Web success doesn’t come easily, especially if you’re aiming at a highly-competitive market or subject matter. As such, it’s important to be seen on a search engine–we’d never deny this.
After all, even the second page of Google results feels like the spooky cellar in grandma’s house–most people aren’t interested in seeing what’s lurking down there. They’ll only uneasily tread down those steps if they really need something–mousetraps, for instance, or a jar of strawberry preserves.
It’s equally important, however, to reach your optimal search result ranking the right and ethical way. Not everybody feels this way, though–hence our comprehensive guide to recognizing and detecting these methods.
Aren’t All SEO Techniques a Little Like Cheating?
While common Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques might seem like a “bag of tricks,” they’re akin to the “white magic” of Gandalf, Merlin, or David Blaine. They’re not like the dark magic of Saruman, Voldemort, or Ozzy Osbourne.
The former, “nice” techniques are not the topic we’ll be looking at today. Oh, no–not by a longshot. Today we’ll be talking about *cue scary music*…BLACK HAT SEO techniques.
Black Hat SEO is loosely defined as any practice that goes against a search engine’s guidelines and regulations. The goal? TOTAL INTERNET DOMINATION, mwahaha!
The result, however? Getting your site erased from the search engine altogether (usually after a nasty warning, but sometimes just being banished from the “interwebs” altogether).
Here are a just a few of these techniques we’ll be looking at throughout this article:
- Keyword Manipulation
- Content Scamming
- Fraudulent/Dubious Links
How Does Black Hat SEO Differ from Regular “White Hat” Techniques?
Throughout this article, you might find yourself wondering whether you’ve inadvertently used some of these techniques–a good “rule of thumb” is that if you didn’t intend to, you probably fall closer to the white hat camp. While you should rectify any SEO problem areas, you’re unlikely to be banned from a search engine unless you’ve actively used these bad techniques to improve your SERP.
Do People Really Still Use These Techniques?
If you’re pretty technologically savvy (and since you’re reading this, we’ll assume that you are), you’re probably thinking, “Didn’t these techniques die out along with pagers and CD players?”
The answer, strangely, is: not really. People are still desperate to reach the top, and while there are some crafty exploiters out there, many people are still using these paper-thin scams–potentially including your competition.
Concepts to Understand Before Reading On…
You should already have your own site’s SEO strategy “on fleek” as the kids say. This means, just to name a few things:
- Having your own targeted keywords
- Possessing a basic understanding of what SEO is
- Knowing how to read and interpret analytic graphs
Getting in the Right Frame of Mind to Analyze Black Hat Techniques
Black Hat techniques are a lot like cheating, so we think it’s prudent to use a sports metaphor to get you thinking in the right way:
Let’s say that the lowest-ranked football team in your area has suddenly shot to the top of the standings–without the addition of a brilliant new forward, an inspiring new coach, or a goalie like a brick wall. It doesn’t exactly take a paranoid mind to suspect that something foul might be afoot.
Maybe the team is using steroids, maybe they’re paying their competition to “take a dive” and lose games on purpose, who knows? The point is that success, in real life or the internet, is usually obtained gradually and through hard work. It doesn’t come out of the clear blue sky.
To end this little analogy, let’s say that you are the referee or league commissioner who’s trying to solve the mystery of their inexplicable success. Or, if you are more of a literary type, grab your derby hat and Meerschaum pipe, because you’re now Sherlock Holmes.
Keywords are one of the first SEO techniques beginners learn, so what better place to start learning how SEO is abused?
Let’s say you own a music store in Melbourne; keyboards, guitars, kazoos–the whole bit. Let’s say your the only one in town (lucky you). In this case, you’ve probably got the market cornered on search engine terms like “music store in Melbourne.”
Now let’s say that five or six new music shops open up in the area–doesn’t matter why, let’s say there was a sudden influx of hippies from a music festival who decided to take root.
Suddenly, yours is not the only website in the area vying for the top SERP for “music store in Melbourne” or “best music shop in Melbourne.”
