Black Hat SEO still goes on, works incredibly well and is making a lot of people money. The drawback is that it goes against all ethical guidelines, damages businesses' reputations, leads to manual penalties and ultimately the blacklisting of thousands of websites. This post covers everything black hat: the good, the bad and the ugly.
What Is Black Hat SEO?
Let’s look at three definitions:
“Black hat SEO refers to a set of practices that are used to increase a site or page’s rank in search engines through means that violate the search engines’ terms of service.” (Wordstream)
“Black hat SEO tactics are ones that use deception, manipulation, and gimmicks to trick search engines into ranking a site higher than it otherwise would rank.” (Forbes)
“Black Hat search engine optimization is customarily defined as techniques that are used to get higher search rankings in an unethical manner.” (Lifewire)
Bringing all of the above definitions together, we can define black hat SEO as: Practices or techniques that violate a search engine’s terms of service in an attempt to trick the search engine into ranking a site higher than it would rank naturally.
I’ll now take a look at what these tactics are and their pros and cons.
Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
“A Private Blog Network (PBN) is a network of authoritative websites used to build links to your money website(s) for the purpose of ranking higher in the Google search engine.” (Darryl @ Lion Zeal) PBN models can have multiple tiers and become extremely complex, however the most basic model looks like this:
PBN’s are incredibly effective as you have complete control over the links pointing to your website. You can determine anchor text, types of links and more importantly test like crazy until you find the winning recipe. If the worst case scenario occurs and you receive a manual penalty, you can simply remove the bad links and you will be good to go. PBNs also offer instant authority as you are essentially leveraging the authority of a well established, trusted website. Another bonus of using PBNs is that you don’t have to build relationships, which saves time and effort.
You will need serious cash to get started with PBNs, Gotch SEO worked out an average cost of around £90 per site! On top of that you’re going to have to invest endless hours finding domains worth buying, setting up the domains and developing the sites so they look at legitimate as possible. Then there’s the account hosting/hacking issues that come with this kind of work. Nathan Gotch calculated that it would take (on average) 36 hours to get a network of 10 websites up and running. You could look at outsourcing the work but this would come at a cost and push that ROI further away.
No matter how good your PBN network is, when a search engine gets wind of what you are doing you could get permanently deindexed or land a manual penalty for unnatural link building. In the blink of an eye, the money, time and effort you have invested will be worth nothing and you will be back at square one asking yourself “Why didn’t I go down the evergreen route?”
PBNs still work however they are time consuming, a great deal of effort and incredibly risky – if you are planning for the long term, avoid them like the plague.
The following image from Niche Pursuits should help you make your decision when thinking about PBNs, this great visualisation shows Google delivering a big fat slap for unnatural PBN links:
Google defines keyword stuffing as: “The practice of loading a webpage with keywords or numbers in an attempt to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results. Often these keywords appear in a list or group, or out of context (not as natural prose).” Let’s take a look at a classic case of keyword stuffing:
(Do you think this page is about ecommerce development by any chance? ????)
Keyword stuffing can be implemented instantly, just log into your CMS and spam away completely free of charge. Unlike PBNs this technique requires little planning or execution.
In the early days of SEO this technique worked a treat – even if the page’s content was unrelated to the keyword. Many websites took it one step further and made text the same colour as the page background, then stuck a tonne of keywords on the page which weren’t visible to the user but could be read by search engines (cloaking).
In 2017 this black hat strategy is pretty much pointless. Its value has slowly degraded over time and is now well and truly dead.
If you do start to spam your content unnaturally by adding blocks of keywords in your footer, or cloaking keywords in your website’s background, you will get found out and you will be penalised, thanks to Google’s Panda and Hummingbird updates.
Keyword stuffing still goes on. When I’m doing competitor analysis for my clients, I often stumble across a website with a block of stinking keywords at the footer. It just isn’t worth it nowadays, it has little or no effect on your rankings and will ultimately result in a penalty somewhere down the line. Non Profits source shared a cracking picture of a penalty resulting from keyword stuffing. Take a look and add keyword stuffing to your list of ‘SEO tactics that have died’:
Matt Cutts defined Paid Links as “When links are paid for outright based on pagerank to flow to another website with the goal of getting better rankings” For this post we will be talking explicitly about buying links in bulk to boost your rankings, whether they are relevant or not, like in this example:
Buying links in bulk from websites with strong authority can deliver results in a short amount of time. It can give you a significant boost in rankings, even in the most competitive markets. This black hat technique was rife in the early days of SEO. Within weeks a fairly new site could be #1 for the most competitive head terms – bringing in significant revenue and making the SEO consultant look like a genius for manipulating the search results with ease. If you have a new business that you want to blast with links, get to the top of search results and then cut your losses when you are slapped with a penalty – this is the strategy for you. This technique still works in 2017, however it’s not as good as it seems.
