Updated January 7, 2023Reading Time: 8 minutes
It Is Black and White
SEO can be a tricky topic to navigate, especially if you’re not following current news articles and developing technologies. The concepts are very simple: make your website easy to understand, find, and load, for the search engine. However, the ways of achieving that simple goal are almost limitless. With SEO the little changes you make on a website can mean significant improvement in organic search. Because of that, you have lots of options. However, not all of the options are “good.”
SEO is often split into two halves. White Hat SEO and Black Hat SEO. While Black Hat SEO might sound cool (Black Ops, Black Sabbath, Black Panther or Black Widow) Google doesn’t agree. Black Hat SEO is the catchall title given to SEO tactics that go against, or attempt to circumvent, the search engines rules. Most importantly, Black Hat SEO is a “practice against search engine guidelines, used to get a site ranking higher in search results. These unethical tactics don’t solve for the searcher and often end in a penalty from search engines”. doing what is best for the search engine, and ranking highly, not matching the searcher to a website that answers their query. White Hat SEO does exactly the opposite, and perhaps surprisingly, Search Engines prefer that.
Search engines like Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo have guidelines for Webmasters to follow. In a nutshell, the advice is: provide the best web page experience that contains the best answers to a search question. Following this advice enables search engines to match the search query to the most relevant content on a trustworthy website.
So what is Black Hat SEO? And is it as clear as Black and White?
When More is Not More
In Black Hat SEO the most important thing is getting as many website visits as possible. While this might sound like something you want in theory, in practice it’s slightly different. Increasing your website traffic isn’t going to help your business grow unless the people on your website are truly interested in what you offer. Sure, if you get a million random extra visits a month, odds are that some of those random visitors might buy what you sell. It’s more likely that most of them won’t be.
So why do some digital marketing agencies use Black Hat techniques to drive numbers rather than business? What’s the point? One reason is ad revenue from Google Display Ads and other display networks. They get paid money for selling ad space. Another reason is that they’re selling their services to people who don’t know any better.
If someone tells you they can double your website traffic in a month then you’re going to be interested right? Say you’re getting a thousand visits a month now and making a thousand dollars a month. Doubling your traffic should double your money, right? So it looks like a no-brainer. But as with most things, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
SEO is never quick and results are never guaranteed. So if an agency is peddling fast and guaranteed results, that’s a sign they are wearing a black hat. They touts stats inflated with spam traffic. They target those who don’t know how to dig beyond the surface.
What’s the Harm?
So let’s say you want to test black hat SEO on your site and see what happens. Is it worth a go? You’re not going to hurt anyone else by doing it, so why not see if the magic beans will turn into a beanstalk? Wrong. If your website is ‘caught’, or in some cases only suspected, of employing black hat techniques, then you could face very real consequences.
If you find yourself facing a Google penalty, your website is in serious trouble. Depending on the severity of the penalty, you may find your website’s organic traffic has disappeared overnight. Or, you could be fortunate enough to get a warning.
Just to make things clear, there’s a difference between a change in Google’s algorithm and a Google Penalty. For example, Google has recently been pushing mobile websites with its “mobile first” agenda, splitting their index in two. Because of this, some websites that were not properly optimized for mobile have seen a drop in traffic. This is NOT a Google penalty. This is simply Google making changes to how they rank websites. You might have seen a drop in traffic, but it isn’t a direct punishment from Google. It’s just that your site didn’t measure up against others. In this example, you would fix your site so it’s better optimized for mobile.
A Google Penalty will be issued when you are deemed to have broken or attempted to subvert Google’s webmaster guidelines. At this page full of general guidelines, Google also provides a detailed list of specific tactics to be avoided. Note: many of these tactics have previously been deemed Black Hat SEO techniques and are now a little outdated.
The Complete List of Google Penalties & How To Recover article from Search Engine Journal details how you can fix any of the main Google penalties. The good news is, that while it can be difficult to fix, it is possible to come back from a Google Penalty. You can do a lot of the work yourself, without needing a lot of technical knowledge. Or, you can find an agency that will do the work for you. Yup, this is a shameless plug for our agency’s service. But Black Hat tactics aren’t always as obvious as some of the ones outlined by Google. Now things are a lot more subtle…
Shades of Grey
As the public has become more aware of SEO and search engines have become more aggressive in fighting Black Hat techniques, tactics changed. The difference between White Hat and Black Hat SEO can often be difficult to see. Take a look at this email I actually received:
Someone read one of our articles and thought that it had valuable information. They wondered if we would be interested in adding a link to their similar article. Nice huh? So they sent a friendly email (with an emoji in it!). And they’re saying they’ll share our post with their “few thousand” followers” too. So it’s win-win, right? They get a link, we get a share and maybe some followers and a few extra views.
