Search engine optimization (SEO) is a slight misnomer. A more accurate phrase would be “website optimization for search engines,” but that would be a bit cumbersome. To understand SEO, you have to understand how search engines work.
Google conducts over 75,000 searches per second. It would be impossible for Google to actually “search” the web each time it receives a search request. Instead, Google’s software “crawls” the web and reads each web page. It uses both the visible text and invisible metatags read from the web page to “index” that web page based on its content.
When a user types in a search query, Google parses that query and identifies keywords. For example, a search for “highest rated emergency care near me” must be broken into three parts by Google — location, ratings, and “emergency care.”
This allows Google to use its index to narrow down the search results to the web pages that include those components. It also allows Google to rank web pages according to their relevance to certain key words. Higher ranking (i.e., more relevant) search results can then be returned higher in the search results than lower ranking (i.e., less relevant) search results.
SEO is a technique for helping search engines recognize the content of the web page and properly index it. A website that mentions “swimming pools” might be about a municipal swimming pool, a water park, a pool installer, a hotel, or a pool maintenance service. Additional terms help search engines narrow down the content of that web page.
Equally importantly, SEO is a technique to help search engine users find the content they are looking for. A website that is optimized for the keywords “above ground pool,” will be returned when a user searches for “where can I buy an above ground pool near me.”
This is an idealized description of SEO. There is also a shady, or even dark, side to SEO. Black hat SEO is a technique that accomplishes these same goals by violating a search engine’s terms of service. Rather than helping search engines and users, black hat SEO manipulates them to give a web page a higher ranking than it would deserve if the rules were followed.
The term “black hat SEO” is not necessarily a judgment of the morality of the web designer or website owner that uses it. Someone can be tempted to use black hat SEO techniques without knowing that they violate a search engine’s terms of service. Rather, they may just view them as “hacks” or “tricks” to getting a higher ranking.
Some businesses may even be tricked or deceived by disreputable SEO services providers that promise big results and use black hat SEO techniques to try to achieve them. But regardless of the reason, there may be a price to pay for using them. Search engines can blacklist or ban domains that use black hat SEO practices and search engine algorithms can penalize web pages for their use.
Here are ten examples of black hat SEO to avoid:
When search engine algorithms were immature, a greater density of keywords was viewed as a proxy for relevance. Thus, a web page that repeated the phrase “executive coach” so frequently that it made up 20% of the words on the page was viewed as more relevant to a search for the keyword “executive coach” than a web page that only used the phrase frequently enough to make up 2% of the words on the page.
This practice is considered bad form and black hat SEO for a few reasons:
- Keyword stuffing makes copy unreadable.
- Repetition is not an accurate proxy for relevance.
- Using the density of keywords to rank web pages was too easy to manipulate.
The search engines caught on to this practice early on and have adjusted their algorithms to penalize web pages that use keyword stuffing. So, aside from breaching etiquette, it is now considered ineffective for manipulating the ranking of a web page.
If you have been using the web for a while, you might remember a time when web pages routinely used hidden text that appeared at the bottom of the page in a font that was the same color as the background. Back then, hidden text was a useful, albeit ugly, way for rudimentary search engines to gather information about the content of a website.
However, this practice quickly fell out of favor as it was abused to include text strictly meant to divert search engine traffic to the website. These abuses included:
- Competitors’ names so that people searching for the competitor’s website were redirected to the wrong website.
- Irrelevant words which attracted completely unrelated searches to the website. For example, a porn site might use the word “firewood” in hidden text to draw in anyone searching for campsites or camping supplies.
Rather than just being a disfavored tactic, hidden text is now viewed as deceptive to both readers and search engines. As such, it is regarded as a black hat SEO technique that can be penalized by search engines.
Cloaking is a black hat technique where the content visible to search engines is different from the content visible to readers. This is similar in principle to hidden text, although it is a bit more sophisticated than merely matching the font color to the background color.
Cloaking uses the IP address of a user to alter the content on the page. When a user requests the page, the ordinary content is presented to the user. However, when the known IP address associated with a search engine spider requests the page, a keyword-rich version of the content is presented to the search engine. This deceives the search engine into indexing and ranking the page higher than the content presented to the reader might deserve.
Cloaking explicitly violates Google’s terms of service, which require that content be created for readers and not for its search engine algorithms. Moreover, since the search engine and the user are presented with different content, users can be deceived into clicking on a search result that does not accurately represent what they will actually see on a web page.
Gateway pages are also known as doorway pages. They often look like a directory or list of links to other landing pages. You may have seen these pages come up on search results when you search for multiple related keywords like “local plumber, electrician, and HVAC technician” or obscure keywords.
These pages are loaded with keywords but have very little, if any, user-readable content. As a result, search engines and users are deceived into thinking these pages have significant content when, in fact, they just guide users to other websites.
