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The Real Cost of Choosing Black Hat SEO Agencies

Everyone wants their website to be at the top of the search results. Most want it to happen at the cheapest price possible. This leads many Search Engine Optimization (SEO) providers to offer cheap SEO services that don’t get results.

What victims of cheap SEO don’t realize is that it almost always involves black hat SEO techniques, and they certainly don’t realize the toll it can take on their website. They also typically have no idea they’re even the victim of black hat SEO.

We’re going to explore just what these black hat SEO techniques are, why you should avoid them and agencies that offer them, and what practices you should be embracing instead.

There are several common black hat SEO practices that you should avoid. You should also refuse to work with any SEO agency that employs these techniques.

Private Blog Networks

Private Blog Networks, also known as PBNs, are collections of websites created solely to improve the SEO of a target site, or a “money site.” Since domain authority is heavily derived from other high domain authority websites linking back (through backlinks), these sites exploit this methodology and provide that validation.

The websites are quite illegible to human readers, in fact, you may have never even come across one. Bad SEO actors will scour expiring domain lists for websites that have (or had recently) high organic traffic with a high domain authority and they will purchase these domains.

Once owned, they will create sham sites on these domains and put nonsensical articles that are not legible to humans but contain keywords and anchor text which they are using to increase domain authority on their money site.

Keyword Stuffing

Keyword stuffing is exactly as it sounds. This practice involves overusing (the stuffing) a keyword that a page is trying to rank for. This could be a list of numbers, or perhaps a listing of all the cities in a region where a business operates.

Here is an example of keyword stuffing:

We offer affordable tents. If you are looking for affordable tents, ours are the best. We have been making affordable tents for 10 years. If you are ready to buy affordable tents, contact us at [email protected]

Doorway Pages

While there is some overlap, doorway pages are different from landing pages. Doorway pages are keyword-rich pages that are created to rank high in the search results for a particular keyword, and nothing more.

They are not designed to give a lot of “value” to the searcher or provide a good user experience. Often, these pages will actually redirect users to another part of the site, further proving they only exist to get searchers through the door.

Link Farms

A link farm is a website (or often a collection of websites) that only exists to serve links to other websites. Link farms do not exist to provide useful content or inform an audience of anything useful.

Rather, link farm websites are sham sites deliberately created to add to the backlink profile of legitimate websites.

Cheap SEO providers almost always promise to help website owners and marketers get top-of-page search engine rankings, countless backlinks, and dozens of pieces of content.

Quality work doesn’t come for free, and in this case, that “value” can’t come from thin air. In fact, you’re potentially involving yourself with a link farm, putting the long-term success of your site at risk.

Unethical Practices

Our SEO experts at Tidewater Website Solutions recently uncovered a very large link farm that was using legitimate client sites as the foundation of links rather than the sham sites that are typically used. Not only is this still considered a black hat SEO technique and frowned upon by Google, but it’s also incredibly unethical because the clients are none the wiser.

The clients of these legitimate websites hire a seemingly professional SEO agency and are happy to allow them access to their websites. The clients don’t get the results they should be getting, and their website assets are also now used with hundreds of other client websites to legitimize the link farm.

An example of an unethical SEO reseller using its own client websites for hidden outbound links to industry-relevant websites (other client websites). This particular hidden menu is only visible when you hover over the very bottom copyright footer which is added via this SEO Reseller’s plugin.

The worst part of this practice is the pure lack of transparency between these SEO resellers and the end client.

What the clients do not realize is that this type of link building using their websites is SEO’s way of saying that they legitimize other company websites, all without their knowledge.

Quite frankly, they just sound bad to work with. However, you don’t find black-hat SEO agencies in dark alleyways. They typically advertise on Google or Facebook and find people in search of cheap SEO. Agencies that engage in black hat SEO practices may appear legitimate but are inherently unethical and untrustworthy.

Black Hat SEO Means Throwing Money Away

Cheap SEO may be enticing, with the allure of ranking high seemingly worth the low monthly cost these providers offer. However, we can assure you that you are quite literally throwing money away.

For instance, we discovered the organic keywords results from a recent website audit. While they were ranking fairly high for branded and non-relevant keywords, the below keyword was vital to their business.

As shown, this search term receives approximately 320 searches monthly (one of the highest related to this business), and yet they are ranked 98 out of Google’s top 100. This term is driving less than .01% of the website’s traffic. So while their cheap SEO provider is happy to use their website to expand the provider’s link network, the client’s website is not ranking for any quality, relevant keywords.

