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SEO basics: what is black hat SEO?
Search engine optimization (abbreviated to 'SEO') is a relatively cheap and sustainable marketing channel for online businesses. But if you want to be successful in the long term and have your website place high up in Google’s ranking list, there’s one thing you need in particular: patience. Improving your own search engine ranking is a tedious process – Rome wasn’t built in a day. So it’s not surprising that some marketers try to work their way around Google’s strict guidelines in order to achieve the desired effects more quickly and with less effort. But black hat SEO is risky because if the search engines catch wind of it, your website will be penalized and you’ll end up with the opposite of what you originally wanted: the ranking will decrease rather than improve.
Why is it called 'black hat SEO? '
The term 'black hat' is especially rife among hackers, but it originated from a completely different sector. In classic Western movies, the villain usually wears a black hat during a duel, whereas the hero wears a white hat. 'Black hat' can be described with many different terms and they all conjure up images of shady and illegal activities. For some, it’s dirty methods used to generate links, and for others it’s obvious spam practices. In any case, the goal with black hat SEO is to try to bypass official quality guidelines set by search engines in order to gain an advantage over your competitors.
If you start a website from scratch, you’ll know it’s a lengthy process to get to the top position with Google, Bing, and other search engines. You need to build up a reputation and earn the trust of users. The corresponding signals that Google uses to evaluate pages must be generated. A major factor is domain trust, which is the credibility and trustworthiness that Google attributes to a website. You can find more on this topic in our article on ranking factors. The idea behind black hat SEO is simply to feign reputation and trust so the site appears more relevant, popular, and stronger than it actually is.
If black hat SEO results in violations to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, Google doesn’t take it lightly: the site operator will be punished and the site could even be banned from the Google Index.
Black hat SEO techniques
A big part of SEO is offpage optimization - where you try to promote your website from the outside. The aim is to obtain positive signals (links) from third parties, since every link that points from another site to yours is seen as a recommendation by Google. So you should try to collect as many of these recommendations from other sites as possible. This is usually fine as long as the backlinks are obtained naturally, for example by providing great content which is then shared by impressed readers.
Black hat SEO, on the other hand, is when you try to obtain these links without putting in the effort with content creation and marketing campaigns. Other black hat SEO practices should also help increase the ranking without having to invest time and money into content or social media marketing.
Some common black hat SEO techniques include:
Doorway pages are pages that optimize the site for search engines, but that can’t be seen by the user. These doorway pages are filled with Google-relevant keywords. The user never actually sees these since they function as ‘bridge’ pages that direct the user to the actual page. The aim is to increase the link popularity of the actual site and therefore improve its ranking. This tactic was common earlier on, but now Google considers doorway pages as breaching its guidelines and an attempt at manipulation.
Cloaking refers to the process of creating two different websites under the same URL; one for the search engine and one for the actual user. Scripts can differentiate whether site visitors are real people or simply search engine robots. The robot will be shown the search engine optimized site, which is mostly full of text and increased use of keywords. The user version is designed differently and with more thought put into it: it generally consists of more multimedia elements such as videos or flash files. The reason: indexing is mainly based on texts and because all the other elements are invisible to the crawler, they are replaced with SEO texts on the cloaking site. Cloaking is now recognized by the search engine and is punished – usually by excluding the website from the index.
A wide-spread black hat SEO trick, which is still frequently used, is link building by actually purchasing links instead of obtaining them the natural way by generating them. The aim is to increase link popularity. But Google attaches great importance to natural link building that results from high-quality and current content. Google’s guidelines therefore forbid link buying, link selling, link exchanging, and link renting. Violations will result in a loss of ranking or being excluded from the index as soon as they are detected.
A popular form of link buying is purchasing Russian links. They get their name as they’re cheaper to buy abroad, especially in Russia. Google also punishes this practice.
Keyword stuffing refers to the over-optimization of keyword density, which is the practice of placing as many keywords as possible in a text so that Google deems it relevant. This kind of manipulation dates back to the early days of search engine optimization and is no longer effective. Google’s search algorithm has gone through so many updates that websites with keyword stuffing are quickly detected and filtered out. Operators of these sites are then penalized.
Hiding texts and links dates back to earlier days and is classic black hat SEO. It worked well back then, but the same cannot be said for today. The tactic here was to promote relevant keywords by placing, for example, white text on a white background. The aim was to show the search engine how relevant the site was without annoying users with the excessive number of keywords. Links were also hidden in a similar way by using a small inconspicuous sign (e.g. a hyphen). Meanwhile, Google discovered these hidden blocks of texts and links and now flags them as attempted manipulation.
Optimizing without fear of penalties
What all these examples show is that black hat SEO techniques can lead to short-term success, but in the long run they can be risky because Google will recognize them as manipulation attempts sooner or later. Since Google’s Panda and Penguin updates, website operators should refrain from carrying out these practices.
The punishments, which are known as penalties in Google’s world, vary in their degrees of severity: they range from a ranking decrease of up to 30 places to a complete ban from the index. Once you’ve been punished and have fallen in the rankings, it’s then very difficult to get back onto the first page of results.
Your best bet is to stick to the guidelines and carry out your search engine optimization with the correct techniques. With the many rules and regulations, it can be quite difficult to adhere to all of them and operate white hat SEO. There’s often some leeway and this grey area is referred to as grey hat SEO. This is where available SEO measures are exhausted as much as possible since Google does not directly punish every attempt at increasing link popularity and improving ranking. Grey hat SEO is therefore the in-between area where you can take advantage of slightly undesired SEO methods without worrying about Google punishing you. Most companies and agencies can be found using techniques from this grey zone.