted outreach.
So, to those with no time to spare, black hat SEO is the more appealing option, as unethical as these strategies are. In this way, you can think of these techniques as the get-rich-quick schemes of the online marketing world.
Common Black Hat SEO Tactics
Black hat SEO generally involves using tricks and shortcuts to satisfy Google rather than producing genuinely SEO-friendly content. Here are 10 of the most common tactics.
1. Keyword Stuffing
Probably the most well-known black hat SEO tactic, keyword stuffing involves overusing keywords on a page, often in a nonsensical way. This technique is practiced because of the mistaken notion that Google uses keyword density as a part of its ranking calculations.
Here’s the thing: Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, keyword stuffing actually worked. But since Google’s algorithm has become more sophisticated over the years, it’s no longer effective—although that doesn’t stop some webmasters from still doing it.
2. Duplicate Content
This tactic takes the saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” to the next level. Duplicate content is essentially plagiarism—webmasters who do this copy another website’s content and paste it on their own. Why? The idea is that if the original content is successful in getting backlinks and ranking well on SERPs, so will its copy.
Note that there’s a difference between duplicate and syndicated content. Duplicate content aims to take credit for someone else’s work while syndicated content clearly marks the original publisher. The latter is totally fine by Google’s standards, which is why you’ll often see it done by big companies like Business Insider and Fast Company.
3. Article Spinning
Not too far off from duplicate content is article spinning. Spun articles are modified or rewritten versions of preexisting content in the attempt to create new and “original” content. There’s even software that helps to spin articles, replacing each word in a piece with a synonym or similar phrase. This ultimately makes spun articles sound rather garbled and unnatural.
Also known as sneaky redirects, cloaking describes “presenting different content or URLs to human users and search engines.” For instance, that might be a user who clicks on a SERP link expecting one thing but lands on something entirely different. It’s essentially a bait-and-switch plot, albeit one that takes place on the internet.
5. Invisible Text
Invisible text refers to using text the same color as your website’s background to hide keywords. Like keyword stuffing, this practice is done to get more keywords onto a page—but without the awkward, unnatural sounding language. Since the text matches the background, users can’t see it (hence invisible), but it’s still read by search engines. In this sense, invisible text also counts as a type of cloaking, as users and search engines are seeing different versions of the same web page.
6. Paid Links
Paying for links falls into a larger subcategory of black hat SEO known as link schemes. On the surface, paying for links may not sound so bad, but it certainly doesn’t sit well with Google. Why? When link building is treated as a monetary transaction, the buyer in question doesn’t have to worry about the quality of their content.
Remember that Google sees “good” links as those that are earned by natural means—for instance, content that’s so thorough and informative that other sites link to it as a reference.
7. Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
A PBN, also known as “link farm,” is a collection of websites used to build backlinks to a target website. The websites that make up a PBN are typically retired domains that already have decent backlink profiles, and thus pass on more link equity to the target website.
Maybe you’ve heard about J.C. Penney’s SEO scandal back in 2011. Thousands of unrelated websites were found linking to the chain’s website to boost its organic rankings—a classic example of a link farm.
8. Spam Comments
If you’ve ever enabled comments on your blog posts or web pages, you’ve probably received comments that were irrelevant to your content. Instead, they were self-promotional and linked out elsewhere.
These spam comments are made in order to score a free backlink, and it’s in part because of these that Google created the “nofollow” attribute to discourage such a practice.
Also called “domain squatting,” cybersquatting involves registering names of well-known brands or companies as internet domains in order to profit from them. This is often effective against small or mid-sized businesses that lack the resources of big-name companies to file a lawsuit.
Here’s one example of failed cybersquatting: in 2004, Eminem won a ruling against a British website called “eminemmobile.com” that used his logo and sold ringtones sampling some of his greatest hits. So beyond facing search engine penalties, cybersquatting can also lead to larger legal and financial consequences in the offline world.
10. Rich Snippet Spam
Rich snippets are bits of code webmasters can add to their sites’ HTML to tell search engines what kind of info is on their pages. Search engines then use this information to mark search results more clearly for users’ benefit. You’ll often see this in SERPs as rating bars, product reviews, and prices.
In this way, rich snippets are intended to help users find what they’re looking for, whether it’s an item for purchase or a recipe that others approve of.
Websites that use this markup incorrectly in order to encourage users to click are taking part in what’s known as rich snippet spam. For example, that could be websites using a star rating bar for a page that doesn’t necessitate one; Google typically reserves these rating snippets for reviews, products, and recipes only.
Should your business use black hat SEO techniques?
If you’re looking for sustainable traffic in the long run, black hat SEO techniques are a major no-no for your business’s content strategy.
That’s because these tactics drive success only in the short term. In fact, they may even hurt your website by putting it at risk for search engine penalties. Consequently, people or companies hoping to outsmart search engines with black hat SEO may find their sites banned from Google and having to start at square one instead.
Take marketing guru Neil Patel for example. Patel admits to practicing black hat SEO techniques in the past, although he now notes:
“If I focused all of my energy on legitimate white hat SEO techniques, I wouldn’t have gone through as many sites. Instead, I would have had one much larger site that still existed today.”
Instead of black hat SEO techniques, your best bet for long-lasting results is using white hat SEO strategies. Or, if you can’t wait on SEO to do its work, then maybe it’s best to look into paid advertising for faster traffic results.
Marketers who swear by black hat SEO practices are playing in dangerous territory. Though they may boast insane web stats, don’t be fooled: they’re likely sugarcoating the risks and trying to get you to spend your content budget on them.
In the long run, your money is ultimately better off spent on white hat SEO strategies. Creating high-quality and SEO-friendly content that abides by Google’s terms of services will do more for your website than opting for unethical SEO tactics.
Have you ever been sold black hat SEO tips from an agency? Let us know with a comment below!