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What Is Black Hat SEO?

In learning about SEO, you may have run across black hat SEO. What is black bat SEO, you will probably wonder. In brief and over simplistically, black hat SEO is the use of SEO techniques that violate Google guidelines for search engine optimization. In contrast, white hat SEO is the use of SEO techniques that conform to Google guidelines. 

Google is nice enough to spell out its SEO guidelines here — and also describe optimization techniques to avoid. To spell out black hat tactics even further, Google describes them in detail, starting here. Issues to which they draw our attention include:

  • Auto-generated content written by machines for the Google machine, rather than by people for people
  • Redirects that take search engine users to an unexpected URL
  • Link schemes that take shortcuts or are based on misrepresentations, in order to artificially pad an inbound link profile
  • Cloaking, which involves showing one version of a web page to the search engine crawlers and another to human readers
  • Hidden text and links, used, for instance, to hide repetitious keywords from human readers but enable crawlers to see them
  • Doorway pages, which are similar pages designed for overlapping keywords — these clutter search results with redundant content
  • Scraped content, which is basically stolen from other websites
  • Affiliate programs that reproduce content from another site and offer nothing unique
  • Use of keywords that are not relevant to the content on the page
  • Overuse of keywords (keyword stuffing)

If you think about using Google as a search tool, and your reactions to clicking on links that take you to web pages with any of these characteristics, you’ll quickly see why Google discourages black hat SEO — the techniques might be able to trick the Google algorithm, but they will not trick the user. If Google users experience enough spammy websites using Google’s search engine, they will stop using it.

Thus, if Google detects black hat techniques, they may penalize the site owner, even to the extent of banning the website from Google. For most businesses, being invisible on Google is a very serious handicap to lead and online revenue generation — one that could potentially put some operations out of business. Google penalty recovery, by the way, is a thriving business within the SEO community because of how frequently penalties are assessed.

What Is Black Hat SEO — It Is a Lot of Grey, Actually

So far, it may seem as though black hat SEO is a cut-and-dried issue: Either an SEO agency conforms to Google guidelines, or it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Some black hat SEO techniques are obviously unethical and clearly wrong. An example would be setting up a fictitious office address and submitting it to Google so as to appear in its local search results for the applicable geography.

Other issues are not crystal clear even in Google’s guidelines. For example, in its discussion of automatically generated content, Google says, “(Avoid) stitching or combining content from different web pages without adding sufficient value.” But what constitutes “sufficient” value? In this and many other cases, the answers are not always clear.

Sometimes there is a fine line between white hat SEO and black hat SEO.

Why Black Hat SEO Exists

The presence of grey areas in SEO is not in any way meant to minimize the harm done by black hat practices and practitioners:

  • Black hat SEO companies have tainted the image of SEO almost from the beginning, making it more difficult for ethical SEO companies to gain clients, and leading many organizations to avoid SEO when a sound SEO campaign could bring it substantial revenue growth. 
  • Black hat has worked for some companies, at least in the short term. But these infrequent “successes” have been more than overshadowed by the great damage black hat SEO has inflicted on businesses that suffered massive penalties from Google as a result.

There are several reasons why black hat SEO has persisted in the industry:

  • Some SEO practitioners, to put it bluntly, are unscrupulous. They don’t care about the rules, and they really don’t care about the client, other than in terms of collecting fees. This is a small percentage of the SEO industry, and every industry has this issue.
  • The SEO industry has no set of standards that define qualifications to practice SEO, best practices and ethical violations — all of which makes the SEO business quite different from say, the legal profession or medicine. With no standards or internal policing, it is left to the search engines to fill those rolls. This is a bit of a problem, as we will see in the next point.
  • The SEO industry lends itself to grey areas by its very nature. Google’s algorithm — all search engine algorithms, in fact — are complex and shrouded in secrecy. The reason is fairly obvious: If companies knew exactly what factors would influence rankings, then every company would spend all of its time manipulating algorithms and very little time producing the high-quality content that search engine users want. Thus, SEO is, to some degree, a guessing game and a battle of wits between search engines trying to motivate SEOs and clients to produce award-winning content, and SEOs and clients that are trying to generate sales leads or e-commerce revenue. With so much uncertainty, it’s perhaps inevitable that SEOs can consciously or even unconsciously go over the line and wander into black hat SEO territory.
  • In addition to the secrecy of algorithms, the continual changing of algorithms creates grey areas in SEO. What was once a white hat technique can become a black hat technique literally overnight if Google changes its algorithm in a particular way. For instance, at one time, using keywords in anchor text for all or virtually all inbound links was a common and perfectly acceptable practice. But when Google perceived this practice was being abused, it decided to change its algorithm and discourage it. Fearful of being assessed penalties, many companies overreacted and eliminated or attempted to eliminate all keyword-rich anchor text from its inbound links. This not only was an overreaction, but also one that really hurt the user experience — the very thing Google was trying to enhance. Sometimes or most of the time, keywords in anchor text help readers by accurately describing the nature of the content on the page to which is being linked.

With all of this in mind, it’s worth repeating that a properly executed SEO campaign gets results for most organizations. Minor, innocent “infractions” of Google’s guidelines seldom get the search engine’s attention. Google is not after innocent businesses in search of honestly building a lead pipeline or e-commerce website. Google is after big players trying to manipulate its system unfairly to reap unwarranted benefits at the expense of its search engine users.

The vast majority of SEO agencies and their clients are reputable businesses trying their level best to build revenue. The goal for organizations interested in SEO is to select a partner with a solid reputation and track record.

To discuss how to implement white hat SEO in your business, contact us now or call 855-883-0011.