Guess what? It’s time to hire an SEO agency.
Search is the top inbound marketing priority for marketers in 2022 and the post-work from home revolution world is driving a surge in demand for SEO services. If you haven’t got an agency on your side, you might quickly find yourself with some catching up to do.
Unfortunately, most people who run businesses with an online presence have had their fair share of spammy emails and LinkedIn messages from supposed ‘experts’ promising them obviously inflated results at a laughable price point. Many businesses are already on their third or fourth provider, having suffered through sub-par SEO campaigns in the past.
These kinds of stories erode trust in SEO as a whole and can land people with penalties that haunt their domain for far longer than any potential (and unlikely) gains do. All in all, a huge number of people are left wondering who they can trust.
We’re here to help you avoid the rotten apples masquerading as juicy, ripe experts. The first and most important step in avoiding a bad agency is knowing what to look for.
What is black-hat SEO?
Black hat SEO is an umbrella term for SEO processes that violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. As far as SEO is concerned, these guidelines are the Bible and black hat or negative techniques are blasphemy.
There is an unfortunate amount of SEOs that believe themselves to be smarter than the rest, capable of beating the system with shady tactics that, at best, win you a short-term spike in rankings, but get you a black mark in the eyes of the world’s biggest search engine in the long run.
Before you know it, they’ve disappeared with your cash and you’re stuck with a penalty that’s going to cost you twice as much to fix.
White hat versus black hat SEO
As you may have guessed, ‘white hat’ SEO is, in the simplest terms ‘good guy SEO’. It’s not particularly rock n’ roll, but neither is thinking you can outsmart algorithms developed by the most qualified and well-paid search professionals in the world and getting your clients removed from the index.
White hat techniques also don’t guarantee rankings. The one semi-salient point you’ll hear a black hat advocate make is that everyone doing white hat SEO is attempting to rank using the same guidance and techniques. This isn’t 100% accurate, of course - not only are the best SEO agencies constantly innovating and experimenting to find the best possible approach within the guidelines but there are also a myriad of techniques considered ‘white hat’ that are pointless and that these agencies won’t bother with - but the basic sentiment isn’t necessarily untrue.
It’s not, however, a justification for attempting to cheat your way to the top. There’s no cheat sheet for Google or any search engine for that matter. You just have to know what you’re doing and do it better than anyone else.
How does black hat SEO work?
Let’s get one thing straight. Does black hat SEO work? No. We don’t consider a temporary spike in rankings that brings little relevant organic traffic and even fewer conversions, with potentially dire long-term consequences, ‘working’.
But the basic gist of how it supposedly ‘works’ is that it exploits loopholes in the algorithms used to rank content to trick search engines and artificially manipulate a client’s position on search engines. It sounds clever, doesn’t it? It’s not. There are cleverer machines, made by even cleverer people, programmed to identify and penalise this exact type of content already in operation, with more being developed every year.
Is black hat SEO illegal?
No, black hat SEO isn’t illegal. Good job, too, because otherwise plenty of businesses could find themselves in some very hot water for something they were none the wiser about. It is, however, a direct violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and they have their own justice system for that kind of thing - and it affects your domain, not your provider’s.
Black hat SEO techniques to avoid
Yeesh, how long have you got?
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, black hat SEO tactics to avoid include anything that falls outside the Webmaster Guidelines. But we’re assuming you’re not exactly hyped about the prospect of reading through those and trying to figure out what the hell they’re talking about in them.
So as a favour, here’s a quick rundown of the most popular black hat SEO techniques championed by our industry’s finest scam artists:
This one is quite literally the oldest trick in the book and isn’t limited to people intentionally doing black hat SEO. There’s an extremely common misconception that search engines are essentially keyword matching machines, prompting amateur SEOs to find the highest value keyword they can make applicable to their business and write a piece of content that features it in every sentence. Unsurprisingly, this makes for pretty low-quality content that reeks of a poor attempt at search engine manipulation.
The funniest part is, Google was actually founded as an antidote to this exact problem, which had the early search engines of the 1990s serving up pages upon pages of keyword-stuffed content to users, and has therefore never been a simple keyword matching machine.
