SEO Basics: What is Black Hat SEO?

Filed under: SEO Basics — Brian

SEO Basics is the eCreative IM blog column written for SEO beginners just learning the basics of search engine optimization. You can find all our SEO Basics articles by browsing the SEO Basics Archive or find the specific tips you’re looking for in our SEO Tips & Guides page.

In the SEO world we often warn against Black Hat SEO, or the dangers of Black Hat SEO practices. So just what is Black Hat SEO?

Black Hat SEO is SEO practices that are in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Google establishes webmaster guidelines for what is allowable SEO, and what kind of SEO they don’t allow. Since it’s their search engine, Google can create whatever rules they want, and if you violate their rules they can choose not to list your website in their search engine.

Ultimately, every SEO professional can be said to be in the business of manipulating search engine results — and that’s not a bad thing. Google wants to be able to find your website, and it wants to know exactly what your website is about. After all, Google’s goal is to identify what websites are more relevant to searches — that’s their business. So if you have a website about tropical fish, Google wants you to optimize your site for tropical fish related keywords.

What are Black Hat SEO practices?

Black Hat SEO practices typically involve backlink schemes, or techniques to trick search engines into thinking your site is about something different from what it’s about.

Some Black Hat SEO practices include:

  • Buying backlinks, or otherwise providing monetary compensation for backlinks (including offering discounts for links, as we saw when Google punished Overstock.com).
  • Creating many sites just to provide backlinks to other sites — also known as link pyramids.
  • Putting hidden text on your website, including very small text stuffed with keywords, or text that is the same color as the background or otherwise invisible.
  • Creating doorway pages — pages that are designed solely to attract search engine attention that then redirect users to a different website. It’s important to note that this is different from landing pages, which exist on your website and are perfectly okay.
  • Using proxy servers or generating dozens or hundreds of IP addresses to make sites look like many sites, for the purposes of increasing backlinks.
  • Having duplicate content stolen, or “scraped” from other sites just to make your site look like it has lots of content and updates.

There are of course many other black hat SEO techniques, and they come up with new ones about as fast as Google modifies its algorithm to eliminate the old ones. The most common black hat SEO techniques center around link building schemes, from pyramids to paying for thousands of links (which is what got JC Penney punished by Google recently).

The danger of Black Hat SEO

The dangers of engaging in Black Hat SEO practices, or hiring a SEO firm that uses Black Hat techniques, are twofold:

Firstly, Google is constantly changing their algorithm to eliminate various Black Hat SEO practices. Sometimes they’re very successful, and other times they’re only moderately successful. But in general we see sites that use Black Hat SEO are very volatile — they do a bunch of Black Hat SEO work and surge up in rankings for a few weeks or even months, then Google unrolls a new algorithm and their rankings plummet back down.

The second danger has both a smaller chance of happening, but carries a much more serious risk. If Google determines that you’re engaged in Black Hat practices in violation of their Webmaster Guidelines, they could decide to punish you by radically lowering your ranking, or delisting your site entirely. If your site is delisted, you will not show up in any Google rankings at all.

Now, Google doesn’t have a team of people hunting down sites that violate their guidelines. They don’t need to, because your competition can just report you to Google. Then Google will investigate and if they decide you’re using Black Hat techniques — and even if it’s your SEO firm doing it, you’re still responsible — they’ll remove you from their search engine or radically lower your rankings.

Ultimately even if you’re not worried about the chance of being delisted, the Black Hat SEO shortcut to rankings is usually not worth it in the end. You end up doing tons of work, or paying for all kinds of links, only to have the next Google algorithm change remove all benefit from that work and those links.

Then you start over again, exploiting the next hole in the Google algorithm until Google closes that hole too. In the end you’re jumping up to the first page, then falling down to the 50th page, then up and down and up and down endlessly.

The benefit of White Hat SEO

If instead you had put that same time into acceptable, White Hat SEO techniques your site would continually build in strength and authority. You would probably climb in rankings more slowly, but you would also keep all the rankings you gained. Your SEO would build on all the SEO work you did before, rather than starting over again and again every few months, and eventually you can reach a point where you rank at the top of organic search results and shift gears down to a maintenance level of SEO.

This is the ultimate goal — to put in the work to build your site’s rankings high enough that you can then turn on cruise control and scale back on the amount of SEO work you have to do. After all, keeping a top ranking once your there (legitimately) is far, far easier than getting there in the first place.

Unless you’re getting there through Black Hat SEO. Then you’re starting over from scratch again and again. In the end, it’s just not worth it.

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12 Comments | Leave a comment

  • Black Hat SEO tactics are practices used by unethical SEO companies, and online marketing sites to trick search engines into giving them a higher ranking than they deserve. Black Hat SEO delivers fast results, but is ultimately very bad news for the users.

    Comment by Tinnitus Treatment

  • Unless its natural, all link building is Blackhat!

    According to Google’s TOS, natural links are links others point back to your site without the need to pay for it, ask for it, comment for it or insert a link in your article to gain it.

    So, if all link building strategies are in effect manipulating search engine results, doesn’t it stand to reason that all link building is Blackhat and the majority of off-page SEO practiced by SEO firms is in effect, Blackhat?

