What are SEO "black hat" techniques and how can I avoid them?
COVID-19 served to accelerate a range of existing business trends, including the inexorable shift to a “digital-first” economy. Seemingly overnight, a range of changes that would have taken place in perhaps years had to take place within a much faster time frame to allow businesses to survive in the age of lockdowns.
Given the increased need to compete and attract customers online, the art of Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, has never been more critical than now. Every entrepreneur and business owner must rapidly figure out how to drive traffic to their content and services in a world of infinite choice and myriad other competitors ready to seize any advantage.
Where organizations tend to fall short in any aspect of a business, is in cutting corners to get ahead. We see this readily on display in the dark art of Black Hat SEO.
What is Black Hat SEO?
In simplest terms, Black Hat SEO techniques encompass a range of unethical practices that seek to manipulate search engine rankings and artificially boost the prominence of websites–in ways that violate the terms of services for major search engines like Google and Bing.
It’s easy to think of the internet as a bit like the Wild West, especially given the recent proliferation of concerns around fake news on social media sites. The challenge of maintaining the accuracy and legitimacy of news stories online only underscores the importance of ensuring that SEO techniques aren’t abused.
It’s easy to see how organizations–and especially the consultants they bring on to boost their web rankings–can be tempted to grab an easy win by manipulating search engine algorithms. But the price is far too costly; online watchdogs (including Google themselves) are increasingly watching out for suspicious SEO behavior, which can cause a website to be penalized, leading to lower-ranking web positions, a marked decline in web visitors, and ultimately a blow to revenue.
Attempting to game the system through unscrupulous practices simply undermines the original goal altogether and can lead to an organization’s web presence taking a significant step backward.
The best way to ensure you don’t go down a path of black hat techniques is to understand what they are and have the awareness to avoid them. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
It’s easy to forget how recent websites like Google are, only emerging in the late 1990s. The entire industry of search engine optimization is so new that practitioners have found themselves learning the tricks of the trade on the fly. One revelation is the importance of keywords in driving web users to websites. (Just think of how you may carefully select the right hashtag on your Instagram or Twitter posts to drive eyeballs to your content.) One Black Hat technique takes advantage of this practice to manipulate a site’s rankings with unnatural keywords; for example, placing them in paragraphs or random blocks of text without any context or connection. (Think of using the same words over and over again, such as using the terms “Florida hotel room” five times in one paragraph.)
Some practitioners of Black Hat SEO won’t even deign to place goofy words in a paragraph; they’ll simply hide the text altogether. (Think of a student who adds a few paragraphs in all white text to a term paper so they meet the assignment’s word count requirement.) This is a duplicative strategy to boost an organization’s rankings–and a silly tactic, given that search engine crawlers are increasingly savvy enough to catch this distortion.
Spamming the Comment Section
Some higher-quality publications like the New York Times place a high premium on carefully monitoring comments sections to ensure they stay relevant and germane to the discussion at hand, but most sites have not caught up to the need (or have the bandwidth) to effectively police their discussion boards. Today, you’ll not only find a slew of comments that are outright violations of terms of service for threatening and abusive language, but you’ll also find spam directing readers to websites with links that are often not at all relevant to the discussion at hand.
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We’re living in the golden age of plagiarizing. It’s not only a bonanza for high school students and a headache for their teachers, it’s an assault on the web browser trying to find quality content. We’ve all had the experience of following some clickbait headline to an article that has been plagiarized or duplicated from other sources, not only violating best practices in the SEO world but often violating copyright and trademark laws.
It’s almost always incredibly clear to the causal web user when they are engaging with a paid link. This takes place when a site pays another domain for a followed backlink. This practice of paying for a higher ranking is forbidden by search engines and not worth the investment; it remains highly looked down upon in SEO circles as well.
This tactic takes place when a visitor finds themselves suddenly at a different URL than the one they initially requested. This practice remains too prevalent as users are promised one form of content, only to find themselves shown completely different information, inundated with spam advertisements, or suddenly installing spyware on their browsers.
Google and other search engines have caught on to all the above through various algorithm updates through the years and won’t hesitate to penalize your website accordingly for its use. So, in short, don’t make the mistake of using these efforts, and be sure to vet your SEO partners to ensure you’re working with a reputable SEO firm that understands the best practices towards growing your organic visibility.
Building an effective brand online takes time and patience–all the better for cultivating trust with your customers and providing them meaningful, relevant, valuable content. By attempting to bypass the rules of the road and cheat the system, you’ll ultimately only be cheating yourself in the hit to your business reputation.