Unethical SEO Practices: Harmful Black Hat SEO Tactics

Jason BerkowitzJuly 12, 2021

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Businesses today, especially E-Commerce and blogs, rely heavily on organic search traffic to attract new customers and drive sales. Therefore, doing well at SEO (search engine optimization) will typically land you a spot on the search engine’s first page, which captures a whopping 71% of all link clinks. 

SEO now is way different than what it was ten years ago. People wrongly assumed that SEO was a manipulative marketing tactic used to cheat the algorithm and make Google think their website was fit to be in the leading search results. 

From that, black hat SEO was born, and the web was full of sneaky tricks, resulting in an unfair game for those who practiced white hat SEO. 

But Google’s ability to detect these unethical SEO practices was less advanced at this stage. So now, search engines specifically try to flag black hat SEO and have created a set of guidelines they consider unethical practices. 

To avoid getting penalties, we’ll go over black hat SEO and the unethical practices used today. 

Is SEO Unethical?

In short, SEO becomes unethical when you go against a search engine’s rules.

Hey Google, what’s your definition of unethical SEO?

Search engine companies like Google and Bing decide what they consider ethical or not and hand out penalties to SEOs that try to manipulate them. 

And the tricky part is, each search engine has its own set of rules — your SEO strategies may be valued by one search engine and completely shot down by another.

So, when discussing whether SEO is unethical or not, the answer is, it doesn’t have to be unethical. And for the most part, SEOs follow the guidelines to avoid getting penalties from search engines, making SEO a generally ethical practice. 

What Is Black Hat SEO?

Marketers often refer to unethical SEO as black hat SEO or spam. It’s not technically illegal, but overall, it’s considered a manipulative or sneaky way to skip white hat SEO practices that generally take longer to show results.

And black hat SEO is usually done with one goal in mind: get higher search engine rankings and steal the competition’s link clicks with immediate and short-lasting results. 

Black hat SEO generally involves keyword stuffing, sneaky redirects, paid links, poor quality content, etc. 

Search engines don’t like these kinds of tactics, and as they get smarter, they can point them out easier. Having said that, if you engage in black hat SEO, you should be ready to get hit with a nasty penalty. 

That’s why most SEOs don’t dare to do black hat tricks. Besides, it’s also highly frowned upon by the majority of the SEO industry. 

But the reality is, there will always be a small percentage of marketers that try to cheat the system and fast track their site’s organic traffic results.

When looking at Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, it clearly mentions avoiding “tricks” to improve rankings:

Google’s Webmaster Guidelines on SEO Tricks

Okay, but is Google really that strict? 

The answer is yes. Let’s go over what getting caught means below. 

Reasons to Avoid Black Hat SEO

Blackhat SEO can harm your brand in three main ways:

1. Negatively Impact Your Search Rankings  

First, possibly the worst-case scenario of doing black hat SEO is your search ranking suffering. 

Google penalties can range from a single URL to a complete de-listing of a domain. Here are some common types of Google penalties you want to avoid:

  • Keyword-level 
  • URL or directory level
  • Hostname level (subdomain) 
  • Domain-wide (entire domain name)
  • Delisting (aka deleting your site)

These penalties can be implemented by the algorithm or by a Google employee.  

Penalties sound pretty scary. Google can literally take your page and delete it, even if you own it.  

Losing traffic and visibility can lead to dead sales, and depending on how big your blog is, job losses or business closure. 

You could always supplement organic search loss with PPC. However, it will cost you, and you may not see a return on your investment. 

2. Drive Only Short-Term Results 

You may get a window of good results after performing black hat SEO. But, unfortunately, those results are temporary until Google detects the unethical practices either by doing a core algorithm update or conducting a manual review.

Either way, a loss of traffic is inevitable. Businesses need predictable traffic patterns, and black hat SEO can’t offer that. 

3. Results in Poor User Experiences 

Bad user experience = lower site authority.

Consistently giving users poor experiences when dealing with your website will cause visitors to perceive your brand negatively. That in itself can lower your search rankings, so adding black hat SEO to the mix is extremely dangerous. 

