What is black hat SEO?
Black Hat SEO is an attempt to improve search rankings using techniques search engines disapprove of in their guidelines.
- Typically black hat SEO is an attempt to “cheat” the algorithm.
- When Google’s algorithm was less advanced, this was easy.
- Yet, many black hat SEO techniques still work today (yep, paid link building is black hat)
As Google gets smarter they aim to penalize anyone using these techniques. Your short-term wins may become long-term disaster (so, it's best to avoid the majority of them).
In this article:
- Black hat SEO techniques to avoid
- Real world examples showing you why
“Another useful test is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?"—Google
10 black hat techniques to avoid
- Websites deploying cloaking look at the IP address of incoming visitors to determine if they’re a real human or a robot (typically the “robot” is Google’s crawlers)
- They then show different content depending on which the visitor is.
- A website could show Google that a web page is about one topic, but the human visitors land on a page that’s more nefarious (like one about gambling or discount drugs for sale).
“Doorways are sites or pages created to rank for specific, similar search queries.”—Google’s Spam Policies
- Multiple eCommerce pages with tiny variations (e.g. /camera-accessories and /camera-accessories-kids and /camera-accessories-adults) that when you visit them, they simply link to the main category ages (e.g. /camera-accessories). All the pages do is funnel the visitor to the actual usable portion of the site.
- Having multiple websites with slight variations to the URL and home page to maximize their reach for any specific query
- Having multiple domain names or pages targeted at specific regions or cities that funnel users to one page
- Irrelevant keywords
Keyword stuffing involves filling your page with keywords with the aim of manipulating Google’s algorithm.
- Sentences and paragraphs that hardly make sense because of the overuse of keywords.
- Random lists of keywords and keyword variations on the page.
Google includes an example in their guidelines:
“Unlimited app store credit. There are so many sites that claim to offer app store credit for $0 but they're all fake and always mess up with users looking for unlimited app store credits. You can get limitless credits for app store right here on this website. Visit our unlimited app store credit page and get it today!”
Search Engine Journal note keyword stuffing as a confirmed negative ranking factor.
- Hidden text and links
It can be tempting to add an internal link for SEO reasons, but to want to hide it from visitors to your site. Well, that violates Google’s policies. As does anything that purposefully hides something from the user, just for SEO reasons
- Hiding a link or text with colour (grey text on grey background)
- Hiding text behind an element (a box, image or heading)
- Hide text off-screen (with overflow switched off)
- Tiny, tiny text
- Opacity set to 0
Remember: It’s not that hard for a robot to know if these things are being done.
- “Sneaky redirects”
This typically involves getting traffic to a page via search, and then redirecting visitors to an unexpected page when they land on your website.
- Mobile visitors are redirected to a page with different content
- Google is shown one page, but visitors are redirected to another.
- Bait & switch
The bait-and-switch is similar to a sneaky redirect, but it doesn’t involve a redirect. Instead, you change the content on the page to include
“they often start with high-quality content that they switch out for lower quality copy or unrelated content once their web page has gained significant authority.”—Refract
- Spammy programmatic content
There are many legitimate programmatic SEO case studies. But when the content is created automatically and makes no sense to a real reader—that’s against the rules.
- Auto-translating content without checking it.
- Auto-paraphrasing content to make it appear non-plagiarised.
- Stitching pages without adding significant value (this last past is subjective)
- User-generated spam (low value, auto-generated pages)
- Comment spam
Adding comments to blogs that don’t add value just to get a backlink from that page.
In this blog post from 2005, Google introduced NoFollow links literally to stop backlink-targeting comment spam.
Tip: If you’re going to let people comment on your content, make sure any links added are NoFollow.
- Paid backlinks
A common practice in the SEO industry, but paying for backlink placements is against the rules.
Google states that paying for links that pass PageRank hurts the relevance of SERPs (by artificially indicating false popularity and giving unfair advantages to companies with bigger budgets).
“February 2003: Google's official quality guidelines have advised "Don't participate” in link schemes designed to increase your site's ranking or PageRank" for several years.”
Links need to be earned, not exchanged.
Note: It’s very hard for Google to detect paid backlink building, hence why the industry is still huge.
- Private Blog Networks (PBN)
PBNs are groups of websites that exist purely to give backlinks to other websites. They might be full blogs, but usually with unhelpful or thin content, that exist so that people can pay them for a backlink.
- PBNs make it seem like a backlink was “earned” by placing it within an article.
- However, those articles exist only for that purpose and usually receive no traffic.
- It is suggested that this technique still works.
“Using PBNs is seen as an attempt to manipulate the algorithm. As such, Google classes this action as a link scheme that violates its webmaster guidelines. This makes it a black-hat SEO tactic.”—Ahrefs
4 black hat SEO case studies
Here are 5 black hat SEO case studies to see how these techniques fair in the real world.
1/ J.C. Penney’s link building scheme
- J.C. Penney was found to have 2,000+ links to their dresses pages
- The links came from thin websites clearly created only for backlinking
- New York Times exposed the site
- Google penalized J.C. Penney, their keywords dropped from page 1 to page 5
Read the NY Times exposé here.
2/ Sea Wall, A Life
- Sea Wall/ A Life is a broadway play star Jake Gyllenhall in 2019
- This is exactly the kind of website that would get lots of high authority backlinks (from newspapers, etc.
- The website seawallalife.com was abandoned and bought by an SEO.
- They added a link to the “blog” in the footer.
- There is only one internal link from the homepage. To the blog. Passing all PageRank to there.
- They then built a blog on that website, which ranked extremely high.
- Eventually the website was de-indexed from Google.
3/ Aged Domain Migration
I have a full SEO case study (and podcast episode) coming soon on this with Adam Smith.
- His technique is to buy old websites (with natural, earned backlinks) that were abandoned.
- He then builds a niche site on that domain on that topic.
- Or redirect the domain to another site to pass the PageRank.
- Both capitalize on the backlinks of that website and “power up” content that has not earned the links.
- Google doesn’t mind you redirecting one domain to another. That’s a natural thing to do during an acquisition or during a domain move. But it’s against their guidelines to purposefully buy a site for backlinks and pass the authority to your own.
How can you avoid Google noticing a redirect?
- Create a blog post on your main website domain
- Redirect the aged domain to that blog post
- In that blog post, add exact match anchor text to your other blog posts you want to “juice up”
- Make a press release stating you acquired that website for legitimate purposes
4/ DoNotPay’s SEO Fail
- DoNotPay had an almighty climb to the top of Google
- They reached ~2 million monthly visitors in 24 months
- And then, they crashed dramatically to 500,000 in less than 1 month
- This was right around the time of the Helpful Content update and a core update
- We can only speculate why. Some suggest it was their implementation of mass programmatic/thin content pages that we deemed unhelpful.
- One thing of note is that DoNotPay lost 50,000 backlinks due to a broken redirect chain
Who knows what really happened here, but it's a lesson in making sure when you're working at scale you keep spam indicators LOW.
Submit your story
Seen a cool black hat case study? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share you story.