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While you might be eager to see your website rank at the top of search results immediately, using the wrong type of SEO techniques can destroy any credibility and authority you sought to earn by building the site in the first place. This post will help you steer clear of those black hat SEO tactics.

That first search engine results page (SERP) is where everyone wants their webpages to land. There is a lot of competition out there to contend with and it can feel like an impossible task to outrank them when you play by Google’s rules.

To make matters worse, it can take upwards of six months to see newly created pages get anywhere close to the first SERP. So whether it’s you staring at the ticking clock or your client, you might be getting antsy wondering if or when you’ll start seeing results.

This is why some people turn to black hat search engine optimization (SEO).

Just as there are no shortcuts in good web design, there aren’t any to be found in SEO. Any gains you make from black hat SEO will be short-lived and the penalties can be harsh depending on the severity of the tactic used.

In this post, we’re going to look at the differences between white hat and black hat SEO, some of the black hat SEO techniques that designers specifically may run into or use, and the penalties you risk incurring in the process.

White Hat SEO vs. Black Hat SEO

White hat SEO refers to legitimate strategies used to improve the way a webpage ranks. These strategies are ones sanctioned by search engines as ethical and honest means by which you generate traffic to a website. They’re also done in the best interest of your end users—i.e., they add value and improve their experience.

Here are some examples of white hat SEO:

A website’s link profile (both the quality and number of backlinks as well as the internal link structure) is another way to improve how well your webpage ranks. And this is where some people get into trouble because link building isn’t an easy process, but there are many known unethical shortcuts to do it.

That’s not the only type of SEO tactic that is considered black hat though.

Black hat SEO refers to strategies that intentionally subvert the search engine rules and exploit flaws in the algorithm in order to get inflated and unnatural results in search results. Examples of this are:

  • Keyword stuffing
  • Paying for backlinks
  • Cloaking
  • Deleting negative product reviews
  • Sneaky redirects

Black hat SEO may also include strategies that deceive end users, getting them to click a link or take an action they had not intended on. The increased engagement with the webpage suggests that the content is of good quality and value to users, and so it ranks better in the process.

All of these black hat strategies aim to boost a webpage’s authority, web traffic and engagement. While many of these techniques help webmasters successfully achieve their aims, they tend not to last long.

Black Hat SEO Techniques to Steer Clear of

Many times it’s a writer, marketer or SEO analyst who implements black hat SEO tactics. However, there are things that you as a designer or developer might do or be asked to do that would cross into black hat territory.

To keep your websites and clients out of trouble with the search engines, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with these common black hat strategies and steer clear of them.

There’s nothing wrong with placing paid or sponsored links from other sources into your content. A common example of this are affiliate links.

You promote a product or piece of content from someone you have an established affiliate partnership with. However, the content in which that link appears should disclose to users that there are paid links on the page. That way, they’re not being misled into thinking that the links are 100% organic and authentic.

But it’s not just the end users that you have to disclose this information to. Your link markup needs to reveal the relationship between your site and the other one. There are a couple of ways Google will allow you to do this:

<a href="" rel="nofollow">anchor text</a>

This was the old way to mark up a paid or sponsored link. You can still use it, though the newly added sponsored markup allows you to send a clearer signal to Google about your relationship with the link:

<a href="" rel="sponsored">anchor text</a>

Failing to include either of these bits of markup, however, can cause issues for your webpage. If Google finds that a do-follow link is reaping the benefits of another site’s link juice (i.e., authority) when there’s already the benefit of getting paid, a penalty may be issued. This goes for the linking site as well as the linked-to site.

Also be mindful of the anchor text used in your hyperlinks. They should accurately describe what the link is about.

This is different from creating poorly constructed hyperlink text. For instance, “here” should never be used as anchor text. But that’s not because it’s black hat SEO. It’s just too vague. Black hat SEO would be to describe something appealing to visitors—like “10 reasons to invest in crypto”—and then bait-and-switch them with a link that’s all about your web design services.

Manipulated Structured Data

We use schema markup on webpages in order to provide more data about what’s on them while simultaneously improving their appearance and relevance in search results. If Google picks up our structured data and shows it in search results, it’s because the algorithm has deemed it as adding value to the search listing.

This unfortunately creates another opportunity to scam the search engines.

Structured data may be manipulated to accomplish a number of things. Scammers will commonly do their keyword stuffing there. While keyword stuffing on a webpage will be quickly noticed by users because of the poor reading experience it creates, keyword stuffing behind the scenes won’t be as obvious at first.

Another way to manipulate structured data is to include inaccurate information. For example, ecommerce sites can add product ratings to the schema markup. Rather than display the true customer rating, black hat SEOs will display a rating that’s far more positive so as to manipulate and trick search users into clicking through to the product page.

Hidden Text via Design

A client of mine couldn’t figure out why a key page on their website wasn’t ranking and had a high spam score. So I was tasked with rewriting the page.

