Black Hat Tactics Can Ruin Your SEO

Search engine spammers rarely prosper. Sooner or later, they get caught. And when they do, it’s almost never pretty.

Consequences can include ranking penalties, removal of the site’s “voting” power (i.e., ability to pass PageRank), incomplete indexation (i.e., a partial site ban) or, worst of all, a total site ban (also known as getting “graybarred,” meaning the PageRank meter in the Google Toolbar is grayed out for your site). You can’t exactly just pick up the phone and give Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin a call with a mea culpa and then everything magically comes right again.

It could take years for a business to recover from a penalty or ban. Not even the largest corporations spending big dollars on Google AdWords are immune. For example, BMW a while back had its entire site banned from Google because the luxury car brand created “doorway pages” — pages full of keyword-rich copy created solely for the search engine spiders and never for human viewing.

To add insult to injury, BMW was publicly outed by Google engineer Matt Cutts on his blog. Cutts made an example out of the automaker, and all of the SEO community became aware of its indiscretions.

Search engines rely primarily on automated means for detecting spam, with some auxiliary assistance from paid evaluators, spam vigilantes, and even your competitors. Within the bowels of the Googleplex, Ph.D.s write sophisticated algorithms to look for abnormalities in inbound and outbound linking, in sentence structure, in HTML coding, and so on.

This is augmented manually by users submitting spam reports via Google Webmaster Central (, and by human reviewers conducting quality reviews. A confidential Google document called the “Spam Recognition Guide for Raters” ( that was leaked to the public gives insight into the manual review process. The guide delineates criteria for recognizing search engine spam, such as whether the site is a “thin affiliate.”

“Black hat” search engine optimizers can be sophisticated in their ways, and they operate under the principle of the ends justifying the means. They are prepared to get caught, and when they do, they pick up and move, setting up shop elsewhere.

Or, more typically, they have thousands of other sites to fall back on. But you can’t operate your business like that, nor can you afford to unwittingly employ an SEO agency that uses unscrupulous black-hat tricks in order to reap short-term gains.

Are you confident that the tactics you, your web designers and your SEOs all employ won’t get you slapped by the search engines? If you can’t say with absolutely certainty that you’re squeaky clean, you’d better study the following list of BLACK-HAT TACTICS TO AVOID: (And keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list.)

Sneaky redirects — redirecting visitors immediately as they enter your site from a search engine

Hidden or tiny text — making the text the same color as the background; or shrinking the font size way down; or employing noscript, noframes, iframes or hidden <div> tags to hide text and/or links

Keyword stuffing — the excessive placement of keywords within web pages (e.g., in alt tags, meta tags, etc.)

Targeting irrelevant keywords — optimizing for popular keywords that have no relevance to your business

Selling PageRank — selling text links to advertisers/partners in order to pass on PageRank to their sites

Trademark infringement — mentioning competitor names in your meta tags and elsewhere in an infringing way

Duplicating content — making numerous copies of web pages or excerpts of web pages

Spamglish — nonsensical, keyword-rich gibberish

Doorway pages — aren’t useful or interesting to human visitors

Machine-generating pages — using software to create so-called content for search engines

Article spinning — creating variants of an article using software that substitutes synonyms and other tweaks in an attempt to fool Google’s duplicate content detection algorithm (similar to machine-generating pages)

Pagejacking — hijacking or stealing content from high-ranking websites and placing that content on your site with few or no changes

Cloaking — detecting search engine spiders when they visit and modifying the page content specifically for the spiders in order to improve rankings

Participating in link farms — linking to, or receiving links from, “free for all” sites or link networks, which typically contain many links per page and are poorly organized

Buying expired domains with high PageRank — snapping up domain names when they expire with the hope of laying claim to the previous site’s inbound links

Multiple domains without redirecting — in effect, this is duplicating content

Thin affiliate — ushering people to a number of affiliate programs without providing any added value

Linking to bad neighborhoods — linking to link farms or otherwise unsavory sites

Blog comment spamming — posting bogus or low-value comments to blogs, with links to your site or sites

Guestbook spamming — posting bogus comments to sites’ guestbooks, with links to your site

Splogging — creating spam blogs (splogs) and posting to them content stolen from other sites

Google-bowling — submitting your competitor to link farms etc. to get them penalized

SEO copy — slipping keyword-rich content (often with keyword-rich text links too) meant only for spiders into the very bottom of the page

Whenever I see SEO copy I roll my eyes and think to myself, can you get any more obvious than that? I suppose if you put an HTML comment immediately preceding that stating “spider food for SEO!” (or perhaps “Insert keyword spam for Google here” might be more apropos?).

More egregious than this would be to reorder the page content using CSS so that the SEO copy appears first in the HTML before everything else. As if Google won’t figure out what’s going on here.

So why do spammers spam? Because sometimes it works — for a while. But it’s not sustainable. It’s only a matter of time before the spam checking algorithms are tripped or someone turns the spammer in.

But spammers realize this, which is why they “churn and burn” through domain names. If a site gets torched, they move on.

Better to think in terms of Google compiling a “rap sheet” about you. Each step into black-hat territory that Google catches is almost certainly being recorded by it — even if Google isn’t taking immediate action against your site.

Someday it may come back to haunt you, when it’s accumulated into something serious or if it clearly demonstrates a pattern of disrespect for Google’s Guidelines. Even if Google isn’t literally maintaining a rap sheet of all your transgressions across your network of sites (as some detractors might argue), it would be foolish not to.

Submitting your site to 800 spam directories over a span of three days is just plain reckless. If it’s easy enough to see a big spike in links in an SEO tool like Majestic SEO, then it’s easy enough for Google to spot such anomalies too.

If you ever are penalized or banned from Google, you have little recourse. You can try submitting a “reconsideration request through Google’s Webmaster Tools. Don’t hold your breath, though.

And for Heaven’s sake, wait until everything — and I mean everything — has been cleaned up and you’ve documented this in your submission. If your site doesn’t come back and you hear no response to your request, you could try attending a SEO conference and asking a Google engineer for help.

A TIP FROM A “BLACK HAT”: Unless you are absolutely sure your sites and link neighborhoods are all squeaky clean, don’t ever submit your site for public site review at a conference where Google engineers are present. This is pretty much a suicide mission. And don’t ever go up to the aforementioned Matt Cutts at a conference to ask him a “hypothetical” question without covering up your badge with business cards.

Here is my simple rule of thumb: Don’t do anything that you’d feel uncomfortable telling your Google AdWords rep. You might think you’re flying under the radar, but Google’s watching. And so are your competitors — poised and ready for an opportunity to turn you in!

What is BLACK HAT SEO: It’s when sites try to improve search rankings via deceptive tactics that could get them banned from the search engines. These include hidden text and links, cloaking (feeding text and links to search engines but hiding them from humans), sneaky redirects, keyword stuffing and more.

Stephan Spencer ([email protected]) is co-author of the O’Reilly book The Art of SEO.

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