Editor’s note: Hunter Young is a director of client services at Three Ships Media, a Raleigh-based digital marketing agency.

RALEIGH, N.C. – Perhaps you’ve heard of black hat [search enginge optimization] but aren’t sure exactly what it really means?

Black hat SEO is a series of unfair techniques that break search engine guidelines. These practices degrade search results and search engines constantly update their algorithms to catch those who practice black hat SEO.

The consequences of black hat SEO can be devastating – sites that follow these unethical practices are often prevented from being indexed and banned upon discovery.

To ensure that you’re fully aware of what’s off limits, here are some examples of common black hat practices you should avoid:

• Astroturf campaigns are ones that rely on fake fans to boost their social media, blogs, blog comments and other forms of online PR. They also conceal the identity of the marketer.

• Content generation robots generate articles, comments, social media messages and other forms of content that mimic the actions of a real person.

• Keyword stuffing is when a marketer creates text that is comprised of nothing but relevant keywords. This kind of “content” provides a disappointing experience for users and is prohibited.

• Unrelated keywords that have nothing to do with your content but are popular search terms cannot be added to your website just to boost your ranking.

• Spam pages are created specifically to boost rankings but are comprised of nothing but keyword stuffed paragraphs. There is no other real content except for ads or site listings on spam pages.

• Hidden text techniques try to hide keywords by adding white text to a white background or packing source code into the HTML of a page that users can’t see but search engines can.

• Cloaking is when a site shows the human visitors one set of content and search engines another that intentionally has more keywords.

• Link farms are spam sites created solely to build inbound links for other organizations.

Case Study: JC Penney SEO firm resorts to Black Hat, penalized by Google

Just how devastating can the impact Black Hat SEO be? During the 2010 holiday season, J.C. Penney consistently ranked at the top or near the top of search engine results for a variety of generic keywords. After noticing the trend, The New York Times launched an investigation that uncovered several black hat SEO techniques. Thousands of links on inactive and unrelated sites led directly to J.C. Penney – this sort of black hat link exploitation improved their search engine results, but the repercussions were devastating.

Google took “corrective action” as soon as the J.C. Penney scheme was exposed. For example, at 7 p.m. the day Google found out, J.C. Penney ranked number one for “Samsonite carry-on luggage.” Two hours later, it was number 71.

A spokeswoman from J.C. Penney said that company did not authorize the black hat SEO techniques, nor were they aware of them. “It is against our natural search policies.” Their search engine consulting firm was also fired.

Google has also been known to completely block companies using black hat SEO techniques entirely from their search engine results for a period of time.

Black hat SEO techniques unjustly exploit search engine results and give organizations that use them unfair advantages that do not accurately reflect that organization’s relevance or credibility. Moreover, the repercussions for using black hat SEO techniques are far too risky and vastly outweigh the benefits, as shown by the J.C. Penney example. Stick to legitimate SEO efforts to ensure that your company can maintain and benefit from its legitimate SERP ranking.

( (c) Three Ships Media; mReprinted with permission.)

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