If you’re an Internet marketer, then for sure you’ve heard about black hat SEO practices. These practices used to be very popular among online marketers looking for shortcuts to getting more website traffic. The popularity of black hat SEO only waned when Google started launching one algorithmic update after another, specifically targeting sites where these practices are detected. Those updates forced online marketers to revisit their strategies and ditch the shortcuts.
But just when things were starting to look good, it seems that the shortcut lovers have once again found a way to circumvent proper online marketing processes, this time targeting social media marketing (SMM). Black hat social media tactics are now thriving, and purists are understandably dismayed at this development. To protect yourself and the company you work for against possible backlash, it may be best to learn more about black hat social media and how it can possibly affect SEO.
What is Black Hat Social Media?
The term “black hat” was originally coined in reference to anyone who violates computer security for personal gain or simply out of maliciousness. When unscrupulous tactics to increase rankings on search engine results pages (SERPs) became popular, the term was adopted in the world of online marketing; hence, black hat SEO. SEO techniques that fall within accepted guidelines were then referred to as white hat SEO.
Just like black hat SEO, black hat social media refers to any attempt by online marketers to game the SMM system. More specifically, it is an attempt to use a social media platform for any kind of gain, with the use of methods that aren’t consistent with existing SMM guidelines. Every single day, hundreds of businesses practice black hat social media in one form or another. Your social media pages may even be practicing black hat social media without realizing it.
To help you decide which SMM practices you should continue and which ones you should avoid, here are some examples of black hat social media commonly practiced these days:
- Buying YouTube subscribers, Facebook Likes, Google +1s, and similar attributes from click farms
- Using a program that lets you follow and then automatically unfollow new accounts
- Writing fake positive reviews on your social media pages and/or negative reviews on competitors’ pages
- Creating fake social media profiles to share your content, like your page and content, or post positive comments about your brand on social media pages
- Sharing hyperlinks that are deemed security risks
- Making social media profiles using the names of competitors and then posting negative comments on those pages using other accounts
These are the practices that are so obviously outside SMM guidelines, you wouldn’t really need to ask why they’re classified as black hat. There are, of course, other practices that aren’t so obviously violating the guidelines that you may not really be sure if they’re black hat or not.
Some businesses, for example, run contests directly on their Facebook page without using an app. There may be nothing wrong with this per se, but if you review Facebook’s terms of service, you’ll realize that running a contest without using an app is prohibited and comes with the penalty of having your page taken down. That hasn’t happened to anyone yet, but are you willing to take the risk?
Any practice that involves automation, which is said to take the person out of social media pages is also considered black hat. This includes automated DM responses to new Twitter followers. After all, it wouldn’t be called social media if it doesn’t involve personal online interactions.
Black Hat Social Media’s Effect on SEO
Now that you have a fairly good idea what black hat social media is, it’s time to check out how it can possibly affect SEO. Does it really have an impact at all? Is it something online marketers can get away with, or will it result in some concrete penalties like black hat SEO practices? Let’s attempt to answer these questions by studying some hypothetical situations.
Situation #1: You just bought some fake Facebook Likes, YouTube subscribers, and Twitter followers.
Most SEO professionals these days would agree that even if social signals aren’t listed among direct search ranking factors, they do have some impact on SERP rankings. It has been repeatedly observed that search engines are now trying to determine how they can leverage social behavior and interaction for ranking purposes. If you have a good number of likes and followers, therefore, there’s a strong possibility that search engines will deem your page as one with high authority.
Pages with a good number of likes and followers are generally deemed of high authority, which may be why many businesses have taken to buying likes, shares, followers, and subscribers. Flickr.com photo by The Open Dept
It is no wonder, then, that buying Likes, subscribers, followers, and shares have become a very common practice among online marketers. Thousands (probably even millions) of people are being paid each day just to follow, like, or subscribe to a particular page and comment on it or share its content. There are also those who are paid just to click ads. Yes, these practices are unscrupulous, but at this time, they seem to be delivering some positive results where SEO is concerned.
Situation #2: You just posted a series of fake reviews.
As mentioned earlier, you could post fake positive reviews on your own social media pages or fake negative reviews on your competitors’ pages. Posting fake positive reviews on your own page may seem desperate and even pathetic, but posting fake negative feedback on competitors’ pages is downright dirty! The sad reality is, this is being done pretty often.
Note that customers love checking out reviews, and they often take special notice of negative reviews. If your fake negative reviews rank well on Google, therefore, it can really hurt your competitors, especially if they practice purely white hat techniques (unlike you, obviously). There is, however, no clear answer as to whether negative reviews (real or fake) can actually affect SERP rankings.
Situation #3: You just automated your followers, Likes, etc.
Whereas some businesses pay real people to become fake followers, subscribers, and likers, there are those that don’t really want to spend that much on their social media efforts. These businesses opt to use bots instead. Basically, bots perform routine, repetitive tasks for you, such as liking your Facebook page every hour or so. There are also bots that can be programmed to hit the Like button a hundred times whenever new content is published on your Facebook page.
There are several reasons why many businesses have switched from paying people for fake Likes and shares to using bots. First, the cost involved in buying automation tools is much lower than in paying people to follow your page and like your posts. Second, bots get the job done a lot quicker than people ever will. This means you get the positive results you expect more quickly and at a lower cost. What’s not to like, right?
What Should You Do?
Well, you’re the only one who can actually answer this question. Considering there may indeed be some benefits to be gained from practicing black hat social media and there doesn’t seem to be penalties in place at the moment, perhaps you deem it worth your while to give it a shot. Or maybe not. That is entirely up to you.
What we can do, instead of telling you what you should do, is give you an idea as to what you can do against black hat SEO if you choose to keep your own efforts purely white hat. Here are a few suggestions:
- Mark As Spam – You’ve seen this option several times in the past, right? Well, this may be the right time to start using it. Almost all social networking sites allow you to mark things as spam, so when you see competitors trying to use black hat practices to gain an unfair advantage, you could mark their posts as spam.
- Report Spam – In most cases, it’s not enough to mark things as spam; you’d also do well to report them on Google. Sometimes search engines don’t recognize spam, and they get ranked as a result. Using Google’s webspam reporting form should help make things right.
- Contact Legal – If you’re sure that you have a legitimate claim against someone using black hat tactics to gain an advantage over you, then you may want to consider contacting the social site’s legal department. The good news is that most social media platforms provide information as to how you can contact their legal team.
There is no denying the fact that black hat social media IS already out there and it is becoming more and more common. It can be easy to understand why SMM practitioners are turning to black hat practices, considering how demanding companies can be in terms of getting more fans and followers in as little time as possible.
When white hat strategies just don’t seem to work as fast, you can definitely be tempted to go black hat. Before you dip your hands into black hat social media, however, consider this: Google and other search engines have caught up with black hat SEO, and they are much smarter now. It may take them mere months to catch up with black hat social media as well. Do you want to be caught red-handed when that happens?