An Illustrated History of Blackhat SEO

history of blackhat SEO
Since the dawn of search engines, there have been tactics designed to take advantage and game their algorithms. For the past 20 (or more) years it has been a cat and mouse game for the search engines trying to modify their code in an attempt to maintain a search engine with quality results.

I do want to briefly qualify myself as a blogger that can at least somewhat accurately represent this era and industry. Although I didn’t start considering myself an SEO until 2009, I’ve been very active on the web wince 1995 in the Linux, web development, and open source community. You can even check out my old geocities website from back in the day.

The attitude in the 90’s and early 2000’s was pretty much “anything goes.” Sure, Google had guidelines, but it was kind of like the way a mattress tag says “do not remove under penalty of law.”

In other words, no one really took them seriously. Remember, Google really was not dominating the search engine game until 2007-08. There were a number of search engines vying for position including Yahoo, Webcrawler, Excite, Lycos and a number of others.  Most of these search engines had fairly game-able algorithms, ripe for the pickings. I found a list of about 1600 search engines from that time during my research.

Hidden Text

Sometimes referred to as “text on the same color as the background” was an easy way for webmasters to stuff as many keywords as possible into a page without hurting the user experience. If you were on the web between the years of 1996 and 2002, chances are you’ve seen a lot of this. An easy way to spot hidden text is to look for large blocks of whitespace, usually in the footer.

blackhat-seo-hidden-or-invisible-text

This method was accomplished using a number of different methods. In some cases the webmaster simply made white text on a white background. Other times it was done using CSS (advanced back then) or a few other ways. Some webmasters used a light grey text on a light-er grey background. This method is basically the SEO equivalent to saying “hey Googlebot look at all my keywords and yes they are really part of the body of this text.”

This was an extremely common tactic and very annoying and frustrating anytime you landed on one of these pages. Some webmasters would paste 10’s or even 100’s of thousands of words on a single page. You could scroll and scroll for minutes and not reach the bottom of the page.

At one point Google was actually granted a patent relating to hidden text and hidden links.

Guest book spamming

Raise your hand if you had a guestbook. I sure did. Guestbooks were pretty much one of the precipitators of web 2.0 and allowed users to “comment” on “weblogs.”  Dropping your URL into a guest book comment is much like blog comment spamming, only easier. In addition to placing links for the purpose of backlinks value. many of these comments were crafted in an effort to drive traffic to a website.

During my research of this I found 1 guest book spammer that was so prevalent that I found 2 of his comments from 1998/99 within about 10 minutes.

guest book spamming

Now guest book spamming was a major webspam tactic well into the 2000’s however started to lose some momentum once web 2.0 frameworks started popping up such as WordPress, Joomla, Pligg, etc.

Meta Tag Stuffing

What blackhat SEO history lesson would be complete without mentioning meta tags. There was a time when Google placed an emphasis on the meta-keyword tags. The rule of thumb for blackhat SEO in the late 90s was “stuff as many keywords into as many different places as possible.”

This snippet of HTML source was taken from a website archived in 2001. As you can see the webmaster stuffed keywords into the meta description and keywords tag (amongst other places within the body.)

keyword stuffing 2001

While we are on the topic of meta tag stuffing I may as well bring up a very similar, and lesser known blackhat SEO topic “HTML comment keyword stuffing.” Like most languages, you can leave comments inline within HTML documents. Webmasters would use this opportunity to stuff as many keywords within these comments in hopes search engine bots would pick them up. As with everything, some webmasters were more blatant about this than others:

blackhat SEO keyword stuffing in comments

Stuffing keywords in HTML comments is not a very large part of blackhat SEO history, but it should be mentioned for the simple fact that I’ve personally seen it so many times within the past 20 years.

In addition to meta tag stuffing, tactics such as img alt tag stuffing, header stuffing, body content stuffing were very popular. I left those out because it was kind of redundant to illustrate.

Webrings

Anyone who looks at the name “webring” can pretty much figure out what they were. Essentially, all sites linked to each other in a circular structure. There were no exact rules for webrings to follow. Some webrings required you to embed a specific HTML code on your site which would accomplish the following goals:

Webrings were really popular at the end of the 90s. At one point Yahoo acquired Webring.com but that never managed to take off. Like many of these fads, webrings are pretty much non-existent in today’s internet culture. Some sites would enter multiple webrings hoping for multiples of traffic and backlinks.

web rings history of blackhat SEO

Most webmasters saw a webring as a way to generate traffic and links for their website. While this might hold some truth, the owner of the webring really got the full benefit with so many 1 way links pointing back to their domain.

