Search engine optimisation (or SEO) is the process of changing a website’s content to make it appear more relevant to search queries in engines like Google or Bing.
For the sake of businesses trying to get their sites into the results, these sites typically publish a set of guidelines and how-to’s explaining how to structure a site in such a way that it’s easy to index. Google’s is the Google for Webmasters site. Bing’s Webmaster Tools can be found here.
“Google’s like a very pernickity librarian, and it’s always asking what the most relevant site is,” says Andrew Gloyns, an independent search consultant.
Of course, there are a number of methods that get around search engine guidelines to unfairly favour certain sites over others. The worst of these are dubbed ‘black hat’ SEO.
“The definition of black hat, really, is any kind of activity that tries to trick any of the search engines into making your website come up before another website,” says Simon Eder, managing editor at Ooly Booly “All search engines have guidelines, and if you go against them and use techniques to ‘game’ the search engine, then that’s considered as black hat SEO.”
While black hat may at first sound like an ideal opportunity for beating your competitors, the truth is that search engines don’t take too kindly to these practices. Penalties for their use include temporary or permanent banishment from search results.
The term black hat was coined in the mid-90s. Back then, most methods focused on the misuse of keywords. Web administrators would fill the meta-data (the descriptive information in the code behind a page) with hundreds or thousands of irrelevant search terms to get their site to appear in as many different search results as possible.
“People would go to the meta-keyword section, and they’d throw in a thousand uses of ‘car insurance’,”says James Norquay, senior SEO consultant Columbus Search, “and it would work.”
Others would fill the white sections of their webpages with white text that contained further thousands of irrelevant keywords. This text was clearly readable by search engines, which would direct all sorts of traffic to irrelevant pages. Given the text was white on white, it was practically invisible to the average user, who was none the wiser as to why they had ended up on a page that didn’t match their query.
Black hat techniques have changed a great deal since 1996. To stop them working, Google is constantly altering the algorithm that matches queries with websites. In order to understand what the term ‘black hat’ means in 2012, it helps to know what Google considers to be ‘white hat’ techniques. The guidelines are laid out, in reasonably plain English, on the Google developers site. (https://developers.google.com/webmasters/)
To save you time, here’s a breakdown: acceptable SEO, according to Google, is based around content, whether it’s company information, a product listing, or an entertaining cat video. What Google is looking for is consistency, both within each piece of content, and across the whole of a website. If the keywords match the topic of a post, and its title describes it simply and accurately, then that’s a mark of relevancy. The same goes for images, and the meta-data information associated with them – it helps if both the title of an image and its alt-text tag describe what’s in the image.
Details like these, along with a well-structured site, are what Google deems acceptable optimisation. What Google doesn’t tell you is that there are many other factors at play that determine whether your site ranks well in search. Most of these focus on building fake links to a site, or filling it with low-quality, keyword-rich content. While methods like these might give you quick results, the associated penalties mean they’re a bad investment of time and money.