A long time ago, in a galaxy far away (okay, it was more like twenty years ago…) websites could claw their way to the top of the ranks by publishing a plethora of blog posts and pages that contained the phrase “music store in Melbourne” over and over again, ad nauseum.
This is keyword stuffing, and while it is still somewhat prevalent, it is more often than not a way to get Google to flag your site as spam.
This isn’t the only kind of keyword stuffing, though. Other examples include:
- Adding long lists of phone numbers or websites that add no substantive value to your site (especially ones that don’t have anything to do with your content)
- Long blocks of texts related to the cities or states the site is attempting to corner
- Loading these keywords, in a similar fashion, into meta tags, page descriptions, or backlinks
- Really sneaky ways, such as using this text in a hidden fashion (for example, “invisible text” that’s written in the same color as the site’s background or in print so tiny that it is nearly impossible to read–those sly dogs think of everything!
Is This Black Hat?
Keyword stuffing is one of the most debatable of the “white hat/black hat SEO technique” debate; while the search engine is the ultimate, subjective arbiter of this decision, it largely comes down to intent:
Repetitive blog posts might be accidental, or they might have been created with a flawed idea of how to create search engine friendly content. Usually, “offenses” like these are dealt with by no more than a digital “slap on the wrist.”
Keyword stuffing examples like the hidden text method, mentioned above, are clearly more intentional (although they could have been instituted by a devious web designer, or in rarer cases a hacker). These garner much heavier punishments from search engines, including outright banning–usually for repeat offenses or failures to comply. This is the digital equivalent of “life in prison without parole (served out in solitary confinement).”
Now let’s take a look at your website’s content itself; it’s the crucial aspect of attracting readers, viewers, or customers to your site in a legitimate way, after all.
Copied (Plagiarized) Content
Even if you’re not a fan of the television show “The Simpsons,” you’re probably familiar with the image of spiky-haired young Bart being punished by writing 100 times on the chalkboard, “I will not (insert offence here).”
Repeat after us–pull out your very own chalkboard if you need to: I WILL NOT PUBLISH COPIED CONTENT.
Not only is reposting content without attribution or permission wrong, but it’s also illegal. Even in the case of the nebulous, hard-to-understand “Fair Use” laws of 1976, content used with the purpose “to inform” must make up only a small fraction of the whole and not provide it with its whole value.
Even grade schools run their students’ papers through a plagiarism detector these days–what makes you think Google, currently the most powerful entity on earth (with apologies to the Kardashian family) isn’t doing the same thing?
We get it: writing useful, exciting content is tough. Ideas don’t come readily. It was even written in Scripture that “nothing is new under the sun.” If that sentiment was true thousands of years ago, how are you going to come up with a unique idea?
Many people, feeling this struggle, have decided to let machines do the writing for them. The content aggregating software can, in theory, write “articles” that feature your industry’s latest, greatest buzzwords. Here’s the rub, though: they’re so obviously written by another machine.
Chaos theoreticians and quantum scientists have famously posed the idea that 1,000,000 monkeys in a room with 1,000,000 typewriters for 1,000,000 years would even produce the works of Shakespeare (half the time, monkeys, and typewriters would be needed to create the work of American novelist Dan Brown), but don’t let that fool you into thinking that rudimentary software is going to produce readable content for your website.
A similar strategy is to use the slightly more advanced “content spinners,” which take popular articles and rephrase them just enough to pass as “original.” The result of these is usually something akin to listening to a recent Russian immigrant try to explain the article to you–with no offence meant to the beautiful Russian people. Again–not a way to create readable content (and more than likely a way to get flagged by Google for using black hat SERP improvement strategies)
Perhaps you’re familiar with the following idea, used initially to parody adverts and marketing:
Now that we’ve gotten your attention, it’s time to go to the doctor to get your cholesterol checked.
That’s a linguistic form of the internet tool known as clickbait. To be fair though, the internet usually uses something more akin to:
Now that we’ve got your attention buy my eBook on 50 ways to get a free iPad.