Paying for backlinks
So… backlinks. Like an angry teenager, backlinks are tragically misunderstood. We say ‘tragically’ because the lack of awareness around what makes a quality backlink leaves a huge majority of people open to exploitative DMs from shady link-building services promising to create thousands of backlinks for a small, one-off fee.
The problem is, paying for backlinks is one of the biggest no-nos in SEO.
Google’s PageRank algorithm, a formative and enduring part of its architecture, is based on the idea of relevant and natural backlinks from one website to another serving as a digital recommendation of sorts. This gives rise to the ‘more is more’ backlink philosophy, prompting people to pay for link-building services that flood your site with low-quality, spammy links from link farms and private blog networks (PBNs).
Google’s methods for detecting this sort of thing have become more sophisticated with time and paying for backlinks in any form, therefore, isn’t going to reap anything but regret.
301 redirect link building
First things first: 301 redirects are not inherently a red flag signalling that your SEO provider is using black-hat techniques. They exist to redirect users from an old URL to a new one and come in handy when businesses move, change or otherwise update their websites.
It becomes a black-hat tactic when it is used to build links. The basic idea is that a new domain is purchased and a bunch of low-quality backlinks are created for that domain using link farms, PBNs and similarly dicey methods. These backlinks are then 301 redirected to your main website. The logic is that by passing the low-quality links through a secondary domain, you get all the benefits and none of the consequences.
This probably seemed really clever when it was first thought up, but John Mueller, Google’s Search Advocate, has made it crystal clear that it makes no difference:
“The 301 basically makes the main site canonical, meaning the links go directly there — you might as well skip the detour, it’s just as obvious to the algorithms & spam team.”
“Can I copy your homework?”
“Yeah, just change a few words so it’s not obvious.”
There. We’ve just explained content spinning to you.
To charm unsuspecting clients, black hat SEOs often promise sky-high numbers of backlinks. To do this, they can’t simply repost the same blog on hundreds of different websites, which would immediately be flagged as duplicate content. Even they’re not that dumb.
Enter content spinning. Often done using automated software, it involves “rewriting” a piece of content by replacing a few words here and there. For example: “content spinning is trash” becomes “content spinning is garbage”, or “article spinning is terrible”. You get the idea.
Google’s Panda update way back in 2011 pretty much nerfed the viability of content spinning. Nonetheless, you’ll still find spinning tools dressed up in fancy branding on the web and black hat SEOs broadcasting their total lack of knowledge by continuing to tout it as a swell idea.
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a bit of a theme emerging here of black hat tactics being woefully outdated. Our last example is no exception.
Blog commenting is exactly as it sounds: you place a link to your domain in the comments section of a high-authority blog. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It is, and Google isn’t. It got wise to this ‘technique’ a long time ago and has pretty much stopped including links in blog comments altogether.
Link-building tactics like these are continuing to be penalised, so keep things truly simple: don’t do it.
How black hat SEO hurts your bottom line
The biggest problem with black hat SEO agencies - and there are a lot of problems to choose from - is that they’re not the ones stuck with the consequences of their shady practices. Their clients are.
Their business model is short term (“I can build you hundreds of links in under a month!”) because they take the money and move on to the next person they can sweet-talk into hiring them. It’s not about building a relationship or nurturing trust through tangible results. Sooner or later, the penalties are going to come, and they don’t intend on being around when they do.
It’s not the clients’ fault, but it ends up being their responsibility to fix it.
Black hat SEO penalties
There are two types of penalties when it comes to Google: algorithmic and manual.
Algorithmic penalties aren’t, technically speaking, penalties, but rather consequences of the search engine algorithms being continually updated to suppress low-quality content. You won’t receive a traditional penalty, but you may notice a significant drop in rankings after an algorithm update.
Manual penalties happen when an actual employee of the search engine company has reviewed your website and found violations. These can be checked for in Google Search Console under ‘Security and Manual Actions > Manual Actions’ and can be fixed, then submitted for a review. The good news is that many of these fixes are straightforward, but this varies from case to case.
