Whether you take on SEO-oriented projects for clients or not, as a freelance writer there are some things you should understand about search engine optimization. Specifically, you need to be aware of the shadier side of SEO and how it could impact you and your business.
What are these shadier aspects of search engine optimization? We’re talking about what’s known as “black hat SEO” and “negative SEO.”
But first, if you’re totally new to SEO, you can read my article, SEO 101 for Freelance Writers, over on Lori Widmer’s Words on the Page blog.
What are Black Hat SEO & Negative SEO?
Let’s start with an overview of what these SEO schemes are, so you know what to look out for.
Black Hat SEO
In its most basic sense, black hat SEO is when you violate rules all your search ranking competitors are expected to follow.
Who sets these rules?
The search engines. Mostly, Google.
Search engines have terms that are supposed to be followed if a site wants to rank well (which, in turn, sends more traffic their way).
Think of them as similar to the terms of service (TOS) you agree to when you sign up for a service. Violate them, and you risk losing access.
With black hat SEO, site owners or their SEO team either blatantly violate these rules (which can be easy to identify), or they’ll go about it in covert ways in an attempt to game the system and gain an unfair advantage.
12 Types of Black Hat SEO
Here are some examples of black hat SEO tactics you’ll want to avoid:
- Keyword-stuffing or link-stuffing
- Adding hidden text or links meant only for search engines to see
- Cloaking (showing one piece of content to search engines and another to visitors)
- Hacking other sites to inject links to your own (or to a client’s site)
- Publishing stolen or “spun” content (rewritten without the copyright holder’s permission)
- Unnatural redirects (misleading visitors about the kind of content being linked to)
- Publishing a lot of very similar content (think “XYZ Service in Austin” and “XYZ Service in Atlanta” – and usually many more cities targeted all on a single site)
- Building links to your site using link farms (like low-quality, untargeted free directories with little-to-no editorial oversight or big networks of interlinked sites set up solely to boost one or more of them in Google’s results)
- Significant numbers of link exchanges (like “blog parties” that require promotion or reciprocal linking for links)
- Buying “dofollow” or undisclosed links on third-party sites
- Running fake PR campaigns to get undisclosed links without the other site owner knowing (we’ll talk more about this conflict of interest scam shortly)
- Running scams to get third-party sites to link to you (through lies or extortion for example)
If you missed it in the Freelance Writing Pros newsletter, you can learn more about one of these black hat SEO link extortion scams, and how it led to Philippa Willitts and I recently taking down two fake law firm sites being used in them, in the newsletter archives.
While not all these black hat SEO tactics are as effective as they used to be, they’re all still used often.
Even large sites still get away with it, such as this example of keyword and link-stuffing on every category page of a certain freelance exploitation mill (and, yes, these are “dofollow” links and they continue to rank well for many of the keywords they target in this way):
Negative SEO is similar to black hat SEO, but it’s designed to hurt the rankings of another website or company.
Sometimes the aim is to harm a competitor to boost the SEO schemer’s own rankings. And sometimes it’s simply about that harm, such as a disgruntled customer or former employee trying to get a company penalized to hurt their traffic and resulting income.
7 Types of Negative SEO
Here are some examples of what a negative SEO campaign might include:
- Posting fake reviews about a company
- Creating a negative competing site or page trying to outrank a competitor for their brand while tarnishing their competitor’s reputation
- Creating a lot of spammy, keyword-rich backlinks to a competitor’s site (usually done rapidly and having the links added to low-quality sites)
- Scraping a site’s content and republishing it elsewhere as duplicate content (not as effective as it once was)
- Hacking a site to remove or change its content, such as adding spammy or malicious links to their site in an attempt to get it penalized
- Running DDos or similar attacks on a site in order to make content inaccessible, or to slow down the website enough to cause it to be penalized by search engines due to speed issues or downtime
- Running fake link removal request campaigns (where they contact sites linking to a competitor, while pretending to be that competitor, requesting the removal of those links)
“OK,” you might think. “I’m not going to pull this shady BS, so I don’t really need to worry about these things, right?”
Let’s look at some of the ways freelance writers can be impacted by black hat and negative SEO, with or without their consent.
Why Freelance Writers Need to Care About Negative & Black Hat SEO
There are two key ways you could be hurt by, or pulled into, these kinds of SEO schemes as a freelance writer:
- Your professional site or blog about your subject matter expertise could be targeted.
- Prospects or clients could try to hire you to help them run these kinds of campaigns (often without being honest about the projects).
Let’s take a closer look at both.
How Your Freelance Writing Business Can Get Targeted
Look. I know there’s a feel-good crowd of freelancers who will tell you fellow freelance writers are colleagues and not “competition.”
It’s partly true. But it’s also largely BS.