7 Black Hat Techniques in SEO

If you’ve recently gotten started with SEO, you’re likely getting comfortable with the clear-cut white hat strategies. 

As your website grows, you may be itching to try some new SEO strategies. Many blogs, social media groups, and forums talk about these more detailed strategies and teach users how to do them.

However, if you aren’t careful, these tactics you’ll learn about may seem legit (some might be), but within the details are violations that can lead you to unknowingly doing black hat SEO. 

Here are the types of SEO considered unethical by search engines:

Duplicate Website Content 

Duplicate content is content that appears on the internet in more than one place. That “one place” is a unique website address (URL). The content can be identical or very similar. It can also be referred to as plagiarism. 

Duplicate content can impact your search rankings because when there is, as Google calls it,  “appreciably similar” content, it can be difficult for search engines to decide which version is more relevant to the search query. 

As a site owner, you can suffer serious traffic loss, often stemming from two main issues:

  1. For user experience, search engines will rarely show two versions of the same content. They are forced to choose which version they calculate will perform better, diluting the visibility of each duplicate. 
  1. Link juice can be further affected because other sites linking back to yours need to choose between duplicates as well. Because inbound links are a ranking factor, the distribution can hurt your rankings. 

The lesson here is, do your best to ensure your content is always original. If using similar content is inevitable, foresay, you need to list a recipe or a definition of something, mark the page as “noindex” and “nofollow.” 

Keyword Stuffing 

No successful inbound marketing or SEO strategy is possible without including as many keywords into your content as possible, right? 

Wrong!

This idea was corrected a few years ago. Initially, keyword stuffing showed results, and websites were often cluttered with the same keywords all over. 

That’s no longer the case. Now, keyword stuffing is severely harmful to your search rankings and can land you a nasty Google penalty. 

Keyword stuffing often looks like this:

SEO Keyword Stuffing

Types of keyword stuffing include: 

  • Overloading your content with the same keywords and key phrases.
  • Using keywords that aren’t relevant to the content. 

An even sneakier way that people intentionally or unintentionally keyword stuff is by including it in invisible places to users. 

For example, in the alt text, hiding text on a page by highlighting it white against a white background, meta and comment tags, and even in the page’s coding. 

Whether the keyword stuffing is visible or not, search engines that crawl your site will detect it. 

How can you ensure you’re not overusing keywords in your content? 

A white hat SEO practice suggests using keywords naturally. You can do so by focusing more on the content you want users to see, not what you wish search engines to see. 

Also, ensure to use keywords where they sound natural and relevant. You don’t always need to adapt your sentences to fit a keyword if it would be better understood written differently. 

Outreach for Linkbuilding

Linkbuilding is common throughout every industry that has a blog presence. It serves as a way to get more traffic, links, brand mentions, and anything beneficial to your website. 

While it’s a perfectly valid white hat SEO tactic, it’s been corrupted by black hat SEOs over the past. 

In the case of guest posting, black hats are the definition of mass emailing. If you own a website with any substantial following, we can guarantee that you’ve gotten a ton in your inboxes and probably even more unopened in your spam folder. 

They usually look something like this:

Bad SEO Outreach Email

Sound familiar? Yeah, please don’t do it. Google will know. Besides, it’s not the type of content you want on your site anyway. 

Another red flag is a black hat will demand a follow link. Followed links give them the juice needed to boost their visibility. 

You may even see the same guest post published on multiple sites. Remember when we mentioned duplicate content? Sketchy guest posts are a great way to lower your search rankings through duplicate content and a penalty for low-quality guests posts. 

Make sure guest posts are from legit websites. You can initially know by the type of pitch they send out and check if the site is authoritative. 

Too Many Above-The-Fold Ads 

Above the fold is everything the user sees before scrolling down. These usually include texts, images, forms, and anything their eye can immediately take ahold of – without scrolling down. 

