In early days of Hollywood, Westerns were a huge draw for movie theaters. Audiences were compelled by tales of the Wild West, a turbulent era of American history that filmmakers neatly categorized into a fight between the good guys and the bad guys.
In the movies, audiences knew who was good and who was bad not just by their actions, but by the clothes they wore. The good guys wore white hats. The bad ones wore black hats. Simple enough, right?
The early days of online marketing were also a somewhat turbulent period. Like today, marketers battled over the top spots on search engines using whatever tools worked. However, marketers that employed tactics exclusively designed to win the search engine fight did so at the expense of internet users.
The pioneers of online marketing found that they could use strategies that bolstered rankings but confounded readers. In those days, you might click on a top-ranking site and find it completely unreadable, despite the fact that search engines gave it their stamp of approval.
Attempts by marketers to “game the system” became known as “black hat” marketing. As the wild west of online marketing became more civilized (in other words, search engines became savvier), many of these techniques fell out of fashion. However, the term “black hat” is still used to describe practices considered deceptive toward search engine algorithms and unfriendly toward readers.
The Hallmarks of Black Hat
As is the case in so many areas of life, doing things the right way takes more time, discipline and effort. Black hat marketers want to bypass as much of that as possible, and they use several different shortcuts to help sites climb up the search engine rankings.
One of the most commonly used methods of black hat marketers is the overuse or misuse of keywords. Keywords are a powerful currency in online marketing because search engine algorithms analyze the words on a website’s page to determine their relevance in relation to internet users’ search terms.
Keyword stuffing is the practice of cramming as many search engine-friendly terms into a page’s content as possible. Including suspiciously keyword-rich links, tags and anchor texts on a page is another approach associated with black hat. Employing some keywords isn’t necessarily a deceptive technique. It’s the overuse or exploitation of keywords that raises alarm bells by algorithms and makes content unnatural for readers.
More advanced black hat techniques, such as “cloaking” text on a webpage to hide it from readers or buying expired domains to exploit their backlinks, were also clever – albeit disreputable – methods of exploiting search engine algorithms.
The list of outdated techniques goes on and on. Most of them aren’t worth discussing because they are no longer effective. The fact is that no matter how cunning black hat marketers are, the search engines eventually catch up to them.
This brings us to the most important lesson that all online marketers should come to terms with…
Create Your Marketing Efforts for Humans – Not Robots
Search engines have become much more sophisticated, but a few marketers cling to the duplicitous practices that used to give them a competitive edge. It’s human nature to look for advantages, especially when competition is fierce. There might have even been a time when such practices were justifiable if only because they were effective.
If history has taught marketers anything, it’s that search engines will catch on to black hat techniques and a website will take a huge hit as a result. It’s no longer in a business’s best interests to do anything but to design a campaign with the audience in mind.
Search engine algorithms are always changing, and their evolution is almost always toward user-friendly, relevant content. And the Google gods are wrathful toward anyone that tries to deceive them. Even well-intentioned marketing campaigns get hit with penalties or see their websites drop in rankings for qualities that algorithms deem deceptive.
The days of shortcuts are over. This might seem like bad news for the savviest of search engine manipulators, but it shouldn’t be bad news for those of us who want to build websites that truly serve our customers’ and clients’ needs.
The current landscape of online marketing necessitates a dedicated, sustained marketing campaign that connects with human beings. This means user-friendly designs and relevant, straightforward content.
If you want to avoid black hat marketing, then make decisions that reflect the needs of your audience, not an algorithm.