Using black hat SEO techniques is like walking through a minefield. As Google gets better at spotting these dodgy shortcuts to higher rankings, dabbling in the dark arts could land your website in serious trouble.
A good understanding of how some of the common black hat tactics work will not only help you steer clear of them, it will also help you develop better white hat SEO strategies.
Let’s take a look at five common methods black hat SEOs have used in the past and how you can legitimately apply some of the theory to your legitimate search campaigns.
1. Stealing content from weaker websites
What is duplicate content? Duplicate content is just as it sounds; content (usually text) which appears on more than one web page.
How is it used in the black hat SEO world? Online content is stolen all the time. Google does its best to determine who owns the original and will remove the duplicate listing from search results. But while the Panda updates torched a lot of websites with dupe content, there is still plenty of it showing up in Serps.
In the black hat world, webmasters will try to convince Google that their stolen content is in fact the original version. There are a few different ways to achieve this deception, but the most popular is to exploit their stronger domain authority.
Just as playground bullies have more luck extracting lunch money from younger, punier kids, black hat SEOs will pick on weaker sites for their dupe content campaigns. If they tried lifting articles from an established blog and passing them off on a brand new site they’d be bang out of luck.
But if they target sites with inferior domain authority there’s every chance Google will take their side, assuming the “more trusted” site must have put out the content first.
How can you apply it to your white hat SEO strategy? The main reason this black hat method works is domain authority, so employing legitimate, white hat methods to boost yours will make your content harder to steal and it will also help you rank better in search.
There are lots of different factors that influence domain authority, from your social footprint to your link profile. One very controllable way of building domain authority is to create and publish quality content of your own.
If you find interesting and engaging content, instead of copying it, put your own spin on it or use it to help you think up new, original content ideas. Google Authorship will add further weight to whatever you produce, as it enables Google to rank your latest offering in the context of what you’ve previously published.
Google is getting better at spotting original content, so like most black hat techniques, lifting content from around the web has a limited shelf life.
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2. Buying backlinks or acquiring links from bad neighbourhoods
What are backlinks? A backlink or an inbound link is a link on a third party site pointing to a page on your site.
How is it used in the black hat SEO world? During the boom years of link building, black hat SEOs would buy links from low grade sites known as link farms (basically virtual dumping grounds for links). It was purely about the number of links. It didn’t matter where they were from or if they served any value to the user.
As Google starting catching up with this dodgy practice, quantity took a back seat to quality but the buying and selling of links continued. It’s only really been in the last year or so that Google’s Penguin update has started making a real dent in over-engineered link profiles.
How can you apply it to your white hat SEO strategy? There are still some legitimate ways to acquire backlinks, but the most sustainable strategy remains creating something worth linking to. Publishing interesting, original and high quality content on your website and promoting it through your social, email and other channels means more opportunities to earn natural links.
One backlink tactic that took a big hit recently is guest blogging. For a long time, website owners and marketers would offer free articles to blogs in exchange for a link. But in a post on his blog last month, Google’s Matt Cutts called time on guest blogging as a tactic for SEO, claiming that it had been ruined by low quality, spammy content and in some cases was no different to directly buying links.
“Guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy,” Cutts wrote. “I wouldn’t recommend relying on guest posting, guest blogging sites, or guest blogging SEO as a link-building strategy.
3. Creating and promoting fake reviews
What are fake reviews? Adding fake reviews or testimonials to your website or profile pages to give the impression of quality, respectability and lots of happy customers. In Australia this is known as “astroturfing”, and is illegal under the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.
How is it used in the black hat SEO world? Since it’s illegal it’s not a common practice, but it does happen. Black hatters who are experts in this shady activity will usually take steps to hide their identity, although they don’t always manage to do that as this case from the US demonstrated.
There are two types of fake reviews. Positive reviews are added to make a company, product or service appear reliable and trustworthy. Negative reviews are used to sling mud at the competition and steer potential customers away from them.
As well as influencing purchasing decisions, reviews also rank really well in search and are often displayed prominently in social media, which makes them highly valuable both as a positive and negative SEO tactic.
