Black Hat SEO: What it is and how to avoid it

In the early days of search engines, algorithms were much less advanced than they are today and we were all still trying to figure out how to climb rankings on SERPs. For some, this meant attempting to cheat the system and find ways to exploit algorithms to artificially increase ranking. These are what we now refer to as black hat SEO.

Many of these tactics persist even to this day. If you’re new to SEO or even just unfamiliar with the concept, it can be easy to accidentally fall into the black hat trap and harm your store’s long-term SEO. So let’s take a quick trip down the shady back alley of black hat SEO, and break down the tactics you should avoid.

What is Black Hat SEO?

Put simply, Black Hat SEO refers to any tactics which attempt to manipulate or fool search engine algorithms to increase a page’s ranking. These tactics most of the time are those which violate search engine guidelines, and while not illegal they are certainly unethical and can carry heavy penalties. 

Here’s an explanation of what Google looks for according to their guidelines for webmasters:

  • “Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.

  • Don't deceive your users.

  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you'd feel comfortable explaining what you've done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?"”

  • Search engines see success by being as useful as possible to their users. Providing their users with relevant results to their queries keeps them coming back. Results which rank highly not on the merit of their content, but purely because the site owner attempted to manipulate results won’t be valuable for users so it's in search engines' best interests to identify and penalize any sites who use these tactics.

    Some of the tactics that fall under black hat SEO include:

    • Keyword stuffing
    • Cloaking
    • Sneaky redirects
    • Paid links
    • Poor quality content
    • Spam comments

    Let’s take a closer look at those tactics, what they entail, and how to avoid them.

    Common black hat tactics and how to avoid them

    In the world of ecommerce SEO, it can actually be easy to fall into the trap of black hat SEO without even really realizing it. By understanding what black hat tactics involve, we can also better know how to avoid them as we go through the process of optimizing and growing our store’s SEO.

    #1 - Keyword Stuffing

    Have you ever went on a site’s page and read a paragraph where they mention certain words or phrases a little too often? That’s called keyword stuffing. It’s the practice of adding keywords to a page in order to manipulate its search engine ranking. Doing so results in a pretty poor user experience, as the page isn’t really trying to provide anything useful for the user. 

    Spotting keyword stuffing is often fairly easy - in ecommerce it’s usually in the form of repeating words and phrases so frequently that is feels unnatural. An example might look like:

    “Looking for cheap summer dresses? We have a wide selection of cheap summer dresses in different styles. If you’re looking for the best store for cheap summer dresses, you’re in the right place.”

    It’s pretty obvious what the target keywords are, and it doesn’t read very well. While this example is clear in its attempts at keyword stuffing, this practice is one of the easiest for merchants to accidentally fall into. Lots of advice online will say that you need to include your target keywords as much as possible in a target page, so including these keyword focused paragraphs can seem like a simple way to do so. 

    How to avoid keyword stuffing

    Finding and placing keywords is an integral part of SEO. However there’s definitely a right and wrong way to include them. Keyword stuffing is certainly the wrong way, so here are some tips for how to include them the right way.

    • Focus on content which is useful for your target audience, not trying to manipulate search crawlers. 
    • Include your primary keywords in other parts of the page - meta information, URLs, and header tags are all great keyword real estate.
    • When adding keywords into written content, read it back to see if it sounds natural. If it sounds a little off, reconsider the keyword placement.
    • Avoid adding extra paragraphs or sentences if the sole purpose is to add an extra keyword.

    All it takes to avoid keyword stuffing is a little extra consideration for the user/reader above search engines.

    #2 - Paid Links

    You can buy almost anything online these days, including backlinks. Building backlinks is an important part of your SEO strategy, as these can help to build your store’s authority and in turn boost your ranking in SERPs. However, paying for links is a frowned upon black hat tactic to artificially improve page authority. 

    Paid links are as they sound - a backlink which you exchange either money or free products to receive. Your site didn’t earn them as a result of good content, you just paid for them to be featured. This includes exchanging free products for inclusion in articles with backlinks, and even directories. 

    SEO is a long-term investment in good quality content, and therefore building backlinks and earning them can too take a long time. That’s why it can be tempting to take these shortcuts. However, in the end it’s always much more valuable to pursue those long-term link building strategies. 