Some webmasters would enter into very simple and informal agreements to be part of a mini-webring. Others would join larger sites such as Webringo.com (still alive, it seems).

Other webmasters went really crazy with the whole webring idea and started to create all of these guides and ebooks on “owning” a successful webring. Quite insane of you ask me.

webring blackhat SEO WTF

Webrings were pretty much a hot mess. There are many web trends I am happy are no longer here, web rings are at the top of that list.

Link Exchanges

Sadly, this is one trend that is somehow alive and well. Maybe not “well” but alive. A link exchange can mean a number of different things.

Essentially a link exchange is a service you sign up for where you agree to embed HTML on your website in exchange for links from other websites.

Now, the real selling point of these links is that you get relevant links from relevant websites. So if you own a goat farm website you will only get links from other goat farms, and you will only link out to other goat farms.

LinkExchange.com was one of the most popular services out there, but there were 1000’s if not 10’s of thousands of competitors as well. Microsoft bought them out in 1998 for $250mm in hopes to “targeted information about users on the LinkExchange network, as well as gain another channel to promote its services.”

internet link exchange 1998

Link exchanges exist today and are still being used by many websites, mainly small businesses that get suckered in via email marketing or web advertising. Most of today’s more popular link exchanges do not promote themselves as much as they used to out of fear of being outed or identified by Google.

link exchange SEO

Today, you can usually spot a link exchange on many pages titled “links” or “our partners.” Doing a quick Google query with some advanced operators will fish out hundreds of link exchange participants:

inurl:links.html "our partners" or "link exchange"

And just remember, if you can spot a pattern that easy, Google can find it 100x easier.

Doorway Pages

Let’s just use Google’s definition for this one: “Doorway pages are typically large sets of poor-quality pages where each page is optimized for a specific keyword or phrase. In many cases, doorway pages are written to rank for a particular phrase and then funnel users to a single destination.”

If you’ve been on the web for some time, you’ve seen doorway pages. Again this optimization strategy is alive and well today, but not nearly as prevalent as it was decades ago. I found a great example of an eCommerce site that uses 100’s of doorway pages for each manufacturer and category. 10’s of thousands of doorway pages on this site.

doorway pages

Once the visitor has selected the category or manufacturer, they are taken to a landing page where they can purchase or are led to an affiliate.

blackhat SEO doorway pages landing page

One industry that used a ton of doorway pages is the acai berry industry aka “berriez brah!” I’m not even gonna go there right now, but the diet industry generated hundreds of millions of dollars during this era and doorway pages helped drive this commerce:

SEO doorway pages blackhat berries

Obviously the reason why doorway pages were so popular is that they worked so well for blackhat SEO. The problem is that they really stopped working a long time ago and many SEO’s are still stuck in the past. I understand why so many people link spam, it has been shown to show short term results but Google pretty much whacks pages with lots of doorway pages right away.

doorway pages

When you crack open the source code of a website that uses doorway pages and “think like Googlebot” does for a second, its obvious how these sites get whacked so easily. If you’d like a good read on doorway pages check out this post from Matt Cutts from 2005 on doorway pages.

Directories / Alternative Search Engines

Everyone and their mother had a search engine. Remember this was “the bubble” search engines were quite plentiful. In those days search engines and directories were essentially the same thing. The directories were basically searchable so why not call them a search engine. It wasn’t until years later when Google hit the scene that “smart search engines” became a thing. Search engine submission was a very popular term during this time, being that submitting your site pretty much guaranteed inclusion within the rankings. The more the better.

search engine submission

Many of these search engines / directories actually required you to link back to them. Could you imagine if Google required all websites to link to them in order to be included in the rankings?

