In the SEO world, strategies can be divided into two broad categories: white hat and black hat SEO. The denotation is somewhat archaic, as the terminology arose in the early days of SEO when tactics were almost unrecognizable from what they are today, so it’s generally safe to assume that when someone talks about “SEO” in a modern setting, they’re referring to white hat SEO.
Even if you’re completely new to SEO, you can probably guess that “white hat” SEO is “good” and “black hat” SEO is “bad,” based on the names alone, and you’d be right. Black hat tactics are ones that use deception, manipulation, and gimmicks to trick search engines into ranking a site higher than it otherwise would rank. White hat tactics, on the other hand, use natural, holistic techniques to improve a site’s visibility in organic search results. White hat techniques tend to take longer to yield results, but won’t put you at risk of manual or algorithmic penalties which can permanently erase any gains. Black hat tactics tend to result in quick gains, but will almost certainly result in such penalties; it’s just a matter of time until you’re caught.
But as you might imagine, the line between “good” and “bad” isn’t always straightforward. White hat tactics can be technically manipulative, since we’re taking specific actions with the goal of trying to rank higher in organic search, but what does that mean for black hat practices? Are they all deceitful, penalty-earning, shameful acts, or are some of them capable of earning real results? Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
Keyword stuffing is the practice of implementing a certain keyword a specific number of times on a page of your site (or maybe throughout your site). Back in the days when Google operated on a keyword-based search understanding, this was an effective way of increasing your relevance. T
oday, however, Google’s semantic search capabilities render this strategy ineffective. Not only will it do little to increase your rankings, it could actually bring your rankings down if it interferes with the quality or “naturalness” of your content. It’s okay to use keywords as means of describing your pages for search engines (e.g., in the titles and meta descriptions of your pages), but putting a keyword somewhere it wouldn’t otherwise naturally appear is unequivocally a bad idea.
Hiding Text On-site
This is an older technique, so it’s used with far less frequency today, but it’s still important to address. This is the practice of using invisible text on a website (for example, using white text on a white background) — essentially, Google will be able to see this information, but users won’t be able to see it. If a swath of content works well for search engines but doesn’t work well for users (e.g., keyword-heavy content, boring content, or legal content), it’s sometimes relegated to this invisible position.
There are two problems with this. First, in today’s world, what’s good for users is what’s good for Google. If it’s something you don’t want your readers to see, it’s something you don’t want Google to see. Second, if Google detects you using invisible text (and it will eventually), you’ll probably get penalized.
Google considers inbound links as third-party indicators of trust, authority, and relevance, so more links is always better, right? Wrong. Google explicitly forbids any “link schemes” designed to get you more links without actually earning them, and the most egregious offenders are paid links. This is the process of paying external sites to link to yours. This might work in the short term, but eventually, Google will become wise to your scheme, and when it does, your website will get hit with a penalty. Plus, any authority you could theoretically gain with this is minimal, as most sites that would resort to selling links are probably not worth getting links from anyway.
Duplicating or Spinning Content
The SEO industry is plagued by the thinking that more is always better. Google indexes your content, so more content must mean more ranked pages and higher authority, right?
Again, wrong. Google cares about the quality and originality of your content far more than its volume. If you’re detected plagiarizing content, duplicating content that already exists, or “spinning” preexisting articles into slightly different versions, you’re unlikely to see any benefits in organic search results, and you’ll likely end up getting penalized.
Cloaking and Sneaky Redirects
Any attempt to “trick” search engines is probably a bad idea. Sneaky redirects, which force users to a page they didn’t intend to visit, and the “cloaking” technique, which shows users a different page than search engine crawlers index, are examples of this. There are a handful of situations in which these techniques can be used validly, but as a general rule, they should be avoided. Google will discover your tricks eventually, and you’ll probably irritate your users in the meantime.
This list isn’t exhaustive — there are other black hat tactics I haven’t included here — but this list covers the most common ones. As you can see, there’s no benefit to using black hat practices. Even if you somehow escape from the situation unscathed by a ranking penalty from Google, the user experience loss you suffer will compromise your brand’s integrity and will probably lead to lower conversion rates at a minimum. While “black hat” doesn’t always mean “evil” (most of us built some questionable links in the early days of SEO, after all), stay on the white hat side of the industry.