There are a number of, what the industry calls, “black hat” SEO techniques that companies (and even some SEO Consultants) may be tempted to practice so that they can try to push their rankings for target keywords to the top of the Google search results.
Unfortunately there are still those SEO firms who guarantee their clients number one position on the first page of Google for target keywords, or maybe in some instances they are a little more cautious and don’t quite guarantee number one, but insist that they can get the client’s web pages onto the first page within a limited period of time.
An SEO consultant’s responsibility is to apply the most ethical principles in an attempt to improve the client’s rankings on search results for their target keywords, in particular by overtaking their competitor’s rankings, without having to apply any black hat techniques.
There is no guarantee that search engine optimisation can get you on the first page, especially when the keywords that you are targeting are extremely competitive, with many pages already being optimised extensively for these search terms across the web. Google has said that it can detect spam (i.e. where black hat SEO has been used to manipulate rankings on their search results) anywhere between a couple of days and up to six weeks. Should Google detect such spam, then it may penalize the page or alternatively drop it from its index entirely, depending on the severity of the “crime”.
What is SEO spam or black hat SEO?
So what are some of these dodgy (or as some have said “underground”) SEO techniques that could cause your web pages to be penalized or dropped from the search results? There are a number of sneaky techniques being used — and even some ignorant ones where the optimiser simply had no idea that what they were doing was causing more harm than good. Some black hat techniques are absolute no-no’s and will get you dropped in a heartbeat, while others are merely considered bad taste or unethical.
1. Keyword stuffing
Stuffing as many targeted keywords — and variations thereof — as you can into your title tag, meta description, keyword, alt tags as possible; or placing a random list of keywords anywhere on the page purely for the purpose of listing the keywords, without being surrounded by any contextually relevant text. This is called keyword stuffing and may cause your page to be considered spam.
2. Cloaking (also known as Stealth)
This is when you serve the search engine bots (e.g. Googlebot) different information to that which you are serving to the user. E.g. You might have “optimised” your page in the HTML to seem as though the majority of the keywords on the page relate to “baby blankets”, however the human visitor might see a completely different page which is riddled with X-rated adult images and videos, with the text for “baby blankets” strategically placed in the tags. The search engine quickly crawls the page and indexes it for the keywords “baby blankets” however; the user sees a completely different page. This is considered cloaking, and if done with malicious intent, may cause you to be dropped from the index as soon as your sneaky tactic is detected.
3. Code swapping
This practice is very similar to cloaking in that it is used to submit highly optimised text-only versions of a webpage to search engines for the purpose of achieving high rankings for the page, and once the desired ranking has been achieved this optimised page is switched out with other content which has been created for human visitors, but is different to the original content that was submitted. This strategy is not a sustainable one, as the search engines will return to re-index the page and will detect that the content has changed and apply the ranking algorithm to the new content of that page. If this practice is repeated frequently by the website owner, then the website could end up being penalized or dropped from the rankings entirely.
4. Throwaway Domains
A throwaway domain is usually registered to redirect traffic to other domains which contain more SEO value or history. These are usually designed to be used for a limited period of time (hours or days) and are then discarded shortly thereafter. This technique is used for the sole intention of spamming.
5. Domain squatting and redirecting
Another dark tactic is to buy up your competitors’ keywords and “cyber-squat” on them. This is not a good marketing strategy at all. Similarly, buying domain names that contain your target keywords purely for the sake of using them to point to your existing pages is also considered an unethical strategy.
Many companies buy up these domains and then simply point them to their existing pages, without having enough relevant pages relating to that domain. Depending on the severity of the act, your pages might drop in rankings or be dropped completely. There are of course valid reasons for owning multiple domains, however you should use them ethically and with purpose. Find out how to redirect domains through a feeder site, or consider creating unique websites rich in content that holds value enough in their own right to warrant the ownership and use of that domain.
6. Hiding content
If you are hiding text on your page in any way then you are likely to be penalized or dropped completely. This includes hiding the same colour text as the background (e.g. white text on white background), or creating text that is so tiny (e.g. one pixel) that the human eye can’t see it, or hiding the text slightly above or below the page where the human visitor is unable to see it. Even hiding text in the HTML, such as in comment tags, may be considered spam.
7. Doorway pages (also known as an entry page or jump page)
A doorway page is a page which has been distinctively designed – often using a combination of other black hat techniques such as hidden text – to capture the search engine’s attention for a particular keyword or phrase. Companies often use doorway pages as the entry page for the many keyword rich domains that they have, purely to redirect the visitor to the actual website that they want to rank for. Google’s opinion is that, if you create deceptive or misleading content such as a doorway page, then your site could be removed entirely from Google’s index.
8. Mirror pages, duplicate content and mirror domains
All search engines consider mirror pages as spam. Mirror pages usually belong to the same owner and domain and are used to try to increase content on their website with the intention of increasing search engine exposure for specific targeted keywords. A mirror domain is when the same, or very similar, content exists on a different domain. If the same company has purchased these additional domains as a way to duplicate content, and then leads visitors to the original website, it will be considered spam.