A keyword vital to this client’s business and sitting at position 98.

These cheap SEO providers leave out the fact that several ranking keywords will have nothing to do with their business.

Possible Short-term Results, No Long-term Gains

We would be remiss to say that short-term results aren’t possible with black hat SEO because they certainly are. Black hat SEO intends to gamify the search engine, and it can absolutely do that for a short while. However, we’d suggest if you want short-term results, you’d be better off looking at paid advertising.

Proper white hat SEO is more of a marathon, and expecting quick results using improper methods is dangerous.

Google spends a vast number of resources finding link-building networks and websites using black hat methods like keyword stuffing or doorway pages and they will shut them down eventually.

If Google does catch on to a link network and marks it as spam, you risk a Google violation and the removal of your website from Google’s search engine.

Your SEO Depends On Your Link Network Provider

Your cheap SEO provider may be building vast links, albeit many of the links irrelevant, and showing you growth of “number of backlinks” and “referring domains” to show the value created.

The problem is that all of these links are propped up using their PBN and other client websites. If those external sites remove those links, or Google removes them from the SERP (and their link juice), you will lose all of that incoming domain authority virtually overnight.

Irrelevant Results In Search Engines, Bad User Experience

Let’s say you run a law firm and you want to rank higher for lawyers or attorneys in your area. You pay a provider $300-$500 a month because it seems reasonable for the “value” they say they will provide. Next thing you know, you are showing up in the SERP for this:

This is a result showing in the SERP for a keyword that a law firm was ranking for. They ranked #12 for this keyword. The keyword has zero relevance or value to the business.

That’s right. “No credit check needed” for something (blurred to protect the client). This search term and the result are irrelevant to the law firm’s business, yet they ranked #12 for the keyword! Not only is the business owner likely furious, but the searchers are too (along with Google). This is a very poor user experience since this result isn’t connecting searchers with what they are looking for.

Google Can Issue Penalties

Not bad enough? Utilizing black hat SEO practices on your website can land you in hot water with Google. Bad links and manipulation violate Google’s webmaster guidelines. If Google feels like your website is attempting to manipulate search engine rankings, it can do a couple of things:

  1. Issue your website a penalty, resulting in a lowering in search rankings or outright deindexing
  2. Ignore your incoming bad links, and therefore your website authority

Cheap SEO can seem like a good deal in the short term, but it’s simply not worth the risk involved.

While it is becoming harder to identify black hat SEO agencies, there are some steps you can take. It boils down to doing your due diligence and asking the right questions.

Be Wary of Low-Cost Agencies

First and foremost, ask for a quote. A low cost by itself does not mean an SEO agency engages in black hat practices. However, the vast majority of low-cost SEO providers are using black hat methods.

If you are quoted less than $1,000 per month for substantial SEO services, including content creation and backlink generation, you are best to steer clear of the agency. Proper SEO takes a substantial amount of time and hours. We don’t know about you, but we don’t work for free. You aren’t going to pay your mechanic $500 for a whole engine and expect a working car.

Agencies that offer cheap SEO services are likely outsourcing overseas to inexperienced staff and/or using black hat methods and tools to try and cheat the system.

Questions To Ask an SEO Agency

We won’t suggest an agency that engages in bad techniques will tell you. But, there are some questions you can ask to get a pretty good idea.

Here are some simple questions you can ask a prospective SEO agency before signing up for any services:

  1. How long have you been doing SEO and what are your average results (with metrics)?
  2. Do you require websites to be fully in your control? If so, why and for what purpose?
  3. Do you use proprietary tools or plugins for your work? What tools?
  4. How do you build backlinks, and how do you vet the publications?
  5. Do you ever buy backlinks for clients?
  6. Do you outsource any of your work or are you an SEO reseller?
  7. Can I see examples of websites where you have helped with SEO?

These questions should help you understand how legitimate the company is and if they utilize any black hat methods for SEO.

Check Work History

If the company will not provide any work history of SEO they have performed, that’s a major red flag. If they do provide a portfolio of prior work, check them out to see their quality.

From the websites they give you, see what kind of content the agency creates. Another thing you can do is ensure there are no scam-type links anywhere and that there is no keyword stuffing.

Audit Your Website Access and Plugins

If you have a physical location, we imagine you have a good idea of who has access to your office. We also imagine you know why they have access. The print marketing firm you may have used in the past likely doesn’t have a master key.

