Black hat SEO techniques will hurt your rankings and your business. Here’s how to spot them.
7 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Black hat SEO refers to unethical practices to help a website rank higher in Google. Often times, a website doesn’t even know it’s suffering from black hat search engine optimization — and being penalized for it.
Though black hat can temporarily help a website rank higher in Google, search engines will ultimately demote it for bad practice. You need to know how to identify black hat SEO techniques. Here are five signs to look for in your website and others.
What Is Black Hat SEO?
SEO, which stands for search engine optimization, is the process of designing a website to rank higher in search engines like Google, Amazon or the App store. It’s an innovative way to “optimize” content, whether you’re a media company or an online retailer, to drive traffic organically instead of paying steep advertising fees.
There are two main kinds of search engine optimization: white hat and black hat SEO. White hat websites use legitimate techniques to rank for keywords that are relevant to its content. Black hat content is geared towards search engines, not humans. This means misleading both the reader and the algorithms.
You can’t afford the stigma of black hat SEO.
There are two big reasons why you should avoid deceptively optimizing your website. First, it creates a terrible user experience. Ever clicked on a website and found that the content mismatches the headline you read in Google? This does not foster long-term business growth, never mind the fact that it’s unethical.
Second, search engines will demote your website, which will tank your traffic. A decade ago, most search engine optimization was of this unethical kind because it’s easier than staying up to date on the top SEO marketing trends of 2019. Google and other search engines now have sophisticated algorithms for uncovering black hat SEO, so the danger of deceptively optimizing your website far outweigh the benefits.
Here are the most common black hat SEO techniques you should look for.
Link popularity is one of the ways that Google ranks websites. The more websites link to yours, and the better the domain authority of those websites, the more authoritative Google will consider you to be.
According to Google’s own definition, a paid link is a link you bought with money or goods. Today, Google devotes significant resources to shutting down link farms and paid links but you don’t need SEO tools to determine if a website is buying links.
First, look at the “anchor text,” which is the wording that is hyperlinked. If the text seems random with no connection to the link (or apparent use for it), it could be bought. Next, consider the number of links on a page. If a page is full of randomly linked text, they’re most likely paid links.
For a more granular search, there are SEO tools for spotting paid links. The best SEO tools to help you rank higher in Google will create a full link profile for your website or others. Among other things, this can tell you how many back links a website has and where those back links are coming from.
Typically, people buy links in bulk. If you see that a website has a laundry list of back links coming from blogs or other sites with very little authority, chances are that at least some of them are bought.
Related: 5 Red Flags That Can Destroy Your Google Ranking
“Keyword stuffing” is when a keyword appears on a website an inordinate number of times in order to have it rank higher in Google search. It’s one of the most common black hat SEO techniques. Ever read a keyword or phrase out of context or unnaturally phrased? This could be keyword stuffing.
Keyword stuffing can be tough to identify because Google regularly changes its definition of what percentage of text should incorporate your keyword. The best way to identify keyword stuffing is to look for it in key places like the title, meta description and introduction. Does a keyword appear somewhere where it’s seemingly irrelevant? Is it used an unnatural number of times?
The best way to avoid keyword stuffing is to be intuitive about it: If you think you’re using your keyword too many times, you’re probably right. Deciding the optimum keyword strategy is also something to discuss with your SEO analyst before choosing your next SEO firm.
Related: 5 Tips for Choosing Your Next SEO Firm
Hidden links are less common than they once were but you’ll still run into this type of black hat SEO from time to time. Hidden links are exactly what they sound like: They’re links that the user typically does not see. However, search engine spiders still take them into account when determining a website’s ranking.
Google’s Webmaster guidelines specifically outlaws:
Placing text behind an image
Text with the font size of zero
Using a white background with white text
Linking a small part of a text
Aside from going through the backend of a website page by page, you can also use an SEO tool to analyze its entire link profile. This will give you a complete list of a website’s links, including the ones that are hidden to the naked eye.
Cloaking and Redirects
These two processes refer to similar types of black hat SEO. In simple terms, URL redirects and cloaking are when websites show search engine crawlers and users two different types of content.
Ever clicked on a website and been directed to an entirely different website? This is what Google calls a “sneaky redirect.” The objective of a sneaky redirect is to bring traffic to a specific page while having a search engine rank a website based on the content from an entirely different page. This is especially common on mobile version for a website. While a desktop version might remain the same, the mobile site could display an entirely different spam URL.
Cloaking is a similar process in which search engine crawlers typically see HTML while the user sees Flash or images. Typically, cloaking is what hackers do to make it difficult to detect that a website has been hacked. As a user, it can be tough to identify these kinds of black hat SEO techniques until it’s too late. Luckily, Google becomes more sophisticated at detecting spammy content with every upgrade.
Related: 6 Tricks to Optimize Your Site for Search Engines and Real People
Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
Private blog networks are a way to build back links, typically through a series of blogs. They can either be used to build domain authority for each other through a web or increase the ranking of one central website. Google has been working hard to penalize private blog networks. Specifically, they can connect a network of blogs through the following information:
Same IP addresses
Similar or identical content
Uncovering this type of black hat SEO is relatively simple for search engines because it’s easy to identify these types of patterns. It may seem like a simple way to build a back link profile, but PBNs are also an easy way to have your website penalized for bad practice.
Related: 10 Strategies to Drive More Back Links
Black Hat SEO Will Affect Your Google Rankings
Today, Google algorithms are some of the most sophisticated in the world. This is a good thing for entrepreneurs and qualified optimization companies working to rank for relevant keywords. With the help of a qualified optimization firm, you can build a booming online business, but for people using unethical optimization techniques, the chances of receiving a Google penalty for black hat SEO increase with every update.
Overall, the best ways to increase your search engine rankings are to create informative content and follow Google’s rules.