Link building is, without a doubt, one of the most essential parts of any business's SEO strategy. Having a solid foundation of backlinks will inevitably boost your success in SERPs, but it is also one of the most challenging and most laborious tasks to achieve. It's not something that can be easily automated, and manually creating a network of backlinks to strengthen your CTRs and reduce your bounce rates can require a lot of careful planning, editing, and updating.
This difficulty creates ethical issues around link building. To circumvent problems and try to cheat the system, marketers can feel tempted to use questionable or even unethical practices. This article will detail link building practices and how to stay ethical when executing your SEO strategy.
Unethical SEO and Black Hat Tactics to Avoid
Unethical SEO is whatever set of tactics one could use to cut corners and cheat algorithms in a dishonest or manipulative way. Google has a good list of link schemes to avoid - here are some examples:
- Engaging in link exchanging: this is when both parties agree to link each other's pages on their own or partner with other websites for the sole purpose of cross-linking.
- Using bots or other software to generate links to your pages automatically.
- Forum comments with optimized links within the signature of a poster
- Purchasing or selling links that pass Google's PageRank.
Going against webmaster guidelines set by search engines, like the ones displayed above, is called Black Hat SEO. Engaging in such practices is not only unethical since you are not taking an honest approach to SEO, but it is harmful both to users and your own pages.
Given the methods Black Hat SEO uses, a site's quality diminishes, most often due to practices like:
- Keyword stuffing. When keywords are unnaturally inserted into a page in order to cheat search engine algorithms. Google gives examples like lists of phone numbers, cities, or states, with the sole purpose of boosting a page’s ranking.
- Cloaking. When there is a discrepancy between the content users have access to and the content presented to search engines for SEO. This is usually done to boost ranking for a broader range of topics, regardless of the actual content's relevancy.
- Link Farms. Link Farms are websites that exist only to create backlinks for another website, with the goal of boosting its search engine rankings. They usually have a few bits of low-quality content, and then they are jam-packed with as many links as possible.
As someone interested in SEO, you can probably now see why Black Hat SEO can be tempting. Some of these strategies seem like a perfect fit! The problem is, they are short term boons at best, and if you're playing the long game - which is what SEO is - then these will only set you farther back.
First off, there are consequences to using Black Hat SEO practices for your website. Search engines have become very efficient at detecting their use, and they will definitely punish you for using unethical strategies. They’ll penalize your page’s rankings and maybe even blacklist your website entirely. It can easily ruin your reputation not only with search engines and their algorithms, but also with other websites, and even the general public. If you mess up hard enough, you could even get an article calling you and your sketchy practices out in the New York Times. Given the chances that a search engine discovers your use of Black Hat tactics, the risk of using them is too significant compared to the small, short-term benefits you'll get.
Additionally, Black Hat tactics will hurt your user experience. Users will arrive on illegible pages, stuffed with links, unnaturally written, or just have generally low-quality content, and they will quickly want to get away from your page. Remember that the user experience is key. There is no point in having your page rank highly in a search engine's algorithm only to have users hate visiting it. Even if you don't necessarily care about the user experience, high bounce rates will inevitably make your search engine rankings drop, and unethical backlinking may not be able to compensate for it.
White Hat SEO and Ethical Link Building
White Hat SEO is everything you should be aiming to do regarding your SEO strategy, from link building to keywords. It's doing things by the book.
The main difference between White Hat SEO and Black Hat SEO is the marketer's approach - one is concerned with the user experience and longevity, while the other is concerned with SERPs and short term gains. If you focus exclusively on how your page ranks on a search engine, you are taking the wrong SEO approach. You must remain focused on your user experience, so that once your ethical White Hat SEO yields you the clicks you worked so hard for, you don't immediately drive users away.
At the end of the day, it's really all about your content. Content is the foundation of your page. The first place to start if you're thinking about ethical link building is creating content worth linking. What is the point of having an entire backlinking strategy for a page that isn't even worth reading? It's counterintuitive and counterproductive. A good SEO strategy starts at step one, and step one is always content. Once you have worthwhile content on your page, then you can start looking into link building and other SEO practices. If your content is strong and your SEO basics are down, link building becomes much easier than you'd expect, since your reputation will as a provider of quality content do most of the heavy lifting for you. Guest posters will be more likely to agree to partner with you if they think your content is worthy of their work, and they will likely want to enter your network of backlinks. Similarly, other websites will gladly put links to your pages in their own articles, as long as they think it raises their pages' quality. If you do well enough, partners may even proactively seek you out and attempt to build a link network with you without you needing to approach them at all.
As you can see, content is king, and SEO is there to boost people's exposure to your content. SEO will not and cannot carry harmful content, especially not long-term. The only long term approach to having a successful SEO strategy is to build it upon strong content so that you don't have to use unethical tactics to get clicks.
Choose to do Things the Right Way
Doing things "by the book" may sound tedious and time-consuming, but there's a reason why there are rules for you to follow. If being ethical isn't enough, it's also about the long-term viability of your website. Remember that there is no space for cheating when optimizing. Taking shortcuts and cutting corners will only have adverse outcomes for your website, reputation, and user base. Stick to White Hat tactics when building your network on links. Put effort into SEO as you would for your quality content, and you will see your pages succeed.