Anyone attempting to bolster their search authority knows that it can be a grueling endeavor. Depending on the industry and location, it can require volumes of fresh content, piles of positive reviews, extensive communication with online publications, and continual updates to your website. Those who get fed up with the process may look for “SEO shortcuts” or turn to agencies that claim impossible results in outlandishly short timeframes.
While there is nothing wrong with prompt results, some business marketers and search engine optimizers (SEOs) resort to “black hat” techniques in order to deliver. If you’re unfamiliar, black hat SEO deliberately manipulates search engine indexes in order to increase a website’s prominence in search engine results pages (SERPs).
To put it in perspective, think of these spammy methods of optimization like counting cards or using sleight-of-hand at a poker table. Sure, you may win a few hands by cheating, but if you’re caught, you’ll be out of the game altogether.
Yet, regardless of the consequences, whether it means getting banned or penalized from search engines and their affiliates, some webmasters and marketers work tirelessly to exploit digital loopholes. According to Google, the most common methods of trying to cheat the system include:
Abusing rich snippets and structured data
Building landing pages with irrelevant or overly-stuffed keywords
Generating automatic content
Creating doorway pages
Creating pages with malware
Hiding text and links
Participating in affiliate programs without adding value
Sending automated queries to Google
Using link schemes and sneaky redirects
If you’re going to spend the time or money on SEO, consider your approach and/or inquire about your agency’s practices before you sign on the dotted line. To get a better idea of what Google and other search engines frown upon, let’s take a closer look at how black hat SEO works and the specific techniques businesses try to use to boost their rankings.
How Black Hat SEO Works
Black hat SEO takes advantage of search engines by using aggressive strategies that aren’t intended for a human audience but rather are purely for ranking. Some webmasters and marketers view these methods as the fast track to the top of SERPs. However, if we harken back to our poker metaphor, SEO isn’t a hand or two, it’s a tournament.
Those gambling with black hat strategies risk significant ranking penalties (or removal from search engine indexes altogether) due to their neglect of SEO best practices, such as Google Webmaster’s basic guidelines. To avoid getting banned, your website should be:
Making pages primarily for users
Being honest with users
Creating high-quality content
Highlighting what makes your content valuable
Parse through some Google update history and you’ll see massive companies that have tried their hand at black hat SEO and receive some severe penalties. For example, data from Search Metrics showed that Expedia lost a staggering 25% of its web visibility (and the stock took a 4% dive when the news broke) after Google snuffed out its shady search-engine practices. Even Halifax Bank took one on the nose for participating in a slew of shifty link schemes, losing a whopping 20% of their ranking, according to CognitiveSEO.
To some, Google may seem almost authoritarian with its rules. However, it’s even penalized its own browser for black hat SEO techniques. Here’s what a Google representative sent Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land:
We’ve investigated and are taking manual action to demote www.google.com/chrome and lower the site’s PageRank for a period of at least 60 days.
We strive to enforce Google’s webmaster guidelines consistently in order to provide better search results for users.
While Google did not authorize this campaign, and we can find no remaining violations of our webmaster guidelines, we believe Google should be held to a higher standard, so we have taken stricter action than we would against a typical site.
While nefarious business marketers and webmasters are continually adapting to search engine updates with new techniques, it’s important to realize that not all black hat SEO is intentional. For that reason, it’s vital to dig a little deeper into the practices that cause Google and other search engines to penalize your website.
Abusing Rich Snippets And Structured Data
Rich snippets, or rather, rich results (as Google prefers you to call them), appear in search results much like a normal snippet—which contains a webpage’s title, URL, and meta description. However, rich snippets also offer additional information such as ratings, reviews, images, publisher’s name, job postings, calorie counts, and dozens (if not hundreds) of other kinds of categorical information.
By adding structured data (Googlebot-friendly code markup) to your website, your link can appear as a rich result in SERPs. Much like the battle against fake news, search engines are penalizing businesses that are posting fake reviews, adding rich snippets to useless pages, or adding misleading markup.
The lesson: Rich results should be accurate and authentic.
Automatically Generated Content
Automatically generated content, as the name implies, is content created by a program instead of a person. Black-hat marketers sometimes refer to this method as “article spinning,” which is an elaborate method of plagiarizing content by way of “spinning up” synonym-filled phrases to fool plagiarism tools. Automatically generated content includes:
Combining content from different web pages without adding value
Creating text that makes no sense but contains keywords
Translating text with an automated tool without a person’s review
To understand why search engine companies penalize sites for weak content, it’s helpful to remember that they keep their customers coming back by providing high-quality results. Henceforth, because high-quality results are necessary for a positive user experience, anything that adversely affects this experience is taken seriously.
Due to the fact that many of these “spammy” sites also spread malware, Google detected and removed a staggering 80% of these sites from their search results in 2017. To continue the battle, they even acted on 90,000 spam reports that were manually sent in by unhappy users.