Before I did that, I copied and pasted the text from the webpage into a Google Doc to see if I could find anything wrong with it. While there were some issues with structure and hierarchy, I also noticed that there was hidden content on the page.

Designers (and writers) can accomplish this black hat SEO trick through a variety of means:

  • Placing the text behind an image file
  • Making the text color the same as the background so it becomes invisible
  • Setting the font’s size to 0

When this technique is deployed, it may be used to add extra spammy content or an endless string of keywords to a page. On its face, the page will look fine to visitors since there’s no keyword stuffing to be found. But that’s because it’s all hidden from view. The search engines will find it though.

Doorway Pages

Doorway and gateway pages are designed with the explicit purpose of attracting visitors with a specific keyphrase, but then forcing them to click through to an additional page.

Typically, these pages are generic in nature. And, oftentimes, they’re copied and rewritten from other pages on the web that already rank for similar search terms.

While they are effective at luring in visitors searching for a keyword, a doorway page contains little of value. It’s built solely for a search engine’s crawling bots. So visitors end up having to click through to another page that will take them to their intended destination.

But that’s the whole point. The more pages you can get visitors to click through, the more the search engines will like your site since visitors seemingly can’t get enough of your content. Or so that’s the theory behind this black hat SEO strategy.

You can see how this particular technique can backfire. Today’s users have little patience for wasted time. So if they end up on a page that forces them to do extra work because it doesn’t do as promised, you could end up with more bounces than page visits.

Content Spinning

One other black hat SEO technique that designers should be wary of is content spinning.

Content spinning is the process of taking a webpage and rewriting it so that it’s close to the original, but not a word-for-word ripoff. While it’s not technically plagiarizing, as the same words and phrases aren’t used, it’s an unethical approach to writing. While there’s nothing unique about the newly written page, if a user were to read the two together, they’d know that something hinky had gone on.

While writers and SEO analysts are the ones who do content spinning, I’ve known web designers (and, too often, clients) who ask for it to be done. That way, a completely new page or a lookalike site can be spun up in no time at all.

A common example of this is a multi-location business that doesn’t want to waste time or money to create a unique site for each location. So they have a content generation service or AI quickly rewrite each page from one site, then use it to create another.

Duplicate content is a huge no-no on the web. Heck, it’s a huge no-no in any form of writing. Changing the words on a page and assigning it to a different domain won’t help you escape the penalties associated with plagiarism.

The Penalty for Black Hat SEO

Google isn’t exactly forthcoming when it comes to telling us what its specific ranking factors are. We catch glimpses of them over the years, but I don’t think we’ll ever see the full picture when it comes to what exactly helps your ranking and how it’s weighted against the rest.

The same is true of black hat SEO. While we do know that Google has penalized high-profile companies in the past, we don’t have a table that tells us what the punishment is for each type of infraction.

That said, if you go digging around on Reddit and other forums, you’ll find first-hand accounts of what kinds of things might happen. For instance, someone asked, “What’s the worst Google can do to a website if caught using black-hat SEO tactics? Can I lose my website or get permanently de-indexed?” In response, user jonnyah said:

“I’ve received a manual penalty for dodgy backlinks. They devalue ALL your backlinks until you can get the penalty lifted. I was caught with Web 2.0s and dodgy PBN links, all of which are super cheap to buy.”

On another thread, sweetdude123 admitted to getting penalized for creating an affiliate network of sites and links:

“But I was hit. When the penguin update happened a few years ago all my affiliate sites were hit because I was doing black hat. One by one I got warnings on webmaster tools. I had the sites on 1 shared hosting, same webmaster tools account and same designs…”

You’ll probably hear plenty of stories of people who say that black hat SEO is no big deal. You just have to be good at it so you don’t get caught. But think about what that penalty will mean for your client’s business. And yours as well.

Depending on the severity of the SEO scam, it could be anything from the devaluing of links to the de-indexing and blacklisting of the site from search results. While these issues can always be fixed and an appeal sent to Google, the damage to the site’s reputation (or the site itself) has been done while you wait for it to be restored.

Wrapping up

In my experience, bad SEO practices consistently catch up with you. And not just because Google will penalize your site in search ranking when it eventually catches onto the scam.

White hat SEO helps you build a website that’s prepared to play the long game.

For starters, older webpages gain greater authority over the years if they consistently perform well. That’s an important side effect of white hat SEO, too—how your visitors respond to your content. Some of the black hat tactics I mentioned above are bound to annoy and upset visitors. Increased bounce rates and a decrease in the number of returning visitors will cause your site’s authority and ranking to drop.

So rather than go for the quick and easy SEO tactics that can do a lot of harm to the sites you build, focus on creating a user-first design and content, keeping the deception out of the experience and focusing on value. Oh, and be patient. White hat SEO can take time to show progress. But when it does, you’ll be happy you stuck with it as nothing beats authentic, organic results.

About the Author

Suzanne Scacca

A former project manager and web design agency manager, Suzanne Scacca now writes about the changing landscape of design, development and software.

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