Are You Breaking the Law? The Dark Side of SEO

If you go one step too far when building links, you could land yourself in real trouble…and perhaps even end up locked away in jail.


The Illegal SEO Strategies that Could Get You Arrested

Going down the black-hat route to search engine optimization could not only hurt your website, but cost you your freedom, too. It’s all too easy to step over the line from tactics that are questionable, to ones that are downright illegal.

If you’re not careful about choosing strategies, you could land yourself in jail.

Scary, right? So how can this happen?

This scenario could potentially play out if you engage in link-building tactics that go beyond acceptable lengths in order to get good quality links. Although most bloggers are not likely to employ such tactics, there is a real danger if you hire a consultant to do SEO work for you.

An SEO consultant who cares more about results than ethics could easily land you in serious trouble.

Let’s look into how this could unfold…

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White Hat Versus Black Hat SEO

There are two ways to do search engine optimization. Let’s take a closer look at them:

Option 1: White-Hat SEO

The major search engines issue Webmaster Guidelines which set out the principles that webmasters are expected to adhere to. Of course, these are not laws, and if you break them, the worst thing that can happen is that the search engines exclude your website from their results.

Conducting search engine optimization in accordance with these guidelines is white-hat SEO. The general approach is to create great content that truly deserves to rank, and then promote it using ethical tactics in order to attract links. More good quality links means more rankings for the terms you care about.

There are lots of ‘white-hat’ ways you can promote content:

  • Guest posting on suitable professional websites
  • Identifying and getting in touch with influencers who share related content
  • Publishing original content on platforms such as SlideShare and LinkedIn
  • Writing and distributing press releases
  • Using social media to promote content

There’s no doubt that white-hat SEO involves a lot of hard work. It’s labor and time intensive, and therefore costs money. But the end result is a website that the search engines love, and which attracts more and more links over time – leading to excellent search engine rankings.

If you go one step too far when building links, you could land yourself in real trouble…and perhaps even end up locked away in jail.

Option 2: Black-Hat SEO

Black-hat SEO is the evil twin of white-hat SEO.

The consultants who peddle black-hat SEO are the sleazy, second-hand car salesmen of the search engine marketing industry. They employ questionable tactics – the online equivalent of winding back the milometer and putting sawdust in the engine to hide noises.

Their objective is to fool the search engines with manipulative tactics, such as:

  • Generating thousands of links with automated link building tools (Xrumer, GSA)
  • Building private blog networks (PBNs) to inflate rankings
  • Using mass commenting tools such as ScrapeBox to spam websites

Without a doubt, such strategies are a clear violation of webmaster guidelines, and using them could result in your website being penalized, or even banned from the search engines altogether.

Nobody wants to be banned from Google, but no laws are generally being broken. However, it is possible to go one step further, and cross the line into illegal tactics.


When Black Hat Descends into Illegal Hat

Links from high-authority sites have always been important in SEO. Now they are more important than ever. The more highly the link is rated by Google, the more ranking power it passes to your website.

So it’s no surprise that SEO consultants are very keen to get links from these big authority sites. A single link from a website such as CNN.com, WhiteHouse.gov or Havard.edu can have a massive impact on rankings.

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Of course, these links are hard to come by. The White House is hardly likely to choose to link to your T-shirt selling website. So in order to get such links, black-hatters result to sordid measures.

They hack into the website.

Or more likely, they pay hackers to drop their links onto a website that has already been hacked and exposed.

However, it doesn’t matter which way you do it. The action is 100 per cent illegal. If you paid a consultant to do this work for you – even if you weren’t fully aware of what they were doing – you are still liable in the eyes of the law. Ignorance is never an excuse in the legal world.


The Sleazy World of Link Injection

So how does this kind of hacking work?

This is where it gets spooky. If you think that website hacking is just something you read about in thriller novels, think again. Hacking is big business.

Around the world, there are many teams of people who make a serious business out of website hacking for malicious and illegal purposes. Although they can be found anywhere, many choose to hide in countries such as China or Russia, where they are to all intents and purposes beyond the reach of the law.

And we are not talking about one guy sitting in his basement, eating pizza and hacking away in the darkness. These are sophisticated businesses that hire teams of technical wizards and deploy advanced software.

They scan millions of websites looking for ones that are vulnerable, due to outdated software or other weaknesses. Once they have found such vulnerability, they hack in through this ‘back door’ and do their worst.

They might be seeking passwords or access to online bank accounts, or have other nefarious purposes. But once they have finished with these websites, they squeeze more money out of them by selling links. Customers eagerly pay for the chance to get a link from a high-authority website, and the hackers ‘inject’ the link into the website.


Illegal Links for Sale

It’s not hard to buy links of this type. For example, one of the best known sellers of injected links is the Russian SNAPE network. You can buy some SNAPE links simply by heading over to Fiverr, where you can buy them for as little as USD$10.

Of course, such cheap links will not be the best quality. If you wanted links from important government or educational websites, you could end up paying a whole lot more. But it is definitely possible.

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You might think that major government websites would be immune from such hacking. Not so. In 2014, a British SEO consultant was arrested for hacking into the UK Government’s Home Office website.

What if you had hired a similar SEO consultant to rank your website? Having hacked a high-authority website, he would no doubt inject your link into the site, to give it an easy rankings boost.

You would then find yourself in a position where you had paid money to a known criminal to illegally hack into government property for your personal gain.

If you’re not scared about the legal consequences of that scenario, you should be.


Staying Safe

So when acquiring links – or hiring an SEO specialist to help with that job – you need to know exactly what you are getting into. You need to be aware of exactly what kinds of links are being generated, and how.

If you are worried about SEO work that has previously been done on your website, then it’s time to take action:

  • Perform a link audit to identify suspect links
  • Get dodgy links removed where possible
  • If you can’t get them removed, disavow them instead

Next Steps

Going forward, think carefully about who you work with in the SEO world. There are lots of good, reputable vendors…but also many snake-oil salesmen, too. So ask questions about the services you are considering. Make sure you know exactly what you are buying.

In particular, be wary of companies that pitch you services at low-ball prices. As with everything in life, good SEO costs money. If you pay peanuts, you may get monkeys who break the law.

The Benefits of SEO Done Right

All of the above is rather scary, but don’t let it put you off search engine optimization. When done properly, search engine marketing is the most effective way to market your website.

A well-run, white-hat SEO campaign can create a website that Google loves, and which naturally attracts links, traffic, leads and sales.

Just make sure you stay on the right side of the law.

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