The lesson: Create your own content to avoid being removed from Google’s SERPs.
In poker, there is a sleight-of-hand technique that card sharks implement called hand mucking. When this trick is used, the player conceals a card and then throws it back into the game when the time's right. Similarly, black-hat marketers use cloaking to hide malicious content when a Googlebot’s IP address is detected. However, when a human user clicks on the site, the original site comes back into play.
It should be noted that there’s no such thing as white hat cloaking. This technique is used to artificially inflate a site’s search authority and circumvent Google’s SafeSearch. For instance, the pornography industry is notorious for search engine spamming and capitalizing on black hat SEO techniques. Because this experience can be traumatic for users, Google (and even Facebook) has banned all types of cloaking. Should you decide to try your hand at cloaking content, know that you’re risking severe penalties, including the removal of your site from SERPs.
Why go through the trouble? For years, search engines could still be duped by keyword-stuffed nonsense. Then in 2014, with their Panda update, Google shifted their focus from keyword ratio to keyword intent—in other words, it was a shift from how many keywords were on your page to how keywords are used on your page.
The lesson: Be honest about your content and label it appropriately with meta descriptions, alt text, and page titles.
Creating Pages With Malware
Google aims to connect users to high-quality content while keeping them safe from malware. Anytime a website maliciously manipulates content or begins a download without the viewer's consent, it’s in direct violation of Google’s Unwanted Software Policy. A few examples of malicious content include:
Installing malware, trojans, spyware, or viruses
Changing a user’s browser homepage
Placing pop-ups that are difficult to remove
Running software that swaps out existing ads on a webpage for different ones
Malware also opens up dangerous vulnerabilities that allow hackers to steal information, deface websites, and deceive users. Google noted that in 2017, there was a significant increase in website hacking—both for manipulating search ranking and for spreading malware. To ensure people keep surfing the web safely, Google is actively removing spammy sites from their results pages.
The lesson: Be transparent and always ask a user’s permission before installing or changing anything on their computer.
Doorway pages—also known as bridge pages, gateway pages, or portal pages—are similar to cloaking in that they’ll rank well based on a particular phrase, but will send search engine users to an irrelevant page, often through a sneaky redirect (more on this later). However, unlike cloaking, these links often funnel users to a specific page or site, regardless of the link on which they’ve clicked. Google provides some examples of doorway pages which include:
Having multiple domain names or pages targeted at specific regions or cities that funnel users to one page
Pages generated to funnel visitors into the actual usable or relevant portion of your site(s)
Substantially similar pages that are closer to search results than a clearly defined browseable hierarchy
Some marketers take it up a notch and build robust doorway pages called “Content Rich Doorways.” In this case, the design and navigation often mirror that of the rest of the final destination, but the actual links ultimately funnel visitors into the same fishbowl.
If you’re thinking to yourself, how is this different than a landing page, remember that high-quality landing pages contain relevant content to the original search query. Building out misleading, manipulative, and malicious doorway pages is grounds for Google and other search engines to blacklist your site from their results.
The lesson: Allow your users to navigate freely throughout your site and provide useful and transparent content.
Hidden Text And Links
Text and links that are not readily visible to the user are considered “hidden.” Black hat SEO techniques in this category include:
Writing content in size zero font
Forming links that are only one character
Making words the same color as the background
Placing content behind an image
Positioning data off the screen
When creating a webpage, white-hat webmasters—or the people who abide by Google’s guidelines—should be on the lookout for any hidden text or links that could be considered deceptive to users. Keep in mind that there are some hidden elements of a website that aren’t considered black hat SEO, one of which is called alternative (alt) text. Alt text is used to accurately describe the appearance of, or what is occurring in, a picture or video, which is helpful for users who need a screen reader to browse the internet. By maintaining an ADA compliant website, you are ensuring all viewers can view your content.
The lesson: Provide content on your website that’s noticeable and accessible to everyone.
Landing Pages With Irrelevant Content Or High Keyword Density
Creating a keyword-heavy webpage that’s focused on keyword stuffing webpages with as many keywords as possible isn’t the way to hit your website’s keyword goal. As you can see, overly stuffed content is confusing and redundant. Sometimes the best way to boost your reach ranking is to forget about some “golden-keyword ratio” and instead write with your audience in mind. Content writers should write naturally and let keywords fall where they may.
If you are unsure if your content is keyword stuffed, simply read it aloud. It’ll read like your tongue is running on a gravel road. Any material that sounds redundant or unclear should be rewritten. If you are still unsure, reach out to a copy editor to ensure your content is clear and concise. Remember, Google is able to tell when content is duplicated or redundant and can penalize your pages by downranking them in SERPs.
The lesson: Don’t aim for a keyword ratio, strive for great content.
