Last Updated: November 14, 2020

Imagine that you’ve just started a new company, and you’re looking to the Internet to grow your business. As a newcomer in the field, you entrust your Internet marketing efforts to a firm that promises immediate results in online traffic. A week later, you discover that your company website is already showing up on the first page of Google’s search results. It’s almost too good to be true!

And, in fact, it is. A week later, Google bans your website from its search results entirely, citing unethical web practices. What did you do?

What you did was entrust your Internet marketing to a “black hat” marketer. Black hat marketing is the use of unethical (and sometimes, but not always, illegal) strategies to promote online business.

In contrast to ethical “white hat” strategies, black hat strategies use deception and manipulation to accomplish their objectives (See also Ethical Marketing). Black hats promise immediate results, and often obtain them; however, such results can cost a business its reputation. Black hat marketers may regard their strategies as simply “part of the game,” but playing this game can have dire consequences—from the negative responses of other businesses (such as Google refusing to do business with you) to significant government fines.

Who employs Black Hat marketing?

While established companies interested in protecting their reputations may avoid black hat marketing practices, smaller and newer firms—including the Internet equivalent of “fly-by-night” businesses—may use it to get quick results or to establish a presence in the market. Additionally, some firms might become involved in black hat marketing without realizing it, if they contract their marketing out to an Internet marketing firm or SEO company that uses such tactics. Finally, pornographic websites commonly use such strategies to bring in extra traffic; for them, reputation is not much of an issue.

Objectives of Black Hat Marketing

  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO): gain higher rankings on search engine results
  • Affiliate Marketing: increase commissions for links
  • Social Media: force “likes” and sharing of your page
  • Blogs: increase views in order to raise ad revenues

Black hat marketing tactics most commonly refers to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques. Search engine optimization involves designing a website so that it can be easily found on search engines, achieving a high ranking on those search engines. White hat techniques involve creating web pages that provide users (customers) with the information they’re looking for; search engine companies rank those websites according to how well they accomplish that (See also Search Marketing).

In contrast, black hat techniques try to “trick” the search engines into awarding a higher ranking—even when that means giving users something entirely different from what they want. For example, a user searching for “five-star restaurant” hopes to get results showing those exceptional restaurants. But a black hat SEO company can get a completely different type of website to show up on page one of the search results—such as one selling cars, media, or anything else (including restaurants).

Showing up on the first page of search results means substantially more visitors to your website, on the order of tens and even hundreds of thousands of additional hits—even if most of those hits are from users who quickly leave the website, since it wasn’t what they were looking for. Nevertheless, the sheer magnitude of traffic is enough for many companies to risk using black hat SEO.

However, when searches return results that don’t satisfy the user, the reputation of the search engine suffers. Thus, Google, Yahoo, and all the other search engines constantly update their search algorithms to avoid selecting websites using black hat techniques; and when they identify an offending website, they remove them from their results. Therefore companies who use black hat marketing can only hope to get short-term payoffs, followed by long-term consequences.

In addition to SEO, several related Internet marketing strategies can also be referred to as black hat, such as:

  • Cookie stuffing: Legitimate affiliate marketing uses cookies to track when an affiliate’s link is clicked on, in order to pay a commission to the source of the referral. A black hat affiliate marketer will secretly load users’ computers with fraudulent cookies even when they do not click on a link. The tactic is illegal, and can result in huge fines—but until that time, it results in thousands of referrals.
  • Scraper blogs (splogs): Blogs can be created with no original content, by “scraping” (copying) content from other websites. Basically, this requires stealing articles and other content from other publishers, in order to create a blog that can generate traffic to command more advertising revenue.
  • Social media manipulation: Websites can install widgets that force visitors to automatically “like” or share the website on their Facebook or other social media accounts. Users who have their accounts so hijacked are generally upset; but by that time, all their contacts have already received the advertisement.

What kinds of strategies count as Black Hat?

Search engine companies gain reputation by providing users with the information they want. Google closely guards its specific search algorithms, but some general strategies are known. Search engine “spiders” check websites and collect data about their links and keywords (words that users type into the search engine). Websites built for customers that naturally feature the keywords they’re searching for, with links from other websites, score highly with search engines.

