While it’s an integral part of business success today, at one point in time, the internet was considered the Wild West. And just like in your favorite western movie (or HBO show), the good guys wore white hats while the bad guys sported black ones.

Admittedly, no, hats were not a prerequisite for content marketing, even in the hallowed days of the mid-2000s. However, the terms “black hat SEO” and “white hat SEO” were plucked from Western iconography to describe deceptive search engine optimization tactics and quality-focused strategies that comply with search engine policies, respectively.

Today, nearly all black hat techniques no longer work. What’s more, employing them can do serious harm to your placement on search engine results pages. This makes it more important than ever to parse good from bad when it comes to SEO.

Make your mama proud - avoid black hat SEO!

Make your mama proud – avoid black hat SEO!

What is black hat SEO?

Black hat SEO encompasses a wide range of practices that work to manipulate a website’s ranking on SERPs. With search engines bending over backward to enhance user experience through a focus on intent, value and relevance, it makes sense that deceitful tactics would begin to backfire. Put simply, black hat SEO is about tricking search engines into giving your website a top spot on SERPs, as opposed to working for it with quality content and website best practices.

“Black hat SEO may have had some success in 2008, but Google has evolved since then and we all need to adapt,” said Brafton Account Director Sonny Sharp. “Tactics like keyword stuffing, link buying, duplicate content and cloaking may have worked in the past, but now these will all do major damage to your online visibility. If you are still committing to these methods, you should abandon them and work on building unique content on a healthy website with proper UX and design to help boost your SEO.”

Most common types of black hat SEO

As Sonny pointed out, numerous tactics fall under the umbrella of black hat SEO. Among the most common examples are:

  • Keyword stuffing: We’ve written before about why keywords are still essential to content marketing, yet stuffing them into posts haphazardly is a great way to tell search engines your content is low quality.
  • Link schemes: This can mean numerous things, from buying external links to simply swapping links with a website that is irrelevant to your audience. Both are bad for all parties involved.
  • Scraping: Republishing content without permission, also known as scraping, can hurt you on two fronts. In addition to the penalty for duplicate content, you could face legal trouble.
  • Cloaking: Any time you promise a website visitor something on the other end of a link and don’t deliver, that counts as cloaking, and it’s not a good look.
  • Automated content: Software exists that can produce basic content, albeit these are keyword-stuffed blogs that read like they were written by a robot instead of a human being – because they were. Search engines and readers react accordingly.
  • Website manipulation: Including both the creation of mirror websites to post duplicate content and the construction of worthless sites on which to build links, website manipulation clutters the internet with worthless URLs and sets you up for punishment.
  • Invisible text and links: This is the practice of hiding text and links on a web page in order to boost its ranking, through fonts that either match background colors or are set at 0-point size, and through links that are attached to single characters. Search engines no longer fall for it.
  • Clickbait: Search engines mark down websites that don’t deliver on their headlines. Think twice before using the word “free” when trying to charge visitors.

While by no means an exhaustive list, the above examples paint a clear picture of the type of activity that counts as black hat SEO. Besides being unethical, these examples share another important quality: They will get you penalized by search engines.

The algorithms used to power modern search engines are sophisticated enough to see through black hat SEO tactics and punish practitioners accordingly. This means you’d be setting yourself up for punishment while failing at your initial goal if you try to use them. All in all, not a great plan.

Even as some try to create and execute new black hat SEO techniques, keep in mind that today’s search engines are smart, and only getting smarter. If a content marketing technique feels like black hat SEO, it probably is, and it’s only a matter of time before search engines catch on, if they haven’t already.

Sartorial style aside, white trumps black hat SEO when it comes to content marketing.

Sartorial style aside, white hat trumps black hat SEO when it comes to content marketing.

Implementing white hat SEO techniques

On the bright side, search engines have laid out precisely how to increase SERP ranking and avoid punishment. You guessed it: white hat SEO, which overlooks deceptive shortcuts in favor of quality, human-focused content optimization.

If you’re looking to boost your website’s visibility and stay in the good graces of Google, try the following:

  • Produce content that is relevant and valuable for website visitors.
  • Make sure your content is optimized for all devices, from desktops to smartphones.
  • Utilize social signals and improve link building through content sharing.
  • Prune low-quality content on your website.
  • Take advantage of schema markup to appeal to search engines.
  • Use targeted landing pages to better reach your audience.

It’s natural to want to boost your SEO standing, but taking unethical shortcuts is a guaranteed way to harm your website’s reputation in the eyes of both search engines and internet users.

Black hat SEO no longer works, and the penalties you may face are fierce. If you haven’t already, it’s time to put on your white hat.

Eric Wendt is a writer and editor at Brafton. He discovered his love of words after realizing he was terrible at math. If he's not updating his Tumblr with poetry he's too embarrassed to share, there's a good chance he's out in search of the perfect pale ale.