In old Westerns, one of the ways directors would visually distinguish the good guys from the bad would be by the color of their hat. White hats were the good guys; they were pure, followed the law and upheld justice. Black hats were the bad guys, they were the deviants, the criminals, the ones who would do whatever it took to get ahead, the law be damned. White Hat and Black Hat basically became synonymous with the lawful and the unlawful. In the 2000s, online marketers commandeered these terms as a way to distinguish those search engine optimization tactics that were considered above board from those that violated Google’s terms of service.
How SEO Tactics Have Evolved Over Time
In the early years following the creation of the internet, search engine companies such as Excite, Yahoo and Google completely changed the way information was catalogued and found online. Their goal was to create a Dewey Decimal System of sorts, wherein it would be easier to find information or sort results based on the keywords within the content. During this nascent “wild west” phase of SEO, there were little to no regulations or rules. Search algorithms updated slowly, as in months, and so marketers took advantage by excessively tagging, keyword stuffing and using spammy backlinks in order to rank higher.
As Google took control of the market, they attempted to curb these unethical optimization tactics and create a more level playing field by punishing brands or content producers who keyword stuffed and employed bad linking practices. During this era of SEO, Google released its motto, “don’t be evil,” in order to promote ethical SEO practices. As they studied trends and user behavior, they realized that their search engine needed to be more reactive.
By 2008, they updated the site to feature Google’s Universal search, which blended results from vertical search engines such as Google images and Google news into its web search listings. Soon after, the addition of Google Suggest, Google Trends and Google Analytics further focused and enhanced optimization.
Related: Black Hat SEO Link Building
Because of this fundamental SEO shift towards users and personalization, marketers began to focus on the creation of new content media with an emphasis on usability and user intent. Google’s Panda update made it very difficult to employ gimmicky content-based tactics in order to promote quality over quantity. As a result of this change, brands now had to produce quality and user focused content in order to land high in the rankings.
Content became king. If they did not, they would face harsh penalties as seen in the cases of J.C. Penney and Overstock. Google began to enforce harsher regulations of content quality, keywords, and companies that utilized over-optimization. By the late 2000s, Google had effectively killed link schemes and driven out most black-hat and spammy backlink practices through heavy penalization. Google’s Knowledge Graph further improved SERP (Search Engine Result Pages) by giving answers in panels immediately below the results so that users would not need to mine for content or answers
Modern SEO practices were further influenced by Google’s prioritization of Social media and mobile optimization. As social media influence continued to grow and the idea of shareable content took hold, marketers began to focus on creating quality content that would also be shared in order to boost visibility. Couple this with the fact that yearly mobile queries surpassed desktop queries and we find ourselves in today’s SEO landscape, tip toeing the line between personalization and privacy.
Black Hat SEO
Nowadays, Black Hat SEO can basically define any disapproved SEO practice that could increase a page’s ranking in a search engine result page without adding any value to the user. These practices violate Google’s terms of service and can result in a lifetime ban from the engine or affiliate sites. According to the guidelines avoid using any of the following tactics:
- Abusing rich snippets markup – Rich snippets, such as breadcrumbs, events, author, video, ratings, reviews etc., are a way to change the way your webpage information is displayed in Google results. Often times this is the first thing a person sees, so falsifying ratings or reviews is deceitful towards users.
- Automatically Generated Content– Automatically generated—or “auto-generated”—content is content that’s been generated using a program. Generally, this will be sentences or paragraphs of random text that are incomprehensible, but contain search keywords. Even pages where content is combined from different web pages is a no-no. These types of pages add little value and create a bad user experience.
- Cloaking- Cloaking denotes the practice of presenting different content or URLs to human users and search engines. It is deceitful in that it provides users with different results than what they expect when they are clicking upon a link. It would be like putting a Ferrari body on top of a Ford Pinto and calling it a Ferrari.
- Creating pages with little or no original content – Google desires that any new page contains new information, which includes relevant keywords that are relevant to the subject matter of the content. Simply copy and pasting something is not okay and is a form of plagiarism or idea theft.
- Creating pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other badware – Google depends on user trust. The user believes that the search algorithm will take them where they want to go and protect their device as that happens. Sites with malicious behavior denigrate user trust.
- Doorway pages – Doorways refers to websites or pages created with the sole purpose to rank highly for specific search queries. They are negative for the user experience in that they take the user to multiple similar pages where each result points to the same destination.
- Hidden Text or links- Text (such as excessive keywords) can be hidden in several ways, including: using white text on a white background, locating text behind an image, using CSS to position text off-screen, setting the font size to 0, hiding a link by only linking one small character—for example, a hyphen in the middle of a paragraph. This again focuses on manipulating SERP rankings rather than providing new content.
- Keyword stuffing – Refers to the practice of loading a webpage with keywords or numbers in an attempt to manipulate a site’s ranking in SERPs. Often these keywords appear in a list or group and are indecipherable. Simply filling pages with keywords or numbers leads to a negative user experience.
- Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value – Generally, affiliate websites feature product descriptions that appear on sites across that affiliate network. Sites that host content form affiliates suffer if there are no meaningful content or features added because they are unable to distinguish themselves from other websites and thus do not provide value to users.
- Participating in Link Schemes – Link Schemes refer to any action that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site in order to have a more favorable ranking or PageRank. If you create a link for any reason besides recommending a useful website to your visitors, you are in some sort of link scheme.
- Scraped content- Scraping content is a form of web plagiarism. It involves taking content from one place and publishing it on your own website as if it was your original content. In short: taking content from other places on the web and publishing it on your own site. This does not provide new information to SERPs and is a form of theft.
White Hat SEO
If you do not comply with Google’s SEO practices you can get your site banned or face other penalties. A lifetime ban can have a very real and negative consequence for your business as well as your reputation. If you don’t want to cut corners and are the in the business of doing things right, then employ White Hat SEO practices in order to boost your rankings fairly. Examples include:
- Focus On Mobile – Google is placing an emphasis on mobile. Per Google, “Pages where content is not easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search results may not rank as highly.” Meaning, Google will hit you hard in their ranking index if you do not have a mobile friendly page.
- Focus on UX – User experience is extremely important, since your website is the product that the consumers are using. Figure out what your users want and then tailor your website in such a way that it is easy to use, looks great and gets the consumer what they want. Sites that are easy for users to navigate rank higher in SERPS. All of these factors lead to a good user experience, which is essentially the main focus of Google’s SEO regulation; protecting the user.
- Descriptive, Keyword-Rich Meta tags – While keyword stuffing is frowned upon, keyword groups and parent topics are still very important. Develop content that contains relevant phrases and context. There are plenty of keyword tools that can help you with this.
- Quality Content – Useful content involves knowing your audience and then speaking to them in a way that provides them with what they covet but amidst a unique experience, or providing something different that they have not already seen. Content that focuses on strong, related keyword phrases will do well on SERPs. When speaking on content, the mantra of today is ‘quality content is King.’
Related: What is Quality Content?
If you are trying to increase your spot in the rankings, be sure to consider Google’s motto; “Don’t be evil.” When choosing, pick the white hat. Focus on providing quality content that provides value to users and betters them for having interacted with your site. Employing solid White hat practices will help you much more in the long run than using underhanded blackhat methods to manipulate your SERP rankings. Black Hat SEO is dying and for good reason. Don’t go down with the ‘cutting corners’ ship, as it’s possible your company won’t surface again.