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Thanks to the prevalence of educational online content and the built-in tools of free website builders, search engine optimization (SEO) has become more accessible than ever before. Even people with little to no familiarity with this digital marketing strategy can take advantage of it — and support their brand in ranking higher in online search results.
But even in today’s landscape of SEO ubiquity, the strategy is confusingly complex. If you want to be successful, you need to navigate the nuanced terrain of quality content and natural link building. Otherwise, you’ll be setting yourself up for a Google penalty.
In the older days of SEO, some people would ignore these risks entirely, attempting to rise through the rankings actively and aggressively and disregarding any best practices as recommended by Google. These people were known as black hat practitioners, employing ‘black hat’ techniques to game the system, rather than improving their website naturally.
Does black hat SEO still work?
The Nature Of Black Hat SEO
First, let’s get into some of the details of black hat SEO. What is black hat SEO and how is it different than white hat SEO?
Everyone wants their website to rank higher in search engine results pages (SERPs). That’s the whole point of the strategy. But there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it. Google wants to optimize search results to give its users the best possible experience. If you sacrifice or compromise that user experience merely to get your site ranked higher, you’ll be incurring Google’s wrath — and possibly inviting a penalty to your site.
The basic idea is that ‘black hat’ techniques are those that intentionally manipulate ranks without improving a user’s online experience. These include things like:
Keyword stuffing. With keyword stuffing, the main goal is to include as many keywords as possible in a given space, such as on a single page of your website, without regard for user experience. In the early days of SEO, it was even common for webmasters to hide a keyword phrase in the background of their site and repeat it endlessly, optimizing for the term without alerting its users.
Link spam. Backlinks pass ‘authority’ to your website and its individual pages, ultimately helping them to be seen as more trustworthy — and therefore more worthy of higher rankings. But if you spam those links indiscriminately, or if those links aren’t relevant for their audience, you’ll be considered a black hat practitioner.
Low-quality content. Content is at the heart of SEO, and it always has been. But writing a high quantity of low-effort posts isn’t going to help you; in fact, it’s only going to make the web a worse place. Instead, you should be focused on writing the best content you can.
Do Black Hat SEO Techniques Still Work?
Do these tactics still work?
The answer is: it depends, but for the most part, no, these tactics will hurt you more than they help you.
Google is incredibly robust, and it has built-in tools that allow it to detect things like low-quality content, keyword spam and link spam. There’s a good chance that if you use these techniques aggressively, you’ll be caught and penalized immediately.
That said, sometimes these techniques work for a short time. They give you an artificial boost in your rankings as they set in. But sooner or later, Google will detect the nature of your practices and impose an automatic or manual penalty when it does.
Best Practices To Avoid Black Hat SEO
If you’re like most people reading this guide, you have no interest in black hat SEO techniques. Not only are they unethical and manipulative, but they also rarely work — and they never work long-term. If you want to avoid black hat techniques at all costs, there are some important best practices that can help you:
Vet your contractors carefully. Make sure you vet your agencies and freelancers carefully. If someone promises you something too good to be true (such as reaching rank one in a week), you have a right to be suspicious. Figure out what techniques they’re going to use for your brand before you finalize the contract.
Prioritize quality first. All your SEO tactics should make quality the top priority. Your blog posts, links and offsite content should all be as polished and professional as possible.
Focus on user optimization over algorithm optimization. It’s tempting to tailor all your strategies for the search engine algorithms that dominate the web. But it’s usually better to optimize for the people who will be reading and interacting with your content.
Thankfully, avoiding black hat tactics is pretty straightforward. As long as you’re writing content, building links and spreading your brand’s influence with your users’ experience in mind, you’ll be in a great position to continue reaping the rewards of your SEO strategy.
Originally appeared in Forbes