If you are in SEO for the long term, buying links is most definitely not for you – in the short term you will see a huge boost in rankings but within six months or less you will be slapped with a penalty from Google. Even worse, you may be black marked by search engines meaning that your rankings will never recover no matter how much ethical SEO you subsequently invest in. Even if you are thinking about buying a few links, you are still dicing with the future of your website as it’s not just bulk buying that will hurt you. Even sending a product to a blogger in exchange for a link is still technically a paid link. Whenever money and links are involved you need to be extremely cautious. One of the sad things about paid links is that many shady SEO companies/consultants can pump hundreds of links to a client’s website and increase their revenue but then when the website is hit by a penalty, it is essentially done for. For small companies this can be devastating.
It won’t come as a surprise that you can seriously damage your business by buying links. Just take a look at how JC Penney went AWOL from search engines. Although this black hat SEO technique still works in 2017, search engines are getting cleverer by the day and have copious amounts of money invested in ensuring they deliver the best result for a user’s query. If you do decide to go ahead with buying links, I’d recommend making yourself familiar with manual penalties like this:
“Reviews aren’t just great for increasing conversions, boosting customer trust, and powering word-of-mouth marketing – they help you get more traffic from search engines. Plus, that traffic is great quality because it has high search intent.” (Aimee Millward, Yutpo) Think back to your latest online shopping experience or the last time you booked a table at a new restaurant. I can almost guarantee that you based part of your decision on a customer review, whether it was on site or through a third party like Reviews.co.uk or Trustpilot.
Buying reviews can have a direct affect on SEO, especially when we look at local rankings. In Moz’s Local Ranking Survey, we can see that reviews were seen to account for over 10% of the overall local ranking factors:
That’s a significant chunk, right? Reviews help boost rankings as they deliver fresh user generated content, boost long tail traffic and help you plump up your SERP results (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐) as Google has admitted to favouring websites with the highest ratings.
Let’s say you have just started up online, have a good range of products and think it’s a good idea to head to sites like Fiverr or Upwork to buy a couple hundred reviews. You will see improvements in your local SEO because you will get:
- Improved rankings for your product name/s (+ “review”) eg Bobbi Brown Travel Brush Set review
- A boosted CTR as you will occupy much more real estate on the SERPs
- Increased conversion rates as people will trust your brand more
So to achieve all of the good stuff mentioned above, all you have to do is head to an online provider to outsource a single person to write a tonne of made up reviews for your new product – easy right? . …Nope!
First of all I would like to state that buying reviews is unethical, fraudulent and should never happen, under any circumstances. Whether it is for your own site, Trustpilot, Amazon, GMB (Google my business) Facebook or any other site – you are cheating your customers and putting your business’s reputation on the line. You will get found out by search engines and when they do you can expect a big penalty and you may risk being blacklisted from using great local features such as GMB. Your online reputation may even be tarnished forever . The overall SEO benefit of paid reviews isn’t as groundbreaking as the other black hat techniques mentioned above, but it is still a high risk strategy. Stick to building ethical reviews, this way you can build your reputation naturally.
Worst case scenario:
Yes it will work, but don’t do it – the SEO benefit certainly does not outweigh the reputation of your business. You are better off putting in the time and effort into doing it the right way.
“Content scraping is an illegal way of stealing original content from a legitimate website and posting the stolen content to another site without the knowledge or permission of the content’s owner” (Techopedia)
Essentially, content scrapers try to pass off content as their own, without offering any attribution to the original content owners. This black hat technique is still used extensively. One method of scraping content involves the Wayback Machine and goes something like this:
- Head to Freshdrop and find a handful of domains that have expired
- Load up the Wayback Machine and stick in your expired domains
- Scrape all the content from the expired domain
- Stick the copy into Copyscape to see if it exists anywhere online
- Doesn’t exist anymore? Stick it all onto your website and you’re good to go
It’s that simple. In five easy steps you can scrape content from expired domains , add it to your website, rank for more keywords and at the same time take the first step towards receiving a manual penalty.
If you are scraping content that has performed well in the past and is relevant to your business, adding a tonne of these pages will kick start improvements in rankings. You could scrape off 100 blog posts from an expired domain and schedule them to go live once a day on your website. Or, you could have alerts set up for when your competitors post blogs online and simply move around the text to make it sound like your own then post them on your website. This will give you the chance to compete for new keywords and produce content without actually having to do much work. Then all you have to do is sit back, wait for other people to write the content and then start scraping:
First of all, let’s clear one thing up: “There’s no such thing as a “duplicate content penalty.” At least, not in the way most people mean when they say that.” (Susan Moska, Google) However, Susan also went on to say “There are some penalties that are related to the idea of having the same content as another site—for example, if you’re scraping content from other sites and republishing it, or if you republish content without adding any additional value” It couldn’t get more black and white, if you are content scraping there is a penalty for you (sorry if you content scrapers were feeling left out). By mindlessly stealing another person/businesses content you are not only violating search engine guidelines, you are breaking the law.
