We mean no disrespect, but there’s a lot of shady stuff in the SEO world. We only do white hat SEO here, so we’re here to dish on 15 bad SEO practices that you need to stop right now unless you’re prepared for the consequences. We aren’t saints here, but there’s a lot of black hat SEO practices that are routinely discussed, so a lot of SEO beginners think that these things are good ideas as they see others doing it.
We aren’t here to judge, but we encourage you to know the risk that you’re taking when you engage in any of these SEO practices.
Just like with your library card, Google comes with terms. If you fail to follow the rules (you talk too loudly), you get kicked out of the library. It’s the same with Google. If you don’t play by their rules and get caught, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t know better. So, let’s talk about ways that people try to increase their rankings through SEO strategies that fall under the domain of black hat, which go against Google terms of service. We’ll also mention some grey hat strategies that we don’t engage with, but can put your website at risk.
Sophie told me about how she explained this concept to her mom describing this concept as “Google Illegal.” The thing is that as a blogger, I know that a lot of people engage in these SEO practices, however Sophie and I prefer to keep our hands clean.
Note: These practices are NOT illegal.
The thing is that there’s no law against these practices, however if you dabble in SEO, Google is who you must appease and they set the terms. It’s good to check the applicable laws for your country regarding sponsored posts and links as some countries will require a disclosure that you were compensated for a link within the post. Beyond that, SEO world can be the wild west for this reason and “black hat” SEO practices are generally not illegal. One that actually can be illegal in some countries is sponsored posts without a disclosure that you were paid. In Belgium, for instance, it’s illegal to have a paid link in your post without disclosing this information.
We’re talking about the dark side of SEO, so it’s very appropriate to start this very important SEO article with a Star Wars quote.
“When you look at the dark side, careful you must be … for the dark side looks back.”
Consequences of Google Illegal
“This is not going to go the way you think.” -Luke Skywalker
You know how the library can take away your library card after you forget to return too many books? I have an admission: This happened to me as I am terrible at returning library books. Google can do this to your website by deindexing it.
Typically, you won’t get in that much trouble if it happens once or twice, but if you continue to dabble in the black arts, you might receive a penalty from Google, resulting in your website not ranking as well as it should be. Similarly, even if you start a new website, I’ve heard rumors that you, as a website owner, can be blacklisted.
You do have the opportunity to appeal as well as disavow all the shady links that you’ve gained–although it can put your website at risk long-term. All we can say that we’ve warned you if it happens and prior to engaging in any of the following practices, know the risk associated with it. I write this as someone who cares about the people that I work with, not as someone who advocates this approach.
Google does not like people buying or selling backlinks. We explained in our previous article, follow v. no follow links, about follow links. If you want to sell a link to a sponsor, go ahead, but make sure it’s nofollow unless you’re prepared for the risk. First, I must share an important quote.
“You’re breaking my heart! And you’re going down a path I cannot follow!” -Padme Amidala
I strongly do not recommend selling follow backlinks, however it’s worth discussing some things to keep in mind for those of you willing to risk it. As someone who considered entering this shady marketplace, I did my research and chose not to be part of it.
First of all, never sell links of any sort to shady or spammy websites (porn, gambling, etc.). Second of all, a large-scale link buying campaign by the purchaser with perfectly optimized text can set off red flags at Google. Third of all, it needs to be your niche. If you write about travel and link to a porn website, it’s obvious that something’s up to anyone who sees it. Fourth, never sell an “forever” link that must be on your website permanently, only have it for a set duration (6 months – 1 year). That way, you can re-evaluate the risk in a year. Is your website worth $100? Once again, I encourage you not to do this and strongly consider the cost that your website ranking on Google means to you.
Paid articles with links
“It’s a trap!”-Admiral Ackbar
A common strategy that a lot of SEO agencies use to gain links. Someone offers a sponsored post, typically from an anonymous email (as they’re afraid that their email will get flagged for spam). They insist on a link to their client. It’s straightforward, but be wary of the link.
Exchanging links for something of value
In the travel agency, lot of hotels try to raise their profile by hosting bloggers and insisting that there’s a follow link. It’s a clever strategy, but it should be a nofollow link if you receive anything for free.
Large scale guest posting with keyword optimized text links
This is a popular strategy for bloggers as well as websites. Someone offers you an amazing (or poorly written) guest post about some topic. They offer it for free, however they require a backlink, preferably one that has the perfect SEO phrase to rank for. (See what I did there?) This is fairly low risk on a small scale compared to some strategies, but if you’re trying to promote a spammy link, it will get both of you in trouble if done with many websites.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.” -Darth Vader
Someone messages you that they have a brilliant idea that everyone will rise on Google. You link to them, they link to someone else, person three links to person four–and it becomes a big circle. Y’all think you’re clever, but Google knows all. I mostly consider it fairly ineffective, especially if one of the website has a low domain authority and is trying to use others’ to raise their own.
This is one of the more subtle ones that are unlikely to get you penalized, especially if the link is contextual. However, it goes against Google terms of service, which does not allow schemes intending to manipulate Google ranking schemes. I’d say that it falls somewhere closer to grey hat, but a bad link swap could get you in hot water.
We’re not naive about this practice, so it’s important to note that you should avoid one to one link swaps at all costs. Some people try out having a three-way link swap, but it’s not much better. (Who said SEO isn’t sexy?) Google looks at all related links, so it can notice that y’all linked to each other.
