Black Hat SEO: What is it, how does it work and how to solve it

SEO and Black Hat
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About the author

Chris Rodgers is founder and CEO of a specialized SEO agency called Colorado SEO Pros

Imagine this scenario as a business with a significant online presence. Your rankings on your target keywords have dropped significantly. You haven’t made any major changes to the content or linking strategy of your website. What’s more, your competitors haven’t changed much on their websites as well.

You managed to discount all of the potential reasons for your downfall: Google algorithm updates, cyclical/seasonal drops, technical issues and so on. Only one remains, negative and Black Hat SEO. SEO expert, Chris Rodgers, dives deeper into the practice in this Q&A: what it means, how it affects businesses and what they need to know to avoid a mess.

1. How to identify if you have been a victim of Black Hat SEO? What are the tell tale signs?


Black hat SEO is typically used to achieve enhanced SEO results as quickly as possible, using methods that violate search-engine guidelines. Negative SEO is a technique commonly used to adversely affect the SEO performance of another website, which is a type of Black Hat SEO since these practices would violate webmaster guidelines. 

You may have been hit by negative SEO If you are seeing a sudden decrease in keyword rankings and traffic. If you are engaging in practices like building spammy links or producing low-quality content, you likely have been adversely affected by a search algorithm update or penalty (not negative SEO). These are not easy determinations to make, and require specific SEO tools and expertise to properly diagnose and address. 

If you suspect you have been the victim of negative SEO, the first thing you should check is your backlink profile. Building harmful backlinks would be one of the most common ways that a competitor might try to attack your website. By building “toxic” links to your website, a competitor could cause a manual penalty or simply drive down SEO performance by lowering your site’s trust in search engines.

2. How to clean the mess after a negative SEO attack?

Black Hat SEO refers to techniques that violates webmaster guidelines, What Hat SEO clearly abides by webmaster guidelines, Grey Hat SEO is that which lies in between. The biggest area that crosses over into Grey Hat SEO is the practice of link-building, which technically could be considered against webmaster guidelines depending on how it is performed.

Link-Building is critical part of SEO, and there are many shades of grey in terms of technical approaches that would be difficult to determine white or black. Anchor text is a ranking factor, we know if used in “large scale... guest posting campaigns”, is directly against Google webmaster guidelines, but what is “large scale”? Bottom line is that the more technical you get in trying to influence the algorithm, the closer you are to stepping out of the white and into the grey. 

The most common negative SEO attack is toxic link-building, so the remedy is the same as if you were caught in a manual penalty or have low-quality links that are hurting your website’s SEO performance. For penalty recovery you need to try and identify the toxic links, attempt to remove them, document your work, and then submit a disavow report and reconsideration request to the search-engine.  

3. What is Google doing to combat black hat SEO?


Google has applied targeted algorithm updates and implemented AI-systems that can catch manipulative back-links and identify low-quality content that isn't delivering a good user-experience. 

he problem is that someone can intentionally build these same back-links in overtly spammy ways and cause a penalty of someone else's website. As of, 2016 Google supposedly stopped penalizing for many toxic links and instead would ignore them, this would have been expected to cut down on negative SEO as it would be decisively more difficult to trigger a search-engine penalty through toxic link-building.

This may have been an effort by Google to decrease negative SEO. Google has also promoted the use of HTTPS, a more secure server communication protocol for websites. HTTPS is more secure, so less likely to be hacked and injected with sneaky redirects or other Black Hat SEO practices.

Toxic links can be pointed at individual pages or different pages cross an entire website, and search-engine penalties can be targeted to specific pages & keyword searches, or can be site-wide.

It is dependent on how wide-spread the issue is and how the algorithm has been manipulated. In regards to negative SEO, a competitor may be more likely to spam your entire site in hopes of a site-wide penalty, or could choose to target a single page if it is of particular importance to them to see it drop in ranking.

An important thing to note is that when you are doing this type of black hat/negative SEO attack, you may see no impact because Google is ignoring the links (which does happen), or the site/page benefits from the links because they are slipping through the algorithm and penalty process. You time is better spent improving your site, not trying to take down someone else’s. Eventually the competitor is likely to identify the issue and recover and may retake their previous position anyway. 

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.