Top 5 Black Hat SEO Tricks

  1. Hidden Content: stuff keywords into comment tags, no-scripts, and invisible text
  2. Meta Keyword Stuffing/Spamming: repeating keywords in a meta tag instead of describing the website
  3. Gateway Pages: creating pages never seen by the user to attract search engines, which redirect the user to another website (either related or completely unrelated)
  4. Link Farming: increase inbound links by using pages that have no purpose other than listing links
  5. Cloaking: showing different websites to search engine robots and users, so users arrive at completely different content than what the search engine cataloged and recommended

Companies and websites that use black hat strategies aren’t interested in putting in effort to reach the top of search results; they simply want to be at the top. Therefore, they will use another company’s product—and reputation—to accomplish ends that company objects to.

Common black hat SEO techniques include spamming keywords in areas of a website that are unseen by the user (such as in comment tags, in tiny text, or in text the same color as the background). Spamming keywords is an attempt to make a website look more relevant to a search engine looking for those keywords—whether the website is genuinely about that topic, or about something completely different.

Another way to trick search engines is to show the search spider one page relevant to a search, but then show users another page entirely. As an additional option, black hats can employ link manipulation to supplement keyword manipulation. For example, they can try to make a website appear more popular by spamming links to that website on other people’s blogs, or on “link farms,” which exist only to provide links to pages for the search spiders to notice.

How can White Hat strategies compete with Black Hat strategies?

Black hat strategies may seem clever, but search engine companies are also clever, and constantly update their search algorithms to recognize and refuse websites employing such techniques. Many black hat strategies that were extremely successful in the past no longer work as well in the present.

In contrast, white hat SEO involves writing web websites effectively so that the search engines can accomplish exactly what they’re trying to do—give users the results they want. Ethical SEO uses keywords to identify the actual information on the website, and writes content that focuses on the subject of those keywords. Keywords in this case are used the way the search engine expects them to be used—as index words, or as titles in a table of contents.

A common mistake made by many websites is to post pages with content that meanders from the topic, resulting in low keyword frequency. The white hat solution is to write more relevant content; the black hat solution is to spam keywords for a variety of topics among different parts of the page (See also Content Marketing). Users visiting the white hat website find the information they’re looking for, and visits convert to sales.

Users visiting the website that uses black hat SEO are much less likely to make a purchase. The black hat marketer may be very good at making a website for search spiders; but white hat SEO creates websites that are attractive to both spiders and consumers. White hat methods do take longer to generate results; but they won’t get you banned from the search engines, or injure your company’s reputation.

How can a marketing school help you fight Black Hat marketing?

Our Recommended Schools

  1. Grand Canyon University (GCU)

    GCU's Colangelo College of Business offers leading edge degrees that address the demands of contemporary business environments.

  2. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)

    Explore the bond between business and consumer behavior with a degree in marketing.

Black hat SEO did not exist before the creation of Internet search engines. It represents a feature of today’s marketing environment that requires an understanding of Internet communications, and it impact businesses at all levels. A good marketing school prepares its students to do business in the Internet world, handling the many marketing strategies and obstacles that continue to change and evolve.

Classes will teach you how to acquire useful data to help you understand the decisions and perceptions of your customers—such as what keywords they’re likely to use when searching for your product. Such a program will train you in the methods of research, data collection, and statistical analysis. Armed with this information, you’ll be able to get a picture of a market’s preferences, buying habits, and perceptions of both you and your competition. You’ll learn how to use this data to improve Internet communications, and increase search engine ranking without having to resort to black hat SEO. (See also SEO Specialist)

Another major area of focus in marketing is effective communication. In a marketing program, you’ll learn not only how to communicate with consumers and other businesses, but how to use the Internet to communicate on a much grander scale than ever before. This will include how to leverage blogs, social media, and search engines to further your marketing campaigns.

To learn more about what a marketing program can do for you, request information from schools with degrees in marketing. A good school will have their website optimized for the keywords “marketing degree.”