Think black hat SEO is a thing of the past? Think again.
Unfortunately, underhanded and shady practices are still alive and well in the SEO world. While most SEOs and website owners don’t intentionally set out to deceive the search engines, ignorance is no excuse; using these strategies to get ahead in the search rankings will inevitably get you penalized, whether you meant to be deceptive or not.
This post will walk you through 25 of the most common black hat SEO techniques that are still being used to game the rankings. I have broken them down into three categories:
1. The bad: These are the strategies you may be using unwittingly, thinking they’re above board and won’t hurt your rankings. These are the most insidious, as they usually aren’t done deliberately and can net you an increase in your rankings – at least temporarily.
2. The really bad: These are techniques that you probably know aren’t quite kosher, but you’re willing to look the other way. You may notice an initial increase in rankings when employing these techniques, but rest assured, you’ll pay the piper eventually.
3. The downright nasty: You know it’s wrong, but you do it anyway. The allure of easy rankings is too much for you, and you just can’t seem to stop yourself. Be warned: You will get penalized. Be prepared to receive a manual penalty, at best, or a complete de-indexing of your site, at worst.
Any or all of these 25 strategies can get you in serious trouble with Google, regardless of how I’ve categorized them. And unfortunately, Google doesn’t consider ignorance an excuse.
Take a few minutes to look through this list so you know exactly what to avoid as you optimize and manage your site.
1. Guest blogging for the sole purpose of link building: Guest blogging can be extremely beneficial in terms of building your brand and expanding your reach. However, guest blogging on irrelevant or low-quality sites for the sole purpose of gaining links is not okay, and could get you in big trouble. Here’s an example of how one spammy guest post resulted in a site-wide penalty.
2. Writing short, keyword-rich content (aka keyword stuffing): Pre-Panda, writing short, “thin” content targeting specific keywords could get you ranked. Nowadays, not so much. Using keywords is still beneficial and even necessary, however keyword density should take a backseat to writing excellent content that does a thorough job of covering a topic or theme.
3. Selling links: Publishers are always looking for ways to monetize their sites, and perhaps the easiest way to do this is to accept link advertising. Often, a company will ask a publisher if they can buy ad space, and then mention they’d love a text link in a relevant piece of content. Call it advertising, if you want, but when it comes down to it, Google considers it a link scheme.
4. Product review links that pass Pagerank: Another common practice is accepting free products in exchange for a link on your site. However, according to Google, ”sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link” is considered a link scheme. To avoid this black hat technique, simply add the rel=”no follow” attribute to the link to avoid passing on any link juice.
5. Buying links: In case you didn’t already get the hint from reading #3 and #4, selling links that pass Pagerank is considered black hat. The same is obviously true for buying followed links. Novice or non-savvy publishers may not understand the technicalities of properly including links on their site (i.e., using rel=”no follow”), so it’s up to you to tell them. Don’t risk getting penalized by having your paid link pass link juice. It’s not worth the potential consequences over the long-term.
6. Over-optimizing internal links: Internal links are important for spreading link equity throughout your site. However, over-optimizing these links using keyword-rich anchor text could get you into trouble. Use natural language that will make sense to your readers rather than focusing on which keywords you want that content to rank for.
7. Over-optimizing inbound links: Same goes for inbound links you control (for instance, those in guest bios or press releases). Use natural anchor text that will entice readers to click through.
8. Keyword stuffing your alt image tags: Hardly anyone sees what you write in your alt image text, so it’s ok to stuff your keywords there, right? Wrong. While it probably won’t result in any kind of penalty, it will be highly annoying and frustrating to your visually-impaired visitors, and likely won’t do anything for your on-page SEO anyway.
9. Link exchanges: Google wants to see a natural link profile, and reciprocal links created around the same time just don’t fit this profile. Instead of asking for link exchanges, work at creating high-quality content that naturally attracts links.
10. Buying placements in low-quality directories: All links are not created equal. While paying for a (no followed) link on a high-quality, editorialized directory can be just fine, buying a link on a generic directory that’s obviously more about SEO than user experience could get you into trouble.
The Really Bad
11. Using irrelevant keywords just to rank: Content marketing requires a steady stream of written and visual content, and the temptation to find shortcuts can be intense. One way some marketers attempt to do this is by incorporating unrelated or irrelevant keywords into new or existing content, simply to rank for those keywords. Google has gotten pretty good at identifying the true topic of a page through the use of Latent Semantic Indexing, so this strategy is unlikely to work anyway.
