SEO is an interesting dilemma.
You know that link-building is key to your success. It can help you outrank competitors and drive more traffic to high-value pages.
The idea that you shouldn’t do a link-building period is preposterous and virtually all SEOs will agree with this.
The problem that you will run into is that the digital landscape of today is far more competitive than it once was. As such, ranking for high-value keywords can indeed be difficult. Consequently, businesses are often tempted to use black hat link-building techniques to gain a step up.
But, what is black hat link building, and isn’t all link building against Google’s guidelines?
Well, no, not exactly.
Google isn’t against links that are earned, they are against links that are artificially created (whether that’s through payment or outright spam).
Black-hat link building is an all-encompassing term for any tactics used by SEOs to acquire backlinks to a website without providing value and only to manipulate ranking positions.
In contrast, white-hat link building is “content driven”, which is more organic, and thus, safer.
Black-hat techniques can lead to short-term gains (and sometimes long-term benefits) but they are detrimental to a website. If the hammer of the search engines falls, your website could face severe consequences overnight.
Black Hat Link Building Techniques
Why would a business want to participate in black-hat link building?
It’s a good question, but it has a simple answer.
All backlinks (even black-hat ones) can give a website a nice boost in perceived authority and trustworthiness. Backlinks act like a currency when it comes to search rankings and businesses know the importance of better visibility.
So, they are often willing to take the risks. Now we will discuss the most common back hat techniques so you know how to avoid falling victim to one.
Paying for links from other websites is a big no-no in the eyes of Google.
However, to say it can’t be effective is an outright lie.
Google can’t always determine the difference between a paid link and one that has been acquired naturally, no matter what some people will tell you.
However, there are different types of paid links. There are really good websites that are very organic and natural that may charge an “administration fee” for publishing guest posts (these are good backlinks) and then there are websites that have artificially inflated their domain authority metrics using spammy techniques and are willing to sell links to anyone.
The way that you can determine whether these websites are really good or really bad typically lies in the quality of the content. Ask yourself:
Is this website putting a lot of effort into publishing engaging and informational content? OR, are they simply using spun content and solely AI-generated content to make their website appear legitimate?
Google is great at making this distinction, so if you are going to pay for links make sure that you are only doing so on high-quality websites.
While we are on the topic of the paid links that are bad.
Let’s talk about link farms.
No, not that kind of farm…
We are talking about networks of websites that exist only to exchange links. Websites that belong to a link farm offer little or no valuable content and exist only to provide backlinks to the other sites belonging to the same network.
Often, the backlinks on these websites are completely irrelevant and have exact keyword match anchors, such as “best lawyer in manhattan”. If humans can easily notice these links are artificial, then you better believe that search engines can do it.
Link farms used to work in the 2000s, but not anymore. Avoid getting involved with a link farm at all costs!
By joining a link farm you are in clear violation of multiple search guidelines which can lead to a severe drop in rankings.
Additionally, a good way to see if a website is a link farm is to see whether the site is indexed (run a site: search). If the site is indexed, check its organic traffic. Known link farms get very little (if any) organic traffic from Google.
Hidden links used to work like magic.
The process involved hiding backlinks within the back-end code of an authoritative website. As a result, people were able to create backlinks that would be invisible to website visitors but would still be crawled by search engine bots. As such, search engines would pass value from the hidden backlink.
Nowadays, this doesn’t work. Search engines are sophisticated enough to easily detect hidden links.
In the best-case scenario, Google ignores the link and you have wasted time and money. Worst case scenario you receive a manual penalty in Google Search Console.
Comment spam involves posting irrelevant and unuseful comments on blogs or forums with a link back to a website. For example, a blog post about traveling Europe with a comment linking to the “best swiss army knives” offers no value.
As a one-off situation, this isn’t a problem. However, unfortunately, this technique is usually automated with bots who place large numbers of comments on as many websites as they can find with the hope of gaining backlinks.
Once again, this technique used to work, but now Google places no value on backlinks like these.
Comment spam is just annoying and it can damage your reputation. Many website owners (us included) have disabled comments as they detract from the user experience. Additionally, most websites use no-follow links for comments which decreases the value of the link.
If you don’t know the difference between do-follow and no-follow links, check out this page.
If you have ever been a victim of article spinning you will know that it is one of the most frustrating things. Essentially, multiple versions of content that are extremely similar to yours (but changed enough to pass plagiarism) start cropping up across the internet.
In the past, this content could even outrank the original content if the spinner site was more “authoritative”. However, nowadays that doesn’t happen as much.
Article spinning is used by black hats to create multiple versions of slightly different content that all contain the same link. All these versions, sometimes hundreds of articles, are then published on different websites and submitted to directories. The idea is that each link would be treated as unique, helping the website being linked to rank better.
Don’t get confused between article spinning and content syndication (this is fine)!
Fortunately, Google has much better recognition systems in place to recognize spun content, so this technique is largely ineffective nowadays. This is because spinning software is very basic and automatically replaces words or phrases with synonyms, so the spun content ends up being full of grammatical errors and terminology that’s just wrong.
Guess which version is spun? Haha.
Redirects are important in SEO. There are multiple types of redirects, but the most common are 301 (a permanent move that passes PageRank) and 302 (a temporary move).
There are many legitimate reasons why a business would need to set up 3xx redirects. For example, moving domains, consolidating pages, mergers and acquisitions, promotions, and most commonly, deleted pages.
However, black hat SEOs can use “sneaky redirects” to manipulate rankings. This technique is most commonly executed by sending search engine crawlers to one version of a page, and humans to another version entirely.
