Search engine optimization is a priority for marketing teams of all shapes and sizes. Higher rankings mean more traffic, visibility and conversions – so the incentive is quite clear.
However, SEO isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor. There are many different ways to approach SEO, and what works for one company may not work for another. In spite of this, some tactics are better than others and are more likely to work for a longer period of time.
When choosing an SEO strategy for your business, it’s important to understand best practices as well as the most effective ways to succeed while still following Google’s rules and preferences (like writing high-quality SEO content).
This post covers what you need to know about black hat SEO, including how it works, when it works, what the future may hold, and why sticking with white hat techniques is the best way to approach SEO in the long-term.
Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO
In general, SEO practices can be divided into two categories: white hat and black hat. White hat practices are considered those done in good faith that play by the rules of Google’s search guidelines. Things like the legitimate use of keywords and high-quality content are considered white hat strategies as these are the kinds of activities that Google encourages.
Black hat SEO techniques, on the other hand, skirt Google’s rules in order to see an immediate boost in traffic. These options are considered less legitimate and are seen as a way to break rules (or bend them, at best) in order to get ahead. While Google often penalizes sites caught using blatant black hat techniques, there are too many tactics and too many players out there for Google to catch all of them.
And, while many of the more basic strategies, like keyword stuffing, are known and actively discouraged, even automatically penalized in Google’s algorithm, there are still some more advanced black hat techniques that still slip past Google’s ever-evolving algorithms and thus avoid SEO penalties. That is, unless a Google employee finds it and issues a manual penalty to a site.
These are the black hat SEO options that Google may not notice today – but is certainly aware of and looking to crack down on in the future.
Want to drive traffic to your site? Of course you do! So, doesn’t it make sense to have as many pages as possible ranking that lead back to your contact or purchase pages? That’s where doorway pages come in – highly templated pages with thin, duplicated content that exist solely to rank for niche, long-tail keywords.
In theory, this makes sense. After all, peppering your site with keyword-rich doorway pages provides more content across the web that belongs to your company. And since these pages are often optimized for niche long-tail keywords, they often rank very well. This can lead to an increase in organic traffic as searchers click on these doorway pages.
However, visitors are often greeted by a really poor experience on these pages, and immediately directed to actually important pages on the site. While some will make it to these pages, others will click away within a few seconds to find another resource that actually has something valuable to offer.
The problems with doorway pages are clear – but wouldn’t giving up on doorway pages mean less traffic? Savannah Little, a Senior SEO Specialist at WRAL Digital Solutions, explains that the switch from unqualified traffic to qualified traffic can look like a decline year over year – but the metrics often tell a different story. As she puts it, “part of the transition from black hat techniques to white hat techniques includes imparting on the client the knowledge that not all traffic is good traffic and having less organic traffic is okay, especially when they’re converting at a higher rate and the year-over-year conversions are up.”
It’s important to distinguish between doorway pages established for the sake of being doorway pages and legitimate landing pages that differentiate between things like service areas. These kinds of pages, like city pages, can function in a similar way to doorway pages but as they provide quality user experiences, the end result is quite different.
For many businesses, putting more effort into what are effectively doorway pages and building valuable landing pages with great content could yield greater results and mean they don’t have to take down their existing pages.
Maintaining a website is a critical part of ongoing operations for pretty much any company. From time to time, domains expire, either as companies go under or choose to go in another direction online. However, domains aren’t just destroyed when they expire: they go up for sale to other buyers.
A common black hat strategy involves purchasing expired domains that previously ranked well and had backlinks from the kind of reputable sites Google likes to see. Then, fresh content can be created under the old URLs to include anything the buyer wants while still preserving the backlinks already in place. While this works superficially, Google is getting smarter at evaluating relevance, which puts this strategy on unsteady ground moving into 2020.
“This is a black hat tactic because it’s taking advantage of Google’s preference to rank highly authoritative websites in search,” explains Nikola Roza, the CEO and Owner of Nikola Roza – SEO for the Poor and Determined. “This tactic is on its way out in 2020 and beyond, because Google is getting smarter at determining relevance, and they will soon be able to figure out algorithmically this glaring lack of relevance, and devalue links pointing to these domains. And this will tank those black hat sites for good.”
Scholarship link-building isn’t a terribly popular strategy but it’s still considered viable by some who are focused on getting valuable .edu links at all costs. These .edu links are valuable, often because the institutions behind them have huge domain authority, but the context of why you’re getting the backlink matters here.
In essence, a company creates and advertises a scholarship for students in hopes that different schools and scholarship sites will feature their scholarship and include links to the company’s site.
In many cases, the scholarship never pays out, and if it does, the amount is small and the purpose isn’t to reward students – it’s to game Google’s system.
“Even IF a webmaster pays out the scholarship, there’s misaligned intent and clear desire to ‘game’ the system, which is against Google’s Terms of Service. While Google hasn’t released a specific update targeting these profiles, scholarship link building is a clear footprint. Google COULD easily crackdown if (or when) they want to,” states Ewen Finser, a digital marketer and the Founder of TheDigitalMerchant.com.
