You know you should be thinking about search engine optimization (SEO)—you see recommendations for it everywhere you look. But wow, does it look difficult and expensive. For a small business, investing that much in something that takes so long to show results can be a hard sell. You may be tempted to figure out shortcuts.
The problem is, with SEO, shortcuts can really hurt you. Some of the more affordable so-called SEO experts you come across may steer you toward outdated and scammy tactics. These have earned a bad name for themselves among SEO experts. They’re known as “black hat SEO.
We definitely don’t recommend following these tactics for your website—unless you want to earn a penalty from Google. However, it’s important to understand what these tactics are for two reasons. First, you’ll be able to recognize them if a shady SEO company ever pitches them to you. Second, you’ll be able to create a more informed SEO strategy for your website that steers clear of them.
What Is Black Hat SEO?
Black hat SEO describes any tactic used to increase a website’s search engine rankings by trying to game the system. Black hat SEO exists for a reason: SEO is hard. And it’s slow. And doing it well is either expensive, time consuming, or both.
Black hat SEO practitioners try to speed up results by finding shortcuts that trick the search engines by appealing to the way the algorithms work, rather than what makes sense for humans. And at certain points in internet history, some black hat tactics have worked—for a time.
How Black Hat SEO Hurts Business
Every day, the search engine algorithms get more sophisticated. The goal is always the same: to get better at providing results to people that are genuinely useful. That means many of the big Google updates in recent years have specifically targeted the kind of black hat tactics we’ve described here.
Attempts to game the system and get websites ranking higher based on tricks rather than providing genuine utility can provide temporary gains. But once an algorithm update goes into effect, those websites risk seeing penalties that hurt far more than the momentary gains ever helped.
Google doesn’t look kindly on websites that try to trick the algorithms. Why would they? They’ve long told SEO professionals and website owners the right way to increase rankings: create great content that’s relevant to what your audience cares about. And make sure all the technical stuff— like website speed and the mobile experience—works right to create a solid user experience.
If you focus on tactics related to providing a consistently valuable experience to your visitors, you’ll stay on the right side of Google. It’s harder. But it’s the only way to build the kind of website authority that delivers long-term SEO results.
10 Black Hat SEO Tactics to Avoid
If you encounter someone suggesting any of these black hat SEO tactics, steer clear.
1. Keyword stuffing
To determine what a web page is about, search engine algorithms pay attention to what words are used on the page. The reason so much of SEO is based on keyword research is because the words you use are directly related to what terms a page on your website will rank for (although it’s just one of many ranking signals).
In the early days of search engines, when the algorithms were much less sophisticated, keyword frequency played a big role in SEO. Using your keyword as many times as possible on the page made it extremely clear to the search engine—without any room for doubt—that your page was about that keyword. And that made it more likely to rank.
But pretty quickly, the search engines learned that spammy websites were awkwardly stuffing keywords onto their pages in ways that made no sense in order to game the system. To ensure they provided actually useful results to their users, they updated the algorithms to not only give keyword frequency less priority in the rankings, but to penalize the websites guilty of keyword stuffing.
Nonetheless, keyword stuffing is still one of the most common black hat SEO tactics employed by disreputable SEO practitioners. While it’s still true that strategically using keywords in your copy can be good for SEO, overdoing it definitely isn’t. You want every web page to make sense to human visitors, not just search engines. If anyone recommends cramming more keywords onto a page on your website than makes sense, don’t listen.
2. Paying for backlinks
Building backlinks is arguably the hardest part of SEO. You have to convince other people that your website is worth linking to, even when there’s usually not much in it for them. That’s why it’s a part of SEO that’s frequently abused.
Black hat SEO firms will offer to sell you links for affordable prices. But with SEO (as in much of life), if sounds too good to be true, it usually is. This type of “link building” usually involves link farms or spam websites created for nothing other than to link back to their client’s sites. And Google doesn’t just care how many backlinks you have, the search engine pays careful attention to the authority of the sites they’re hosted on.
As with keyword stuffing, paying for links still happens because at one time it did work. But as the search engines have wised up and refined their algorithms over the years, low-quality links will now hurt your website authority. Quantity of backlinks is less important than quality. So focus your strategy on building links legitimately and avoid anyone that offers to sell you backlinks.
3. Hiring content mills
Content marketing is an important part of SEO. But it requires a ton of time and resources to do well. Many small businesses therefore start their search for content creators with companies that promise cheap content, in the range of $10 to $50 a blog post. The companies that charge those kinds of rates are known in the business as content mills.
