What Is Black Hat SEO? 9 Risky Techniques To Avoid

Connor Lahey

Nov 19, 202011 min read
What Is Black Hat SEO


Step back 10 years, and many wrongly assumed that SEO was a manipulative marketing tactic that was all about ‘cheating the algorithm’ and using tactics to make Google think your website was the best result for a search query.

This should have never been the case, and SEOs should have always focused their efforts on creating that best result on the web, not just making it seem as though it is.

But Google’s algorithms were less advanced at this stage, especially when it came to identifying web spam. 

Many marketers prolifically used black hat SEO tactics to rank websites; however, times have changed. In this guide, we’re going to take a deep dive into what techniques should be avoided if you don’t want to fall foul of the algorithm and Webmaster Quality Guidelines.

Specifically, we’ll cover:

What is Black Hat SEO?

Black hat SEO are tactics that are used to rank a website that violates search engine guidelines. Black hat SEO techniques attempt to manipulate search engine algorithms to increase a site's rankings on the SERPs.
Search engines, such as Google to Bing, make it very clear which types of practices go against their terms. They're also quite clear on the potential outcomes if you violate their guidelines. Using black hat SEO tactics can lead to your website being penalized (either algorithmically or with a manual action), which means lower-ranking positions and, most likely, a decline in organic traffic.

The Risks of Black Hat SEO

There are significant risks involved with using black hat tactics to rank your website, and that's the reason why most SEOs choose not to consider such approaches. The majority of the SEO industry deems these practices to be completely unethical.

But the reality is that there are, and likely always will be, a small percentage of marketers who want to try and cheat the system and try to fast-track their site's organic success. However, even if black hat SEO techniques prove to work for your website, the results are often short-lived. 

When looking at Google's Webmaster Guidelines, we can clearly see that their guidance on the basic principles of SEO:

Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you'd feel comfortable explaining what you've done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?"

When it comes to using black hat tactics, the fact is that these techniques don't help users, and they wouldn't be used if search engines didn't exist.

3 Reasons To Avoid Black Hat SEO

But just what are the worst-case scenarios if a site uses black hat SEO to rank? 

Digging deeper into Google's Webmaster Guidelines, we can see that these clearly state that such violations "may lead to a site being removed entirely from the Google index or otherwise affected by an algorithmic or manual spam action." The guidelines also go on to state that "if a site has been affected by a spam action, it may no longer show up in results on Google.com or on any of Google's partner sites."

While SEO is all about increasing a website's organic visibility and traffic, black hat tactics can actually result in the opposite of this happening. To help you understand why to avoid such approaches, we've broken this down into three key points...

1. It Can Negatively Impact Your Search Rankings and Visibility

The number one reason not to use black hat SEO tactics is that they will ultimately result in your site losing search rankings, visibility, and traffic.

Just take a look at the below. This is the visibility of a site that participated in unnatural tactics and was negatively impacted as a result of this:

organic traffic decline

When a website loses traffic and visibility, this typically means that conversions and revenue follow a similar trend. 

This, in itself, can mean a reduction in a business' income and lead to job losses or even business closures. At best, a severe decline in organic traffic will mean that this has to be supplemented with a higher investment into PPC or other paid media.

Black hat SEO tactics can cause a website's performance to decline either as the result of a manual action or algorithmic filtering, both of which you can learn more about in the video below:

Youtube video thumbnail

2. It Won’t Drive Long-Term Results

Even in cases when rankings and organic performance initially increases from manipulative techniques, these are rarely sustained.

While it might take some time for Google to determine that a site participates in unethical approaches (this could be that a manual review was conducted or that a core algorithm was updated), once it happens, a loss of traffic is inevitable.

Perhaps the only thing worse than struggling to rank a site at all is seeing rankings and traffic artificially inflated, only to drop suddenly in the near future. Businesses need predictability, and that's not something that black hat tactics can deliver.

3. It Typically Results In A Poor User Experience

On our Technical vs. UI/UX webinar, Bastian Grimm shared a comment about the change in the importance of UX for SEO over time, stating that:

One thing that became a bit more obvious is that Google were not necessarily trying to rank sites that had done best SEO, but rather that deliver a decent or at least an experience people were happy with.

— Bastian Grimm

SEO needs to consider a user's experience on a site and work to serve the best content and the best UX. However, black hat tactics do the exact opposite; they optimize for search engines (at least what they think search engines want to see) rather than users. This, in itself, can be problematic.

Trust plays a large part in search success. If primary consideration is given to search engines over users, there's a good chance that the site's ability to convert will be significantly limited. 

9 Black Hat SEO Tactics To Avoid

If you're just getting started in SEO, it's often hard to know which tactics you should and shouldn't use. While many of the SEO basics are clear-cut white hat strategies, many of the more advanced tactics require more attention to detail.

However, make sure you're following the right advice. Some recommended tactics on blogs, social media groups, or from your connections may sound like "advanced" strategies, but in reality, they are just leading you toward more black hat techniques. 

The more you know about the tactics that could spell disaster for your site, the easier they'll be to spot and to stay away from. Here are nine tactics that violate Google's Webmaster Guidelines that you shouldn't be using in 2020:

1. Keyword Stuffing 

Repeating your page's main target keyword(s) excessively won't help you to rank. Keyword stuffing, as it's known, will almost certainly result in the opposite.

Black hat SEOs will sometimes attempt to manipulate a site's rankings by including a keyword unnaturally across a page. Keyword stuffing often occurs in random blocks that sit outside of the main content or within paragraphs that just don't make sense when you read them aloud.