If you’re in business, you have competition. “Competition” doesn’t mean bitter rivalries. You can even be close friends. Those colleagues aren’t the problem you need to worry about.
But there are less-than-ethical freelance writers out there. I’ve seen so much of this first-hand.
- A fellow freelance writer came to me privately for advice, then they published my advice on their blog without credit so they’d appear as more of a niche authority than they were, also ranking for this content.
- I watched a colleague run a large-scale link exchange where they required “dofollow” backlinks to their own site while giving “nofollow” backlinks to those linking to them.
- A freelance writer distributed domain-specific “dofollow” affiliate links to their site members, which is a type of paid link scheme.
- A certain colleague used to be well-known in the community for spamming blog comments on freelance writing blogs to build early backlinks to their site.
- A well-known freelance writer didn’t like honest feedback about them on a colleague’s blog, so she posted anonymous comments there in defense of herself to make it look like she had external support (easily detectable through IP logs and the email addresses used when commenting). This is a spin on comment spam and fake reviews.
- I caught a very popular blogger in the copywriting space years ago plagiarizing from an ad copywriting textbook most of their readers wouldn’t have access to. They and their site are still considered leading voices in the niche even though they literally stole others’ work to build a false image and reputation.
- I’ve seen several freelance writers outright steal my content and that of other colleagues – sometimes scraping whole articles or feeds to their own sites, one ripping off everything down to my professional branding, and another ripping off and spinning content then locking it behind a paywall (remember, editing or rewriting someone else’s work without consent is still copyright infringement).
- While doing my own competitive research, I discovered that a fellow freelance writer who suddenly started dominating Google rankings in the niche (and who often still does) was running black hat SEO campaigns and buying undisclosed paid links.
- It came to my attention (and that of other colleagues) that freelance writers were basically buying positive reviews of something they were selling. As in, reviewers were only rewarded financially if those reviews were positive. And we became aware of this from a colleague who planned to leave that positive review even though they weren’t receiving what was promised and were coming to us for free help as a result.
This barely touches on the shady sh*t going on just within the freelance writing community.
And con artists, insta-experts, and these black hat bullshit artists are routinely promoted by others who don’t know any better. If you haven’t been directly impacted by it – or if you weren’t sure what to look out for – you might be none the wiser.
I can all but guarantee if you’ve been around this community for at least a few years, you know (and quite possibly trust) at least two or three of these people.
So never assume your fellow freelance writers won’t stab you in the back professionally if they think it will help them get ahead, including some who act like friends to your face. But they’re not the only ones you need to be concerned about.
How Crooked Characters Can Hurt You as Their Competition
Regardless of whether or not you choose to understand and embrace the healthy side of competition in business, you can rely on some people to take competition too far.
If you have any kind of visibility within your freelance writing specialty, you’re at risk of being on the receiving end of others’ black hat or negative SEO campaigns.
Chances are, you won’t be directly targeted with a negative SEO attack. Because freelancers are solopreneurs, they likely wouldn’t have the time to do this even if they wanted to. And the cost to hire someone isn’t insignificant (though that risk is greater if you specialize in high-value niches).
But here are some more likely ways you might be affected by a competitor’s SEO schemes:
- Your reputation could be hurt if a client’s competitor ran a negative SEO campaign against them.
- Your site could be hit by an injection attack from a hacker even if it has nothing to do with a direct competitor (this is more likely if you use shared hosting where a hacker can try to hit a thousand or more sites on a single IP address).
- Black hat SEO efforts from a competitor could lower your own search rankings (and therefore decrease warm leads) by artificially inflating their own.
Also, you have to understand there can be other motivation behind negative SEO campaigns and related attacks.
You could be at particular risk if you’re involved in political journalism or if you have high visibility in another very competitive or controversial niche. In those kinds of cases, it might not be a freelance competitor targeting you.
How Clients Can Put You at Risk
Perhaps more important, freelance writers should understand that there are potential clients out there looking to engage in black hat and negative SEO. And they expect you to do their dirty work for them.
“But I would never do that,” you might say.
Not intentionally, perhaps. But freelancers are roped into these schemes all the time. Here’s one of the most common examples.
The Fake PR Firm SEO Link Scheme
A popular shady link-building tactic these days (and for the past 5+ years) is having SEO people pose as fake PR firms.
These fake PR people then visit high-traffic, high-ranking sites.
They believe these sites provide more valuable backlinks in terms of getting their websites, or their clients’ sites, to rank higher in Google.
The fake PR person then looks for writers publishing content to those sites. These are often freelancers.
They reach out to the individual writers and propose one of two things in most cases:
- They’ll pay the writer to add a link to an existing article they wrote, if they have access to make edits.
- Similarly, they’ll pay the writer to publish a new article that links to the websites they want to boost.
