Pretty much from the beginning of search engines, people have been using dishonest techniques to manipulate them. Known as black hat SEO, these techniques are despised by Google and used by those looking for a quick way to make their sites rank.
While these methods were incredibly popular in the past, things have begun to change as search engines like Google get more adept at recognizing them. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of black hat techniques that are used in modern SEO.
In this article, we’ll explore the history of black hat SEO. How it began, what it looks like today, and where it’ll likely be going. So if you’re interested in the shadier side of SEO, we’ll dive deep into this aspect of search engine manipulation from the beginning to its likely end.
Early Black Hat SEO Tactics: the 1990’s through 2010
The history of black hat SEO begins with the start of SEO in 1991 and the publishing of the first website. Most people consider this momentous occasion to be the very start of what we now know as SEO. A few years after this, early search engines began to take form.
Beginning with Archie Query Form in the early 1990s, and soon after, names such as Yahoo and Lycos in 1994 and, in 1995, AltaVista and Excite started to pop up,. But we’re not here to discuss search engine history, there are better resources out there for that. We’re here to talk about how some clever marketers figured out methods to manipulate these tools to help drive more traffic to their sites, what today is known as black hat SEO.
Back in these early days, before Google was even a thing, black hat SEO was pretty standard. Getting away with shady techniques that would surely get you penalized in today’s world was normal, and search engine algorithms were rather easy to manipulate.
These early iterations of the search engines we use today mostly used on-page factors to determine if a webpage was relevant to your search query. That meant that keywords were widely used and abused by early black hat SEO practitioners. Poor quality content stuffed with keywords was normal during the 1990s, and search engines often rewarded this behavior with better rankings.
However, in 1998, Google was launched, and, over time, they changed the way search engines operated. Google’s algorithm, known as PageRank, focused on the number of links that connected to a site to determine its relevance. It still took things like keywords, headings, and meta tags into consideration, but the main ranking factor was altered to the number of people who found a site’s content useful enough to link to it.
Each backlink basically counted as a vote, a recommendation that this site has content that’s worth checking out. Due to this evolution in how search engines began to operate, black hat SEO had to evolve too.
Methods such as webrings and guest book spamming became popular. These were ways to establish backlinks to a page regardless of its quality. Due to the prevalence of these manipulation techniques, search engines began to take measures to combat them.
In the early 2000s, as Google really began to take prominence, they released their Webmaster Guidelines. These guidelines listed white hat SEO techniques that it preferred webmasters used to help their site’s rank. But early on, these guidelines weren’t really enforced so black hat SEOs basically ignored them. Google quickly caught on though and began to take measures to update its algorithm so those that continued with these shady techniques would suffer for it.
The first solid measure taken by Google to punish those using black hat techniques came in the form of its 2003 Florida algorithm update. This began the constant battle between Google’s algorithm updates and the ever-evolving techniques black hat SEOs employed to get around them.
Florida targeted some of the more popularly used early SEO techniques, such as keyword stuffing, and a ton of websites saw a massive drop in rankings due to it. But black hat SEOs adapted, they altered their techniques and continued as usual.
Many shady linking practices were still widely used and Google didn’t yet have the ability to combat them. This began to change in 2005 with the Jagger algorithm update. This update directly targeted low-quality links, link farms, reciprocal links, and paid links. But these early updates still weren’t as advanced as the one’s modern SEOs have grown accustomed to, so many black hat methods were still widely used.
However, this all began to change in 2011 and 2012, when Google released its ever-updating Panda and Penguin updates.
2011 and 2012: Google Fights Back with Panda and Penguin
In 2011, one of the more notable Google updates was released. This update, now known as Panda, effectively cracked down on a number of shady black hat techniques helping to change the way SEOs operated. When it hit, the update affected around 12% of all of Google’s search results, so, at this time, any black hats had to take notice.
Panda primarily targeted things like content farms, thin content, sites with too many ads, and other content quality issues. This update was regularly updated and is still being updated with an ever-increasing frequency to this day. Thanks to the release of Panda, a number of black hat techniques were no longer viable. And with each update, these techniques became harder and harder to get away with.
After Panda, in 2012, the Penguin update came to Google to help the search engine battle manipulative black hat techniques. Upon its release, Penguin affected around 3.1% of all English language search queries. This update was used to tackle a number of spammy techniques, including manipulative link building practices, keyword stuffing, and link spam. Like Panda, Penguin is regularly updated to this day (but not quite as frequently).