Hiring one early on is a common and understandable mistake to make, but you’ll usually realize quickly that the work you get is barely readable, or filled with awkward keyword stuffing. A lot of small businesses that use content mills end up rewriting or heavily editing the pieces they get, so that the money saved still costs big in time.
The fact is, writing content that your audience will actually want to read takes time and skill. For content marketing to actually be worth your while, you need to be willing to make a real investment in it, not go for the cheapest option.
4. Using hidden text
Sometimes called “cloaking,” this tactic has mostly gone out of style, but is still worth knowing to avoid. Some sneaky SEOs in the past would squeeze more keywords onto a page for search engines without stuffing them into the copy for humans by making the text the same color as the page’s background, or by hiding them in the page’s code.
Either way, if it means the page shows up in rankings for keywords that aren’t what the page is actually about, your human visitors won’t be satisfied. And Google and the other search engines want to provide their users with content that matches what they’re looking for. Websites that do this are unlikely to make it into the rankings for competitive terms to begin with, but if they do and the algorithm quickly registers that visitors aren’t sticking around on the site after the click, they’ll fall back down in the rankings because of it.
5. Duplicate content
We’ve established that creating high-quality content is hard, so one tactic many a small business has been tempted to try is essentially self-plagiarizing—take the copy you wrote for one page of the site, change it slightly to focus on a new keyword, and voila, you have a new page. But duplicate content is one of the things Google penalizes.
Even if you’re only copying yourself—not plagiarizing someone else (which would be worse!)—it still looks bad in the eyes of the search engines. They prefer original content and are unlikely to rank multiple pages that provide essentially the same information. So make sure each page on your website is entirely original.
6. Gateway pages
Now and then when you’re browsing the web, you may come across a page that’s little more than a list of links that may or may not be related to your original search. These are called gateway pages. Their entire purpose is to try to gain rankings for a popular keyword, in order to drive more traffic to their other sites or pages.
As an internet user, you probably find these obnoxious. You were looking for actual content or answers, not a collection of links. Knowing that pages like this don’t create a good experience for their users, the search engines don’t like them either. This is another spammy tactic that may have once worked, but is unlikely to get you very far with the way the algorithms work today.
7. Bait and switch
You wrote a piece of content that’s getting a lot of traction. Finally! Other sites are linking to it and it’s starting to rank for one of your target keywords. A very black hat thing to do at this point would be to change up what’s on the page to something more directly about your products or services.
Don’t do it! That tactic is called the bait and switch. You write about something that’s clickbait or more general interest to get that initial boost, then change what’s on the page to try to drive more conversions. Obviously, visitors won’t like it and neither will Google. At best, you might keep your ranking for a few days, but over time, the search engines will pick up on the trick and your rankings will drop.
8. Comment spam
If you have a blog open to comments, then you’re probably all too familiar with this one. People (or bots) that leave a comment on your site can include a link. At one time, those links could deliver authority back to the site, thus making it an easy way to build new links.
Now, the vast majority of websites have any links in the comments set up to be nofollow, meaning they don’t deliver any SEO authority. And many sites have disabled comment sections entirely because of how tedious dealing with comment spam became. In short, this is a tactic that is both a total waste of time, and one that will make you enemies of anyone annoyed to see your comment spam pop up on their website.
9. Sneaky redirects
There are plenty of valid reasons to set up redirects on your website. If you’ve combined old pages into one or if you’ve changed domains completely and want to direct traffic from your old website to your new, for instance. Redirects exist for good reason.
But as with so many things, they can be abused by bad SEO actors. Some black hat consultants will set up redirects that send search engines to a different page than humans, or redirect a high-performing page to an unrelated page to get more traffic to the new one. Either way, it’s the kind of thing the search engines will pick up on, so any benefit you may get from it in the moment won’t last.
10. Private blog networks
Private blog networks are a more sophisticated technique than many on this list, which can make them seem like a more legitimate option to try if someone pitches you on it. The idea is to buy up sites that already have some authority, continue publishing new content on them, and use that content to include links back to your own site.
You get backlinks from websites that look authoritative, because you now run the websites they’re on. And if you buy up a few of these, it starts to look like a number of authoritative sites are suddenly impressed with your content enough to link to it. It may take Google longer to catch on to this tactic than some of the other more obvious ones, but it’s unlikely to pay off in the long term.
Anything that’s not about providing content your audience will truly benefit from and building real authority in your larger industry isn’t going to yield the kind of long-term results you want from SEO.
Instead of gaming the system, set your website up for long-term success with a solid SEO strategy created by experts and driven by best practices. Get your free SEO review from the SEO pros at HostGator.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.