The vast majority of SEOs and marketers approach search engine optimisation with the best intentions, so you may not be familiar with some of the more manipulative tactics that can be deployed to ‘cheat the algorithm’.
The full spectrum of SEO tactics can generally be categorised as either ‘white hat’ or ‘black hat’, but what do these terms mean?
White hat relates to the ethical tactics that the vast majority of SEOs deploy. White hat means abiding by the ‘rules’ and making changes based on the search guidelines set out by Google and Bing.
In contrast, black hat covers riskier practices that can be beneficial but are generally ‘unethical’ as they attempt to manipulate algorithms to boost search rankings. While not adhering to guidelines is not illegal, Google is clear that there are potential penalties for those who violate guidelines.
If the consequences can be severe, why would anyone use black hat techniques? These SEO tactics can work in the short term and usually involve shortcuts that are often easier to implement and benefit from. However, these successes can be very short lived. There are several major downsides, including:
- The potential for sudden declines in search rankings, visibility and traffic
- An inability to drive positive, sustainable long-term results
- The negative impact it can have on a website’s user experience
If you’re new to SEO or are ready to incorporate a slew of advanced tactics into your strategies for the first time, then you may be wondering what tactics are explicitly denoted as ‘black hat’. These tactics violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and should be avoided heading into 2021.
Cloaking is a deceptive technique that essentially tricks the search engine crawler into thinking that a webpage is one thing when it is actually entirely different when presented on a user’s browser. These tactics involve serving multiple instances of content or URLs, which leads to wildly differing experiences for each.
Cloaking can deceive search engines to gain higher rankings in SERPs and trick users into clicking through to a page that contains content that does not align with the description in search.
Attempting to cram in as many target keywords into your copy as possible will actively harm your attempts to improve search rankings. Keyword stuffing is one of the most well-known black hat techniques but is now even less relevant than before with Google’s recent focus on understanding each word’s finer context in a sentence.
While it was possible to manipulate a site’s rankings through the unnatural use of keywords around a decade ago, the penalties for these tactics negate any potential upsides. It is much better to focus on the judicious use of keywords within high-quality content that provides values and insights, and in turn leads to higher placements in SERPs organically.
Attempting to hide text by using the CSS programming language is a technique that has long been considered ‘spammy’. This is because it can be deployed deceptively for keyword stuffing or, more egregiously, to work in tandem with the cloaking tactic outlined earlier to deceive users in search engines.
Adding hidden text to pages is simply something that you should not do if you want to create content and pages to help visitors. Also, Google’s crawlers are more advanced than they were five years ago, so this technique is unlikely to work anyway.
Redirects are a valuable SEO resource as they can be used to link old pages to new ones, streamline site migrations, and support effective marketing campaigns. These white hat tactics are recommended and will ensure that your pages are optimised, in the right place, and accessible to crawlers and users.
However, Google will penalise any pages that use ‘sneaky’ redirects to mislead. Again, this is similar to cloaking, where black hat SEOs aim to get a search engine to index a page before redirecting users to a different URL.
Auto-generated and duplicate content
Google is never shy in stating that publishing excellent content is one of the most important ranking factors. It makes sense, then, that black hat SEOs attempt to circumvent the hard work required during the creative process by automatically generating or duplicating content.
Automatically generated content is compiled using rules or scripts and usually incorporates keyword stuffing or hidden text, but never provides the quality that readers expect. Examples of this include RSS scraped content, stitched content, basic automated text translation, and search query scripts.
Duplicate content is a bit more basic but no less harmful. This content usually shows up across several different location pages, for example. The same content is used, but the region or place is changed. Neither of these tactics will work in the long term, and it is always best to focus on creating SEO-friendly content.
According to Google, gateway or doorway pages are “created to rank highly for specific search queries”. This goes against search guidelines as the pages on your site should have a specific purpose in themselves and not just be an asset used to drive rankings for target keywords.
Gateway pages usually take pages generated to ‘funnel’ visitors to certain sections of a site or a particular page. Google says that this is bad for users as multiple similar pages can be surfaced in search that essentially lead to the same destination.
Misusing structured data
Google wants you to use structured data so that it can find out more information and context about the content on your webpages. When used correctly, structured data can help you to feature rich results in search. It will also support semantic search and your quest for expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness, more commonly known as E-A-T.
Problems arise when this mark-up is used to provide information that is factually incorrect or that deceives the users. Black hat SEOs might, for example, write fake five-star reviews to increase their business’s standing in SERPs. Anything that could mislead should be avoided.
By steering clear of black hat tactics, following search guidelines, and investing time in the right content and SEO strategies, you will give yourself the best chance to increase the visibility of your pages and deliver steady and meaningful organic traffic in the long term.