In classic Westerns, outlaws wearing black hats take great risks and sometimes get quick riches, but the law tends to catch up to them. Black hat search engine optimization (SEO) is the same. At times, black hat tactics can lead to quick wins in search engines, but the success never lasts. Google catches up eventually and penalizes sites that cheat the system. Learning about black hat SEO can help you understand what to avoid and how to execute great white hat SEO strategies.
What is black hat SEO?
Black hat search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of gaining search engine rankings in ways that don’t comply with those search engines’ official guidelines. Typically, black hat activities are intended to deceive search engine crawlers, relying on workarounds to rank high on search engine results pages (SERPs) rather than the traditional route of creating compelling and useful content. If search engines detect you’re using black hat SEO techniques, they may enact a penalty, reduce your search rankings, or ban your site from their search results altogether.
4 reasons you should avoid black hat SEO
1. Manual actions
When search engines detect your site is engaged in black hat activity, they’ll de-list or ban your site, sometimes permanently. Google calls these penalties manual actions, and you can review whether your site has any in Google Search Console.
2. Brand risk
If a potential customer sees your brand engaging in black hat SEO, they may lose trust in it. If your SEO practices are clearly shady, the customer might rightfully suspect your return policy or product sourcing is also shady. Black hat SEO tactics that can damage your brand’s reputation include comment spam and keyword stuffing, or jamming search terms into a blog post or web page in an unnatural way. Customers might also lose faith in your company if they have trouble finding your site via Google, a potential consequence of using black hat SEO tactics.
3. Algorithm updates
Google makes hundreds of algorithm updates each year, typically rolling out three to four core (major) updates. Many of these updates are explicitly designed to weed out sites that exhibit black hat activity. If your site engages in these practices to rank high on SERPs, its traffic will constantly be at risk.
4. You’re too late
The truth is, if you’re reading about a black hat technique, it likely no longer works. Search engines’ algorithms are trained to recognize many common black hat techniques—like private blog networks, for instance—and the pages that use them are ignored or penalized.
The best reason you should avoid black hat SEO tactics, according to SEO Strategist for Shopify Greg Bernhardt, “Black hat SEO sacrifices long-term success for theoretical and unproven short-term gains. Companies that succeed in the long run are the ones that invest in customer and product-oriented SEO foundations such as value and user experience.”
9 black hat SEO techniques to avoid
- Hidden text
- Keyword stuffing
- Link farms
- Private blog networks (PBNs)
- Blog comment spam
- Copying competitor content
- Rich snippet abuse
- Negative SEO
- Hacking or supporting hacked websites
Since black hat SEO refers to any activity that doesn’t comply with search engine guidelines, studying Google’s search guidelines can help you understand what is and isn’t permissible. Below are nine common black hat SEO techniques that can result in a penalty:
1. Hidden text
This technique involves hiding keywords on a page where users can’t see them but search engine crawlers can. For example, this might look like inserting white text on a white-background page.
2. Keyword stuffing
Search engine algorithms identify content relevant to searchers’ queries in part by assessing if the page contains relevant keywords. Keyword stuffing is a black hat technique that involves arbitrarily filling a website’s content and meta tags with keywords in a way unhelpful to the user.
3. Link farms
Link farms are networks of interlinked websites created for the sole purpose of conferring link juice—a page’s perceived authority based on the number and quality of inbound links. By linking to each other (whether the content is useful to readers or not), participating sites theoretically increase their ranking. Both owning link farms and receiving links from link farms are considered black hat.
4. Private blog networks (PBNs)
PBNs are a type of link farm, but instead of linking to other sites within the link farm, the system relies on creating multiple sites that all link to one site. The idea is inbound links will increase the receiving site’s ranking on SERPs, but most search engine algorithms can recognize and penalize sites that use this practice.
5. Blog comment spam
This is one of the most famous (and outdated) black hat practices: adding comments to other blogs that include links back to your site.
6. Copying competitor content
Copying content without express permission from other websites is penalized by search engines.
7. Rich snippet abuse
Google provides explicit guidelines about how websites can use structured data to show up in Google’s non-plain-text results, which are known as rich snippets. These can include reviews, recipes, shopping results, public figures, and more. Although rich snippets can drive more traffic to your site, attempting to use them in a misleading way (for example, by faking reviews or including the name and image of a reputable author who didn’t actually write for your site) doesn’t comply with Google’s guidelines.
8. Negative SEO
This is the practice of purposely harming competing websites by making them seem like black hat actors. This can look like creating blog comment spam or purchasing from link farms on their behalf. If this happens to you, you can use Google’s disavow links tool to remove unnatural links.
9. Hacking or supporting hacked websites
The most egregious black hat tactic is supporting website hackers by buying or creating links from hacked websites to their own website. In the same vein, some black hat SEO tactics include taking over hacked websites to create phishing websites or to insert affiliate links.
Alternative to black hat SEO: white hat SEO techniques
Search engines encourage businesses to engage in SEO practices—they only want those practices to comply with their guidelines. These practices are known as white hat SEO strategies, and among other techniques, include these three:
1. Improve how your site is crawled
Search engines use programs called crawlers to read your site and understand what it’s about. Create and submit a sitemap.xml, a file that contains links to all the most relevant pages on your site. Search engines use this file to index your site and show relevant pages in search results. You can direct crawlers to your sitemap by including it in your robots.txt file, which serves a directory to all pages on your site.
Confirm your efforts paid off by using Google Search Console. This tool allows you to measure your site’s performance and make sure it’s indexed correctly.
2. Write helpful content
Search engines value helpful content. They consider content helpful when it’s written by an expert in the field, it answers a question, and it’s unique and original. By publishing content that meets these criteria on your site, you’ll improve your chances of being rewarded by search engines. An added SEO benefit of creating great content: Other websites will be more likely to link back to it, earning you the advantages of link building without resorting to black hat techniques.
3. Earn backlinks
Search engines do look at links to your site from other sites to understand your website’s value. Earning backlinks by recommending a product or service on your site—and receiving a link from that recommended site—is a great way to do this. Note submitting guest posts for the express purpose of gaining a backlink is considered a gray hat SEO technique: not expressly forbidden, but not encouraged.
If you’re running an ecommerce site and want to implement impactful SEO techniques, Growth Marketing Lead at Shopify Justas Gaubys suggests, “You should implement white hat SEO techniques related to site crawlability and focus on content generation to enhance your site’s ranking.” And, keep away from questionable black (or gray) hat SEO tactics.
Black hat SEO FAQ
Does black hat SEO work?
Black hat SEO tactics can lead to increased organic traffic in the short term. However, over the long term, black hat SEO can be discovered and penalized by search engines. It is rarely worth it for brands to pursue a black hat SEO strategy.
Are the tactics used in black hat SEO similar to dark patterns?
No, most black hat tactics do not involve dark patterns—design elements that trick users into taking unwanted actions. Whereas dark patterns focus on deceiving users into doing something they may not want to do, black hat SEO focuses on deceiving search engine algorithms into valuing a website more than they should.
What are the main differences between black, white, and gray hat SEO?
Black hat SEO refers to SEO tactics expressly forbidden by search engines’ policies. White hat SEO tactics are expressly allowed and encouraged by search engines. Gray hat SEO tactics fall somewhere in between. Typically, gray hat SEO tactics aren’t actively deceptive to users or search engines, but they aren’t inherently helpful either.
What are some ways to recover from search engine penalties?
If your site has been affected by a penalty, you should submit a review request directly to the search engine that gave the penalty. In the review request, include the reason your site was penalized (to show you understand it), describe the steps you've taken to fix the issue, and document the outcome of your efforts.