Clickbait is far too common on the internet, and it speeds up your click-through-rate (CTR) and bounce rate (how quickly users navigate away from your page). Both of these will hurt your search engine rankings in the long-term and, as such, are not worth it.
Bait and switch is a technique by which you attempt to top the Google ranks by writing one page, waiting for it to become successful, and then changing it to the product they wanted to sell in the first place.
We’ll hand it to whoever thought of this technique: it’s probably the craftiest we’ve seen (other than the hidden text), but it’s an unethical black hat strategy–one that Google’s catching on to, too. Don’t try it!
Now, let’s look at the hidden side of black hat SEO: manipulating links to make a site appear more legitimate. Google views backlinks (links from other sites to yours) as those sites “vouching for” or “recommending” yours. The white hat way is to build a relationship with related sites and earn these positive references, but we’re focusing on blackhat, so follow us down the rabbit hole, if you dare.
There are many methods used to accomplish this, but here are a few of the most common:
There are many dubious services online that will link sites to each other in a circular (or web-like) way. This is known as a webring, and it’s a technique you should avoid (both to save money and to save your reputation).
Spammy Guest-Posting Requests
This is a black hat method that many sites get fooled into adopting. A “blogger” will send them a request to post one of their “articles,” when in reality it is just a lame attempt to get their link posted on another site. These often occur in the comments section, which is why it’s important to monitor all aspects of your site.
Buying “Reviews” Through Free Products
Some companies (although assuredly not yours, dear reader) send users free stuff in exchange for positive reviews of their products or services. This is one of the most laborious methods to detect–although TripAdvisor was recently successful in their attempts to find and remove businesses using this common black hat technique.
If you’re trying to grow your business and your website, there is no excuse to use these techniques–especially when we’ve got so many great articles and resources available to help you do SEO the right way.
The reasons for this should be abundantly clear, but if you feel an Anakin Skywalker-like pull toward the power of the “dark side,” allow us to remind you of a few critical things:
- Your website should be a tool to create a dialogue between you and your readers or prospective customers/buyers. If they feel tricked or misled by the content on your page (or if they think you’re just a spam operation), the chances of conversion are minimal at best.
- Competition is the name of the game in the digital marketplace–nobody likes a cheater, and eventually those who play unethically are either shunned or banned outright.
- Google and other search engines only get more sophisticated over time–these techniques might have fooled the first search engines (remember AskJeeves, lol–bet you haven’t thought about them in a decade) but they’ll stick out like a sore thumb as algorithms continue to improve.
- Your SERP is not worth your soul! Internet success is built through creating valuable, high-quality content–not quick-fix schemes. In the words of reggae star Jimmy Cliff, “The harder they come, the harder they fall–one and all.”
Here are some easy ways to see if your competitors are using Black Hat SEO Techniques…
We have some bad news for you: there is more bad behaviour on the internet than ever.
We also have good news: detecting dodgy internet behaviour is easier than ever–especially with the use of these tools.
Take a little time to check out each of these tools, as we’ll be referencing them frequently throughout the “detection portion.”
Ahrefs Positions Explorer is a handy tool to see just how “organic” a site’s visibility is.
Dramatic dips invisibility are often a sign that your competitor was hit with some penalty from Google, while sudden, inexplicable upswings invisibility might indicate that some shenanigans are afoot.
Google Grump is another handy tool that shows how a site’s visibility has changed through Google’s many algorithm updates.
Note: These dips in activity are not necessarily signs that a site is using below-the-belt methods to achieve internet success. On the contrary, they might be using legitimate strategies like link-building or improving their searches for mobile
Illegitimate or shady backlinks are the online equivalent of “skeletons in the closet.” Have your competitors “sold their internet souls” for a taste of success? This is a great way to find out.
Ahrefs Site Explorer’s overview page charts a website’s decline and growth over time. The area you should look at is their “Referring Pages” (backlinks). Look for spikes in referring pages that point to your competition’s sites.
Are they Quality Links?
Do the sites linking to your competitor seem legitimate, or are they full of ads and spammy content?