Here's an example of keyword-stuffed content that Google gives:

2. Automatically Generated/Duplicate Content

Creating great content isn't easy, yet there's no hiding from the fact that it remains one of Google's top three ranking factors.

A common black hat technique is to automatically generate content to rank for a large number of keywords without actually going away and creating useful, unique content. An example would be a multitude of location pages created, and the same content is used for each one, except for the place name changing.

Be sure to take the time to create SEO-friendly content to avoid issues caused by low quality or duplicate pages.

3. Hidden Text

Hidden text is text that is the same color as the background that is positioned off the screen or behind an image, purposefully uses CSS to hide it from users, or even uses a font size of zero. This is deceptive but is sometimes used to stuff keywords in; many marketers would provide long lists of keywords that they wanted their content to rank for in SERPs.

But what we're talking about here is a clear attempt to hide text completely, and this doesn't apply to text that's in an accordion, in tabs, or is loaded dynamically using JavaScript. From our side, we definitely don't recommend adding hidden text to your pages. Search engine crawlers are far more sophisticated now and understand that you're trying to cram in keywords.

4. Doorway/Gateway Pages

Creating pages that target specific search queries with content intended to act only as a funnel to one page is considered a violation of Google's guidelines. These types of pages are known as doorway or gateway pages.

Every piece of content on your site should have a specific purpose, and you shouldn't be creating pages in an attempt to rank for keywords that aren't entirely relevant.

Examples of this include:

  • Creating pages to target geographically targeted keywords in locations where your business doesn't have a physical presence that funnels users to a single page
  • Pages created solely to rank for search queries rather than to meet a user's need

Create content for humans, not search engines.

5. Cloaking

Cloaking is a tactic that involves serving different content or URLs to users and search engines, essentially providing a different experience on each.

This is a clear attempt to rank a page based on content created for search engines while pointing users to somewhere (or something) different. This is a deceptive practice, making it a violation of search engine guidelines.

Focus your efforts on designing the best possible experiences for your users, and there's a good chance the search engines will also love your page. 

Link schemes are one of the most common types of black hat SEO, and this is the area where a lot of confusion often originates.

It's common sense to many marketers that you should be writing content that works for your users and that you shouldn't be hiding text, but link building gets a little more complex.

The bottom line is that links should be earned, especially when considering that they're editorial votes of trust from one website to another. This means that you should avoid tactics such as:

  • Paid (sponsored) links that don't contain a rel="nofollow" or rel="sponsored" attribute
  • Excessive link exchanges
  • Blog comment spam
  • Forum spam
  • Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns
  • Automated link building
  • Spammy directories, bookmarking sites, and web 2.0 properties
  • Site-wide footer or sidebar links
  • Links that use exact match or commercial anchor text

7. Misused Structured Data and Rich Snippets

While structured data can help define entities, actions, and relationships online, a common black hat tactic is to abuse or misuse this type of markup.

This usually means using structured data to give factually incorrect information—for example, those who attempt to create more favorable structured data for their site. Many marketers write up fake reviews that give 5-star ratings to boost their business' SERP position and enjoy a higher CTR.

Like the other tactics on this list, this is pure deception and not a tactic you should consider. 

8. Misleading Redirects

Whether it's an older page that you're updating to a new URL or preparing for a site migration, using redirects is a common part of SEO. There's nothing wrong with this; it's the preferred method of ensuring your site is well organized and easily accessible by users and search engine crawlers.

However, similar to cloaking, sneaky redirects are placed by black hat SEOs to deceive search engines and display content that's different from what a user sees. Oftentimes a search engine will index the original page, while users are taken to a different destination URL. Google's Webmaster Guidelines specifically list sneaky redirects as a black hat tactic that violates its guidelines.

9. Negative SEO

It would be wrong to assume that all black hat SEO tactics target the site that a marketer is trying to rank.

Some unethical SEOs use negative SEO in an attempt to reduce their competitor's rankings. Think of this as using tactics that violate Google's guidelines on someone else's site, rather than your own.

In practice, this commonly means pointing large numbers of unnatural links to someone else's domain in the hope that they're penalized because of it. 

While not very common, especially given that Google is getting better at ignoring the links that originate from such attacks, it's important to be aware of this and regularly analyze your link profile (something that can be done using the SEMrush Backlink Audit Tool).

How To Report Black Hat SEO

So, you may have asked yourself the following question reading through this guide:
What if you spot one of your competitors using black hat tactics and it isn't being penalized? 
You can file a spam report with Google when you believe that a website is ranking due to paid links, spam, or other violations. While reporting a site won't result in direct action being taken, you're improving algorithmic spam detection. 

As a marketer, it's often disheartening to discover that a website is cheating the system and getting away with it. While Google is ultimately becoming increasingly good at preventing such sites from ranking in top positions on the SERPs, there are still sites performing well by leveraging black hat tactics.

Depending on the severity of the web spam that other sites are using, there's a good chance that they'll be negatively impacted in the not too distant future after another algorithm updates.

The one thing to take away is that black hat SEO tactics pose a real risk to any website that uses them as a way to rank on the SERPs. 

And while they're nowhere near as commonly used as they once were, there are still SEOs who go down this route or who lead businesses to believe it's being marketed ethically when in reality, the techniques being used are clear violations of Google's guidelines.

All in all, we recommend avoiding black hat tactics on your own site. If you want some help to get your site more visible online, be sure to learn how to rank your website using techniques that don't violate Google's Webmaster Guidelines.

Author Photo
Content strategist, SEO and writer. Enjoys monitoring SERP volatility. You can find me reading Tolkien in the far north of Norway.