In either case, the fake PR rep generally expects a “dofollow” link. More important, they don’t want the paid relationship of these links disclosed – not publicly in the article, and not to the publication the writer works for.
This poses a conflict of interest that any ethical freelance writer would reject.
The writer is paid by the publication, and they shouldn’t be taking third-party additional payments for link placements. They especially shouldn’t do this without their employer’s, or client’s, knowledge and consent.
In short, it’s pay-to-play. But it’s also a black hat SEO paid link scheme.
Quick tip: Legitimate PR professionals don’t go around offering to buy dofollow links. And they definitely don’t ask writers to add links without required disclosures. A legit PR pro would be working with the publisher on coverage opportunities, not creepily seeking out freelancers who wrote for them in the past with shady ads on job boards and classified sites, as these are often advertised.
FYI: Many big sites are aware of these schemes, and they will immediately terminate any employee or freelancer writing for them if they accept third-party payment for links or other mentions in their content.
- It’s unethical behavior on the part of the writer.
- The publication itself can be penalized by Google if they’re caught publishing undisclosed dofollow paid links.
Once you know what to watch out for, this particular type of black hat SEO is easy enough to avoid. But it’s not the only type targeting freelance writers.
3 More Ways Freelance Writers Get Pulled Into Black Hat & Negative SEO Schemes
Here are three additional ways prospects and clients sometimes try to pull freelance writers into their black hat and negative SEO campaigns:
1. A client will hire a freelance writer to rewrite, update, combine, or “spin” existing content.
The concern here is whether or not the client actually owns the copyright to the original work or works.
If you’re approached about this kind of gig, make sure the content is already published on the client’s site and not elsewhere. And if you have any concerns over ownership, ask the client outright.
Remember, content can be published to their site without them owning the copyright too, depending on the rights they purchased from previous writers. If they don’t own the copyright, they don’t have the right to authorize you to create derivative works.
The biggest risk with this comes when a client says they have a large selection of articles to be re-worked.
While not always a problem (such as when overhauling a large archive of evergreen content), it’s a red flag.
The concern is the content might have been scraped from competitors, or they’re looking to have multiple competitors’ articles combined and rewritten into a longer piece they believe search engines will prioritize.
If a client doesn’t own the originals, they can’t authorize you to create a derivative. And it falls on you to verify this as a freelance writer.
2. Clients will hire freelance writers to create copy or content targeting their competitors.
This can happen with any type of online writing gig, but be especially wary of review websites.
These review sites are often owned by sites competing in the niche. For example, a particular web hosting company might launch an industry review site comparing hosting companies.
Sometimes this ownership isn’t obvious. And sometimes it’s intentionally hidden.
It’s another common black hat SEO scheme – a variation on posting fake reviews.
Sometimes they’re fake positive reviews of their own primary business. And sometimes they publish fake negative feedback about competitors.
If you’re approached about writing content for a review-heavy or comparison website, always verify ownership and any potential conflicts of interest up front.
If the client dictates whether reviews, profiles, rankings, etc. should be positive or negative for specific companies rather than having you conduct true reviews or independent profiles, run.
3. A client hires freelancers to write sponsored content, without proper disclosures.
Here’s one I’ve run into personally.
I have no issue at all with sponsored content. But that sponsored content should always be clearly disclosed, be honest, have nofollow (or rel=”sponsored”) links to a sponsor’s site, and it should follow FTC guidelines if any party is US-based.
There’s nothing ethically wrong with writing sponsored content on behalf of clients.
This can involve writing content your client intends to pitch to publications as a sponsored article.
It can also involve writing content for the client’s own site on behalf of their sponsors (which often works out to be far more neutral than letting sponsors submit their own articles).
Here’s the potential issue though:
Your client could tell you to leave out those disclosures. Or, you might write a perfectly ethical piece of sponsored content with all proper disclosures. And then your client might strip those disclosures on publication.
I found out something like this was happening with a long-time client a couple of years back, and I haven’t worked with them since. Now, they didn’t have to follow the same FTC guidelines I did as they weren’t based in the US, but it still amounted to a black hat paid link scheme – one being run by one of the most popular and well-ranked WordPress-related websites around.
Fun fact: A colleague worked full-time for the WordPress-related site in question. A conversation with her about this kind of shady SEO showing up in that joint client / employer work was one of the inspirations to cover this topic and make sure other freelance writers were aware of these schemes.
These are far from the only ways you might be targeted as a freelance writer – either with you or a client becoming a victim of a negative SEO campaign or having prospects or clients try to engage you in their black hat SEO tactics.
It is a broad enough overview though, I hope, to help you identify these types of SEO schemes should you ever be affected by one or solicited to take part in one.
Maintaining your own professional ethics sometimes requires more than good intentions. It requires understanding what you and your clients are up against.