When optimizing your site for search, it can be tempting to fall prey to “black hat” practices. Link directories, keyword stuffing, and link farms can sound too good to be true — that’s because they are. While black hat SEO tactics may sound good now, they’re ultimately bad for you, your customers, and your business.
What’s Your Color?
You’ve probably heard the terms “white hat” and “black hat” thrown around. But what do these really mean?
White hat SEO is the practice of following Google’s guidelines to produce the highest rankings for your site. I personally consider white hat SEO to be making your site better for the visitor, not the search engine bot. Key practices of white hat SEO include developing fresh, relevant content, building high-quality content that attracts links naturally, and considering the user experience when designing and developing the site.
Black hat SEO, on the other hand, uses questionable — and sometimes unethical — tactics designed for the sole purpose of making a website rank higher. These practices really have no benefit to the user. Some common techniques are keyword stuffing, doorway pages (which redirect a user to a different page than the one the person clicked on), buying links, and long, incoherent sentences that include unnatural keyword phrases. Many black hat techniques have come and gone over the years, as Google has a “whack-a-mole” approach to catching these techniques.
Is It Good to Be Bad?
Sure, black hat SEO can be appealing. Here’s why many people are still drawn to these shady practices:
People love shortcuts. Most people don’t want to start from scratch to build a great site with quality content. Instead, they constantly search for a magic solution that will instantly rank them highly for valuable keywords. Companies claiming to get your website in the top 10 results within a month for a few hundred dollars are everywhere. It’s an easy solution, and many people think, “Why not?”
There’s no SEO school. Some black hat SEO just comes down to ignorance. If people don’t have a solid understanding of SEO principles, they may try what they think makes sense. For example, a person may notice that Google is indexing and ranking his site based on a phrase he used in the body copy. So he adds it to the site 10,000 more times. This leads to a poor user experience, so remember to focus on the person who will actually be reading and using your site.
It seems like a quick fix. Black hat SEO is cheap, easy, and doesn’t require much work on the client’s part. Real SEO requires a lot of time to do it effectively — it needs to be customized for each particular client. I’ve noticed many companies like the idea of a turnkey, hands-off solution. Sadly, that is just a pipe dream. Quality content doesn’t create itself.
Crime Doesn’t Pay
Black hat practices may give you a few short-lived spikes in rankings and traffic, but this will be at the risk of Google heavily penalizing your site. For me, the risk-to-reward payoff just isn’t there. If the black hat spammers spent as much time working on legitimate ways to build content and links as they did on hacking and spamming, they would probably be much better off. That’s because white hat techniques:
- Mean you never have to worry about penalties.
- Build long-term authority and credibility with search engines.
- Boost a company’s online image through high-quality content.
Shades of Gray
Google has publicly warned against companies that use bulk link-building tactics, but it would still rank the sites using these techniques very highly. This spurred many formerly white hat SEO companies to embrace a few “gray hat” techniques that walked the line.
Google is finally starting to practice what it preaches when it comes to white hat and black hat SEO. With the Panda and Penguin updates, the company is penalizing sites that have been abusing the system for years. But while this all sounds great — spammers are getting punished for their black hat, unethical tactics — some sites caught in the middle are also being penalized, even though they may not have intentionally broken the rules.
That’s why it’s so important to err on the side of caution. One huge trend that I believe will be viewed as a “bad practice” in the future is creating unpopulated social networks. Let’s say you build a Facebook page and link to it from your site. Google now knows that this is your listing and that you are actively trying to promote it. Now, let’s say you have several links (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and they are all non-active.
How do you think search engines will react to that? Essentially, you’re showing the search engines where to look to see if anyone is talking about your brand — and they’re hearing crickets. In fact, I tell all my clients to forget about social media if they don’t plan to continually update it.
In the long run, white hat SEO is not only the ethical choice, but it’s also the most beneficial for your customers and business. Black hat “quick fixes” can be appealing, but in the end, they’re all risk and little reward. Plus, who wants to read keyword-stuffed, meaningless copy when they could read fresh, engaging, and relevant content?
White hat SEO may require more time and effort, but when done right, you can revel in the knowledge that your brand is safe from the future wrath of Google — and your customers will have an experience they’ll remember.
Image Credit: nmv 1969