What is Black Hat SEO? Everything You Need to Know

October 19, 2023 in Small Business

Black hat search engine optimization (SEO) involves practices designed to subvert search engine guidelines with the goal of gaining higher rankings and leading people to certain content. This often centers around the overt use of deception although, in some situations, the main problem may be ignorance.

Black hat is a common problem throughout the modern digital landscape and, in many ways, its enduring prominence makes sense: businesses want to make their mark on search engine results pages (SERPs), but it takes a lot of time and effort to do so when abiding by search engine guidelines. It can be tempting to take shortcuts to seek these short-term gains but doing so via black hat tactics will degrade the quality of individual webpages and could have lasting consequences.

Black hat's staying power stems, in part, from its ease of implementation: even beginners can quickly master and implement many black hat techniques, which can, in turn, have a swift impact on search engine rankings. But that impact will be short-lived and in the long run, black hat SEO is deeply harmful.

Black hat vs. white hat SEO

The opposite of black hat is white hat SEO. The latter aims to align closely with search engine guidelines. Any strategies that focus on making websites genuinely easier to navigate and more valuable from the user's perspective will likely qualify as white hat.

Google outlines the basics of white hat in its Search Essentials: "Create helpful, reliable, people-first content.” Other simple recommendations include making links crawlable and following Google's best practices for images and videos.

Black hat fails to follow these simple standards. For example, black hat keywords are often awkward and may be stuffed into content until it is no longer helpful or reliable.

Then there is gray hat SEO, which forms a middle ground between black and white. This is where many well-meaning business leaders and webmasters find themselves. They are nowhere near as malicious or sneaky as the term 'black hat' implies, but rather, simply uninformed as to what is allowed and what improves traffic and conversions.

Common black hat SEO techniques

Black hat SEO can take many forms, and new strategies are always emerging. However, most black hat behaviors fall into a few main categories, as highlighted below:

Keyword stuffing

Keyword stuffing is a common and easily implemented black hat SEO tactic that involves the awkward overuse of keywords. This is one of the easiest black hat tactics to detect and also one of the easiest to fix.

In the early days of the web, the more keywords you used on a page, the more likely you were to get a solid SERP placement. Back then, keyword stuffing was overt: a particular term could be found several (even dozens) of times within short-form content. This was common with on-page content but also appeared in page titles, meta descriptions, and nearly anywhere in which keywords could be inserted.

Experts at Search Engine Journal pointed out that some early keyword stuffing efforts were far sneakier: full paragraphs of keywords could be hidden simply by changing the color of the text to match the webpage's background. Google eventually caught on, however, and a myriad of keyword stuffing strategies became taboo as the search engine made much-needed algorithm updates such as Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird.

These days, keyword-stuffed pages often don’t rank well in the search results because they are regarded as adding less value than the pages in which the content is designed to be genuinely helpful to the user. Currently, Google’s Webmaster Guidelines explain that "filling pages with keywords...results in a negative user experience, and can harm your site’s ranking."


Cloaking occurs when websites show a particular version of content to search engines to score high rankings but then rely on different content for users. This can take several forms, such as:

  • HTTP Accept-Language cloaking. This strategy adjusts content based on the language preferences attributed to various users. As its name implies, this method is reliant on the Accept-Language header, which reveals the languages a particular client can understand.
  • IP cloaking. Under this approach, the visitor's IP address determines which version of the website is provided. As a result, visitors from different locations will see different content.
  • Hidden or invisible text. Text can be hidden within image alt attributes or comment tags. Cloaking represents one of the more sophisticated strategies for incorporating hidden text, which also appears in content on a page's far right or beneath images.
  • User-agent cloaking. Drawing on the user agent strings within HTTP headers (which are used to identify devices that request content), this form of cloaking ensures that different browsers access different versions of websites.

Sneaky redirects

Not all redirects are problematic and redirecting URLs can actually be quite important. In general, these can be counted on to send users from one URL to the next.

