Black hat SEO is a touchy subject in digital marketing. Most SEO services and thought leaders don’t publicly condone it yet it is obviously something that works for a lot of businesses. Some SEO professionals will even go so far as to tell you that black hat SEO tactics won’t work — even if they do it themselves from time to time.
We mentor a lot of younger SEOs and they sometimes wonder why their properties fail to rank even though they’ve tried every white hat strategy in the book. When we ask them about their client’s industry, it usually becomes clear what’s going on. Their industry is one where the top competitors are playing to win, by any means necessary.
Contrary to popular belief, Google does not apply a “one-size-fits-all” approach to penalizing websites. Whether or not it chooses to penalize a site that uses certain discouraged optimization strategies can also depend on the industry. Google simply doesn’t have the resources to uncover and penalize all unethical SEO practices on the internet so it focuses on just a few key areas.
Which Industries Does Google Regulate?
So the question is: what niches does Google pay the most attention to? As a rule of thumb, Google focuses on regulating the websites of industries it profits from.
Just follow the money. If you can run Google Ads related to that industry, chances are that Google will penalize black hat SEO practices being performed within it. If the niche is one where you can’t run Google Ads, you can probably get away with black hat SEO most of the time.
It’s important to understand that if an industry is restricted from running ads on Google or social media channels like Facebook, they have few good options for digital marketing except for organic search. And if penalties are few or nonexistent, these industries are strongly incentivized to do whatever it takes to dominate Google’s organic search results.
Industries and Niches That Google Usually Ignores
The industries below are not the ones where a “white hat only” strategy has a good chance of success. For these industries, black hat SEO strategies are more of a rule rather than an exception. We’re not saying that you should also adopt black hat strategies but you have to be aware of the competition you will face when optimizing websites in these niches.
The SEO scene for gambling websites is essentially a free-for-all. There are practically no penalties levied against gambling websites. This means SEOs competing in this field feel free to try every dirty trick in the book, including using PBNs, using backlinks from unrelated sites, forum spam, keyword masking, article spinning, and whatever else their clients can throw money at. Basically, every single thing that white hats tell you not to do is being actively done to boost sites within this niche.
2) Tobacco, Vapes, Cannabis, and Smoking Paraphernalia
A lot of businesses within these niches are legal within their jurisdictions and a lot of them are respected entities in the real world. However, because they’re effectively banned from advertising on Google and most social media platforms, they are essentially dependent on organic search to drive their leads and conversions.
As a result, many of these sites have legitimately valuable content that’s backed up by black hat technical SEO and link-building techniques. Again, penalties are rare in these niches but they are often accepted as just part of the cost of doing business within these lucrative industries.
3) Payday Loans, Multilevel Marketing, and Other Questionable Finance Services
Google is very selective about the types of financial services that could advertise on their platform. Generally speaking, only legitimate banks and large lenders are allowed to run Google Ads and smaller operations are essentially locked out.
Consequently, smaller, sketchier finance-related businesses tend to rely on organic traffic and black hat SEO. Though not all small finance businesses are unethical, the lack of penalties in the personal finance space encourages all players to engage in questionable optimization tactics.
4) Counterfeit Goods
Counterfeit goods are very clearly illegal but they continue to dominate a lot of shopping-related searches because of the demand for high-quality replicas. The industry can sustain black hat SEO operations and can even absorb frequent penalties due to the extremely high global demand for counterfeit products.
Firearms and other weapons have to rely on organic search because they are banned from running Google Ads and are also heavily restricted on most social media platforms. The bans are so extensive that even kitchen knives are restricted on Google Ads, even though these are necessary for every household. Given this situation and given the marginal value these industries have for Google, it shouldn’t be a surprise that black hat tactics rule these industries.
6) Political Websites
Google is aware that bad actors use its platform to manipulate election outcomes, potentially worsening the lives of millions of people. To avoid liabilities, Google restricts political advertising on its platform. Political candidates who want to be visible on Google Search will also have an uphill battle breaking into the first page because of massive competition from high-DA mainstream news sites.
While a lot of them do the typical black hat tactics of the other industries in the list, the underhanded activity most associated with this niche is paying for links. Additionally, it’s common to pay off journalists and bloggers to write, remove, or edit articles in a way that helps boost a candidate’s image. These payoffs are technically frowned upon by Google but they’re difficult or impossible to prove, which means they happen far more regularly than you might expect.
7) Pornography and Sexually-Themed Content
You probably knew that this industry was on this list. Google and major social media platforms restrict ads for content with sexual themes, which means that businesses that sell sex-related products or rely on sexually-explicit content have to compete in organic search. As you might have guessed, Google only infrequently penalizes sites with this content, thus encouraging black hat activity.
8) SEO Industry
Surprisingly, our own industry is not heavily policed by Google, even if ads for SEO services are technically allowed on the platform. Penalties do happen but they aren’t as common as you might think. Naturally, the people competing for the front page are the best minds in search engine optimization so it’s inevitable that some very motivated SEO professionals will resort to black hat or grey hat tactics to get ahead.
If you find yourself optimizing websites in these industries, you’re going to be in for a wild time. The lack of policing within these niches means that anything goes and you will have to understand the unethical tactics employed by your competitors to be able to overcome them.
But what about Google’s cash cow industries? Do black hat SEOs also dominate search results for these? Unfortunately, they sometimes do. However, in all the cases we’ve seen, white hat strategies prevail in these niches over the long term.
If you have to develop yourself as an SEO professional that mainstream businesses trust, learning white hat SEO strategies is a better investment. While black hat tactics can get you quick wins, they are by and large, labor-intensive and unsustainable for the industries many SEO professionals want to work in.
Do want to make it as a white hat SEO? Do you want to learn more about the gritty realities of search engine optimization? We’d be happy to set up a meeting and discuss all of these and more with you.