SEO Basics: What is Black Hat SEO?

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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
  • 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.