Participating In Affiliate Programs Without Adding Value
Creating original, high-quality content is critical for websites that participate in affiliate programs. If you’re unfamiliar, affiliate programs often feature advertorial product descriptions across a network of sites. However, many of these sites get penalized by Google due to the lack of added value and differentiation. This is to say: Add to the conversation.
Thin content on affiliate sites not only takes a beating in search results but it also makes for a frustrating user experience as each page shares the information. If you’re part of an affiliate program, avoid copying and pasting product descriptions and reviews. If you’re trying to build a strong network, add value by writing your own review, discussing the subtleties of the item, and identifying how it compares to other products in its price range.
Further, in a strong affiliate program, website owners pick a product or service category that matches contextually with the rest of the site’s content. For example, if you’re reviewing a bottle of Glendronach 18, both the website and that specific page will perform better if you regularly review high-end whiskeys and other liquors, as opposed to something irrelevant like the latest tech. When you keep your content fresh, original, and on-topic, your site is more likely to perform well in searches.
Unfortunately, many poorly run affiliate program managers don’t take the time to write fresh articles. When search engines crawl these sites and see that the same content is placed on a number of other sites, it will be, as Google states, “negatively perceived by search engines.”
The lesson: Don’t post content if you don’t have value to add.
Scraping—or copying—content from another website is considered black hat SEO as well as copyright infringement. If you’re unsure if you’re scraping content, think about your writing process. Are you changing up the wording, adding additional information, and crediting the original source(s)?
Plagiarism is always wrong. However, that doesn’t mean that all duplicate content is a sign of black hat strategies or copyright infringement. For instance, basic product descriptions, block quotations, information in discussion forums, and printer-only versions of web pages are all okay. If your content doesn’t land under one of those categories, it could be flagged as scraped content.
Interestingly, even if it’s your content, it’s possible to be penalized for scraping. When writing an article on sites like LinkedIn or Medium, think twice about reposting the article on your website. Even with a canonical tag, which is supposed to help search engines prioritize duplicates, bots may still misinterpret the signal and penalize your site despite the content being your own.
The lesson: Never plagiarize, and always think twice about reposting content.
Sending Automated Queries To Google
Falsifying search traffic towards a specific topic, location, or brand can make your site, at least initially, appear as more authoritative. While an individual usually can’t send enough fake searches to affect SEO rankings, online programs can. For this reason, sending excessive queries to Google—either alone or by an automated software such as WebPosition Gold—skews a ranking.
To prevent bots from automatically generating queries, Google put reCAPTCHA safety nets in place to stop them from taking advantage of their system. ReCAPTCHA is a system designed to establish that a human and not a bot is using a computer. If your computer is suspected of unusual traffic, you will be directed to a webpage that reads, "Our systems have detected unusual traffic from your computer network."
The lesson: Earn your traffic by creating strong content, not by sending spammy requests.
Using Link Schemes And Sneaky Redirects
When used correctly, redirects are used to make a site available through more than one URL. This technique is often utilized when businesses change domain names or when there’s an acquisition or merger. Conversely, deceptive redirects send users to an entirely separate URL than the one on which they initially clicked. In a similar fashion to cloaking, these sneaky redirects may be transferring Google bots to a different page than the one users see.
So, why would someone use deceptive redirects? Deceiving users with a high-quality, well-ranking web page that redirects them to a low-authority page can (at least temporarily) garner new traffic to the site and boost its overall authority.
However, when someone uses links to manipulate a website's ranking, it’s considered a “link scheme.” Google Webmaster’s guidelines clearly outline practices that are against their rules, which include:
Paid links that are only designed to influence SEO ranking
Agreements to connect sites through backlinks without adding value
Overusing keyword rich anchor-text links
While some paid links are positive and appropriately used anchor text is encouraged, it’s essential to know where to draw the line. For example, high-quality business directories and guest posting backlinks are excellent methods of organically growing search rank. Conversely, links with keyword-stuffed or misleading anchor text aren’t fair play.
Most white hat SEOs agree that anchor text should stay under 60 characters and avoid redundancies. For instance, a link that reads “The best SEO, content marketing, social media marketing, Google Ads certified, conversion strategy, web design agency in New York, NY” has the potential to be penalized by Google.
The lesson: Only redirect users when necessary, and use backlinks appropriately.
Promoting Organic, White Hat SEO Methods
If you’ve implemented some of these techniques, it’s not too late to reverse the problem. Start cleaning out your duplicate content, keyword-stuffed anchor text, and weak affiliate pages. Further, if you reach out to an agency regarding SEO services, be sure to inquire about how they increase search rankings.
While black hat methods might give you a quick boost in authority, they can also get you banned from search engines. For that reason, find an agency that will craft valuable, compelling, search-optimized content and meta properties for your site, and you’ll have a much better shot at staying in the game. Here at Ethos Copywriting, we take the time to employ white hat SEO tactics that amplify brand awareness, drive traffic, and boost conversion. Curious about how we can help? Click the button below to contact us.