Website redirects can be deemed sneaky if they send users to pages they did not intend to visit and that are clearly not relevant to the desired website. These redirects aim to artificially improve traffic while manipulating search engine results. Such practices often involve one or more of the cloaking strategies outlined above.

Content scraping

Stolen content has long been an issue but lately malicious players have grown a lot more sophisticated in how they steal and display this material. Enter content scraping - a tactic in which content is lifted off original websites and published elsewhere without permission from the creator. This can have a negative impact on the website that originally published the content, with undiscovered scrapers sometimes outranking the originals.

Although it is possible to scrape websites manually, this practice is increasingly automated. This approach relies on bots to crawl websites and harvest data, which can then be displayed elsewhere. Often, these strategies play into larger schemes, such as spoofed websites that trick people into paying money for illegitimate or knockoff products, or for items they never actually end up receiving.

Doorway pages

Doorway pages are designed to rank well with search engines, regardless of the content they provide and how helpful they may prove for everyday users. According to Google, doorway pages involve anything that is "created to rank for specific, similar search queries." Google adds that these doorway pages "lead users to intermediate pages that are not as useful as the final destination."

A common example of doorway pages? When a business creates practically identical webpages for different locations that they don’t have physical businesses in, with only the geographic keywords being swapped. This can hurt SEO, as Google makes it abundantly clear that it is not desirable to maintain several pages with similar content. In other cases, doorways can be even more malicious, potentially sending visitors to phishing websites.

Private blog networks (PBNs)

Beyond keyword stuffing, private blog networks are among the most prevalent black hat strategies. These networks involve groups of sites that are purposefully built to generate a higher volume of backlinks. These are often constructed with expired domain names but can also be created when several domains are purchased at once. No matter the origins, the effect is similar as the network expands: basic content is posted, with links leading back to a single, primary website.

The appeal of the PBN lies in its ability to bypass traditional strategies for earning backlinks — a ranking factor for Google’s search engine. With white hat strategies, it takes a lot of time and effort to develop a solid linking strategy, but PBNs can act as a viable shortcut. From the search engine's perspective, this practice is unethical and may lead to consequences such as de-indexing.

Hidden and paid link farming

Link farms hold the exclusive purpose of creating links that lead to other websites. These are sham websites with no intention of providing valuable content. Many of these digital farms contain hidden links, which are visible to search engines but not to the human eye. Others focus on paid links, which are purchased with the intention of improving search engine rankings while disregarding search engine best practices.

Link farms resemble PBNs in many ways but tend to have lower-quality content and a denser linking approach. Google tends to have more success identifying link farms. Both strategies, however, should be avoided and can cause lasting damage to reputable websites.

Comment spam

Spammy comments contain links designed to lead users to specific websites. This blog comment spam is rarely relevant to the websites on which it’s featured. It can actively detract from the user's experience and harm the website's reputation. Google refers to these comments as "unrelated, gibberish" and adds that this is a "risky way of getting links to your site."

Why do people use black hat SEO?

The intent behind black hat SEO isn't always malicious. Some people engage in these tactics simply because they don't know better or because they have failed to evolve alongside the quickly changing SEO landscape. At one time, several of the strategies outlined above were generally deemed acceptable, even though today those same tactics could result in search engine penalties.

Black hat isn't always a matter of ignorance, and it’s not even always focused on the website’s ranking. Some strategies are purely malicious, designed to deceive users into trusting spammy websites or even tricking them into buying imposter products or falling for other scams.

Negative SEO impact

No matter why it's used or how, black hat SEO is problematic both on a wide scale and for the individual websites that engage in it. The negative implications can be far-reaching but generally depend on Google's algorithms.

To boost high-quality content, today's algorithms aim to punish black hat techniques and reward strategies that emphasize genuine quality. Sometimes, this goes as far as blacklisting problematic content.