In 2016, both Panda and Penguin were integrated into Google’s core algorithm. For Penguin, this meant it was now evaluating links and websites in real-time. For Panda, this meant that it was no longer simply a filter used by the Google algorithm but now operated as one of its core ranking signals.
The Black Hat Tactics Used By Early SEOs
Some of the more popular black hat techniques used throughout the 1990s and well into the 2000s (with some still being utilized to this day) include:
Incredibly popular in the 1990s, and, to some extent, still used to this day. Keyword stuffing is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. This technique involved loading a piece of content with an abundance of keywords.
These keywords were usually used in a way that didn’t sound natural and sometimes they were completely irrelevant to the content that they were used in. This was largely due to early search engines using keywords as a main ranking factor.
Thanks to the evolving algorithms used by search engines, keyword stuffing became less and less popular over time. While it’s not entirely uncommon for low-quality content writers to still stuff some keywords here and there, it isn’t nearly as prevalent as it was in the early days.
Stuffing Meta Tags
When Google was still relatively young, the search engine placed a bigger emphasis on meta-keyword tags. Since stuffing as many keywords into as many places as possible was a normal tactic for black hat SEOs during the 1990s, it goes to reason that they did this within a page’s meta description and keyword tags as well.
These were a collection of websites that were all linked together in a circular structure. Webrings had a few main goals, which included:
- Linking back and forth to other websites within the webring
- Sending users to the site’s owner using a oneway link
- To help promote the webring and establish a brand
Webrings were mainly used throughout the 1990s but are virtually non-existent today. They were so popular during this time, that the domain Webring.com was purchased by Yahoo at one point, however, it never really ended up amounting to much.
It was not uncommon for some webmasters to use a variety of webrings to help increase the number of backlinks and traffic to their sites. However, the biggest winners were usually the webrings, as they would have loads of oneway links leading back to their sites giving them tons of traffic.
There were both small, informal webrings, and much larger ones, such as the still-active webringo.com.
The use of hidden text was popular between the years 1996 and 2002. Eventually, search engine algorithms became advanced enough to easily recognize it. Hidden text was used so that web crawlers would see this text when indexing a site, but users wouldn’t notice it. Black hat SEOs used a few different methods to hide keyword-rich text within their content.
The more popular forms of hidden text included:
- Making text that’s the same color as the background
- Hiding text behind an image
- Using CSS to position the text off-screen
- Making incredibly small H2s so that search engines would think the text is important but it wouldn’t be noticeable to users
- Setting the font size to 0
For the most part, hidden text would either appear in the header or footer of a page. Sometimes, SEOs would hide thousands of words, creating what appeared to be a large block of empty space at the end of a page.
This technique is pretty similar to hidden text. And like hidden text, links were placed behind images, in characters that were the same color as the background, and using incredibly small fonts. A couple of other link hiding methods included placing a link in a small character, such as a hyphen, in the middle of a paragraph, and using 1-pixel by 1-pixel images to conceal links.
Hidden links were such a problem that Fritz Schneider and Matt Cutts released an early patent to try and fish them out. This patent proposed to expose hidden links by analyzing the HTML structure of a page and its elements (such as sections, paragraphs, headings, images, lists, etc.). It would also look at Document Object Models (DOM) to learn about different aspects of the above elements (color, position, size, visibility, layer orders, etc.)
These were poorly constructed pages that were loaded with keywords used to try and manipulate search engine indexes. When a user clicks a doorway page from their search engine results, they would be redirected to another page altogether. They were designed to be seen by search engines while concealing them from users.
Very basic doorway pages included poorly constructed, keyword loaded pages with links to the actual content that webmasters were trying to direct a user to see. These were incredibly generic though, so different SEOs would often copy one another’s basic doorway pages, make some minor changes, and use them for their own content. This led to them being tagged as duplicate content and hidden from search results.
Some other names for doorway pages include portal pages, bridge pages, gateway pages, jump pages, and entry pages.
Spamming Guest Book
Before the comment spamming of today, there was guest book spamming. Guest book allowed users to comment on weblogs during the early days of the internet. This simple technique involved writing your website’s URL into a guest book comment.
There were two main reasons to use guest book spamming:
- To create a backlink to your website
- To help drive traffic to your site by encouraging users to click your link
This method was popular until web 2.0 frameworks, such as WordPress, HostGator, and Pligg, became the norm.
This is when a site sends a user to a different URL than the one that they had initially clicked on.