Scraped / Reposted content
This is not necessarily a bad thing, however if you’re going around scraping people’s copyrighted content without their permission, you’re liable for a DMCA takedown together with a penalty from Google. Similarly, if you have ads on copyrighted content, you can be banned from Google Adwords (and related programs) for profiting off copyrighted content that you don’t have the right to. In general, you can use 10% of a text without getting into hot water.
If it’s the duplicate content, Google may penalize you. Be sure to have a canonical link to attribute it back to the original source if it’s the same as the original. Also, ask permission.
Some people try to have EVERY variation of a keyword in their text. Google can see that you’re trying to hit every keyword that was ever invented about a term. Spamming your website with keywords will not help you.
That said, a lot of people try to hide all their 30+ keywords in their image alt tags. Some of us, cough, actually look at those as we love pinning and/or we’re legally blind. People who are legally blind will have to have all your ugly keywords read to them out loud. Isn’t that awful? Instead, optimize your images for SEO in a smarter way.
Hidden text and links
You might think you’re clever writing a bunch of keywords in white on a white background and hiding links. In case you haven’t read The Circle, Google is the benevolent Big Brother that is equal parts terrifying and awe-inspiring. Google rewards helpful content and your hidden keywords aren’t fooling anyone.
Affliate links with follow links
I’m guilty of this one just because I made a mistake in formatting my URLs a couple of times. If you are making money off a link, it should be nofollow. Your Moz spam score can increase as a result, so just do it. It won’t hurt.
Pages with no value
Some people create an entirely separate page about ONE keyword with just one paragraph on it. Maybe in the early web, this worked, but not anymore. Now, Google Rankbrain rewards websites that answer the user’s query. If you make a web page that has ONE paragraph that hits all the keywords just enough to rank for it, but the user doesn’t find what they’re looking for and they head back to the search result to go to the next result, you’re hit with a ranking penalty. Simply, make pages that answer questions well. If someone is looking for a coffee machine to buy near them, they do not want to see your photos of your coffee machine that isn’t for sale.
“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
Don’t use machine learning to create websites. It’s garbage and that’s where it belongs.
If you’re dealing with affiliates and you use something like Share A Sale to profit off links, let’s relax. Link cloaking is a way to ensure that people don’t hijack your affiliate links by changing the affliate links.
That said, people also use cloaked links for the dark side. Darth Vader wears a cloak in case you forgot! Some of us are control freaks, just like Darth Vader, and use cloaked links as a way to track clicks on/off/around our website. This is okay to an extent, however you should limit cloaked links to your affliate links.
The issue with cloaked links is that users have no idea where they’re going. They might end up on a spammy website that you casually hid under that link. As a reader of websites myself, I don’t always trust these links and this is common. Google also is skeptical—so avoid using cloaked links unless it’s a link that you’re nofollowing.
Funnel pages that redirect your user to other websites
This SEO strategy means that you have a million redirections set up that all go to the same page. Although having a page set up to funnel to another page is okay if it has substantial content, Google can see that you’ve reserved fifty different urls to go to the same cornerstone content. Example:
- best_page_ever -> my_page
- most_awesome_page_that_you_ever_saw -> my_page
- i_love_websites -> my page
Let me note that it is generally good to set up redirections if the page url changes for a legitimate reason, but you are only hurting yourself by changing it often. Google likes things with a certain vintage.
I write this as some websites will attack others that rank well to take their spot. We’ll be writing about negative SEO attacks soon, but I can only hope that you don’t have to dive into this world. Simply, people point nasty, spammy links to your website hoping that Google will see your website as spammy in association with these websites.
Someone recently had the decency to link to me from a spammy website that had in the URL something asking if something was a Trump quote or not. I laughed, then I cried as I went through my disavow file. It’s good to do this regularly if you have a few well ranking articles as your website may be targeted. Unfortunately, this stuff is often almost impossible to trace, so you’ll never know who paid for it.
Add a link with perfectly optimized anchor text
“Be careful not to choke on your aspirations.” -Darth Vader
Someone emailed you asking for a perfectly optimized anchor text in existing content. Whether you’re paid or not, consider the fact that if they’re doing a large scale outreach campaign (like they definitely are) and that you should investigate links before you link to them. I try to link to only people I know and/or high domain sources on a topic.
Automated link building
Did you really think that automated commented with links will go well? It’s spammy and although you might see some returns as it’s cheap compared to hiring people, Google will find out soon enough.
Grey hat: PBNs
I won’t be discussing this so much, however Private Blog Networks are a grey hat strategy. The idea is that you acquire a number of high domain blogs that are well regarded by Google. Then, you point links to something that you want to do well on Google. I’ve heard of people getting penalized for this when doing it in an obvious way, so you really need to be careful when doing this as it can fall into the Google ranking manipulation stipulation. (I do not advocate this, but some others discuss this technique online.)
What to do now!?
If you’re reading this with your head spinning or realizing that you definitely engaged in one (or more) of these, it’s good to consider the risk to yourself. Sophie and I believe in white hat SEO, but not everyone does. We like to play it safe as that’s what works for us, but we’re also patient. Going white hat can sometimes be frustrating as a lot of people don’t care about the risks and their websites can do well quickly after engaging in black hat SEO practices. However, they also put their websites at risk by doing this.
If you’re considering crossing into the light, you can go through your disavow file and disavow links that you gained in a way that is sketchy as well as remove links that you added part of any of these schemes.
May the force be with you.
May the force be with you in this journey where you’ll encounter the dark side of the SEO world. We hope that you’ll consider coming to the white hat side of SEO. We promise that we’re friendly, armed with kitten photos and SEO strategy advice to get your website going.