The lure of black hat techniques — those that search engines request you stay
away from — for those getting started optimizing a website is sometimes too
great. While these tactics can lead to a surge in rankings, getting caught could
result in a drop in rankings and long-term, irreparable damage to your brand.
In early 2006, BMW’s SEO tactics were called into question for using doorway
pages to influence search results. While it did not necessarily impact their
longterm rankings, as anyone searching for BMW will have no problem locating
their website today, most of us don’t have the luxury of such brand recognition.
For the rest of us, being exposed as a practitioner of black hat SEO presents a
dire situation. You could suffer a significant drop in rankings at the least, or
outright banishment at worst. And that’s a heavy price to pay.
So what makes an SEO tactic black hat? A quick look at Google or Yahoo
guidelines provides a good background on techniques that you should avoid. The
primary practices are usually simple to identify and range from cloaking
(programs that send search engine spiders to pages not seen by users) to doorway
pages (pages that attempt to artificially rank for a certain search term by
using keywords or phrases repeatedly — related to keyword stuffing) and hidden
text (inserting keywords on a page that match the background color of a site,
making them invisible to a human site visitor).
Many true black hats will argue that the above list is incomplete and few true search engine spammers will disagree. Black hat techniques are really those used in excess. For example, it’s not a bad thing to share your insights and comments on other people’s blogs but developing a script to perform drive-by postings on 10,000 irrelevant blogs is definitely black hat and will have repercussions.
Clearly, black hat techniques work on some level, but the potential consequences deter many. Unfortunately, not enough discussions on black hat techniques are had and that has furthered its mysterious appeal. This temptation has spawned an alternate SEO approach known as gray hat — not as good as white hat, but not as dangerous as black hat. For example, many strict white hat SEO professionals opt never to create more than one site, while black hats could conceivably (and often do) create hundreds of mirror sites to link to the main site, artificially inflating its perceived importance. The gray hat option is to create supporting sites that not necessarily mirror the original site, but have unique content and don’t attempt to trick users into visiting an irrelevant destination. As in everything, there are varying shades of gray, but sites that add some type of value to the overall picture — while doing their job to optimize the original site — may not necessarily raise red flags with the search engines.