Most businesses today, especially e-commerce and content marketing operations, rely heavily on organic search traffic for overall success. Doing well here typically means making sure your webpages rank highest on popular search engines in response to common user search phrases or keywords. The science of ensuring your web properties rank well here is called Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and it's become something of a mystic art in web developer circles.
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Exactly how SEO works can result in nebulous and arcane answers from programming types because there are ever-changing SEO guidelines dictated by search engines, especially Google, which can propel businesses to the top of the search results or bury them pages deep in unrelated searches. For small to midsize businesses (SMBs) that may not have a full-time SEO expert on staff, the challenge can be daunting. However, it's a challenge that must be met if a significant portion of the business operates online.
Good SEO practices are cultivated through time with careful planning and fastidious curation of online content. Using SEO management and business intelligence (BI) tools can improve the chances for a good search result strategy. This can be difficult and time-consuming work. And since online businesses tend to operate at a fast pace, spending excessive amounts of time on anything can be deemed a problem. That's when many business owners look for shortcuts. While being smart about SEO is one thing, some of these shortcut routes can take unwitting SMB owners into the dark waters of "Black Hat SEO" practices, a place where you can get fast results but where the penalties for getting caught can be severe.
What Is Black Hat SEO?
Black Hat SEO tactics are unethical SEO methods and hacks that trick search engines into ranking undeserving websites higher. In situations where a new website needs to generate a lot of traffic quickly or for time-sensitive promotions that are unable to grow organic search rankings (usually due to time constraints), Black Hat SEO might promise a quick fix but the results are rarely positive.
"Black Hat SEO still exists for one simple reason: People have always sought and always will seek a quick fix," said Avrumi Weinberger, Director of Digital Marketing at New York-based SEO consultancy Precision Brands.
Weinberger pointed out that, since Black Hat SEO is much cheaper to do than ethical SEO, uninformed SMB owners will often figure they have little to lose and everything to gain since SEO done right can be loads of work. A proper SEO process requires expert and strategic research and copywriting skills according to Weinberger. "It's tedious, manual outreach to dozens, if not hundreds, of websites to earn those relevant links," he said. "Black Hat SEO seeks to accomplish the same goals through cheap writing outsourced overseas or automated writing tricks, and by automating the link-building process at a huge scale."
Some of the most common Black Hat SEO practices include keyword stuffing, cloaking, and "sneaky redirects." Keyword stuffing refers to filling your content with irrelevant keywords or repeating keywords incessantly to get pages to rank higher. Cloaking is a similarly insidious technique with which you show one piece of content to users while showing a different or unrelated bit of content to search engines. With "sneaky redirects," you send visitors to a different Uniform Resource Locator (URL) or web address than the one on which they think they clicked, which gives unrelated pages some traffic.
Two more pedestrian techniques include simply copying text from other websites and republishing it to yours to fool search engines, or adding invisible keywords on a webpage. This is done simply by making them the same color as the website's background color but, if that goes undetected, it can drive up a website's page ranking. Three more unethical SEO tactics include embedding paid links into existing content on websites, placing spam comments on forums that include links back to a website, and redirecting visitors from a website they think they are visiting to another unrelated website.
Penalties of Using Black Hat SEO
While Black Hat SEO tactics may seem like clever and resourceful ways around stringent search engine guidelines, they can be severely harmful for your website's long-term ranking health if discovered. Using unethical SEO practices can lead to a search engine forcing a lower ranking on your website or even de-listing it entirely. Even if the website remains searchable, it can suffer for a long time when it comes to maintaining search ranking relevance.
"I am aware of one business—CleanerMatch.com—that received a Google penalty after engaging in Black Hat SEO tactics. It took their website six weeks to recover," Weinberger said. Six weeks may not seem like a long time but ,depending on the type of business, that kind of downtime can be fatal.
"Penalties, de-indexed websites, lost rankings, lost traffic, lost business, and bad PR. In the end, Black Hat SEO is only effective for short-term gains, and even then, it's a gamble. It can take tens of thousands of dollars and months or years to recover," said Chris Rodgers, founder and CEO of Colorado SEO Pros. "At our agency, we offer penalty recovery services. And not only is it expensive and time-consuming, there are no guarantees that full recovery is ever going to happen."
Failing to rank high in web searches for your specific product or category can result in financial repercussions, too. Low search rankings can mean diminished customer engagement and, for most e-commerce businesses, that ultimately can mean lost sales. For SMBs or startups relying mostly or even entirely on their web presence for sales, that can be devastating. But it's not only SMBs or startups that have trouble with using Black Hat SEO practices. In fact, many of the worst culprits have come from the Fortune 500.
