What is Black Hat link building and why is it bad?

What are the old and dirty ways of link building and how can you best avoid them? What makes them bad in Google’s eyes?

Things change in Internet marketing – often. For marketing professionals and business owners, it can feel like they change quickly and without any rhyme or reason. One area of Internet marketing that students and clients frequently inquire about is link building as a strategy to support search engine optimization. Link building is an avenue of Internet marketing that has changed drastically, but rather slowly (at least for our industry), as Google has evolved how they view certain types of links over time. Strategies that were once standard practice to build links back to a website can now earn penalties. So today we’re answering:

What link building strategies should I avoid? What makes them “dirty” or black hat in Google’s eyes? What are the current link building best practices?

The History of PageRank

One of the major factors that set Google apart from other search engines in the early days of web search was their focus on the quality and quantity of incoming links (links pointing to a website). In the early years, links between pages were seen as votes. Pages with more links or votes, were more popular and therefore considered to be better. The Internet was essentially a democratic place where high quality content earned links (or votes) from other sites; therefore, Google rewarded pages that had more links in their search results.

For those of you who like the technical details, all of this was tracked via Google’s PageRank algorithm, which significantly influenced rankings within Google’s search results pages for many years. Google created indexing programs, often called bots or spiders, that were constantly “crawling” the Internet, documenting the links on pages, and tallying these links in their databases. This was by necessity an iterative and endless process.

The web is always growing and changing and pages are being updated frequently. The number of links that any page has is always in flux and, at any given time, Google’s link count only includes links from pages that Google was aware of from previous indexing. Upon reindexing, new links are discovered and others are removed as pages are added, edited, and deleted.

For more details about page ranking, check out Leah’s post SEO NO-NOs: Using Ranking Data to Measure SEO Success.

“Marketers Ruin Everything”

I’m not sure of the origin of the “marketers ruin everything” quote, but marketers certainly ruined the initial purity of links as an indication of which sites should rank at the top of search engines.

Between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, marketers created thousands of schemes to game the PageRank algorithm and to exert an unnatural influence on search engines. In the world of SEO, these clearly deceptive tactics are described as “black hat.” Tactics of questionable intent are described as “gray hat.” As with any question of ethics and morality, the “black hat” to “white hat” continuum is a spectrum that is always in flux. A large part of the flux is that Google changes the rules from time to time, often by releasing major algorithm updates, creating entirely new algorithms, or rolling out new penalties and filters that reduce the value of, or, in some cases, penalize certain tactics.

Black Hat Tactics Explained

Here are a few of the most common Black Hat tactics:

Buying Links

One obvious way to manipulate the PageRank of your site is to purchase links on another website with a high PageRank. At the height of PageRank manipulation, there were many sites dedicated to selling links. There was even an established market price for sites with various PageRank scores, and auction sites set up for people to bid on high quality links. Over the years, Google has developed increasingly sophisticated ways to locate and devalue or penalize purchased links.

If you are buying advertising, and therefore a link on a site, the safest practice is to ensure that the link has a “nofollow” meta tag, which tells Google that you are not trying to gain rankings from the link.

Automated Forum and Blog Comments

If you have ever owned or operated a blog or online forum, you are surely familiar with “spam comments.” To build more links for paying clients, black hat link building companies have developed software that automates the posting of content and links into blog comment systems, forums, and any online portal that accepts user generated content. This tactic can cause a lot of frustration for website owners who have to sort through numerous spam comments looking for real user interactions. Fortunately, many countermeasures have been created, including website plugins that detect spam on popular platforms such as WordPress, and more advanced “captcha” technology to ensure that only real humans can post comments. This is why you often have to type in random letters or numbers to post a comment or sign-up for something online – it’s an extra step for users, created to reduce black hat linking tactics. Like I said, marketers ruin everything, right?

Fake Online Profiles

Another tactic that is similar to the automated comments strategy is to create fake online profiles. Many link building companies, especially those operating in countries where they can offer very low hourly wage rates, employ people to create fake profiles on websites that include links to client sites. This tactic often targets online community and entertainment sites, where creating profiles is typically part of the user experience.

Link Farms

Black hat link building companies can also buy or build thousands of small websites; thus, they create their own pool of websites where they can add links to the websites of their paying clients. It is easy for Google to spot these so-called link farms by looking for large volumes of new links added to a site from unrelated websites. Natural link building happens gradually, so one of the main ways Google finds black hat link building is by looking for situations where the number of site links increases very quickly.

Some SEO companies have created software that allows clients to add a directory of links to their own site. This allows their site to join the link directory on all of the other sites in the network. This is unnatural link building because, by adding the code or plugin, the site owner is adding hundreds or thousands of links without any concern for the quality of the sites or the relevance for their website visitors. The only purpose here is increased ranking, and therefore, it is considered a black hat technique.

