Search Engine Optimization, or “SEO” is the practice of optimizing Web content in an attempt to make it show up high on the list of results for targeted search terms, in order to drive traffic to a particular page.
The vast majority of the methods used to optimize content to get it noticed by Google and other search engines is perfectly ethical and legal. First and foremost, these methods revolve around writing high-quality content that someone might actually want to read. After all, the goal of a search engine is to deliver its users to relevant content, and they’re constantly revising their algorithms to increase the quality and relevance of their search results.
But some people, whether it’s through laziness or greed, look for shortcuts.
These people often rely on cheap tricks in an attempt to artificially boost their search engine performance without producing quality content, by attempting to game search engines’ algorithms. These techniques are often referred to as “black hat” SEO (as opposed to “white hat,” which refers to ethical SEO practices).
These techniques are considered highly unethical by all search engines, and sites that are caught engaging in them are severely punished (often they’re removed from search results altogether), which ultimately renders them ineffective. However, what most people don’t consider, and what should serve as an additional deterrent, is that some black hat SEO practices may actually be illegal.
This article will describe some of the most common black hat SEO practices, and describe the ways in which they can create legal problems for the people who engage in them.
A “content scraper” is a website (usually a blog) that posts verbatim copies of content that’s produced by other, more popular, blogs. The purpose of this is to draw in users who are searching for the blog that was stolen from, tricking them into visiting the scraper site.
The scraper site is usually plastered with advertisements on every square inch of available space. Most ad servers pay site owners a small amount of money for every person who visits a page on which the ad is visible. So, if a web scraper can trick a large number of people into visiting their site in a short period of time, they can make a decent amount of money with very little work, before the site is inevitably taken down by its web host, or its account with various online advertising services is terminated.
However, people who engage in this activity may also be exposing themselves to civil liability.
Content scraping is a violation of the intellectual property rights of the people who originally created the content, which is now being stolen and used to extremely sleazy ends.
If the owner of the scraper site can be located, and the owner of the stolen content is willing to pursue legal action, a content scraper could find him or herself in serious legal hot water, potentially owing the copyright holder hundreds of thousands dollars in damages.
Another common unethical SEO practice that may also be illegal is “link spam.” Link spam involves going to websites that allow anyone to post publicly-visible content, such as the comments sections on blogs and news websites, and wikis, and posting links to the website that the owner is attempting to promote.
Generally, whether or not anyone actually clicks on these links is of little importance to the spammer. This is because most search engines look favorably upon pages that have a large number of inbound links on other websites. In theory, this indicates that a large number of people think that the site’s content is good enough to link to on their own site. Sometimes, posting links on every available message board, blog, and Wiki can provide a small and temporary boost to one’s search engine ranking.
However, courts have repeatedly held that spam, if it slows down or disables the websites or email servers that are targeted by it, the owners of those servers can sue the spammer for any harm that they suffer as a result, including property damage or lost revenue.
As you can see, in addition to being unethical and ineffective, “black hat” SEO practices may also land anyone who uses them in legal hot water. While this article isn’t legal advice, I can only hope that it serves as a deterrent for at least a few people who were considering using cheap tricks to boost their site’s search ranking.