But there are a few things that set off alarm bells:
- We’ve never spoken to anyone at this company before.
- My email address isn’t publicly available on our website or linked to the blog article. So they’ve had to do some digging to find it and then sent me an unsolicited email. Not a big problem, but a lot of effort to build a link. It’s a bit fishy. Unless of course, it’s automated (which I assume it is).
- How many other people have received this email? Did they really just send it to me or thousands of other people? Again, there’s nothing wrong with that per se. But it does feel a little bit disingenuous. Also, if they’ve sent it to thousands of others, what could that mean for us?
- What do they sell? Sure, they’re not doing this simply for kicks. So what are they promoting on their website? Does it fit with the topic of our article? The answer is “not really”. They sell personalized phone or iPad cases. Which certainly can be used as marketing, or promotional, tactic but it doesn’t directly fit with an article on Buyer Personas.
- What’s their website’s Power Trust? PT is an indication if they follow good SEO practices. By looking at a site’s Power Trust score is one way to check the health of a website’s link profile. Their site’s PT is 8 (out of a possible 100; score exponentially increases). In conjunction with their website’s relevance and a relatively low PT, the answer to their link request is a definite “no”.
Is this Black Hat SEO? In Google’s eyes: yes. Asking for links is what’s known as a Link Scheme. Google believes that links should be produced organically and any organized attempt to generate links is considered “manipulation”.
“Google's original breakthrough in search was placing weight on links & using them to approximate the behavior of web users. - seobook.com” Click To Tweet
This underlines how important links are to Google. If they think you are engaging in a link scheme, they take it very seriously.
So, you have to be very careful when trying to increase your website’s SEO. This email looks innocent. On the surface there’s nothing wrong with it. The content they suggest linking to is relevant. Their site loads fairly quickly. The article has had around 15,000 views. But, if you accept to put a link to their site on yours, you risk a Google penalty.
Guest Blogging, Referral Spam and Comment Spam
This isn’t the only subtle Black Hat SEO technique that tries to fly under the radar. Another that we regularly see in our inbox is guest blogging. Guest blogging, like the email above, falls under Google’s Link Scheme definition.
Guest blogging is where someone offers to write an article for your website in exchange for a link back to their own site or portfolio. From a logical point of view, this is totally fair and even common business practice. The guests on the Tonight Show are allowed to plug their book/ show/ music. This is the same deal just done online. But again, as above, Google sees this as an attempt to manipulate their algorithm.
We receive at least one guest blogging request a day through website forms or direct emails. They’re well written. They link to a website that looks legitimate. They sometimes even suggest topics or blog titles that would fit with our website. But don’t fall for it. It’s a scheme that can get you into trouble.
Another sophisticated Black Hat technique is Referral Spam. We’ve spoken about Referral Spam in the past, so if you’d like to hear more about that (and how to exclude it from your GA statistic, you can click here and here. But the TL:DR version is Black Hats send traffic to your website from their spammy sites. You then click on the sites trying to figure out why traffic is coming to your site from them. Their spammy site gets viewed by you and spams the search engines themselves forcing them to crawl their site. The dark side here — regardless of the reason — is that it skews your analytics data and makes it harder to gain insights on your website’s performance.
The final low-key Black Hat technique we’re going to cover is comment spam. Now if you’ve been running a website that contains contact forms or allows blog comments for a while, you’re probably thinking “comment spam isn’t subtle!”. Well, now it is.
Gone are the days of random comments selling NFL Jerseys or cheap knock-off handbags being fired onto as many blogs as possible. Now comment spam is very different.
Here’s an example of a recent comment received on one of our blog posts:
This comment is relevant to the article. It’s written in coherent English. It looks good enough to publish. The only “problem” is the link it includes. Which, as with the guest blogging and other tactics mentioned above, is essentially link scheme in a friendly wrapper.
The Merits of White Hat SEO
So how do you stay clear of Black Hat SEO? As we’ve already said, on the surface Black Hat and White Hat SEO can look similar. But our quick test is this: If someone promises quick results, it’s probably Black Hat. If they promise an exact outcome (X new links for your site), it’s probably Black Hat.
White Hat SEO is a long-term strategy and often a slow process. Earning credibility in any walk of life is gradual. SEO is no different. To make your website rank well, you need regularly publish content on a fast loading website while building links from other good quality and relevant websites. None of these things can be “hacked.” They’re built up over time. During the process, Google recognizes that your website provides answers to search questions, is trustworthy, and is therefore worthy on increased visibility (rankings). There’s no secret sauce or magic trick to it. And if someone says that there is, they’re probably wearing a black hat.