Are these sites relevant to your industry? It would be pretty strange indeed if, say, some golf websites were linking to an e-cigarette company.
Are the embedded links (or naked URL’s) natural, or do they seem like they were merely designed to attach the right link to the right keyword (more on anchor text tricks below)? This is often a sign of Black Hat “pay-to-play” backlinking.
Put simply: the more low-quality, illegitimate websites linking to your competitor’s site, the more likely it is that they are “wearing the black hat.”
Majestic has a good scoring mechanism for checking the CF/TF.
Analyzing Anchor Text
Embedded links (those placed in hypertext, as opposed to merely listing a URL) are well-worth examining.
Through Ahrefs, look up the site’s “Anchors” section (a subcategory of “Anchors”).
Are competitors using only one or two high-volume search terms? They’re trying to corner the market with black hat techniques.
The internet is a dog-eat-dog world, and much as you might not want to be a tattle-tale or snitch in your day-to-day life, you deserve to be on an even playing field with your competitors.
Tools like SERPstat allow you to compare Facebook shares and organic keywords. Sites with high search engine rankings but no social media shares deserve your scrutiny.
Our old friend Ahrefs can help here. Under the Organic Research category, navigate to “Recent Changes.” This yields a day-to-day report that shows their ranking fluctuations by individual keywords. Majestic can help too with their citation report.
If a competitor has suddenly skyrocketed to the top of Google results for your keyword, you should always check their social media platforms to see if they’re posting a lot of relevant content containing the keyword. If so, we’re sorry to say that you’re genuinely being “bested” by them and need to step up your efforts.
If one of your competitors is doing suspiciously well, it’s time to head to the source: their website.
The most straightforward technique to suss out is keyword stuffing. It’s easy to identify.
The Wayback Machine can help you identify notable changes that your competitor has made to augment their site.
Compare their site before and after significant changes in search engine popularity.
Some of these might be legitimate strategies, such as improving their website or offering new products and content. If so, you don’t have much of a complaint against them.
Don’t Rush to Judgment
It’s important to be prudent and gather all necessary information before you come to the assessment that your competition is trying to gain the upper hand through Black Hat SEO techniques.
While it’s somewhat unlikely, these website changes may have come about as the result of hacking. Sometimes hackers generate spam pages on a website, entirely unbeknownst to them.
What You Can Do About Cheating Competitors
Okay, let’s say you’ve caught your rival website in the act; they’re guilty of wearing the black hat. The obvious question is: What can you do about it now?
Well, as we see it, there are two primary methods to deal with it, as well as a third alternative method:
1. Take the “Wait and See” Approach
Chances are if you have been able to detect these questionable strategies, Google will not be far behind. We’re not here to criticise your sleuthing methods (after all, we’ve taught you everything you know–wink, wink), but Google’s analytics get more and more sophisticated each year.
2. Take Strong Action
If you’re outraged (we can’t say we blame you) and you demand ****VENGEANCE*** (all capital letters, no mercy), your best option is to fill out a Google Spam Report.
However, heed this word of caution: be sure before you take this drastic action.
Have you ever played the table-top game Clue? If not, it’s a simple murder mystery game where you try to determine who killed the wealthy mansion owner, by what method, and in what room of the house.
Throughout the game you gather “evidence,” and round by round you can say “I suspect (insert name here) of the murder with (insert weapon here) in the (insert room here).”
A player wins the game by accusing the culprit, weapon, and location. However, that player is disqualified if their accusation is incorrect.
We’re not saying that Google will “disqualify” you, but you might get hit with a penalty yourself, or become the target of increased scrutiny. Not always, but it’s worth considering–after all, Google doesn’t like having their time wasted or playing “internet police.”
“Option” 3: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em!
The third “option” is to don the black hat yourself and copy their dodgy search engine conquering strategies. (Hint: do not choose option three)
That about wraps it up! Thanks for reading this piece–it will take time to implement these strategies–indeed, it’s an ongoing process–but in the long-run, your site will thank you later!