SEO Services

I just wanted to start off by saying that there were a number of very legitimate and ethical SEO companies that date back to the mid 90’s (that I could find.) With that said, shady SEO’s and straight up “bad deals’ have been around just as long. One of the most common scams was the “search engine submission” service. These services would basically submit your site to as many search engines as they had in their database. Some of these services were done by hand manually, others were simply bots or web apps that submitted your site automatically.seo submission services

These services were literally a dime a dozen, and many of them sadly still exist today. The next tier of SEO services during this day would essentially do the same thing, but add in some extras such as on-page SEO. Some of them would go as far as creating and uploading of a site map for you. Not a whole lot of inbound marketing or content marketing going on back then.

blast engine URL submission tool

Blast Engine is one that I remember myself, and maybe even signed up for at one point. They really had it down to a science and probably brought in a few million in sales easily.

I was elated when I found an old ad for SEO services from year 2000 during my research. Here you can see a well rounded representation SEO service offerings from low to high.

old SEO ads

SEO consultants thrived during this era due to the simplicity of those search engines, however the market was not what it is today. Very few companies existed on the web pre 2005 and eCommerce was a very scary thing for many people during that time.

danny sullivan SEO company 1996

The image above is a screenshot from 1996, as far back as archive.org goes and is the company that Danny Sullivan started. The company website still appears to be up and running and has kept much of the same design, tables and all. I do want to mention that Danny is a real stand up guy, the pioneer of our industry and I don’t associate him, his blogs or his company with black hat SEO.

Cloaking

This is a hairy SEO topic that is difficult to illustrate and was hard to find examples of. Cloaking is basically when a site shows one version of a page to a user, and another version to search engines. For the most part cloaking is done via the sites htaccess or robots.txt.

Example of cloaking:

Cloaking was very popular 10 or more years ago when Flash was very popular however very non-optimal for SEO. Matt Cutts wrote a really interesting post on cloaking in 2007, the comments also raise some really interesting points as well.

Redirection, of the sneakiest degree

In the history of blackhat SEO, sneaky redirects have been one of the most deceptive and misleading tactics I’ve seen so far.

One example I’ve personally seen over the years is a website that has been hacked and all links are cloaked or redirected to an affiliate site. Some redirects are so sneaky that they locate the IP address of the webmaster (usually the top 3 IP’s logged into the server) and exclude them from the redirect, so that they see the “real” version of the site.

Many times a webmaster won’t even find out that this has happened to their site until someone else informs them of this.

Uncategorizable Blackhat SEO

Some of the “SEO” that I’ve seen throughout the past 20 years is just so insane it cannot be categorized. I am so happy that I found this most perfect example:

huge wall of links blackhat SEO

I mean, what the hell is this anyway?

Keyword stuffing? Check.

Link scheme? Check.

Poor user experience? Check.

Doorway pages? Check.

Scraped content? Check.

Some websites went so crazy with blackhat SEO they just used the “lets try everything” approach. Sadly some of these sites

Other websites would straight up incentivize in exchange for a link. You’d see quite a bit of this:

asking for links

The warez industry was particular ruthless. I pulled that image from t50.com in 1999. They probably were the ones that invented most of this being that they probably drove 75% of all affiliate sales from 95-2000. Anytime you’d visit any sort of warez site you would get murdered with pop-ups and JavaScript prompts. Some of them were not bashful about violating affiliate terms of service and asked for you to click on links.

pop up blackhat affiliate click on links

 

What did I miss?

I know I missed a lot. I know I didn’t cover the whole “gibberish content” category or scraped content that much.

Is there any area that I completely neglected or forgout about?

I wanted to say a big thanks to archive.org for archiving all of these wonderful websites. Please donate to them if you can!

 

Patrick Coombe
Patrick Coombe is the founder and CEO of Elite Strategies Llc. Patrick takes a hands on approach to managing Elite Strategies and loves to get involved with technical projects relating to clients inbound marketing needs.
Patrick Coombe
Patrick Coombe
  26 COMMENTS
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  • Written by: Letha

    Spot on with this write-up, I really think this amazing site
    needs a lot more attention. I’ll probably be returning to read through more, thanks
    for the advice!

  • Written by: Hyderali

    Hey Patrick,

    Awesome Post! Feeling Nostalgic 🙂

    I still remember those days when I first started in SEO & my team leader told me on my first day to find relevant website on google & send them Link Exchange request. I used to send almost 60 to 80 request in a day. Few of them added back the link & in exchange want their link to be added. But most got rejected because they normally exchange links with those websites whose PR (page rank toolbar) was more than 5 & ours were only 1 or 2.

