At Lightning Media Partners, we know that following SEO best practices will turn out top-notch results in the content we create. After all, content marketing and SEO are a match made in a search engine’s algorithmic heaven. However, following these SEO practices requires diligence and time — sometimes taking months or even years for fruitful results. This is where some companies want to skirt corners and try their hands at black hat SEO.
Black hat SEO can tempt new businesses starting out, or overwhelmed marketing teams attempting to grow and scale content creation, with the promise of quick work and easy wins. However, black hat SEO techniques will result in punishment from search engines sooner or later.
In this article, we’ll break down:
- What is white hat and black hat SEO?
- How to avoid black hat SEO in content marketing.
- Tips to practice white hat SEO in content marketing.
What is white hat and black hat SEO?
White hat SEO is when marketers use techniques permissible by search engines to rank higher in a search engine’s algorithm. Black hat SEO is when marketers attempt to rank higher on search engines by using SEO techniques that infringe upon search engines’ general terms of service.
Related article: What is SEO and Why Does it Matter?
White hat SEO
White hat SEO describes the use of SEO best practices to rank higher in SERPs that abide by search engines’ guidelines. Google, the search engine with the largest market share, publishes webmaster guidelines to facilitate white hat SEO practice. While it may take more time and effort to rank higher for keywords, using white hat SEO is the only way to avoid penalties and build positive rapport with search engines and users.
Examples of white hat SEO practices include:
- Providing your audience with high-quality, valuable content.
- Adding relevant keywords to meta titles and descriptions.
- Participating in link building and using backlinks.
- Conducting optimal keyword research.
Black hat SEO
Black hat SEO describes using SEO techniques that go against search engines. Black hat SEO’s origins stem from old Western films where the “bad guys” would wear black cowboy hats and the “good guys” would wear white hats. Today, “black hat” techniques often refer to developers, marketers, or information technicians who perform unethical actions.
While many people in the digital marketing space steer away from black hat SEO and practice ethical techniques, some companies dip into black hat SEO’s bag of tricks from time to time in search of a quick win or shortcut to their goals. Examples of black hat SEO techniques include keyword stuffing, buying backlinks, cloaking, creating duplicate content, and falsely reporting competitors.
Gray hat SEO
Gray hat SEO is the practice of using techniques that lie between search-engine-approved practices and unethical abiding by search engine standards and ignoring them. For example, using expired domains, creating private blog networks, and spinning content aren’t purely unethical black hat tactics, but they are shady. It’s best to steer clear of gray hat SEO because they can easily incur penalties if you are caught, and new algorithm updates may specifically target such practices.
How to avoid black hat SEO in content marketing
With the knowledge of what black hat SEO is (and isn’t), here are a few ways to avoid unintentionally engaging in black hat SEO in content marketing.
Using private link networks and farms
Private link networks and link farms exist solely to generate a high number of backlinks for a designated domain. Unlike backlinks gained organically, these links are often paid for by companies looking to rapidly grow the size of their backlink profile. However, links acquired through link farms provide little to no value to the user and typically get penalized by search engines like Google — so unless you want to spend your brand credibility to buy the farm, it’s best to steer clear of this spammy link-building tactic.
The best way to avoid search engine penalties for this black hat SEO tactic? Have your SEO team or service provider vet backlink opportunities carefully and exercise caution when requesting inbound links. You should also conduct regular audits of your backlink profile and disavow any toxic links that could incur penalties.
Cloaking and keyword stuffing
Cloaking and keyword stuffing attempt to trick search engines into believing that a URL provides valuable content while delivering a suboptimal user experience. Cloaking works by presenting two distinct views of a website: a keyword-rich page designed to appease search engines and a thin or clunky public-facing page that rarely meets user expectations. Keyword stuffing can also create an undesirable user experience, injecting instances of a target keyword so frequently on a page that it makes it difficult — if not impossible — to read and comprehend.
These black hat SEO tactics often work in tandem. For example, a website might inject hundreds of instances of a keyword onto a page, then cloak the words by matching the foreground and background colors, effectively hiding the text.
When crafting content for your brand, prioritize creating a desirable user experience above all else. While it might be tempting to take shortcuts by cloaking and keyword stuffing, remember that useful and authentic content will win over both your audience and Google’s crawlers in the long run.
Abusing rich snippets
Rich snippets, sometimes called schema markup or structured data, give search engines structural information about your content that informs how it appears on search engine results pages (SERPs). Rich snippets include bonus information about a search result, such as the time needed to make a recipe or the release date of a band’s album. Because rich snippets stand out visually, they may yield better click-through rates (CTRs).
However, rich snippets can also be abused by black hat marketers attempting to game the system. By adding schema markup with inaccurate information — such as how many positive reviews their product received — these tricksters can manipulate search engines to make their content stand out.
If you’re in pursuit of a coveted rich snippet, avoid spamming your website’s backend with inaccurate markup. Instead, when designing a content strategy, include a mix of content formats that can organically take advantage of rich snippet features, such as recipes, events, blog posts, and product pages.