Private Blog Networks
Private blog networks, or PBNs, have long been a fallback for companies of all sizes. This strategy involves the creation of a network of seemingly authoritative sites simply for the purpose of building links to a primary website.
Note – sites created for PBNs often use expired domains with existing quality backlinks.
While now largely out of vogue as Google is getting better at detecting this strategy, some businesses still believe that using PBNs is the best way to enhance domain authority.
However, Google now values page authority over domain authority, immediately decreasing the value in this once-trusted strategy. Google is also specifically targeting PBNs and has actually been de-indexing these pages if a network is suspected.
Link Swapping and Buying
Most marketers are aware that building backlinks is critical to search rankings and building authority, but not all are sure how to create an effective linking strategy organically. As such, link buying and link swapping have become a popular option for those who understand the principles behind linking as an SEO strategy but aren’t sure how to get started.
Link swapping is often managed through closed Facebook pages catering to niche industries that exist solely as a way to swap links. This essentially creates a large web of reciprocal linking. While this is in the grey area of SEO, it’s not an overly valuable tactic.
Andy Chadwick of Digital Quokka explains how this concept works, and why it’s not a great idea, calling a site that relies on the existence of link swapping, “a site whose link profile is almost entirely made up from domains who they too have linked to. You’ll see this most commonly on “mummy” and “recipe” type blogs where users will write a recipe and then link to their friend’s similar recipe and vice versa. We know Google’s actively targeting these sites,” he warns, citing an unnamed Google update from November.
Link buying, on the other hand, is considered questionable SEO from an ethical standpoint and Google strongly advises against it. For those in small or difficult niches, developing the content necessary to build quality backlinks can be a challenge.
To get around this, many SEOs make use of services that explicitly sell links from websites that meet certain criteria. There are different ways this is achieved including getting links added to existing posts, publishing new guest posts, and even getting links added to directories.
This lets the SEO choose the exact site placement he wants, what page of his it will link to, and also the anchor text he wants included in the backlink. In theory, it’s a really powerful tactic.
Andy Chadwick explains why this idea is less effective than taking the necessary steps to do things right: “You need to ‘link build.’ Again, normally you’d pay for someone to do this. Here is where the subtle difference is – ‘link building’ should be done by building up relationships and making the right people aware that your content exists. ‘Buying’ is simply exchanging cash in place for a link. Normally the latter yields very poor results, especially in the long run, because if the site is selling links to you, they’re probably selling it to loads of other sites to and, eventually, the site will become spammy.”
What Can Go Wrong?
These tactics can and do work for many SEOs. SEOs, if nothing else, are great at finding new tactics that will drive results. They’re also quick to abandon tactics that no longer offer any value.
Most of the tactics we’ve discussed have at least been discouraged by Google, which means they’ll likely try to reduce the tactics’ influence in Google’s search algorithm in upcoming updates. Or, they’ll build penalties into the algorithm. Either way – it will likely mean a drop in rankings and traffic for businesses that relied on these tactics.
A bigger threat to be aware of though comes in the form of manual penalties. This happens when someone from Google’s search team identifies unnatural SEO tactics on a site or group of sites and applies a manual penalty to the domain. This can result in a site being entirely removed from Google, and these penalties are notoriously hard to recover from.
White Hat Options
So if these black hat SEO tactics aren’t the best way forward for your SEO, what should you focus on?
There are actually a lot of ways to boost your SEO in a white hat way:
- Create high-quality and comprehensive content. On-page factors are hugely important, so having the best quality content on the web can do wonders for your SEO. An upside to this is that you’re likely to earn backlinks to your site if other marketers view your resources as valuable.
- Build link magnets – things like original research, surveys, tools, etc. – they’re all things that other marketers might consider linking to when attempting to add value to their audiences.
- Link outreach – there’s nothing wrong with reaching out directly to publishers in related fields and asking them to link to your resources. If it adds value to their readers, they might do it.
- Public relations – what’s old is new again, as they say. Public relations has evolved into a way for marketers to get major publications, bloggers, and influencers to cover newsworthy stories. If you can get this kind of coverage, the links are usually from high domain authority sites and carry a ton of weight.
These are just a few approaches to try, but it’s important to keep in mind that they’re all likely to hold up over time and won’t run you much risk of being penalized by Google. That’s better for your business long-term.
And although doing things the white hat way may not be as quick or easy to generate large numbers of backlinks, the results are often better.
As Reece Mack, an SEO Manager at Trek Marketing explains, “Consider Public Relations outreach, opinion articles, and guest posting to improve your authority and authentically build your public profile. These days, the quantity of backlinks doesn’t hold as much weight as the quality.”
Choosing Black Hat Options
For those who want to go from A to Z while skipping the rest of the alphabet, black hat techniques can seem enticing. However, it’s important to realize that Google’s approach to determining search results gets more sophisticated every day. The black hat strategies that work today, regardless to what extent, likely won’t work for long. As such, it’s very important that those considering these strategies understand the limitations – including the fact that any perceived growth is unlikely to generate real results in the long-term.
By staying on the up and up and perfecting skills in the white hat tactics Google encourages, it’s much easier to see sustainable and real growth that can benefit your business at a base level – not just on the surface.