Whether you’re a small business interviewing potential SEO partners or you’re an industry veteran the term black hat SEO is likely one of the most divisive terms referred to in the world of search engine optimization.

In order to understand what black hat SEO means, we must first understand what the standalone meanings of black hat and SEO are…

Black Hat:

noun
  1. used in reference to a bad person, especially a villain or criminal in a movie, novel, or play.
    “we are the good guys—the black hats lost”

    Informal/Computing Meaning

    a person who hacks into a computer network with malicious or criminal intent.
    “black hats have a history of disassembling source code and looking for lapses”

Since we’re no longer in the mid-1800’s, let’s take a look at the informal meaning of black hat. The key takeaways from this definition is a person who hacks with malicious or criminal intent.

Search Engine Optimization:

noun
  1. the process of maximizing the number of visitors to a particular website by ensuring that the site appears high on the list of results returned by a search engine.
    “the key to getting more traffic lies in integrating content with search engine optimization and social media marketing”

What is a Black Hat SEO?

Now that we understand what black hat and SEO is, by definition a black hat SEO is someone who optimizes or enhances a website to appear high in search engines free search engine results and deploys malicious tactics to achieve those results.

So, what does malicious mean? 

ma·li·cious
/məˈliSHəs/
adjective
  1. characterized by malice; intending or intended to do harm.

In order to be malicious, there needs to be the element of intentional harm. That being said, many SEOs who knowingly violate any of the search engines guidelines like Google Webmaster Guidelines are labeled as black hat SEOs, however, is there malice in cutting corners? Maybe.

Over the years I’ve spoken to a lot of SEOs who’ve given me their own opinions on what black SEO means. Some say any violation of any of search engine guidelines would be considered a black hat, while others state only the most egregious violations such as cloaking or using malicious scripts/malware are in fact black hat.

Next, let’s break down Google’s Webmaster Guidelines into two categories: malicious vs. poor SEO tactics:

Malicious Tactics 

  • Cloaking
  • Sneaky redirects
  • Creating pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other malware
  • Sending automated queries to Google
  • Automatically generated content
  • Scraped content
  • Hidden text or links
  • Abusing rich snippets markup

Shortcuts

  • Participating in link schemes*
  • Creating pages with little or no original content*
  • Doorway pages*
  • Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value*
  • Loading pages with irrelevant keywords*

Follow good practices like these:

  • Monitoring your site for hacking and removing hacked content as soon as it appears
  • Preventing and removing user-generated spam on your site

Some might argue that participating in link schemes, doorway pages, low-quality content, affiliate program participation without adding sufficient value or even loading pages with irrelevant keywords is black hat SEO, and it very well could be if the intent is to do harm (like negative SEO etc.). If the intent is to get better rankings then the SEO being performed is reckless (and lazy) but not malicious. Malice would come in only if the search engine optimization practitioner was knowingly and intentionally intending to do harm. Most SEOs I know don’t try to cause their clients harm, it’s their disregard for search engine guidelines and cutting corners that can result in ranking demotion.

Now that we have a better understanding of what black hat SEO is, it’s probably time for a better, more descriptive and accurate term to separate true black hat SEO and lazy/or reckless SEO.