Buying and selling links
If you have a little wiggle room in your marketing budget, it may be tempting to expedite the growth of your backlink profile by paying for links. While paying another website to link back to your domain might seem like an easy way to boost your domain authority, search engines like Google expressly prohibit the practice in their Webmaster Guidelines.
Websites detected buying and selling links incur penalties from these search engines, meaning both your budget and your credibility will take a hit. Instead of risking your reputation by paying for links, focus on creating valuable content that inspires other brands to link to your website organically.
Related article: SEO Tips for Digital Publishing Companies
Considerations when choosing a content marketing agency
Because black hat SEO techniques rely on taking shortcuts throughout the content creation process, they often yield poor quality content that has little or no value for your audience. But low-quality and duplicate content doesn’t just harm your brand reputation — it can also cause your SERP rankings to take a sizeable hit that takes years to build up again if search engines catch on to your underhanded tactics.
The best way to avoid incurring these penalties? Learn to recognize the signs of these sketchy SEO shortcuts, and take time to ensure that your content team follows best practices. If you’re outsourcing your content creation, conduct thorough research before choosing a content marketing agency to partner with. While many agencies are dependable, some rely on shady practices to generate quick wins for their clients. These companies may use questionable methods, such as subcontracting to a content farm, in order to increase their own bottom line.
While not all content farms or mills employ black hat tactics, it’s important to keep these practices in mind when choosing a new content creation partner. Remember to always review content produced by someone outside of your internal team, and look out for red flags such as promises of results that sound too good to be true. A reputable content marketing agency will be transparent about its content creation process and the results you can realistically expect to see.
Tips for practicing white hat SEO in content marketing
Black hat SEO tactics may yield the occasional quick win for your website, but in the end, they’re bound to rack up penalties that will do more harm than good. For content that both search engines and potential customers will love, try your hand at these white hat SEO strategies instead.
Create high-quality content for users
Even if black hat tactics such as cloaking and keyword stuffing manage to temporarily boost traffic to your website, they give users little incentive to stay on the page and make a purchase. By focusing your efforts on creating high-quality content instead, you can deliver on your promise to your audience and climb search engine rankings at the same time.
Search engines such as Google consider content quality one of the most important ranking factors, so creating meaningful content that delivers value to your target audience should be a top priority. Try to understand the search intent behind the keywords you’re targeting and craft content that answers the call. Ensure articles are long enough to thoroughly answer user questions and authoritative enough to draw backlinks from other websites. Over time, both search engines and potential customers will come to view your brand as a reputable and reliable source.
Related article: How To Use Your Website To Drive High-Quality Leads
Prioritize user experience
Have you ever been surfing the web only to land on a site that takes ages to load or is riddled with broken links? Of course you have. In today’s digital world, it’s a universal experience — but that doesn’t make it a desirable one. Not only is an optimized user experience a critical search engine ranking factor; it increases the odds that visitors stay on your website and take a desired conversion action.
Luckily, you don’t need underhanded black hat SEO tactics to deliver an exceptional user experience. For example, free tools like Google PageSpeed Insights can help you identify and course-correct issues causing long load times on your website. Once visitors have reached the page, ensure an equally user-friendly experience by using bold and informative headers, skimmable layouts, and intuitive click paths to help them navigate your content. As always, keeping in mind the search intent behind the keyword that brings visitors to the page can help you craft content that meets their needs.
Use schema code correctly
Abusing rich snippets can lead to unhappy users and search engine penalties, but when used correctly, schema markup can be an invaluable resource for optimizing your content for search engines. Using structured data gives crawlers additional information about the purpose of your page and can help ensure that the high-quality content you spent so much time and energy crafting lands in front of its intended audience. While not a direct ranking factor, proper schema code use can also increase the odds that your content is selected as a rich snippet, making your content stand out on crowded SERPs and attracting more visitors to your website.
Transparent link building
In the same way that spammy, low-quality backlinks can harm your website’s SEO, acquiring backlinks from authoritative, high-quality sources can boost your own domain authority and organic search rankings. To earn links while abiding by Google’s guidelines, focus on creating unique and original content that other outlets will want to share. A useful infographic, compelling new data, or even a fresh take on a trending industry topic can serve as a source of inbound traffic. You can also try contributing content to other reputable blogs as a guest author to supplement your own native content marketing strategy.
Consider your mobile experience
According to research from Google, more than half of all web traffic now comes from mobile devices. As smartphones and tablets increasingly become the primary means of browsing the web, the importance of optimizing content for mobile also grows. Sleek and uncluttered navigation bars, responsive design, and bold CTAs can all help guide mobile users through your content. You can also use a tool such as Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test to assess how easy your content is to navigate on mobile. By default, Google now prioritizes mobile experiences when crawling and indexing websites, so optimizing for mobile isn’t just a favor to your readers — it’s also an essential SEO strategy.
Need help keeping your content strategy on the straight and narrow? Lightning Media Partners helps B2B and B2C brands craft content with SEO best practices in mind. Book a discovery call today to learn how we can help your brand deliver the web’s most wanted content.
Thank you to Lauren Wingo, who also contributed to this article!