Search engine algorithms can track the way users interact with web pages to determine if they are gateway pages. This technique is generally ineffective over the long run because search engines can automatically reduce the ranking of gateway pages when users spend very little time on the page.
As mentioned above, keywords are the way that search engines match up content on a web page with search queries. If your website contains the keywords “attorney in Atlanta,” the search engine will return your website when someone searches for “when you need an attorney in Atlanta.”
However, not everyone searches the same way. For example, some people might use the word “lawyer” instead of “attorney.” A white hat SEO practice is to include synonymous keywords on a website so that pages are optimized for related keywords.
A black hat SEO practice, however, is to try to capture unrelated searches by using irrelevant keywords. These often capitalize on popular searches to redirect them to an unrelated website. For example, an insurance website might use keyword stuffing or hidden text to optimize a web page for the keyword “gluten-free diet.” In this way, the insurance company’s site comes up in search results whenever users search for “gluten-free diet” even though its website’s real content has nothing to do with the search.
Content mills are operations that mass-produce low-quality content. Slightly more sophisticated than keyword stuffing, these businesses usually take one article and turn it into multiple posts by swapping out a few words and re-posting it. For example, a content mill might take an article about tax law and post it twice — once using the word “lawyers” and again replacing “lawyers” with “attorneys.”
This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a black hat practice. It does deceive search engines into believing that a website has more unique content than actually exists. It can also deceive a website owner into believing that he or she has purchased more content than is actually being supplied. However, having repetitive content on a website is not necessarily going to get a website banned from search engines.
It could, however, result in a lower ranking of the website in the search engine results page. You may have run results that include a notation at the bottom saying that similar pages have been eliminated. This is Google’s way of preventing websites from overwhelming the results page by posting the same content on multiple web pages. This means that a content mill that spins articles into multiple pages probably is not helping to increase a website’s search ranking and, in fact, is creating web pages that will not even show up in search results.
Link manipulation most commonly occurs when website owners buy links from high ranking websites, blogs, or social media accounts. Buying links can occur when a business pays highly rated influencers to review and link to the business’s products or services.
An influencer might post a positive review of, for example, a new cosmetics product, after being paid for the review. If the influencer fails to post a disclaimer explaining that the review was paid for, the business and influencer not only violate the search engine terms of service, but may also violate consumer protection law. Specifically, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has rules about how endorsements and paid reviews must be identified. Failure to follow these rules may be viewed as consumer fraud.
Link networks, also called link farms or link wheels, occur when a website owner buys up relevant domains, loads them up with keyword-relevant content, then links back to the primary website. This might seem like a costly and time-consuming strategy. However, this is one of the ways one website can improperly corner the market on search keywords.
What happens is the search engine results page becomes overwhelmed with results from the link network created by the website owner. Even though they look different, no matter which page the user clicks on, it always links back to the primary website.
This practice can be very difficult to detect and shut down. As a result, it can bring success. However, it violates the search engine terms of service, so beware that this black hat SEO practice could result in massive losses of time and money if it is uncovered.
Bait and Switch
Also called page swapping, bait and switch uses content to develop a high search engine ranking, then replaces that content with something else. This is an old technique for deceiving consumers and it is very dangerous from a legal standpoint.
One way that this happens is to use a competitor’s trademark or product name in keywords. This can earn a search engine ranking just off of the popularity of the competitor’s product. However, when a user clicks on the link in the search results, the web page does not relate to, or even reference, the advertised product. Rather, it is the website owner’s product that is being promoted.
This poses two risks:
- Fraud: If the practice fits the legal definition of “bait and switch” in which consumers are deceived into buying something different from what is advertised, it can constitute criminal fraud and land the website operator in jail.
- Trademark infringement: Even if the practice is not criminal, the use of a competitor’s trademark as “bait” can draw a lawsuit for trademark infringement from the competitor.
Scraped content is a nice term for plagiarism. Scraped content can sometimes occur unbeknownst to website owners when they hire outside content providers. Unscrupulous content providers will sometimes cut corners by copying content from other websites, changing a few words, then reposting it on the website owner’s site. Like bait and switch and link manipulation techniques, this is very dangerous legal territory.
Scraped content risks a copyright infringement lawsuit from the original content owner. A website that reuses copyrighted content risks getting hit with a takedown order and damages.
Worse yet, this technique often does not help in search page rankings. As mentioned above, Google eliminates duplicate content from its search results page, so the scraped content might not even show up in user searches.
Black hat SEO practices are dangerous and, in many cases, ineffective. When you develop a website or outsource your SEO, keep in mind that there are no shortcuts to earning a high page ranking in search engines. If a technique seems like a hack or a shortcut, more likely than not, it is and it could expose your website to blacklisting. Worse yet, it could expose you to civil and criminal penalties as well as lawsuits from consumers and competitors.