How can you apply it to your white hat SEO strategy? Positive reviews are obviously a good thing and if people are willing to risk breaking the law to create fake reviews, clearly it’s something worth pushing for using a legal method.
The best way to do this (apart from having amazing products or services), is to encourage customers to review their purchase or experience. This can be done through a follow up email or a call-to-action which prompt customers to leave a review, send their feedback or even comment on your blog post.
A lot of companies worry about getting negative reviews and in some cases even steer clear of social media as a result. It’s important to remember though that there are plenty of places you can’t control where unhappy customers can take a pop at you.
There might even be some benefit to negative reviews. There was a story a few years back about a big online retailer hiring people to editing reviews to correct typos, believing that well-written reviews led to more sales even if they were negative.
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4. Buying social signals
What are social signals? Social signals are links, mentions, likes, shares, +1s etc from social media platforms to your site or a piece of content on your site.
How is it used in the black hat SEO world? Social media is among the 200 or so signals Google uses to rank pages, but it’s not like a few retweets will get you on page one. For social to make a noticeable and immediate difference, you would need a very large number of signals pointing to your site or piece of content.
There are two primary methods. The first involves creating multiple social profiles, and sharing content from your site over them all. This is very time consuming, especially as you need to take steps to distance yourself and your target website for your multiple social personas.
The second, and most common method, is to pay for social signals. People who have created hundreds or even thousands of fake social accounts will be able to generate many social signals for you quite easily. With the scale offering this same service to other paying customers, they can invest the time required to keep their social profiles “looking real”.
Social media networks are regularly looking for fake or spammy profiles and removing them. The risk in buying social signals is they may not last long and like over engineered link profile you can lose the credit overnight. And, of course, you will never get a refund.
How can you apply it to your white hat SEO strategy? Just like fake reviews, a lot of effort goes into generating what appear to be genuine social signals and that’s because social, particularly Google+, is having a bigger impact on search results.
So why I wouldn’t recommend setting up your own stable of fake social profiles, I would definitely encourage an active, genuine social media presence as a means of promoting your business and the quality content you’re creating.
Content that people find useful and interesting will get real social shares and this is by far the safe, long-term, sustainable method for boosting search performance. The social media world is a visual one, so mixing up your content strategy with infographics, animations and videos tend to be more sharable and more likely to generate social signals.
5. Stuffing your pages and tags with keywords
What is keyword stuffing? Keyword stuffing refers to the practice of over-using a particular keyword on a webpage. Traditionally this is done in the page content (sometimes hidden from users) or in the tags Google looks at for ranking signals (title tags, H1s, image alt tags etc).
How is it used in the black hat SEO world? Essentially, keyword stuffing is an attempt to convince Google that a page on your website is the most relevant result for a given keyword search. The blatant shoe-horning of irrelevant terms into page titles and H1s has had limited value for some time, while the Panda and Penguin updates started picking off other tricks like burying keyword-heavy text below the page footer.
How can you apply it to your white hat SEO strategy? This method is effectively dead and like buying links is more likely to have a negative impact on your rankings than provide any noticeable benefit. Google has realised how easy it is to over-use keywords, and is placing less emphasis on what your page title says. If you’ve stuffed it full of your favourite 10 keywords, you’re likely to get flagged for over-engineering.
The first task on your white hat to do list is an audit and clean-up of your site. You should audit your existing pages and make sure that your page content and meta-tags are filled out as per Google’s webmaster guidelines. Remove anything that looks spammy, and replace it with something relevant and unique to the page. Remember, Google’s aim is to provide a searcher the most relevant result.
My black hat SEO takeaway…
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you to remain on the white hat side of the fence. Black hat tactics are short-term and can have a real negative impact on your website. Instead of looking for ways to cheat the system and gain that unfair edge, follow the webmaster guidelines, steer clear of get-rich-quick schemes and invest in high quality, interesting content, best practice on-page SEO and lots of social activity. With Google being the search engine superpower it is, you don’t want a single mistake to cost you rankings and in turn, business.