How Google Battles Black Hat SEO (And Why Your Law Firm Should Avoid These Tactics)

by Aug 9, 2018

As the market leader in online search, Google is constantly working to ensure that it rewards sites that follow its Webmaster Guidelines with higher rankings in organic search results.

And, though the search engine says that it does not intend to “punish” sites that fail to follow its guidelines, sites that attempt to gain an inflated ranking through so-called “black hat” search engine optimization (SEO) tactics are continually relegated toward the bottom of search results every time that Google makes an adjustment to its algorithm.

In a constant effort to provide search engine users with the information that is most relevant to their individual queries, Google updates its algorithm on a regular basis. Most of these updates go unnoticed by the search engine community and are usually unconfirmed by Google.

But, occasionally, Google’s algorithmic updates lead to sweeping changes in the placement of sites on search engine results pages (SERPs) and, less frequently, the search engine actually acknowledges that a change took place (the most recent of those updates went into effect at the beginning of this month).

When such algorithmic rollouts are instituted, attorneys who follow the LawLytics recipe for effective, content-based SEO and online marketing practices can rest easy knowing that their sites are likely to be rewarded on SERPs for adhering to Google’s guidelines.

Website owners who have worked to inflate their rankings by engaging in black hat tactics (or have paid a third party who may have engaged in black hat tactics on their behalf) by trading for links, providing thin or duplicate content on their sites, or keyword stuffing, for example, have to scramble after algorithmic updates in order to clean up the effects of their wrongdoing in the hope of restoring their previous position in organic search results…if it’s even possible to do so, that is.

What are “black hat” SEO tactics?

In a nutshell, black hat SEO tactics are essentially those that go against a search engine’s webmaster guidelines. They include the common practices mentioned in the previous paragraph, as well as more complicated methods such as using doorway pages and sneaky redirects on your site, or hiding text or links on your site.

The business model employed by Google and other search engines is based on ad sales. In order to make sure that the ads they places on SERPs have value, the search engines need to keep users coming back to perform additional queries each time they want to look for information online.

If Google failed to return the most relevant, high-quality results it could find for each and every user search, it would quickly lose the trust of its user base and the value of its ads would plummet.

For this reason, Google suggests that you “Make (web)pages primarily for users, not for search engines.”

When you add content to your law firm website, by focusing on your potential clients and the information that will prove most relevant to them rather than focusing your energy on trying to game the search engine’s algorithms (which is getting harder to accomplish with each successive update) you can avoid the stress associated with having your site ‘dinged’ by an update and watch instead as your content continues to work its way up SERPs over time.

If you are not yet familiar with Google’s Guidelines, it’s a good idea to get acquainted. After all, it will be difficult to avoid putting your law firm website in jeopardy for employing black hat SEO tactics if you don’t know what they are, and pleading ignorance is not going to be sufficient to sidestep a rankings drop or Google penalty, should you ever receive one.

How Google Has Targeted Black Hat Tactics in the Past

Some Google updates are simply meant to improve the functionality of the search engine in general and do not have a direct effect on search results, per se.

These include the 2013 Hummingbird update, which was meant to speed up search and help the search engine better understand the user intent behind queries, the 2015 incorporation of RankBrain, which added a machine learning component to the search engine algorithm in order to further help it understand synonyms and context clues in search queries, and the Mobilegeddon update of 2015 which prioritized mobile-friendly results for searches performed on mobile devices.

Other updates target specific black hat SEO tactics directly. These are the updates which tend to generate the most buzz around the SEO community when they occur. They also usually cause outrage and panic amongst those who make their living by subverting Google’s algorithm.

Though by no means an exhaustive one, what follows is a list of some of the black hat tactics Google has targeted in the past and the updates it used to target them.

Keyword Stuffing

Targeted by Florida (2003), Panda (2011), and Penguin (2012)

One of the oldest tricks in the black-hat book, Google initially relied on the presence of specific keywords to determine the meaning and ranking of content on SERPs. But spammers quickly caught onto this and began “stuffing” keywords on pages.

Pages popped up on the web that were simply long lists of keywords, then web developers began hiding keywords in plain sight by loading them onto a page, but making sure that their font color matched the background color of that page.

Needless to say, keyword stuffing provides a terrible user experience (UX) and often renders content illegible or incomprehensible. Today, thanks to Google’s increased ability to understand user intent in queries, keyword stuffing is now essentially obsolete, and engaging in the practice is more likely to harm your site’s SEO than it is to provide even a temporary benefit to your site’s online visibility.

