Chapter 8: Search Penalties

You might have heard the phrase "black-hat SEO" before. This refers to tactics that are not allowed by Google and are considered nefarious. Getting caught using these tactics in organic traffic generation will get your page deranked or your website shut down.

These strategies and shortcuts were easy to implement and rank number one in the early days of search due to the lack of guardrails and penalties enforced by search engines.

Nowadays it's much harder to use those old tactics, but people still find success with them.

Under no circumstances should you use the strategies. While they may work in the short-term, their long-term impact is guaranteed to destroy your website's credibility and ranking.

While it's hard to unintentionally spam Google search, we're going to cover your bases by discussing what to stay away from.

Link Cloaking

This is a super old tactic employed by a lot of affiliate sites. It means that you show something different than what you present to users. The idea is to gain clicks onto an affiliate offer that people didn't intend to visit.

Unless you're talented, this is not something you can do accidentally. It's an obvious attempt to manipulate search results and Google lays down a heavy penalty if you are caught.


This is straightforward: don't rip off other people's content. Images, videos, music, etc. are all fair game for this.

Search engines want to provide the original ground truth for a particular piece of content, and copy-pasting work is antithetical to this goal.

The most obvious enforcement of this is for Digital Millennium Copyright Act strikes on YouTube. If you search this on YouTube, you'll find hundreds of cases where people catch others using their intellectual property.

If you are concerned that a DMCA takedown request has been issued to you, take a look at your Google Search Console.


Backlinks are helpful for SEO rankings, but things can get weird when money starts changing hands. Paying for backlinks that produce link equity is against Google and Bing policy, and getting caught will crush your organic visibility.

Just as it takes months for SEO to be effective, it takes just as long for a penalty's effects to wear off your website.

For clarity, it's okay to pay for backlinks on another company's website (just like ads), as long as those ads don't produce link equity. To avoid this, paid links should be tagged as "rel=nofollow" or "rel=sponsored".

There are also corporation-sized guest posting services, link exchanges, blog comment spamming, and other activities that will get you penalized by a search engine.

If you're planning to use these kinds of services and are convinced that "their techniques" are undetectable, just know that it will inevitably end in disaster.

Take your time and build the right way. Shortcuts will only hurt your efforts in the end.

Keyword Hiding

Some SEOs try to obscure keyword stuffing by hiding text. This is identical to creating blank garbage text and making it invisible on a page to meet the required word count.

This is a violation of Google's guidelines.

Some people also style links to make them invisible to users. This is done to hide paid links while gaining link equity.

Intrusive Content

Don't annoy your users.

Ever been reading an article and 4 different pop-ups jump onto your screen? This isn't conducive to focused reading and it destroys the user experience.

While not all of these annoying intrusions are malicious, some people do use them to manipulate users and metrics.

According to Google's Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines, "A single pop-over Ad or interstitial page with a clear and easy-to-use close button is not terribly distracting, though may not be a great user experience. However, difficult-to-close Ads that follow page scrolls, or interstitial pages that require an app download, can be truly distracting and make the MC [main content] difficult to use." 

There are a lot of opinions around this topic, but here's our rule-of-thumb: if you're doing something to artificially increase engagement and metrics, you're at risk of penalization by a search engine.