12. Manual article spinning (see automated article spinning below): There has been a lot written about automated article spinning, which is obviously black hat. However, manual article spinning happens ALL THE TIME, and yet we rarely talk about it. It’s taking existing articles and manually changing up the title, some of the wording and maybe playing around with the format to create a new article. The problem is, a good chunk of these spun articles will get dinged with a duplicate content penalty. Pay for new, original content instead – it will be more expensive, but it’s worth it.
13. Improper use or abuse of rich snippets: Rich snippets can be a powerful way to attract clicks on the search engine results page (SERP). However, including snippets that aren’t relevant to your site or page can result in a spammy structured markup penalty. When using rich snippets, make sure you choose one that actually matches the content of your page (e.g., don’t use a review snippet if your page doesn’t actually have reviews!).
14. Meta keyword stuffing: While over-optimizing your meta keywords won’t result in any penalties, it also won’t give you any advantage in terms of rankings. Same goes for your meta description: While Google doesn’t use the content of your description as a ranking factor, it does serve as your ad copy in the SERPs. Make sure it accurately describes the content of your page in an appealing and enticing way.
15. Spammy footer links: Footer links can be very useful for helping your visitors navigate around your site. However, some sites use the footer to include links that are more about capturing rankings for certain keywords than they are about providing a great user experience. A good rule of thumb is this: If you’re providing a link in your footer because it’s actually useful to your visitors, go for it. If you’re only including it for ranking purposes, remove it. And in general, avoid any kind of external links in your footers…in the words of Moz’s Cyrus Shepherd, “Don’t link externally in the footer. Just don’t. I’m not going to go into the reasons. Just don’t do that.”
The Downright Nasty
16. The old bait and switch: Basically, this involves waiting for a page to get indexed and start ranking, then replacing it with a completely different page. This may get your irrelevant content ranking temporarily, but Google will figure it out eventually. This strategy will also send your bounce rates through the roof, making the benefits of this technique minimal.
17. Cloaking: This technique presents one version of a page to the search engines and another to users. Examples Google gives are showing Flash content to users while showing HTML content to the search engines, or serving certain text only to search engines (because it’s really not relevant to human visitors).
18. Doorway pages: These are pages created for the specific purpose of ranking for a keyword in order to funnel visitors to a different page. The problem with this technique is that doorway pages offer little to no useful content, and they often result in various (useless) pages taking up all the top rankings for a given keyword.
19. Automated article spinning: Google ‘article spinning’ and you’ll find a whole host of tools that let you automatically spin or paraphrase existing content. The quality of these spun articles are poor (at best), and the resulting content will likely still get you dinged for duplicate content.
20. Linkbaiting….then switching: This is a strategy whereby a site attracts links to a particular page or article, then switches out the content to something more commercial. For instance, they may write a high-quality blog post that naturally accumulates many links, then add to, edit or completely revamp the page for the sole purpose of selling a product or service.
21. Invisible text: Using hidden text on a site is very 2000, but unbelievably, it still happens. The idea is to disguise keywords on a page by matching the text color to the background color or positioning text offscreen using CSS (so it’s visible only to search engines).
22. Comment spamming: Hardcore comment spamming involves the use of special software to leave links in the comments of various blogs. The idea is that you can generate a large number of backlinks to your site in a short amount of time, potentially increasing your rankings. Fortunately, Google is great at identifying and devaluing these types of links.
23. Domain squatting: Also know as cybersquatting, this strategy involves buying up domain names for the purpose of selling them to the person or company who owns the trademark on that name. This strategy may also take the form of typosquatting, which is buying up domains that contain common typos for a popular trademarked term.
24. Scraping: This technique is exactly what it sounds like: scraping content from one site and using it on another. The purpose of this strategy is to attract search traffic to the scraped content, and then profit through visitors clicking on pay-per-click ads (usually AdSense).
25. Creating a web ring to cross-link between sites: A web ring is simply a bunch of sites that link to each other. While web rings aren’t inherently bad, when created for the specific purpose of increasing search rankings they become just another link scheme.
While there are certainly other black hat SEO techniques I didn’t cover in this post, this is a pretty comprehensive list of the most common ones. Remember that while these strategies may increase your traffic in the short-term, they’ll likely damage your reputation and rankings over the long-term.
Special Note: if you have suffered a loss, here is The 12-Step Program To Recover Your Blog From Any Google Penalty that I put together to help you get over and recover from your Google penalty.
Focusing on creating a steady stream of high-quality content can be a lot of work, but in my opinion, the long-term SEO and traffic benefits make it well worth your while.