While there are some non-black hat SEO reasons to use redirects, such as when you’ve changed your website’s URL, sneaky redirects are something different.
In order for a redirect to be classified as “sneaky,” its main goal must be to manipulate a search engine’s indexing. This is done by displaying one set of content to users and another to search engine crawlers.
When done correctly, a search engine will index one page, but when a user clicks on this page, they’ll be redirected to the intended content. The content displayed to crawlers will usually contain loads of keywords and irrelevant links just to help their ranking. But if users saw this, it would just look like a mess.
This is one older black hat technique that’s still occasionally used today. Link exchanges are when you agree to embed a piece of HTML on your page in exchange for backlinks to your page.
The main advantage of a link exchange is that you’ll usually get a relevant link from a page that’s also relevant to your content. Back in the day, thousands of these services existed.
While link exchanges still exist today, they’re mainly used by small businesses that don’t know better. Most link exchanges hold back on promoting their services too much in order to stay out of Google’s radar.
Link exchanges are usually pretty easy to spot on a page, and often carry the tags “links” or “our partners.” Seeing as this pattern is so easy to recognize, Google is rather adept at recognizing it as well.
All of the Above
Finally, some early SEOs would make pages that utilized a combination of many of the above techniques. An example of this would be a doorway page that’s stuffed with keywords, hidden links and text, is part of a webring, and has loads of backlinks from guest book spamming.
These pages provided an awful user experience and no SEO would be able to get away with this in today’s world. Goes to show just how much things have changed, where now, modern black hat SEOs have gotten much more advanced with their techniques.
Current Black Hat SEO: Not What It Used to Be
Thanks to Google’s many algorithm updates, such as Panda and Penguin, getting away with black hat tactics isn’t nearly as easy as it used to be. This hasn’t stopped company’s from trying it though, and there are still some pretty widely used tactics that some unscrupulous SEOs take advantage of.
Not exactly “today,” but back in 2013, the SEOs in charge of the BBC’s website even got busted for taking advantage of some black hat techniques. The world’s largest broadcast news network was caught by Google for using unnatural linking practices. This earned the BBC a manual penalty from the search engine giant.
This goes to show, that as search engines have grown more advanced at recognizing black hat techniques, even the world’s largest corporations aren’t immune to being penalized for using them. But there are still some popular techniques that you could get away with, for a little while at least.
These current methods have more to do with off-page factors, such as link building, while previous methods involved a lot of on-page factors, like keyword stuffing. But using any black hat technique is inherently risky. Sooner or later you will get caught. And a Google penalty is much more difficult to recover from than the benefits of a short-term gain that using a black hat technique would give you.
Therefore, in today’s world, black hat SEO really isn’t worth the trouble. Even if you do get away with it, the next Google algorithm update could be your undoing. Nowadays, providing quality, user-focused content is becoming the standard.
The Black Hat Tactics Used By Present SEOs
While using these techniques isn’t a good idea in the modern world, these are some of the methods that current black hat SEOs try to get away with:
Private Blog Networks (PBN)
This technique involves buying up expired domain names from previously high domain authority websites. Once you have a fair amount of these domains, you fill them with basic content that links back to the website you’re trying to promote.
Essentially, this is just a quick way to get loads of backlinks from websites with high domain authority and is somewhat similar to the webrings of past black hat SEO. While it’s not exactly a black hat technique, it’s not white hat either, PBNs fall more into an SEO gray area.
Google doesn’t allow the use of PBNs though, so using one could get you penalized. PBNs do carry some benefits, but they have plenty of cons as well.
Benefits of using a PBN:
- Quick and easy way to improve SEO
- Generates a lot of backlinks from high domain authority websites without much effort
- Helps generate organic traffic
- Increases brand awareness
- Don’t have to worry as much about content quality to generate backlinks
Why you should think twice about using a PBN:
- Google will penalize you if they find out you’re using a PBN (and they often do catch on — eventually that is)
- All the benefits of a PBN can disappear overnight
- If penalized, recovering can be incredibly difficult, setting you further back than the benefits of the PBN offered
- Google catches on if all your links come from sites that are seldomly updated, get very little traffic, and have no internal linking, all common qualities of PBNs, so, most are pretty easy for Google to spot
301 Redirect Link Building
This is another black hat technique that’s used to build backlinks to your site. The process of 301 redirect link building involves three relatively simple steps:
- First, you buy a domain that’s somewhat similar to your original website.