Having your above-the-fold look great is important because it helps users determine if they want to stay on your website long enough to absorb information. However, if turned off, they may bounce.

Google considers how much time users spend on your site as part of your ranking factor. So, the more attractive and useful your above the fold is, the better search rankings you’ll get.

On the other hand, including too many ads in this area is a bad SEO technique because it negatively affects the user experience. It also may fall short of Google’s page layout algorithm and cause you to lose visibility. 

Of course, Google considers it totally fine to have ads on your website, as long as they follow the Ads Policies. To avoid turning ads into a black hat technique, always distribute them through your page and never have too many. If your users feel overwhelmed by the ads, Google will likely flag your site. 

Paid Links 

Getting strong backlinks from authoritative websites is a long process requiring a lot of time and resources. That’s exactly why black hat SEOs try to exchange money for links, skipping the time-consuming process of gaining the links with real connections. 

Buying links for ranking without putting in actual effort goes against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. However, there are some instances where Google gives you the green light for buying links.  

Google considers buying and selling links as part of the economy of the web for marketing purposes, not for the manipulation of rankings. 

If you do purchase links for advertising, you can designate them by:

SEO Buying and Selling Backlinks

These codes tell Google that your links are fine, and you won’t be penalized. 

Clickbait Headlines 

Black hat SEOs use Clickbait headlines to create five different emotions in users:

  1. Fear
  2. Guilt
  3. Love
  4. Greed
  5. Pride 

While you can play these emotions honestly in a headline, clickbait headlines are manipulative about it. Users click on the article out of curiosity, but they leave quickly after realizing it isn’t relevant to the headline. 

You’ve most likely seen a spammy clickbait headline before. So the question is: did you click it?

Sometimes they are made to seem legitimate when they are just there to get more clicks!

An example of a clickbait headline looks like this: 

Clickbaiting Headlines for SEO

Clickbait headlines are a clear violation of Google’s policies and should be avoided overall. 

To avoid getting penalized for clickbait headlines, optimize them for search engines, and make them honest and relevant. 

Doorway and Gateway Pages 

Doorway pages are one of the oldest blackhat SEO tricks in the book. 

A doorway page captures visitors and redirects them to another page with the real content. Sometimes the user is expected to click a link to get there, and sometimes the doorway page uses a fast Meta refresh to the real content, so the user doesn’t even realize they were on a doorway page. 

For an E-Commerce website, a doorway page may look like a page optimized for a product category that doesn’t directly link to any items but points users to another page that does have them. 

This tactic is used to boost search rankings. However, recently Google has cracked down on doorway pages and websites with these pages needed to delete them or be wiped off the web. 

Google doesn’t like gateway pages because they obstruct the searcher from quickly finding what they’re looking for. It leads to users being confused and, ultimately, bad user experience (a.k.a Google’s enemy). 

Will SEO Still be Relevant in the Future? 

John Muller, the future trends analyst at Google, was asked about the future of SEO at the most recent Google Search Central SEO hangout.

I don’t know. Good question. I don’t have that five-minute answer on the future of SEO. I think one of the things that people always worry about is everything around machine learning and that Google’s algorithms will get so far as to automatically understand every website, and SEO will be obsolete; nobody will need to do that. I don’t think that will happen.”

Read the highlight on Search Enghine Journal

With the power of artificial intelligence today, many carry concerns that AI will take over. But, as Muller explains it, SEO won’t be fully automated but rather evolve into tools that work for search engines. 

If you think about the past 20 years of SEO, many things have evolved. For example, you use to have to write your own PHP code and craft your own HTML. Eventually, CMS’s evolved to allowing anyone to create a website without any coding knowledge.  

And the future of SEO is just that. Maybe H2 and H3 tags will be determined by the CMS to ensure the most important content is being included on the page and other changes. 

But as far as AI taking over SEO completely, Muller doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.

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Jason Berkowitz

SEO Director

Jason leads the Break The Web Search Engine Optimization team.

Based in New York City, when he’s not nerding out to SEO, Jason can be found falling from the sky as an avid skydiver.

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