Both types of penalties vary in severity. You can be pushed down the rankings, or delisted from search engines entirely.
The black hat SEO legacy effect
If you’ve had black hat SEO done to your website, whether you did so knowingly or not, the effects can be long-lasting.
To start with, your return on investment for investing in such services will be nil if not negative. You will then probably need to hire a SEO penalty removal company, take stock of the damage and help you rebuild, perhaps from ground zero or pretty close to it.
Search engines are also a bit like elephants - they never forget. Reaching the top spot on SERPs is about earning their trust and if you violate that, it can take a while to get them to forgive you. Don’t waste your money, just steer clear of black hat SEO altogether.
Top tips for avoiding a bad SEO agency
Check their case studies
SEO companies market themselves on their results, not their promises. And when there are results, we’re not usually quiet about them. We tell our friends, we tell our colleagues and most importantly, we post them on our websites.
Every agency worth your time should have case studies available on their website for you to read before you even get in touch with them. Now, with case studies, it’s important to know what to look for. Many sub-par agencies will attempt to wow you with impressive-sounding statistics like “we boosted rankings by 500%!” without telling you that the website in question wasn’t ranking to begin with.
A good SEO agency case study will include:
- The brief
- The strategy
- Examples of the content produced
- The results
Don’t trust anyone who mentions ‘the game’
Black hat SEOs love to talk about ‘playing their own game’, fancying themselves as eccentric search engine rebels, rather low-expertise pretenders. Some of them genuinely believe that their unethical tactics successfully ‘beat the system’ and the rest of us are just cookie-cutter conformists.
The problem is, there is no game; no magic, no tricks, no rabbit out of a hat. The rules that black hat SEOs are so passionate about breaking exist to benefit users, not websites - shouldn’t your business be trying to do the same? If you’re working against a search engine, rather than with it, you’ve simply got the wrong attitude.
The big secret to unlocking the power of search is something much, much rarer than trickery and manipulation: expertise, creativity and genuine care when it comes to crafting high-value content that benefits the people this is really all about - users.
Ask the right questions
First things first: never hire someone to provide SEO services without speaking to them first. Every decent business relationship starts with a discovery call, and SEO should be no different. This isn’t just a matter of introducing yourself and your business: it’s also the best opportunity to catch a shady provider in the act.
Black hat SEOs rely on their prospects having knowledge gaps they can exploit. Despite its importance in building and scaling a business, SEO is still fairly unfamiliar territory for most people, and it’s also rife with misconceptions.
There are certain phrases and attitudes that should be immediate red flags during your SEO company discovery call <LINK>. To help you out, we’ve put together a list of 25 questions you should ask your potential SEO company before working with them.
Steer clear of guarantees
“We can get you to the first page of SERPs in six weeks”
Okay, smart guy… how? It’s not that it’s impossible to get a client ranking well within a specific time frame, it’s that there is no possible way of forecasting this without first doing an audit, some keyword research and competitor analysis.
Even then, any agency worth their salt will steer clear of time estimations. It doesn’t matter how good you are at SEO, there are simply too many variables at play, many of them out of our control, to tell a client that their website will definitely be ranking at a certain position by a certain date. No SEO wants to risk setting themselves an arbitrary deadline they can’t meet.
The only way for them to deliver on anything approaching a guarantee is to use black-hat tactics to temporarily spike your rankings and traffic, which will quickly drop off and land you with the long-term consequences.
Package pricing is a no-no
SEO - when it’s done well, at least - is inherently bespoke. A proper optimisation process is built directly from your business’ needs - your current situation, your proposition and your target audience.
Package pricing implies pre-packaged services. Often, small and mid-range agencies list price ranges on their website to appear more transparent and advertise themselves as lower cost than their competitors. These are agencies that need to attract more business - as in, they don’t currently have much going on. The same is true of digital PR companies.
More established agencies will offer custom, possibly even flexible, pricing to accommodate their clients’ specific needs. Want to know more about budgeting for SEO? Check out our handy guide to SEO agency pricing.