“Black hat SEO” is a term dubbed to mean unethical techniques, strategies, or against-the-rules methods of promoting Web content. The search engines are the parties that ultimately determine whether or not SEO is black hat. Because of this, it’s very important to pay close attention to news releases and guidelines published by search engine companies (like Google) to ensure that website optimization is performed according to what they deem “best practices”. Not following industry best practices, whether intentionally or accidentally, can (and usually does) result in you website being penalized by dropping in search engine rankings or being banned altogether.
The term comes from the old Western movies that were filmed in black and white years ago. To make it easier to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, good guys wore white hats and bad guys wore black hats. The white-hat guys were law abiding heroes, and the black-hat guys were lawbreaking bandits. Just as with most movies of the time, the villains might get ahead for a short while, but in the end, black hat SEO gets caught and the bad guys get “punished”.
But wait a minute! You aren’t a “bad guy”. You’re a business owner who simply wants to do what needs to be done to keep up with (or get ahead of) your competitors. You run a clean business with good ethics and integrity, and you don’t engage in scandalous activities. You have nothing to worry about, right?
While it’s true that you might be aboveboard in all of your business dealings, the search engines don’t know you or your business. They only know what they see of your business via content on the Web, so if that content violates their rules, as far as the search engines are concerned, you’re a black-hat on the Wild West set of the Internet. What does this mean for you? It can have dire consequences for your business.
Perhaps you decided to “get smart” on SEO, read a few books, joined a discussion group or two in social media, and then tried your hand at optimizing and marketing your own website. Since the search engines constantly change their rules to tighten up loopholes that exploit their algorithms, SEO and SEM are moving targets. Much of what you read in today’s publications addresses the latest updates to search engine best practices, but there is a lot of not-talked-about “tribal knowledge” that spans the years. It’s not kept secret or anything. It’s just “old news”, so the knowledge is assumed. When you engage in discussions through social media, the established marketing professionals are typically talking about the most recent updates to search engine policies, trying to prioritize and hash out what matters and what doesn’t.
Why would there be any confusion or speculation when the search engines publish their best practices and doctrine of ethics? Because the search engines do not specify how they weight the different criteria, so when an upcoming change looms on the horizon, professional marketers review their own practices to assess compliance but don’t quite know how to anticipate consequences until after-the-fact. Based on experience and observation, SEO professionals compare notes, debate and speculate together– basically brainstorming– to ensure they (and their customers) are prepared for the coming storm. Their current discussions don’t particularly address “old-news changes” of yesterday, so if you’re trying to do your own marketing based on recent publications and forum discussions, you’re probably overlooking stuff that today’s professional marketers take for granted.
For example, in the infancy of search engines, algorithms were simple. In those days, it was common knowledge that the more a word was used on a Web page, the more relevant that Web page was assumed to be for a keyword search using that word. If people just wrote content that followed that simple principle, it would logically be a good assumption and wouldn’t be a problem. However, the specialty of search engine optimization was born as people tried to gain an advantage over their competition in the expanding World Wide Web, so some “clever folks” discovered they could take advantage of the “keyword” criteria by redundantly placing keywords in the headers, footers, margins, and everywhere else on a website, making the text color the same as the page’s background color. That way, a visitor to the site wouldn’t know any better but the search engines would be fooled into thinking the website was highly relevant to a particular set of keywords. Another tactic was to overuse a particular word in the visible text of a website (nowadays termed “keyword stuffing”) to artificially build keyword relevance into a web page.
Uh-oh. That’s cheating!
Search engines don’t like cheaters. Once the search engine companies realized they were being manipulated, they had to change the way they handled hidden text in Web content. So they created an automated review process to examine and evaluate each website they indexed, applying rules to penalize the cheaters.
The rules that are applied to indexing, screening, and assessing websites for compliance with search engine optimization “best practices” are what search engine marketers are talking about when you hear them refer to “algorithms”.
Sites that engaged in manipulative practices were sanctioned, and the deceptive practices of color matching text with backgrounds and keyword stuffing were added to the growing list of black-hat techniques. The assumption, today, is that “everybody” knows that nowadays. So it’s not something commonly discussed among SEO professionals unless it’s used as an illustration (as in this article).
If you are new to search engine optimization & marketing and tried to employ this tactic yourself without knowing any better, the search engines would show no mercy. As with the law, ignorance is not an excuse to escape liability.
The illustration above does point out the key point that search engines and marketers are “natural enemies”. That sounds harsh, but there is a fundamental conflict-of-interests between search engines (who want to deliver impartial, untainted results in organic search results) versus search engine marketers (who have the agenda to get their clients to the top of search engine listings ahead of other content). It’s kind of like cats and dogs. Cats and dogs can get along really well under the same roof when they know each other and are trained to be “civilized”. But watch what happens when a stray crossed the back yard. The household pets become very territorial and will protect their turf.
Search engines work like that to protect their algorithms. Search engines and website marketers will get along great if everyone follows proper etiquette and best practices, but if a black-hat shows up on the scene, the search engines will chase it down like a dog after a stray cat. To live peacefully on the Internet and still achieve a great search engine position, marketers are subject to the rules of the search engines. Ethical (civilized) white-hat SEO professionals know that the search engines are the “alpha male” of Internet marketing. That’s just the natural order of things.
Realizing that SEO work is a lot more tangled and technical than you wanted to play with, perhaps you hired a professional marketing company or an experienced freelancer to do your optimization and website promotion for you. Chances are, you’re in good hands. There are thousands of well-established service providers who have been around for years and have extensive portfolios to show for it. They might be pricey, but you’re paying for their experience and the benefit of current white-hat practices.
Professional marketers stay up with the latest search engine algorithm changes. That’s important because as the Internet evolves, more opportunities exist to promote websites, and consequently search engines make more changes to their rules to avoid exploitation. Algorithms are constantly tweaked and updated, monthly if not more frequently.
If your search engine provider isn’t one of the white-hat “good guys”, though, you have a problem. Or perhaps they have the best of intentions but are new to the field, so to build their portfolio they offer SEO services at a “deep discount”. Their white-hat intentions won’t save you if they accidentally engage in black-hat techniques without realizing it. The consequences to your business are severe.
At the end of the day, regardless of how well-meaning your marketing person or team is, it’s still your website that gets penalized, which means you take the punishment. How is that fair? Again, the search engines don’t know you. They only know what they see of your business on the Web, and ignorance is no excuse to exempt you from their rules. So unwittingly hiring a black-hat provider can cost you far more than the money you pay them.
The search engines expect that you will do your due diligence in vetting your marketing efforts before engaging in optimizing and promoting your website online. Once you lose ground on the search engines, it can take months of backpedaling and petitioning the search engines for “forgiveness” to regain your foothold in the Internet economy. Now ask yourself, what are the opportunity costs of that time in terms of lost customers and sales for your business?