9. Google bombing
This technique requires a number of incoming links with the anchor text containing the specific keyword or search phrase that the spammer is trying to rank for. Search engines consider a number of keyword rich links (with the same anchor text) when ranking a page for popularity. For example, in 2007 the former president of the US, George Bush, was targeted for the search phrase “miserable failure”.
A collective group of bombers used the keyword phrase “miserable failure” in their anchor text linking to Bush’s official biography page. Google eventually altered the indexing, however the exercise demonstrated that by having a large number of pages linking to a page with the same anchor text can in fact manipulate the results — even if for only a short while. There have been several other famous bombing attempts, all of which have proven that Google doesn’t take too long to squash out the bombers, which doesn’t make for a very sustainable strategy at all.
10. Hidden and transparent links
This is similar to the hidden text concept, where links are not visible to users, as they are either the same colour as the background, or are hidden behind other elements such as graphics. This means that a search engine will be able to detect and follow these links, even though the visitor is unable to see the links.
11. Link farms
There is no better way to waste your time such as participating in link farms. Link farms are networks of pages that basically consist of a high number, or list, of external links without being surrounded by any substantially relevant content to provide contextual relevance to the externally linked page. When the number of links is unnaturally high, these will be significantly de-valued by the search engines. The Google Panda update in 2011 was designed to get rid of low quality link-building tactics. There are still some SEO firms who attempt to solicit as many incoming links for their clients pages as possible, even though the quality of the linking pages are low, often coming from pages drowning in nothing but links, and that hold no contextual or thematic relevance whatsoever to the linked page.
12. Bad neighbourhood links
It is important to share link equity and to link out to other contextually related websites so that it can reinforce the theme relevance for your own website. However, if you are linking to websites that belong to a bad neighborhood (i.e. a website that has previously been penalized or is considered to be engaging in spamming practices) then you are by association also affected. The same applies to incoming links, if you are receiving links from bad neighbourhoods, try to get the linked page to remove the link to your website as it can do more harm than good.
13. Social media spam
Many SEO’s know that a link from a social media site holds substantial value insofar as the ranking score is concerned, however the spammers know this too and are using social platforms to submit endless “spammy” links through platforms such as Twitter, Digg or StumbleUpon.
Spam blogs (also known as “Splogs”) is when an automated blog makes use of various feeds (such as Google Alerts) to create content from thematically related blogs. When the content is entirely created through such automation, the blog is considered a Splog. It also means that since the content is pulled from other websites, that it is publishing a duplicate of the original content, which leaves the Splog open to duplicate content penalties.
Blogs are also renowned for comment spam, which is when comments are added onto industry related blogs purely for the sake of automatically including a link to a particular page, without adding any other value to the comment. The other most common type of social media spam is called social bookmarking or profile spamming, which is when automated services create fake profiles on various social media platforms in order to promote or link back to a particular page.
14. Misuse of competitors’ names or products
Some companies try to include their competitor’s brands or names in their HTML tags to try to rank for these names in the search results. While you might be stuffing these keywords into your meta keywords and meta description tag, the density (use of the keyword) is simply not enough for search engines to believe that you are about that. You will need to have referenced the keyword (i.e. competitor’s name) across other on-page elements, such as in the title tag, heading, across the copy and in the alt tags, to provide enough density for the keyword. While you may not want your competitors to see this, nor would you want your visitors to see your competitor’s name, you might consider hiding the competitors name across the page. This will then meant that you are using other black-hat techniques, such as hidden text or links to try to rank for the keyword. This raises another question; can your backlinks honestly be stronger than that of your competitors’ for that search term?
This practice could result in your page being detected as spam by search engines as the text is irrelevant to the theme and the rest of the content. And if the search engine doesn’t detect this fast enough, your competitors may and they could report you directly to the search engines for spam. In addition, you are potentially opening yourself up for a lawsuit by using a trademarked name in your meta tags.
15. Automatically generated content and freshness spam
Search Engines typically look for the freshest and most relevant content to display to searchers, which would imply that the more frequently you update your websites pages, the better your chances of being displayed in the search results for the target keywords. However, when you are using numerous plug-ins on your website to continuously update your website, and you rely solely on data from feeds or auto-refreshed elements, then you are potentially putting your website at risk by losing control over the on-page elements of your website. While this practice may not be considered direct spam, you are opening yourself up for potentially becoming devalued by search engines if the content is not adding any value to your visitors, who could potentially report your site for spam, thereby putting your pages under further intense scrutiny.
Search Engine Optimisation should be practiced with the intention of creating websites that offer unique, relevant, valuable content to your target visitors. Before you do anything on your site, ask yourself whether it is for the greater good of the customer (or visitor). While optimising for search engines is important, it is pointless to apply all this effort to a website if you are only trying to attract search engine spiders to your website. What good does a spider (or robot) offer your business anyway? Are you not in business to serve a market – a customer? Remember, always do right by your customer first – that is the most sustainable SEO strategy that any company can have for its website.