The SEO implications are worrisome, but that's not where the negative effects of black hat end. Other concerns might include:

  • Black hat strategies tend to produce lower-quality content that drives well-meaning users away and erodes their confidence in your brand.
  • Websites littered with stuffed keywords or links can be difficult to navigate. Even if users are willing to put up with this low-quality content, they may never ultimately reach the conversion stage or become long-term customers.
  • Some black hat tactics can be deemed illegal, although this is a quickly evolving area of cyber law. Still, as legislation and court cases develop, it's not worth the risk.

Detection and prevention

Black hat content can sometimes be difficult to detect. Keyword stuffing and spammy comments are obvious, but other issues (such as scraped content) may be more difficult to discern. Strategies for uncovering these concerns will differ from one black hat initiative to the next, but the following approaches are common:

  • Private blog networks can often be pinpointed based on their cross-site footprint, which reveals technical similarities and signals that there is a single force behind multiple sites. Other signs that point to PBNs include similar WHOIS data, duplicate images, and similar themes.
  • To find link farms, examine links and their anchor text. This is more likely to appear repetitive when a link farm is involved. Limited relevance can also be a key indicator of link farming. The most reliable solution is to use link analysis tools.
  • Doorway pages are often easy to spot, as a single website may contain numerous pages that look practically the same or feature nearly identical content that fails to provide new or substantial information.

Other detection efforts are more comprehensive and can be relied on to uncover multiple forms of black hat SEO, especially as they relate to broader schemes such as phishing:

  • Monitor website performance. Performance monitoring is a must from a security standpoint, but it can also provide valuable insight into the status of your SEO. Sudden spikes in traffic, for example, could be indicative of spammy strategies.
  • Conduct SEO audits. A variety of security audits can reveal problems that might otherwise never be uncovered. SEO audits, in particular, are a must, as these reveal the full scope of black hat issues that could harm your website and its search engine results. This process can be completed with guidance from Google Search Console, although outside resources can streamline the auditing process and provide a valuable third-party perspective.
  • Research SEO best practices. Google's algorithms are constantly changing — hence the need to keep up to date with SEO best practices and algorithm updates. At a minimum, Google's Webmaster Guidelines should be reviewed on a regular basis.
  • Report suspicious activity. Google provides straightforward reporting mechanisms that can be used to clue the search engine in on current black hat practices. This is a must if outside black hat schemes threaten your website. Look to Google Search Console for instructions on how to report spammy, deceptive content or pages containing paid links.

Recovering from penalties

If your website has been guilty of utilizing black hat techniques in the past, don't be too alarmed: while these may have previously harmed your SEO or your reputation, it is still possible to turn things around. This begins with simple awareness: determining how and where black hat appears and whether it follows any trends.

Black hat detection efforts should be followed by a prompt and comprehensive effort to remove anything deemed illicit. Depending on the scope of the problem, this could involve anything from simple keyword changes to an exhaustive effort to update your content and the structure of your website. Yes, this will be time-consuming and difficult, but remember: any effort placed into developing a legitimate web presence will be well-rewarded in the long run.

The next step? Restoring your status with Google. If you were fortunate to discover black hat issues before Google caught wind of them, you might not need to go out of your way to get your name back in the search engine's good graces. But if you were blacklisted, you will need to request a review through Google Search Console.

Protect your search engine rankings

Black hat SEO is all about shortcuts: circumventing search engine guidelines and general best practices in favor of an easy fix. In the long-term, this damages brand reputation and can lead to a whole host of other negative consequences. Ultimately, there are no substitutes for the white hat strategies that have long been relied on to build legitimate websites.

If you've put in the work to create amazing web content, the last thing you need is for bad actors to get in the way. As you continue to emphasize ethical SEO strategies, be mindful of security threats.

A proactive approach is always preferable and, if you're currently focused on digital marketing and SEO practices, comprehensive solutions such as SiteLock should ensure that your bases are covered.

To learn more about SEO and cybersecurity, read about SEO spam and security measures to protect your site.

Image by Firmbee from Pixabay

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