Your website is no different; you need to fully understand who has access to your website’s CMS and why. You also need to understand what plugins they have installed and what their purpose is.

In the long run, it pays for you and your SEO provider to focus on white-hat SEO instead. How can you make sure that’s happening? Let’s explore.

Don’t Forget the Basics: Technical and On-Page SEO

Sometimes it’s best to go back to the basics before introducing any other factors. We recently found a website using a cheap SEO provider. The SEO provided promised them results.

Below is the initial site audit we ran, resulting in an abysmal 72% rating. The sad fact is the majority of the website’s errors and warnings, like broken internal links and sitemaps, are easily fixable by a real SEO provider and the first step to starting SEO for a client. This cheap SEO provider didn’t do this because they aren’t here for SEO; they’re here to make a quick buck.

Victim of a cheap SEO provider; this client’s website audit showed over 600 easily fixable errors.

A simple site audit and several hours of work easily eliminate all of these errors and is the first step prior to any further SEO work. Instead, the cheap SEO provider installed a link-generation plugin and took the easy route.

Backlink Audit

Backlinks are very important for website rankings, and it’s crucial to understand the backlinks you have (and don’t have). If you don’t have quality sites linking to you, or if you have too many toxic ones, your domain’s authority won’t go anywhere, and neither will your search rankings.

Toxic and spam backlinks can ruin your SEO and Google will penalize your website if these get out of control. You need to understand your website’s backlink profile and constantly make improvements.

The same victim website from above also had several very toxic backlinks.

Keyword Research & Strategy

Another vital step in the SEO setup process is fully understanding your current keywords rankings as well as the new keywords you need to target, along with how you will target them.

One cheap SEO victim was ranking very well for branded keywords, but not so well for non-branded keywords. In fact, they only had 1 non-brand keyword above position 41 in Google, and it was at position 5. The cheap SEO provider was attempting to target these keywords with doorway pages, simply not a good strategy – and it shows.

Remove doorway pages, create quality content, target non-branded keywords

Rather than using these low-quality doorway pages, an SEO agency should create high-quality landing pages that target specific keywords and create a superior user experience.

Consistent High-Quality Content

Have you ever found yourself searching for a topic and ended up on a website page or article that keeps your attention because it not only answers your question but has a substantial amount of quality content?

Turns out, not only do users like you love that sort of content, but Google does too.


Because you love it!

Quality content keeps users on your website longer, which increases engagement rate and tells search engines that you are likely housing some good information.

When you serve high-quality content to users consistently, Google will undoubtedly place you higher in the SERP.

Social Media Engagement

While not directly related to SEO, a consistent and quality presence across social media channels can help drive engagement which will lead to increased backlinks and organic traffic to your website. That will have an effect on SEO through brand awareness and domain authority rankings.

Manual Outreach, Quality Link-Building

Arguably one of the most significant time investments for a true SEO agency, and also arguably the hardest to do, is manual outreach for link building.

This doesn’t involve unscrupulous methods of link building, and certainly not buying links.

It’s simple, good old-fashioned manual outreach to acquire links. SEO agencies like us will hand-craft spectacular, super-informative articles and find relevant, authoritative publications that may be interested in the article.

Once we find one that is interested, we offer to place the article on their publication in exchange for allowing a link in the article back to your website.

With this type of link-building, everyone wins. The publication gets a quality piece of content they can publish to their audience, and you as the client receive a high-quality backlink from an authoritative, authentic domain.

Demand Transparency From Your SEO Agency

We sincerely believe all SEO agencies should be transparent with their clients. After all, transparency is one of our core values.

On a weekly or monthly basis, you should have a complete understanding of where your website stands with key performance metrics (KPIs) like organic traffic, organic keyword rankings, number of backlinks and referring domains, branded vs. non-branded traffic, and top landing pages.

You should also understand your website performance in terms of speed, healthy-ness (no broken links), and that users are having a good experience when visting your website.

If you are not getting regular reporting from your SEO agency, or the reporting is vague, press them to be more transparent. Your website is your business and you need to know exactly what you are paying for.

About Tidewater Website Solutions

At Tidewater Website Solutions, we offer high-quality SEO services that only employ white-hat methods. We have over 15 years of experience with getting clients the results they deserve.

Our team is fully transparent with our clients to recommend the services they need, and nothing more. If you are interested in learning more, we offer completely free, no-obligation SEO consultations to help you make the right decision regarding your marketing.