    How to avoid paid links

    Link building takes time, and it all starts with high quality content. The better your content, the more likely it’ll be to earn backlinks from high quality sources. Therefore the best way to avoid paying for links is simply to invest in a content strategy that focuses on high quality content. In ecommerce, that may mean making major improvements to your product pages. For example, starting a review gathering campaign to add more quality reviews to product pages may make it more likely that another site will include it in a gift guide, earning a backlink. You may also implement a blog strategy that focuses on answering questions related to your products and category, which other sites in your industry may point to as a resource.    

    #3 - Abusing structured markup

    Structured markup is a great way to catch the eye of users in results pages. It’s an extra piece of code that tells search engines more about a page, and can sometimes make it more likely for the result to appear as a rich snippet. For ecommerce stores, this additional information usually includes star ratings, pricing, and availability. In search results, it’ll most likely look something like this:

    Lucy and Yak structured markup example

    These can help users decide which pages they want to visit - and that’s precisely why they’re susceptible to manipulation. Someone looking to artificially influence search users may give their product five stars and a 5.0 rating for reviews, even though that’s not the case. Google is strict on the rules around structured markup, and always encourages users to report sites abusing it.

    How to avoid structured markup abuse

    This one is fairly straightforward in avoiding - you just need to ensure your structured markup is authentic. Don’t attempt to artificially change the details to make your site seem more appealing to users. This includes changing the star rating, the number of reviews, or the availability of the product. If you have promotional pricing, be sure to update it once the price has returned to normal to as not to mislead customers.

    #4 - Cloaking

    If you have something to hide from search engines, chances are that you shouldn’t really be doing it. Cloaking is when a site presents content to a search engine, but then shows entirely different content to the user once they navigate to the site. It’s a sort of bait-and-switch; the search engine ranks the content it thinks the site has, only for the user to find something else. It can even apply to things like gated articles where the search engine is given the entire article, however the content is blocked by a paywall when the user goes to actually read it. 

    The primary reason for this being labeled a black hat tactic is pretty simple - it’s a bad user experience. The user believes they’ll get one thing, but is instead presented with another. The penalty for cloaking can be extremely damaging; search engines will most likely remove the content from their index entirely so that it doesn’t appear in SERPs again. 

    How to avoid cloaking

    There are situations where you’re going to need to change how your site content appears to users versus search engines. These are thankfully easy to distinguish, and the best way to do so is to ask “am I changing how this appears to benefit the user?”. Situations where the answer will be a definitive “yes” are where desktop vs mobile versions of your site and its content. It may need to be optimized, and in some cases changed or adapted to suit different devices. Another example is serving different languages or regional content if you identify a user’s region. In this case, there may be products which are unavailable in their region, therefore you need to change the site content to avoid disappointment or confusion for the user. 

    #5 - Redirects  

    There are many occasions when a redirect is necessary in ecommerce. They can be extremely useful in ensuring that any site visitors find the right content at the right address, especially if a URL is commonly mistyped. However the usefulness of redirects can be abused by shady SEOs looking for a cheap workaround to building page authority, or hackers trying to fool unsuspecting users. 

    Similarly to cloaking, misuse of redirects involves the user clicking on a URL in search results and redirecting to an entirely different page. The target URL will often be something completely irrelevant to what the user was looking for. An example of this would be clicking on a product link and it directing you to a blog article. It isn’t the content or even the page you were looking for. 

    The perceived benefit for those employing black hat tactics is in passing link authority from a high ranking page to a low ranking one they wish to boost. The idea being that if you redirect users from a high ranking page, the traffic and authority will be passed to the lower ranking page and it’ll start to appear higher in SERPs. In really severe cases, it can be used by malicious actors to redirect a user from a seemingly safe URL to some kind of scam. 

    How to avoid misusing redirects

    As mentioned, there are many cases where redirects are going to come in useful. If you’re in the process of migrating your store, you may need to use redirects to ensure any historic links in the index lead to the new site. Or perhaps you’ve changed the name of a product and updated the URL to reflect this, so you need to set a redirect for the old URL so as not to confuse users looking for the old name. The best way to avoid misusing redirects is to only use them where you’re making it easy for users to find content if they’re coming from an outdated or incorrect URL. That may include times where a product won’t ever be back in stock and you want to redirect them to a product category or a landing page which explains that the product is no longer available. Responsible, user-led redirects are always a winner with SEO.

    SEO is a broad topic, which can make it really easy to either misunderstand the rules or simply not know them. By knowing the most common black hat SEO tactics that can trip you up, you’ll be able to go forth with your SEO strategy with confidence and a better understanding of how to rank up the right way.