- Next, you use a variety of sources to build backlinks to this newly purchased domain. Some common methods of doing this include using blog comments, linking from forums, putting links on social media platforms, etc.
- Finally, you redirect all of those links you placed around at various sources back to your original website that you’re trying to build backlinks for
This is done to put any negative responses that you may get from the bad linking practices on the domain you purchased while reaping the benefits of the positive ranking signals on your main domain. Another reason people use this practice is if all the links you create begin to hurt your main page’s ranking, it’s easy to remove the redirects and avoid further damage.
However, according to John Mueller from Google, this technique isn’t exactly effective. Not only is it extremely obvious to both Google’s algorithm and spam teams, but it also makes the link canonical making the whole redirect more or less pointless.
According to Google, any link scheme that is meant to manipulate the search engine’s algorithm is strictly prohibited. This includes the buying or selling of links, and doing so could negatively impact your page’s rank.
Any link that you earn by exchanging money, services, discounts, or free products is considered a paid link. Exchanging a link on your site for a link on another site is also a no-no in the eyes of Google and could potentially hurt you.
While there are some undeniable advantages to buying links as an easy way to earn some backlinks to your site (the reason why it’s still so commonly used), this tactic is inherently risky. Nonetheless, one of the big advantages is that you get to choose your own anchor text, with the anchor text being a large SEO ranking factor for Google.
Another reason people buy links is that it allows you to skimp on the quality of your content. If you don’t have to worry about earning actual backlinks from pages that want to link to you based on the value you provide their users, content quality isn’t as important.
This method is basically just plagiarising another high ranking piece of content and passing it off as your own original work. This is an awful black hat technique as search engines are pretty good at spotting, and blocking, duplicate content across different websites.
Inverting the Index
This is essentially a more complicated way of duplicating content that a black hat SEO would have a much better chance of getting away with.
This technique involves:
- Copying the entire text of a high ranking piece of content that you’d want to use on your site.
- Next, you invert index it by removing any words from the text which contain line breaks.
- After this, all the stop words are removed. This includes words like ‘as,’ ‘and,’ ‘the,’ ‘also,’ ‘but,’ and ‘when.’ Also, remove keywords that aren’t relevant, like ‘because,’ ‘under,’ and ‘certain.’ This will leave you with a modified inverted index.
- With the remaining words, construct a new piece of content that includes them all.
The problem with this is that with all the work that’s involved, it may just be easier to write a fresh piece of content that’s good enough to rank.
This is basically the modern iteration of guest book spamming and is a lazy way to generate backlinks to a piece of content or website. The main problem here (and it’s a big one), is that links placed in website comments, such as articles and blogs, are automatically tagged ‘nofollow.’ This means that they will in no way help improve your SEO.
But this doesn’t stop some unskilled black hat SEOs from spending time manually writing these comments or using the plethora of tools designed specifically for comment spamming. While you may get a little bit of extra traffic from the occasional user that clicks your comment link, overall, this practice is a big waste of time.
However, if you run a website that allows commenting, it’s a good idea to take steps to avoid spam comments being left in your comment sections. These comments are a turn-off to users and may discourage them from adding their own valuable comments which show higher levels of user engagement. Blocking spammed comments can be done by simply making it so all comments require approval or by using plugins designed to block them.
Link farms are either a single website or a group of websites whose sole purpose is to build backlinks to other websites. Websites that are part of a link farm have the appearance of a normal webpage, but the majority of its content is hyperlinks to other sites. These hyperlinks usually seem random and unrelated, making the whole site confusing to users and providing an awful experience.
Often these link farm pages are automatically generated using programs or services and are very low quality. Google hates irrelevant links that provide a bad user experience, so using a link farm is often asking for a penalty.
Future of Black Hat SEO: What Will Become of It?
As search engines get smarter and more AI-driven, black hat techniques are getting more and more difficult to get away with. As time goes on, providing excellent, user-focused content will become the only way to succeed as an SEO.
Paid links are unlikely to go away anytime soon though, and PBNs will probably stick around for some years to come, but SEOs will have to get smarter about how they use them. As a general rule, once a black hat technique becomes popular, measures will be taken to stop people from using it. This means, that in the coming years, less and less of these techniques will still be viable, and providing quality content will be the only way for future SEOs to get ahead.
Here is a helpful link to a SEO course.
Meta Description: Since as long as SEO has been around, people have been using black hat techniques to help their site’s rank. Here, we’ll explore the history of black hat SEO.