"Forbes got in trouble with Google [in 2011] for selling links, Expedia was adversely affected [in 2014] by negative SEO (or was using spammy techniques), BMW got caught using doorway pages [in 2006], and J.C.Penney got in trouble for paid links," recalled Rodgers.
He further pointed out that all of these websites suffered some negative effect; some lost rankings and traffic while others received manual actions or penalties from Google. "Google doesn't forget," continued Rodgers. "So, once you have a penalty, assume it's on your 'permanent record' for spam practices for your site."
How to Spot Black Hat SEO Practices
For SMBs and entrepreneurs handing over their SEO management to consultants, the engagement of questionable Black Hat SEO practices may not be easy to spot. When companies are striving to get recognition by ranking higher in search engine results, the minutiae of what SEO tactics they are using is easy to miss. After all, most of these tactics occur at the web development level, which is why SMBs hire consultants in the first place. If you don't think you could make heads or tails out of your company's website HyperText Markup Language (HTML), then here are three things to look out for:
- Vague explanations from your website developer or SEO consultant. "Make sure your Director of SEO is upfront about their plan and hold them accountable," Weinberger explained. "If you're outsourcing your SEO to an agency, ask them about their process. If they're vague or use complicated language that you don't understand to make themselves sound sophisticated, beware." And always keep asking questions until you're either satisfied or convinced something hinky is going on.
- Large amounts of suspiciously cheap content. According to Weinberger, massive amounts of low-cost content usually means a cheap outsourcing contract to writers overseas. It can also mean purchasing software designed to simulate writing (also known as "Content Spinning"), purchasing software designed to create webpages on low-quality websites, as well as enticing writers of influential blogs to drop paid links into their articles.
- Lack of a clear content and SEO plan. Rodgers said SMBs should look through proposed content and SEO strategies. "If your SEO manager or agency is not interested in a well-thought-out content strategy aimed at creating high-quality content for your customers and search engine users, you should dig deeper." A link-building-only strategy and anything involving creating low-quality microsites or webpages should be a red flag, too.
What If You've Done Black Hat SEO?
Search engines such as Google or Microsoft Bing can impose algorithmic or manual penalities that can be very difficult to undo, and require significant time and effort to fix. What happens when you find out your SEO professional employed Black Hat SEO tactics? Here are some possible solutions to get back in the good graces of the search gods.
"If you have been penalized or downgraded, it can take weeks or months to recover," said Weinberger. "The first step is to reach out to Google and explain that your SEO [Director] went rogue and engaged in illicit tactics." He stated the next step is to disavow any and all problematic links by submitting a list through your Google Search Console or Webmaster Tools. Weinberger added that companies may need to build up their trust with Google by engaging in acceptable White Hat SEO strategies, such as creating real, valuable content or manually guest-posting at real blogs with a link to their website in the bio.
"Recoveries are possible with the right process," Rodgers pointed out. He added that "it often requires extensive analysis of large volume of back links. Disavow reports being submitted to Google, and still, there's the possibility that you never really return to your previous SEO performance."
Companies that focus on chasing the algorithm as an SEO strategy will be particularly hard hit according to Rodgers, who advised that it's better to focus on "helping your audience solve problems and being the best online resource possible. If you are in alignment with Google's goals, you will find you are naturally performing better over time."
Good SEO Requires Time and Attention
Given the risks and penalties involved, it's certainly a better strategy to keep your SEO practices above board. But there's often confusion about what, exactly, that entails. Engaging in SEO strategies, hiring reputable SEO professionals, and designing an SMB's website or e-commerce portal around good SEO isn't cheap. However, it is usually more affordable than the alternative, which is to spend a small fortune on online advertising.
"The reason real SEO strategies are more expensive is because they require more time and expert resources from professional individuals. To rank authoritatively in Google's organic results, webpages must provide superior content around a given query and have high-quality backlinks from other relevant pages," said Weinberger.
"Our clients are spending about $1,500 per month for us to perform keyword research, quality copywriting, and link outreach," said Weinberger. His suggestion for SMBs on a budget is to build their local SEO organically. "This involves being listed in local business directories, optimizing your Google 'My Business' page, putting a good strategy in place to get positive reviews, and pitching your business to local blogs."
That represents a lot of work, but one that even a small marketing staff can put a big dent in over time. Even better, you're less likely to have your competition resort to Black Hat SEO tactics these days thanks to Google's Penguin algorithm. Released in 2012 and updated to version 4.0 in 2016, Google's Penguin algorithm tries to decrease the search engine rankings of websites that violate the Webmaster Guidelines established by Google. Google's Penguin algorithm has resulted in a general decline in Black Hat SEO, which is now less effective in gaming the system since the last update. The algorithm evaluates websites in real time and can quickly bounce questionable websites from the top rankings.