Offering Thin/Duplicate Content on Your Site

Targeted by May Day (2010) and Panda (2011)

The May Day update was an algorithmic change to Google that was meant to essentially prioritize sites in search results that offered high-quality content over sites that offered “thin,” or low-quality, content.

May Day foreshadowed the Panda update that followed soon after, which was an update that targeted so-called “content farms.” Content farms were businesses that existed specifically to sell low-quality content to website owners with the aim of boosting their rankings on SERPs. Updates to the Panda algorithmic change continued through 2015, with the end result being a mass closure of content farms and a renewed focus on providing content that thoroughly addressed user queries.

As a result of these updates, adding thin content to your site, “scraping” content from another site, or duplicating content across your site is now going to hurt your SEO efforts as well as the user experience of your site’s visitors (which itself can damage your site’s SEO).

Link Schemes

Targeted by Cassandra (2003), Brandy (2004), Nofollow (2005), Jagger (2005), and Penguin (2012)

In its Webmaster Guidelines, Google defines a link scheme as “Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results.” This means that you should not post a link on your site for any reason other than that the content you are linking to merits a citation in your own content.

Even simple, reciprocal link exchanges are a violation of Google’s Guidelines and can be viewed as a link scheme. And though black hat SEO practitioners are getting increasingly complex in their methods of trading links, Google manages to stay hot on their trail and to undercut new techniques almost as soon as they arise.

Methods of targeting bad links have involved the creation of “link neighborhoods,” which associates the quality of a site with those that it links to (and vice versa), targeting paid links and so-called “link farms” (similar to content farms, but with a focus on selling links in mass quantities), and creating the “nofollow” tag so that website owners can disavow links placed on their site which might be of questionable quality.

External links pointing to your site can certainly benefit your site’s SEO, but it is best to allow those links to develop organically rather than trading or paying for them directly, as anything other than organic link development could ultimately prove harmful to your site’s online visibility.

Poor User Experience (UX)

Targeted by Top Heavy (2012) and Fred (2017)

Also called the “Ads Above the Fold” or “Top Heavy” update, Google’s “Page layout algorithm improvement” went after sites that had so many ads (specifically, those high up on a page, or “above the fold,” so to speak) that it made the site’s content difficult to locate on a page.

The unconfirmed update deemed “Fred” by the SEO community appeared to affect low-quality content sites that seemed to prioritize earning revenue over providing a positive UX, with some such sites experiencing as much as a ninety percent drop in their rankings.

We also know that Google and Bing both measure UX metrics in order to gauge the quality of the results they return on SERPs. What this means is that it’s no longer enough to provide high-quality content on your site to ensure that your content ranks well on SERPs — you also need to be mindful of how difficult it will be for users to engage with that content after navigating to it.

Allowing Content to Languish (“Set It and Forget It”)

Targeted by multiple “Pack” updates (2011-12) and the Freshness Update (2011)

Google notes that, “Search results, like warm cookies right out of the oven or cool refreshing fruit on a hot summer’s day, are best when they’re fresh.” When you look up the schedule of your favorite sports team or tour dates for your favorite musician, you’re probably not interested in dates from the past. Rather, you want current and upcoming information — information that can affect the decisions you plan to make right now.

Google now rewards fresh content in search results, especially as it concerns particularly timely searches. Still, Google also appears to reward sites in general on SERPs if they are updated regularly with fresh, accurate, up-to-date content. What this means for attorneys is that it’s not enough to simply launch your website and leave it alone to capture leads for your firm passively.

Instead, if you want to maximize your firm’s ROI for its online marketing efforts, you will do better to continue adding to your site regularly rather than “setting and forgetting” it.

If You Want to Succeed in Online Marketing, Learn Google’s Guidelines and Stick to Them

If you were hoping to trick Google into ranking your site higher than your content warrants, it’s time to rethink your strategy.

Black hat SEOs have been working to “trick” Google’s algorithm for as long as the search engine has been around and, inevitably, as soon as they discover a new “loophole” in Google’s incredibly complex, sophisticated, and secretive system, that loophole is promptly closed and those black hat practitioners are forced to scramble to try and recover.

Rather than throwing yourself into that stressful and ineffective rat race, it is best to stay on both Google’s and your potential clients’ good sides by writing content that provides those potential clients with the information they are likely to search for online.

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