Search engines like Google and Bing don’t tend to publish the code that figures out how to match queries with results.
Despite this, many online marketers have used trial and error to learn as much as they can about these internal processes. Some of the resulting techniques are above-board and ethical – others aren’t. The following is an outline of five of the major black hat methods, and how they work.
1. Link building
One of the most vitally important factors in SEO is the number of incoming links a site gets. If Google sees another site linking to your page, it reads that as a favourable sign that your page is interesting and relevant to the keywords it’s using. Not all inbound links are equal. The better the stature of the linking site, the greater the value of the link.
Search optimisation community SEO Moz has a free tool, called Open Site Explorer, that can give you an impression of the number and types of links to any given website. Type the URL of a site you’d like to research, and it will give you a list of the link sources, along with an indication of the value of each link.
“Link value is determined by how authoritative the site is, how many external links that that specific site has, and how many sites they’re actually pointing out to,” says James Norquay, senior SEO consultant at Columbus Search. “Say you’ve got a website that has an authority of 60, and you’ve got 10 external links – you’re going to split that between 60, so each link gets a score of six.”
One popular form of black hat SEO is to use software like Senuke or Xrumer to generate great numbers of false links to a site to make it appear more popular and relevant. Targeting forums and comment threads on other sites, this type of software creates hundreds or thousands of posts that contain links back to your own site.
This activity is frowned upon by search engines, but can be difficult to police. If a search engine reads a massive spike in low-quality links to your website, it’s likely it will penalise you by removing your site from results temporarily.
“If you’re getting two links a month, and then all of a sudden you’re getting 5,000 links a month, and that consistently happens over time, there could be a problem,” says Simon Eder, managing director of Ooly Booly. “But if you are getting on average 30-40 backlinks to your website, and that’s increasing over time, then Google can only deal with so much.”
The danger in using link-building software lies in its automation. Given that it’s automatically creating thousands of links, it can be difficult to strike a balance between a reasonable number and what Google deems to be a suspicious number. In addition to this, if your link building is automated, it can be difficult to make sure every link it creates is good quality. Large volumes of poor quality links are almost certain to cause you problems.
As a guideline, if software builds links automatically, it could easily get your site removed from the Google index.
2. Negative SEO
By creating penalties for sites that build links, search engines have accidentally helped create another form of black hat SEO. Negative SEO is when a business maliciously creates an excessive number of links to a competitor’s webpage. This gives the impression that the competitor has been trying to manipulate their ranking by building links. The desired outcome is that the mass of poor quality links damage the site’s ranking, or get it banned from search results entirely, making it easier for the first business to rank higher for competitive terms.
“They go out and they just target a site, and they’ll put an Xrumer blast on the site,” says Columbus Search’s Norquay. “What that means is they’ll build thousands and thousands of links to what could be a legitimate website, in a chance to make that site drop down the ranks. It basically just builds thousands of low quality links. It could be social bookmarks, it could be blog comments. It just uses a generic comment stream across thousands of blogs.”
3. Article spinning/scraping
Search engines place a lot of emphasis on good content, and favour sites with lots of it. Article spinning is a black hat technique that involves using software to ‘spin’ hundreds or thousands of variations on a single piece of highly optimised piece of content. These variations can then be used fill a site to make it look more relevant for a particular set of keywords.
“The idea is that it needs to be at least 30-40% unique for Google to take notice of it,” says Ooly Booly’s Eder. “Basically, the software goes through the article, finds keywords and will put in variations. It just chooses randomly all the different options in the article, and then technically it’s a different article.”
From a usability perspective, article spinning can be misleading and frustrating; it makes researching sites an arduous and repetitive task for the searcher. In 2010 and 2011, Google introduced a series of measures that cancelled out the effects of duplicate content to counter article spinning. Now, the search engine only gives credit to the first instance of a piece of content, and ignores other articles if it can tell they’re variations.
“You don’t technically get banned, your website just doesn’t get credit for that,” says Eder. “If you’ve got 400 pages of content on your website, and only 15 that are more than 40-50% unique, then Google will only give you credit for those 15 pages.”
4. Blog networks
Instead of posting thousands of spun articles on their own site, a business owner might create or buy access to an enormous network of blogs. Each of these blogs contains articles that link to the original business site, thereby bolstering its link volume.
“They’ll create maybe 100–200 of their own blogs, host them all themselves, write their own content, or spin or scrape it from other websites, and put it on these blogs,” says Andrew Gloyns, an independent SEO consultant, and owner of Gloyns.com. “Then, suddenly, they, or their client, own a network of a hundred sites that all link to their website. So they can instantly and very cost-effectively create a lot of links, and get high rankings for what’s seen as editorial links.”
Unsurprisingly, search companies don’t approve of this kind of activity. In early 2012, Google announced an update that removed a large number of blog networks from its search index. Regardless, blog networks continue to be a commonly-used technique.
“In many competitive industries, they’re still used,” says Gloyns. “Especially in the insurance niche that I’m working in also in some beauty niches, things like perfume. There’s some sites, in the top three – that’s all they do: have their own blog networks linked to their own sites, and that’s how they’re there.”
5. Paid links
The Google web developer’s blog openly discourages the practice of paying for links from reputable sites to boost a site’s search ranking.
“One of the big black hat things, according to Google, is buying links,” says Eder. “Say I go to a media group and pay for a good, creditable link from one of their websites. If Google finds out, then I can technically get in trouble for it. The problem is that I can also go to a directory, and pay a certain amount of money a year to be in that directory, but that’s not technically buying backlinks.”
He explains that there are a number of ‘grey hat’ areas that involve the exchange of money for links, but don’t necessarily go against guidelines.
“Something I see a lot of companies still do is to buy a banner on a website that is actually a link to their website with an anchor text behind that banner,” says Columbus Search’s Norquay. “Although this looks like a simple advertisement, the presence of anchor text in the link gives it the added weight of an editorial link, meaning that the link itself is worth more than if it were just an ad.”
While this kind of approach to link building may not result in a penalty, it’s best to steer clear of it. Measures like these walk the line with respect to Google’s guidelines – while they may today present a way to gain traction in the early stages of an online business, they could just as easily be tagged as ‘black hat’ in the future, placing your site in a precarious position.