Why would anyone do this?
Well, say you have an authoritative website that ranks for “small business ideas for Americans” and this gets thousands of thousands a month. A black-hat SEO may be interested in showing the official content to crawlers, but sneakily redirecting all users to an affiliate landing page.
This technique can work in the short term, but humans may report your site and search engines will realize you have been violating search guidelines, leading to manual penalties and even de-indexing.
You have got to feel for webmasters who fall victim to their website being hacked.
That’s because in many cases hacked websites can be used to create backlinks without the knowledge or consent of the real people behind the website. This can massively damage the reputation and perceived authenticity of the website that has been hacked.
Hackers will create hidden pages on a website and then use these pages to build links to other sites (which they may even sell).
Google may penalize a hacked website in the interest of the customer. This is very upsetting for website owners. A business we worked with in the past had this happen to them.
As such, it’s essential to protect websites from hackers by implementing strong security measures like MFA, and complicated passwords and of course, keeping software like the plugins you use up to date. These are common points of entry for threat actors.
Why Should You Avoid Black Hat Link Building?
While black hat link building can provide substantial and rapid short-term gains, the risks outweigh the benefits. As we have already said, once the hammer falls, it will come down on you hard.
Trying to trick an algorithm that has been manufactured by some of the most intelligent people in the world is just stupid.
The consequences include:
While short-term success may sound better than slow success, it’s not. Even if you can earn a couple of quick wins in search rankings, these gains are unsustainable. So, while white-hat link building can take a long time, it’s worth it.
Businesses that rely on black-hat SEO have no prospect for growth and re-investment.
SEO is a long game when it’s played fairly and you utilize white-hat SEO techniques. This may sound boring, but eventually, it will pay dividends.
Risk of Penalties
Google takes a dim view of websites that violate their guidelines
Penalties can be silent and algorithmic or manual. Manual penalties are more severe, but they can be overcome. However, algorithm penalties will have a detrimental effect on a website too, and due to there being no warnings, they will leave you in the dark about exactly what you did wrong.
Algorithmic penalties can take months, or years, to recover from. You can work with an SEO specialist who focuses on algorithmic recoveries, but this will be extremely expensive. Often this will leave businesses with no choice, but to restart their website on a clean domain.
Damage to Brand Reputation
If you were reading an article on “how to change a tire” and you were redirected to a company selling investment advice. Would you think:
“Wow. This company looks great and really legitimate. Let me find my credit card”
“This website is so spammy. I’m not even interested in their services”.
Consumers are becoming more aware of spam and manipulation in search, and while they may not be experts, they know how to spot an obvious black-hat site.
How to Spot Black Hat Links
Black hat link-building techniques aren’t always easy to detect, particularly when it comes to techniques that are more “gray hat” like some types of paid links.
However, if you are trying to identify black-hat link building, there are some clear signs to look out for – the backlink profile of the website will have a lot of tells. Here are some common indicators that mean it’s likely a link is “black hat”.
Exact Match Anchors
This is almost certainly the biggest tell. When the anchor text of a link is black-hat and doesn’t make sense contextually with the rest of the page, it’s almost definitely paid.
For example, if you were reading an article and the link seems forced, then it probably is.
Exact match anchors are links that use the exact same words as the target keyword or phrase. So, the exact match of this page would be “black-hat link-building techniques”. A more natural anchor would be “here are some techniques for black-hat SEO”.
While some exact match anchors can be natural, an excessive number of them is a sign of a black hat link-building strategy. The reason SEOs build exact match anchors is that it tells Google what the page is about giving it a higher likelihood of ranking.
A natural backlink profile that hasn’t been artificially influenced usually includes a huge variety of link types, including exact match anchors, branded anchors, naked anchors, editorial links, no-follow links, image links, and social media links.
A backlink profile that is dominated by one type of link, such as forum links or directory links, is a sign of a black hat link-building strategy. While this may not result in a penalty. It could be raising a red flag to Google’s webspam team.
Foreign Language Backlinks
Backlinks from foreign language websites can be an indicator of a black-hat-driven strategy.
It’s normal to receive some foreign language backlinks, however, an excessive number of them from random high authority websites is a clear sign of spammy link building.
Unnatural link patterns refer to an excessive number of links from a single domain or an unusually high number of links acquired in a short period.
If you have a spike in backlinks, like this:
Then, there’s a good chance the website has paid for links, or fallen victim to a negative SEO attack.
For your own link-building strategy, it is better to steer clear of acquiring backlinks from websites that have been engaging in black-hat practices. The hammer may fall on them and this will affect you.
White Hat Link Building: The Right Way
This post is about black-hat link-building and we already have a separate post on white-hat link-building techniques, so we won’t dwell on organic SEO methods.
However, white hat link building is the practice of acquiring backlinks ethically so that you are in compliance with search guidelines.
The goal of white hat SEO is to build relationships with other websites and earn backlinks naturally.
White-Hat SEO is all about providing value from content, whether that’s guest posts, case studies, statistics posts, infographics, videos, or something else entirely. Perhaps you created a useful tool for people in your niche? That’s a perfect opportunity for backlinks.
Also, sharing your knowledge in the media can be super effective! That’s where platforms like HARO and Qwoted come in.
Finally, even white-hat link building can cost money if you decide to outsource to a business that provides SEO services (like us). While this costs money, it’s very different from paying for links. In these situations, you are paying the company for the time it takes to build the backlinks.