The more you learn about search engine optimization (SEO), the more you realize how muddy the waters are to get the job done right. Google Webmaster Guidelines outlines pretty broad “rules” to doing SEO, some of their points are so ambiguous it’s hard to know exactly what’s right or wrong when working with a client website. While every SEO expert wants to do by right by their clients, sometimes you need to skirt a very thin line to succeed.
Let’s look at what black hat SEO is and why it’s a misnomer in the industry that more search engine experts need to start discussing and defining for themselves.
So, What is Black Hat SEO?
According to Sean Hakes, CEO of Altitude Agency, black hat SEO is:
“By definition a black hat SEO is someone who optimizes or enhances a website to appear high in search engines free search engine results and deploys malicious tactics to achieve those results.”
Looking at the Definitions of Black Hat and SEO Separately
When you look individually at the definitions of “black hat” and “SEO,” as Hakes has done, you see that the malicious intent is really what drives home the concept of “black hat SEO.”
For many in this industry, they see anything against Google Webmaster Guidelines – as broad sweeping as they are – as black hat SEO. For others, it’s not so simple.
What is “Black Hat SEO” According to Google Webmaster Guidelines?
Google Webmaster Guidelines do not explicitly say what black hat SEO is. They leave that up to SEOs, digital marketers, business owners, and others who don’t truly have access to or understand the estimated 200+ ranking factors that make up Google’s core algorithm.
Google makes it difficult to narrow down exactly what is right or wrong in helping websites succeed in a competitive landscape. Small businesses online are fighting against Google themselves for ever-shrinking space at the top of search engine result pages (SERPs) in addition to their competitors big or small.
How do these websites compete without waiting 15 to 18 months for organic results from content marketing to make a dent in the competition? How do these businesses make it to the top without spending tens of thousands of marketing dollars they don’t have to beat others who’ve monopolized the top for years? Should they even compete with the bigger businesses that have what seems like unlimited resources? It’s not an easy question to answer.
Does the Intent of What SEOs Do Matter in Defining Black Hat SEO?
Keep in mind that the majority of Google’s decisions when it comes to how it ranks websites comes down to an automated algorithm that crawls the web, then spits out where it thinks websites should rank based on a variety of factors and other websites. While it can “see” SEO signals, it can’t tell the intent behind those signals.
You can break Google Webmaster Guidelines into two categories based on Hakes black hat SEO definition: malicious actions and shortcuts.
Some of the malicious items include:
- Sneaky redirects
- Creating pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other malware
- Sending automated queries to Google
- Automatically generated content
- Scraped content
- Hidden text or links
- Abusing rich snippets markup
Some of the shortcut-based items include:
- Participating in link schemes
- Creating pages with little or no original content
- Doorway pages
- Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value
- Loading pages with irrelevant keywords
- Some Scenarios of Intent in Helping Your Website Succeed
For example, if you spent $5000 buying spammy links to point towards your website to help boost its rankings, Google’s algorithm can see you have a huge influx of spammy links to your website, but does it know why? It can’t tell you bought the links. It can’t tell if a competitor bought those links to start a negative SEO campaign. Google just can’t tell the intent.
You may still be held accountable for those links – even if a competitor is coming after you – and you may not. But if you bought those links to help your website succeed, the intent here is to help grow your presence online. Is that malicious? Not necessarily, but those links have no real value to your website and in the long run will do more harm than good when Google eventually catches up.
On the flip side, if you decide to pay a company to hack websites and inject code that results in links pointing to your website and thousands of others to boost your ranking, the intent there is malicious. You’re hacking other websites, against their will, forcing them to link to you. They lose, you win.
Again, Google can’t tell what the intent is here either, but I’m pretty sure we can agree the intent is more malicious than buying links to help your website succeed. This is clearly malicious and detrimental to other websites on the web.
Then there’s the grey area of SEO, where your SEO company builds links on a private blogging network (PBN) pointing to your website. The content written is highly relevant and isn’t spammed on a thousand sites or even duplicated elsewhere. It’s a link here or there to help you out. It’s not malicious, and it’s meant to boost your site’s profile. Frankly, this still works very well even if Google claims they can catch most PBNs out there.
It may fall under link schemes, but any time you pay an SEO company or expert to do work, you could argue they’re violating Google Webmaster Guidelines in any number of ways even if the intent isn’t malicious.
Honestly, which of the three scenarios above seems “black hat” to you, or more importantly, to your business?
Google Doesn’t Make It Easy for Websites to Succeed Online
Google has changed what its mission is for searchers. They want to provide the best possible result for search intent. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, that’s not what is showcased.
You’ll find companies with less than stellar reputations, giant companies that monopolize results simply because of their size, and searchers are losing out on some of the good guys getting pushed down merely because they can’t wait for things to move at a snail’s pace thanks to Google.
You have to do what’s right for your company to succeed, or you’ll be out of business.
You need to work with an SEO company or consultant that can lay out a six to 12-month plan for growth. From there, you need to look at how they do what they do and ask what makes it work. In some cases, that may skirt the line of what everyone online says is “black hat SEO.” That doesn’t mean it is.
When the intent is to grow your business because you are good at what you do, that should count for something in the eyes of an algorithm.
Don’t discount what your SEO company offers you because someone else tells you it’s black hat or wrong; you need to understand why that company wants to do what it plans and how it works in the grand scheme of things. From there, you can determine what is right and wrong for your business and feel secure in the SEO strategy behind your success online.
When you trust the SEO you work with, you will understand why Google makes it so difficult for the little guy to succeed online and why the intent of what you want to do to grow matters more than what arbitrary rules that aren’t fleshed out for anyone grasp. You can decide what’s black hat SEO to you or not. You can decide what you to grow online. Take back that power – take back your website’s place online.
Disclaimer: I work for Altitude Agency and with Sean Hakes. We discuss black hat SEO, Google Webmaster Guidelines, and everything under the sun about search engine optimization to help our clients grow and adapt to the ever-changing digital landscape.