Working for such a highly rated ethical SEO agency it blows my mind that content scraping still goes on, whether it’s manually scraped or automated using software such as contentgrabber.com. It’s just another slippery slope to getting slapped by Google and it’s not like content scraping is a covert strategy, it’s blatant plagiarism! If you want to gain short term unethical SEO wins and are extremely lazy, content scraping will be right up your street – just make sure you prepare for the inevitable:
Comment spam is one of the oldest and most effective tricks in the book of black hat. Wikipedia defines this technique as: “posting (usually automatically) random comments, copying material from elsewhere that is not original, or promoting commercial services to blogs, wikis, guestbooks, or other publicly accessible online discussion boards. Any web application that accepts and displays hyperlinks submitted by visitors may be a target” When this practice was first kicking off, if you stuck a link to your website in a blog post/wiki/guestbook you would have received a follow link, meaning that the pagerank would flow down to your website for free – even if the content was completely unrelated. Years later, people got wind of this and nofollow links were invented then eventually people started to disable the ability to embed links. Here is a classic example of comment spam from Moz:
Then we have the complete other end of the spectrum. No doubt the person who commented this is swimming in piles of cash:
As with most of the above, this technique still goes on. Incredible, right? I don’t know if it’s my own ethical approach to SEO that makes me quite cynical but I will endeavour to let you know the benefits of comment spam in 2017. To fully understand why people are still doing this, lets look back to where it all started:
- Comment Spam is discovered (around 2004) – you will receive follow links for absolutely nothing, flowing pagerank to your website.
- Comment Spam is found out (sort of) – rather than offering follow links, websites got wise to people riding off the back of their hard work and Google decided to nofollow these types of links.
- Comment Spam is really found out – In addition to nofollowing links, websites started to remove the ability to embed content and bring in an extra layer of protection – meaning that comments need to be approved before going live.
Why is comment spam still rife in 2017? Nofollow links. Large numbers of blogs, wikis and guestbooks still allow links to be posted and even though they won’t be followed, meaning pagerank and anchor text will be completely disregarded, these links still inevitably drive referral traffic. The more spam you post the more referral traffic you can expect to receive – the quality of the traffic will be questionable but you can tailor this to your business. So, if you run a software engineering consultancy you could spam the hell out of blogs relating to software engineering, driving more qualified referrals but in an extremely unethical way.
Think about modern day comment spam in the same way as the touts in London’s red light district, handing out hundreds of thousands of flyers for dodgy peep shows offering too good to be true deals. The labour costs are low and only a tiny percent of tourists will actually visit these seedy venues, so why do it? Because the scale of the operation is huge. The majority of comment spam nowadays is done via software so the numbers are enormous, there are no labour costs and it can be left alone to work its black SEO magic.
In terms of your SEO, this quote from Digital Next stated that: “one theory states that the natural element of nofollow links helps improve your trust flow, which can have a positive effect on your rankings.” Personally, I wouldn’t hold out for it. In 2017, the only real benefit of comment spam is referral traffic.
Comment spam is unethical, can damage your brand and is ultimately a very long winded way to go about driving traffic to your website. Furthermore: “Comments or forum posts that are left only for the purpose of placing a link will get your website penalised” (Kissmetrics). It will come as no surprise that you will risk receiving a manual penalty if you decide to go the black hat route, especially when using comment spam to drive traffic to your site.
What is unique about comment spamming is that the sites who receive the spam through no fault of their own can also be penalised too. This sucks doesn’t it? A useless SEO decides to run spamming software to power out links comments across the web, then an innocent website creating great content gets hit with a penalty. I would be the first to say if I felt this was wrong but it really isn’t – it is your responsibility to have a clean site that practises ethical SEO, so make sure you keep on top of the comments you are getting!
Comment spamming really has died out over the past 10 years as a genuinely successful SEO tactic, it just isn’t worth the effort. With the amount of money search engines have invested in spotting this kind of thing, if you fail to adhere with search engine guidelines you could get a penalty, or even worse face being blacklisted. If you are in SEO for the long run, take the ethical approach. Here are some incredible case studies that show how to do SEO right without opening a can of the good stuff:
This is a fairly new black hat technique which I’m sure anyone in digital/SEO has come across. Does this ring a bell?