    Happy to say that I never used any other black hat seo technique other than this.

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      Thanks Hyderali!

      Wow that brings back memories. Love hearing these stories, glad you can share them 🙂 Agree link exchanges are probably on the more legit end of the blackhat spectrum but still fun to see. Glad to see you never fully went over to the dark side!

  • Written by: Russ Jones

    Missed a number of things:

    Referral Spam (ie: reffy) – send in fake referrer traffic to get your URL to show up in unintentionally public webpage stats reports like awstats

    Content Generators: Generic set of tools that take seed keywords and generate pages (usually filled with scraped search results or the contents of those search results) based on related terms (scraping Overture Keyword Tool, and then later Google Keyword Suggestion Tool or others). These include Traffic Equalizer (TE), YACG (yet another content generator) and many others.

    Parasitic Hosting: Finding XSS/SQL Injection holes in websites and taking advantage of them to post your content to valuable pages.

    Content Spinners: WordAI and similar for massive content generation

    Forum profile spam: Using tools like XRumer to generate massive forum profile accounts with backlinks to your site

    Forum content spam: Similar, just posting links in forum posts, not just in member profiles.

    SQL Injection Links: Most common in hacked wordpress installs. Links stuffed and hidden into the footer or other common template elements of popular web CMS.

    This is just a few more that need to be included.

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      Hi Russ – Wow thank you so much for the thoughtful comment! For some reason I found it in SPAM (maybe all the blackhat keywords 🙂 ) but glad I got it.

      Working on expanding upon the post right now. I am also not using any examples that are currently in use such as WordAI (creator of WordAI is great guy btw) or Xrumer. Several of your examples I thought of but was not able to either:

      – find examples for
      -or were very difficult to illustrate.

      For instance in most SQL injections it is really hard to show that visually being that most of the time it is done via bash or linux shell.
      Thank you so much again these are so helpful and I can’t wait to use this to do more research!

  • Written by: BNS

    None of those above were ever considered black hat, merely shallow tactics to eventually fool search engines short term.

    Real black hat was always much better, deeper and harder to detect.

    Not to mention that real black hat techniques used today work better than ever.

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      Thanks for the comment. Definitely agree that most of the blackhat being done today (mainly SQL injections / hacked sites / redirects) do in fact “work.” As far as categorizing methods as blackhat or whitehat that is totally subjective and something I generally don’t discuss. I mainly use Google’s Webmaster Guidelines as my personal definition. Appreciate your opinion!

    • Written by: Sam

      Yes @BNS I agree. This article isn’t really about backup lack hat tactics and it’s way out of date (including the examples)

  • Written by: Nevyana Karakasheva

    Great post!

    Given that you list some examples that still apply, I’d add the accumulation of inbound links from high in PR Japanese (irrelevant and with no English versions) sites – very amusing tactic:)

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      Thanks Nevyana – thats a really good point. Definitely need to find some examples of this. Would *love* for someone like ahrefs to start a service where you can see public historical backlink snapshots from the past.

  • Written by: Vincent Drouin

    Hi Patrice, thanks for this post. I didn’t know some of these technics, especially HTML comment keyword stuffing.
    That are probably current methods, but I would add Personal Blog Network as a blackhat technic. Also blackhat tiered linkbuilding, wouldn’t you?

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      Thanks Vincent! Appreciate you stopping by. Definitely personal blog networks and tiered link building. I mainly left that type of stuff out being that this was a history post from 1996-2008 (give or take) so any new methods I left out.

      I am however reconsidering this since I’ve gotten so much feedback on the matter.

  • Written by: Hiren Vaghela

    You are certainly awesome. Great write up. Black hat is something which are impact badly on search. It is nothing but effect on overall search behavior and you spotted correctly here.

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      Thanks Hiren! definitely appreciate that compliment 🙂

  • Written by: Damon

    Hi Patrick,

    I’ve got a couple of good ones for you from when I consulted for sports betting sites.

    Auto-Generated Site Networks

    I saw this a few times and each time Google manually intervened within a day, but it was on a scale…I really respect the person who pulled this off.

    Someone created some software that was able to take at least tens of thousands of long-tail keywords (and probably hundreds of thousands) and auto-create one-page sites that had about a hundred blocks of H1 + keyphrases + long-tail link to long-tail site to the network of sites.