    Comment by Samuel Symes

  • No, not all linkbuilding is Blackhat, because not all link building violates the Google webmaster guidelines. For example, including your URL in relevant comment (as you did) is fine. Reciprocal linking — to an extent — is fine (excessive reciprocal is not). And of course building the kind of content that is specifically designed to attract a lot of links is fine and even encouraged.

    Ultimately *everything* that a good SEO does is manipulating search engine results — either on page optimization or off page — it’s only Blackhat when it violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. After all, if a SEO’s work didn’t affect search engine results, that SEO would soon be out of a job!

    Comment by Brian

  • Let me be blunt. Most link building by most SEO firms is in fact blackhat according to Google. Let me state it again: If you have to pay for it, ask for it, comment for it or insert a link in your article to gain it, then you are manipulating Google search results and Google terms that as blackhat.

    Manual link building is NOT “natural” link building. Google only allows “natural” link building. You just need to view the many video’s by Matt Cutts to realize that if you are doing any of the above, then you are violating Google’s TOS.

    It simply baffles me how many SEO experts will quickly denounce Cloaking as “unethical” or against Google’s TOS or even label it as spam which manipulates search results but then on a daily basis create artificial backlinks for clients.

    If you are distributing countless articles with links or posting on blogs/forums to obtain backlinks or using automated backlinking software, isn’t that also spamming to manipulate
    search engine results?

    What is the difference? It all violates Google’s TOS.

    Comment by Samuel Symes

  • You can find Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, including their definition of link schemes, here: http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=35769&hl=en Google is very clear about what kind of linkbuilding is not allowed.

    Obviously things like commenting on blog posts is fine! Spamming blog posts just for links is not (and also isn’t effective). Buying links is okay, as long as those links are nofollow. Writing an article with a link back to your site is fine (guest blogging) — mass distributing articles walks the line but technically isn’t in violation — but also isn’t very effective.

    Ultimately it comes down to what Google allows in their Webmaster Guidelines, and there are some things — even reasonable reciprocal linkbuilding — that *are* allowed. If you think about it, all of these things are expected and natural: of course you’re going to post on forums related to your industry, or comment on blogs. Of course related sites might link to each other. Of course you’ll get a byline on an article you write for another site in hopes of getting some of those visitors to follow the link. So that explains why Google allows these activities in their guidelines.

    Comment by Brian

  • Are pyramid links coming under black hat SEO???

    Comment by Digital Advertising in India|

  • It depends on exactly what you mean by pyramid, but in general yes, most pyramid linkbuilding falls under the “linking schemes” which is against Google Webmaster Guidelines, and thus is black hat.

    Comment by Brian

  • I have found this discussion very interesting. I am the webmaster of a link building website and am very open and honest that the links I build maybe frowned upon. I really gets to me (as mentioned above) that the 1000’s of SEO companies doing the exact thing yet deceivingly hiding behind the white hat mask.

    Everyone online builds links to their websites for better search engine rankings. We should rethink the whole white and black hat discussion and concentrate on whether people are building relevant non spam links or not.

    If a link provides the reader with more on topic information then it is not black hat.

    Comment by Danny Shaw

  • Why would Google allow sites to use link farms like this one on
    http://www.rlproyalcity.com/
    -see the footer links to http://www.rlproyalcity.com/real_estate/canada/ontario/guelph/
    http://www.rlproyalcity.com/real_estate/canada/ontario/guelph/info.asp

    These further link to a resources page which is a series of link farms
    http://www.rlproyalcity.com/real_estate/canada/ontario/guelph/resources.asp

    Seems very Black Hat… yet this site ranks very well?

    Comment by Tom Gibson

  • Black Hat just means it violates the guidelines, not that it doesn’t work. In fact the only reason people use these risky tactics (that could get sites penalized) is because they work.

    They work because Google hasn’t yet found a way to detect or stop them — but Google adds more and more ways to do that all the time, and black hats have to develop new ways to rank all the time.

    Comment by Brian

  • I believe the difference between blackhat and whitehat techniques become easy to spot by the quality of the backlinks generated and the procedure. So if someone tells you that you can generate 5000 backlinks in 1 hour, you can tell its blackhat. But if someone uses the same method in drip mode and does the work in 2 months, the BlackHat-edness is reduced? Google mentions that no competitor can do harm to your website. Which means Google usually ignores mass backlinks in short time. But still they will help in indexing yes? I have seen great results when you have very relevant posts or blogs with high link juice (no spammy pages) + some Angela Paul style backlinks + some very high PR profile backlinks in one way and pyramid modes + a baseline of lot of low juice backlinks to ensure you get indexed faster… Top that up with a few honest follow backs, mentions, directory listings, answers etc.. and you are on the right track.

    Comment by Alex

  • Blackhat is about violating Google’s webmaster guidlines. Someone who drips 5000 directory/comment/focum backlinks over time is still doing blackhat SEO.

    Google has in fact said that it’s possible for competitor’s to harm your site, though unlikely, and this is a hot topic lately with the Penguin update where sites are being actively penalized specifically for their backlink profiles.

    Blackhat SEO like you describe often works, but usually not for long periods (more than a year or two), and can expose you to possible penalties.

    Comment by Brian

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