This referral is not real, a piece of software has been set up to visit millions of sites across the web with a custom language/source that contains sales pitches/software links/random weird comments, or as you can see in the example above, a pitch to vote for Donald Trump:
I’m really struggling to see the benefit in actively creating referral spam. Black hat SEO is supposed to be the easy way around improving your search engine rankings and yet this practice is so long winded that you may as well have stuck with being ethical. Let’s strip it back to the basics. If you have a piece of software that can visit tonnes of websites across the internet and deliver a custom message/pitch/link to thousands or even millions of people – that’s a pretty good reach right? Well, kind of . . .
Let’s look at some more classics to understand the reasons why referral spam is still practised:
I’ve seen free-share-buttons.com show up in my clients referral reports so often that I almost feel obliged to give them a go for my next website. I’m joking – obviously! The ultimate goal for these spam referrers is to drive brand awareness and get people to visit their websites, and it is annoyingly effective. In terms of the actual SEO benefits, they are few and far between and this will not have an effect on your rankings – all you can hope for is that someone logs into analytics, copies and pastes your URL and goes directly to your website.
Websites such as Get-Free-Traffic-Now use this technique to try to sell SEO software, they base their business model on targeting inexperienced analytics users on the premise that they can offer free traffic because they have appeared in their analytics data.
This practice is downright weird and a very extreme way of acquiring traffic. As soon as you get your custom language/source out there, the analytics admin can filter out your referral traffic in a matter of minutes. Granted with the right software you can reach out to millions of websites but at the end of the day the return will be minuscule and Google will add you to a list of spammers – which is never good when you’re looking to grow your social buttons business, or get people to vote for big Donald!
On top of tarnishing the reputation of your business, you will gain very little SEO benefit from referral spam. Plus you’ll annoy many digital marketeers who’ll include you in posts on how to remove referral spam for a very long time.
I have decided to close this post with one of the most interesting techniques that is still used in 2017 – website hacking for the purpose of link building and SEO. This technique is highly technical in comparison to what we have covered above. It provides serious results and has a direct impact on keyword rankings.
In the most basic terms, this practice involves hacking into another website/blog and discreetly placing links or creating pages that link back to your website. For example you could hack into a website and create thousands of pages (out of the main navigation) that are packed full of links and anchor text back to your website. This technique is highly unethical, illegal and shouldn’t be used under any circumstances. However, sites are getting hacked daily for the sole purpose of gaining links. It’s a terrible practice but something we have to accept.
Paddy Moogan defined Link Building as “The process of acquiring hyperlinks from other websites to your own. A hyperlink (usually just called a link) is a way for users to navigate between pages on the internet. Search engines use links to crawl the web; they will crawl the links between the individual pages on your website, and they will crawl the links between entire websites” When we look towards ethical link building, quality always beats quantity. However, the number of links (as long as they are from a credible source) still has an effect on search engine rankings.
By researching a relevant website, hacking it and then creating hundreds or thousands of pages plastered with anchored links to your website you will see a significant boost in keyword rankings as search engines will see that you have been recommended by a credible source. The actual process of hacking will take time and you may have to outsource this at a pretty significant cost, however the benefits are huge once you have started to gain links in bulk.
Before you start revising your digital marketing strategy and dreaming of a scene like this:
Take a step back and breathe, this is hacking – once you start playing with this you are in the big league of black hat SEO and you will be on the radar of all major search engines.
The majority of website hacking strategies for SEO are aggressive. They aim to get as many links as possible in the shortest possible time. Think about this tactic from a search engine’s perspective in 2017 – it is a major indicator that you have been spamming links and you will be placed on a list of sites to investigate. The websites you have hacked will get hit with a security notification for hacking, meaning that their SERP results will be tarnished with a label, such as:
On top of completely screwing over websites you do not own or have any affiliation with, you will also be flagged as having an unnatural amount of new links pointing to your website which will lead to a manual penalty. Even worse, you could get found out and taken to court to face hacking charges.
Is website hacking for SEO worth the risk? Absolutely not.
Manual penalty, illegal, high cost, short term wins – I could go on. This black hat SEO strategy has the potential to crumble your online reputation, which could all be averted by practising ethical link building and playing the long game. The budgets that search engines have invested in weaning out these kind of illegal practises is in the millions. Even if you are losing your patience with ethical SEO – do not consider website hacking. It will end in tears and you will have to start all over again.
So, Does Black Hat SEO Still Work?
Yes absolutely, however, if you practise black hat SEO you need to be prepared for manual penalties, blacklisting and a damaged business reputation. If you want to play the short game and have no concerns with bringing your online business down, then black hat is definitely the way forward.
If you want to play the long game, improve your rankings ethically and have a long successful future online – avoid black hat like the plague and practise ethical SEO.