This post was originally written for Alberon. I have reproduced it here because the original post is no longer live.

Black hat SEO is the practice of artificially increasing your search ranking by violating the search engines’ guidelines. While this can work in the short-term, you could be penalised or even blacklisted when they find out.

What’s the problem with black hat SEO?

Google’s aim is to give users the best search results possible – so they do their best to rank each website according to the quality and relevance of the content. The problem is all website owners want Google to list them first – especially spammers. While white hat SEO focusses on creating good and relevant content, building lasting value, black hat SEO focusses on tricking Google into thinking it’s good without actually doing the hard work.

Over the years spammers have come up with many ways to trick Google into doing just that. This reduces the quality of the search results, so Google have to respond with smarter ranking algorithms to restore the balance. They also penalise websites using those black hat techniques to discourage others from following their lead.

So if you’re looking to rank well in the long-run, it’s best to stick to white hat techniques.

Specific techniques to avoid

The following techniques are all against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and should be avoided:

  • Keyword stuffing. This means adding lots of keywords to the page, either as a list (outside the main content) or in an unnatural way within the content. It typically doesn’t read well to a human, and has little or no value to them.
  • Keywords in hidden text. Early search engines would index all text on the page, which could easily be abused by creating hidden text that users couldn’t see but search engines could (e.g. white text on a white background) and filling it with keywords. (Note that there are good reasons for using hidden text – e.g. accessible text for screen readers – and this is considered OK as long as it’s done for the right reasons).
  • Link swaps. One of the ways Google determines a site’s popularity is by the number of incoming links, so it was once common for sites to agree to swap links – i.e. each would link to the other. However this practice was abused, with irrelevant sites swapping links for no reason other than to boost their ranking, so now it’s frowned upon. A few reciprocal links with relevant websites is still OK, but an excessive number may be seen as a red flag.
  • Buying links. Similar to link swaps, the practice of paying other websites to link to you (purely for the SEO benefit) is not allowed – although exactly what constitutes a paid link can be a grey area. Paid links or adverts with the rel="nofollow" attribute are OK because they are ignored by Google.
  • Excessive directory listings. While it’s good to be listed in a few relevant, high quality directory sites, you must go for quality over quantity – you don’t want to be listed in a lot of low quality free-for-all directories because it will look like link spam.
  • Reusing content. You want to get the most from your content, so it’s a good idea to repurpose it into other formats such as social media posts, slideshows, videos, etc. However, don’t reuse exactly the same article in multiple places – whether on your own site or on different websites – because Google doesn’t like duplicate content and will generally only list one of them. Similarly, using the same article but just changing some of the phrasing to make it appear to be different – known as “article spinning” – should be avoided.
  • Spamming other websites. If you have your own blog, you probably know that the vast majority of comments are spam. These are often automated, but even manual posts can be seen as spam – e.g. posting a lot of low quality comments for the sole purpose of linking back to your website. In addition, most websites now use rel="nofollow" to tell search engines to ignore those user-submitted links.

More general advice

Many of the techniques above were once common practice – and worked for a while – but each time Google updates their algorithm to penalise a new class of black hat techniques the SEO’s that use them have to scramble to undo their work (especially after Google Penguin). So if you want to avoid this scramble in the future, you should avoid black hat techniques whether or not they’re currently penalised.

  • Put the user first. Google’s aim is to give users the best search results possible – so start by making your website the best it can be (relative to your chosen keywords) and Google will want to rank it highly. Make sure all of your SEO work is done with the user in mind, not just the spiders. Do anything that benefits the users, and don’t do anything that hurts them or reduces quality/relevance. Specific techniques for ranking well come and go, but this advice hasn’t changed since 2002, when Matt Cutts from Google said “Don’t bother with […] tricks — the best use of a webmaster’s time is building good content and honestly promoting their site”.
  • Use a reputable SEO consultant. If you’re going to outsource your SEO, make sure you choose a reputable SEO consultant. Avoid anyone that claims they can guarantee you first position – they can’t. Make sure you understand and agree with their methods before they do anything – otherwise you may think they’re doing a good job, but by the time you get caught and penalised they’re gone with your money, and you’re left paying again to clean it up.

Check back next time to find out why Conversion Rate Optimisation (CRO) is just as important as SEO for increasing your website’s ROI.