Hacking Websites to Insert Links

One of the most malicious black hat link building tactics is the hacking of websites for the purpose of adding links. Hackers will look for vulnerable websites or entire website hosting servers to hack and add home page links or entire link directories. This is often easy to detect and sometimes coincides with other hacking tactics, such as adding spyware or malware to the site. In other cases, this can be more stealthy and harder to detect, especially if the hacker does not change anything on the site that could tip off the site owner that a hack has taken place.

grayhatWhat are Gray Hat Tactics?

Here are some tactics that – at various times – were considered Gray Hat. Gray Hat tactics are those which may have worked in the past, but which Google has announced are against Webmaster Guidelines or their spam policies. Currently some of these are considered gray areas, while others are slipping into black hat territory.

Building a Network of Sites for Link Building

Building a network of sites with similar content and then interlinking them was a popular link building strategy for many years. Google’s algorithm is now more sophisticated and can determine if incoming links are from domains owned by the same person or hosted on the same servers. These links can be devalued and, in more severe cases, this tactic can lead to significant penalties.

Current recommendation: Only build sites that have unique value. Do not build sites purely to increase links to other sites in your network. If you want to expand your offerings, it often makes more sense to expand an existing site versus building a new site.

Link Reciprocation and Triangulation

Early in the days of link building, one of the most common and acceptable tactics was reciprocal link building. This would include emailing other webmasters and business owners asking for a link exchange. Initially, this strategy worked very well. Over time, though, the tactic was abused by webmasters and SEO link builders and Google began cracking down on it.

Link triangulation uses three websites rather than two for link exchanges. Link building companies offer links from one site to webmasters willing to link to a third site to avoid detection by Google. Over time, Google has gotten more sophisticated at spotting this type of link building, especially when there is little or no similarity between the content on the linking websites.

Current recommendation: Only set up reciprocal links between sites that are related and make sense for the user. Do not set up link directories purely for building links. Avoid linking schemes that attempt to hide the nature of the link exchange from the search engines.

Sitewide Links on Owned Websites or Partner Websites

During the height of SEO link building, one of the main tactics used was to add sitewide footer links with SEO keyword terms pointing to another site. The idea was to help the link recipient improve their search rankings. Since this is one of the fastest ways to add a lot of links quickly, it was a very popular strategy. This tactic was used in several of the above strategies, including purchased links on hacked sites, and on sites within a site network or through a reciprocal relationship.

Current recommendation: It is not recommended to add new site-wide footer links between different websites. However, site-wide footer links are still useful for internal navigation on a website. For internal site-wide links, it is recommended to use logical navigation links and not to overuse keywords for these internal links.

Online Article and Press Release Distribution

Over the years, there have been a variety of business models and strategies for online article distribution, guest blogging, content syndication, and press release distribution, with the goal of increasing links and, in turn, improving search rankings. For many years, these tactics were considered legitimate and promoted in articles and popular books. Over time, Google began cracking down on this tactic because many websites and SEO companies were using paid services to generate thousands of links very quickly through content distribution networks. Google views this type of link building as unnatural and has made changes to their algorithms to eliminate the SEO value of these types of links. Many content distribution sites and major press release distribution services now add “nofollow” tags to outgoing links to decrease the likelihood of Google viewing those links as spam. This is considered the new best practices for such sites and as a result these links no longer have any real SEO value.

Current recommendation: To avoid unnatural automated link building, the new best practice is to contact related industry blogs directly, offering to provide unique guest content for their audience. Instead of using a keyword in the link anchor text back to your own site, use your brand or company name.

whitehatWhat Counts as Legitimate Link Building?

With all of these link building strategies falling farther into the dark side of the industry, many people are left wondering how to build links that will help, rather than hurt search rankings. The truth is that effective link building options are limited in the modern search world. There are no short-cuts and few opportunities to gain many links quickly. Remember, natural link building is a gradual process and that is what Google is looking for and rewards. So what can you do?

  • Create high quality, useful and unique content. Then utilize social media tools to distribute that content to create quality links that will support your search engine optimization strategy.
  • Garner legitimate media and press coverage to build trust, awareness and high quality links without gaming the system.
  • Find high quality list articles, directories and industry websites that can be contacted via email outreach to ask for inclusion in an organic and natural way. Use link analysis tools to evaluate the links that your larger competitors have built over time. With tools such as Moz Open Site Explorer, you can view a list of sites linking to the websites of your competitors and peers. The Pro version of this tool offers even greater link research options.

For many website owners, the constant evolution of what constitutes appropriate link building can be frustrating. While I understand this frustration, I also believe strongly that Google’s changes are almost always done with the end user in mind. Penalizing unnatural link building tactics will help to ensure that the most authentic and highest quality content will show up in the search engine results.

If you are interested in learning more about the current best practices for content development and link building, consider checking out our Internet marketing classes, or contact us.

Posted in: SEO, TRENDS
Justin Belleme Written By:
Justin Belleme, Founder, Director of Strategy at JB Media Group.