    The black-hatter would dominate serps that they targeted getting about 14-16 of the top 20 results.

    I didn’t see how they monetized because I only checked Google’s cached versions not wanting to get a computer virus, but the pages they created were in high-value niches targeting long-tail keywords usually with a news/timeliness element.

    The big take-aways at the time were that the whole links-from-related-sites mantra that Google was feeding SEOs at the time (2010-2011) was more fantasy than actual capability and that having a lot of related terms next to your links was really powerful.

    Bot-Nets to Manipulate Search Suggest

    Another one that I saw was what I presume must have been a bot-net deployed to influence search suggest.

    According to Google’s Search Suggest API, the client was getting 200,000,000 “+scam” queries and 80,000 “” queries. I don’t know what the reporting period was for results returned by the API.

    I can’t prove it, but based on timing and results, I think my work for the client resulted in this.

    http://searchengineland.com/google-warns-of-malware-redirecting-to-its-search-listings-86426

    I’m not in that industry anymore, but when I nostalgically put my black hat on, I see a lot of opportunity for bot nets and SEO.

    PS: I consulted for a brand, they don’t go black hat the way affiliates do and will penalize affiliates for tarnishing the brand for spam and other black-hat techniques. Also, the SEO is war paradigm is fun as long as it stays online.

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      Damon – Thank you so much for this. Your comment was the nail in the coffin that I need to do a follow up or a part 2 to this post. If you have any examples or screenshots of any of these tools or even any old EXE’s I would greatly appreciate it (even pay for it!)

      My mind is kind of blown from your bot-net to manipulate search suggest. I have heard of folks using bots to manipulate this, but not on that scale for sure. Normally it only takes a small % of the search query volume for it to shift so that must have been huge!

      • Written by: Damon

        I can’t prove that it was a bot-net. But I went over the ways that I would accomplish this and eliminated every other possibility.

        Some days I would drop by the office and find the tech team had been up all night fighting off a DDoS attack so I knew that some competitors had that capability.

        If they had done it on a much smaller scale, then it would have worked. Faking two-hundred million searches made the attack obvious and ruled out other dirty tactics, like buying searches through Mechanical Turk.

        I’m afraid I don’t have any screenshots. I’m sure I sent some to management and Google, but I don’t have access to that mail anymore.

        • Written by: Patrick Coombe

          That sounds like proof enough to me. Thats the funny part about a lot of blackhat is that they waaaaay overdo things sometimes. A lot of the more seasoned blackhats take a much more scientific approach to their campaigns i.e. test, wait, test, wait and actually yield good results. Like you said a lot of it is so obvious it just gets nulled.

  • Written by: Mike Sifuentes

    Patrick,

    Great post! I certainly remember all of those. Remember cookie stuffing sometimes called cookie dropping? Auugh! I hated that. With respect to landing pages. Do you think a poorly designed landing page can be considered a doorway page?

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      Yes! And that is exactly the type of stuff I am trying to remember. I think 1 landing page poorly done in and of itself wouldn’t be considered a doorway page, but 5-10 of them on the same site would most definitely be.

  • Written by: Rohit Palit

    This. Is. Epic.

    Well done, Patrick!

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      Thank you Rohit! Glad you enjoyed it. It was definitely a labor of love and something that really helped me look back on not only SEO but the ineterwebs in general.

  • Written by: Andrew Akesson

    How about Angela’s Links, where you got a list of links to forums and 1000’s of SEOs would spam links into profiles and threads for their own gain? Someone please tell me Angela’s PDFs aren’t still getting subscribed to every month!

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      YESSS! You mean like Angela & Paul’s I think it was called? Ugh, sadly I think those are still around too. I never did figure out how that worked, gonna research that a little more tonight 🙂 Thanks for coming by Andrew!

  • Written by: Jon Tavarez

    This article made me get all nostalgic. When I first started on the web, I was just 12 years old and at the time I didn’t realize that web rings were for another purpose other than referral traffic. Overall, nice write-up! Look forward to future articles.

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      Thanks Jon! Same here, I remember seeing hidden text and thinking “that must be so search engines will see more kwds” but never really registered all the way. Was about the same age when I first got online. My first ISP I had to install drivers for my modem via floppy disk 🙂

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