Are Your Competitors Using Black Hat SEO Techniques? These 5 Steps Will Help You Find Out

Rowena Heal
A self-professed grammar nerd – and lover of the ‘dash’ - Rowena is a content composer at digital marketing agency RocketMill. She’s also a SciFi geek and spends too much of her spare time reading and watching anything that involves the supernatural…

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  • Referring domains 13
Data from Content Explorer tool.

    You would think that black hat SEO would be an ‘art’ as close to extinction as letter writing…

    But you would be wrong.

    Alas, it still seems to be going strong; which, quite frankly, is just not fair when we’re sitting here adhering to Google’s guidelines like it’s the actual law!

    Wondering why it feels like you’re ticking all the boxes, yet your competitors are still outranking you?

    It could be that your SEO isn’t up to scratch. But, if their site isn’t optimised as well as yours, it could also be that they’re dabbling in something dodgy.

    Fortunately, there are ways you can detect who the worst offenders are — as well as the naughty things they’re up to.

    Here’s how to do it!

    Disclaimer: We don’t recommend that you then try these dodgy techniques out for yourself, we just want to show you how to spot them!

    Step 1: Check Out Their Visibility

    One way to determine whether or not your competitors are committing SEO mischief is to scrutinise their visibility.

    This is easy to do with Ahrefs Positions Explorer.

    Just enter your competitor’s domain into the tool and hit SEARCH.

    ahrefs positions explorer

    On the overview page you will find a chart which shows the site’s organic visibility over time.

    ahrefs organic traffic report

    A sudden drop in visibility is often an indicator that your competitor has been slapped with a Google penalty. You can confirm if this is the case by comparing the dates of the dip against an algorithm monitoring tool, like Google Grump. This will highlight past Google updates, as well as enable you to keep an eye out for future mood swings.

    Google Grump

    Note: Just because a site has been hit with a penalty, doesn’t mean they’re experimenting with something shady – at least not at that time — but it’s a good indication and worth completing a more detailed analysis of the culprits.

    Similarly, a sudden spike in visibility might be worthy of scrutiny.

    Be cautious, as it could be that your competitor is legitimately link building to a newly launched content campaign, but, it’s worth making a note of competitors with significant rises so you can complete further investigation.

    And the next step in that investigation is to review their backlink profile.

    Step 2: Reviewing Their Backlink Profile

    Like rummaging through a friend’s wardrobe, the backlink profiles of your competitors can reveal a lot about their life choices.

    For an insight into what they’re up to, Ahrefs can help.

    This time enter your competitor’s domain into Ahrefs Site Explorer. On the overview page you will find a chart showing growth (or decline) in both the number of referring domains and referring pages for your competitor’s site. Generally it’s referring domains that you should be more interested in.

    ahrefs referring pages report

    As with visibility, the first step is identifying spikes in new links pointing to your competitor’s site. This could be a clue that their cupboard is crammed full of black hats.

    Granted, it could also point to a recently launched content campaign; which is why you need to investigate further. Here’s what to look at:

    1. Quality of Links

    Start by analysing the types of sites linking to your competitor:

    • Are they on quality websites? (i.e. look good, with minimal ads, respectable metrics and social shares).
    • Are they topically relevant?
    • If your competitor is in a given niche, are the links relevant to this, or are they completely unrelated?
    • Is there a genuine reason behind the link or has it been placed purely to get the right keyword to link to the target website?

    For a more thorough analysis, it’s also worth visiting some of the linking pages to determine whether they’re part of a link rental network.

    In a nutshell, the more low quality and/or irrelevant sites linking to your competitor, the more likely it is that they’re an SEO deviant.

    For more on sniffing out dodgy links, watch the video tutorial below and check out this detailed guide.

    2. Link Anchor Text

    When completing a backlink analysis, it’s also worth examining the anchor text used for links.

    This will give you give you an indication of:

    • Whether or not they’re link building to a valuable, new content asset.
    • And, if not, which keywords and pages they’re hurling dodgy tactics at.

    Here’s how to get a quick overview of a competitor’s anchor text distribution with Ahrefs Site Explorer.

    From the Site Explorer overview page for your competitor, click on “Inbound Links” > “Anchors”

    ahrefs anchors report

    This will take you to a report, which shows the individual anchor texts pointing to the site + the number of dofollow and total referring domains for each anchor.

    check anchor text distribution for signs of black hat link building

    If the anchor text used for links is often the same, high volume search word (e.g. ‘SEO tool’), chances are this isn’t legitimate link building.

    In the example above we can see that the largest individual anchor pointing to Ahrefs site is the brand (39% of referring domains) and in fact brand + URLs make up over 50% of referring domains. So I guess Ahrefs haven’t been up to anything dodgy!

    Note: If you want to take a look at the actual referring domains for any anchor, you can click on DOMAINS.

    Step 3: Monitor, Monitor, Monitor!

    Monitoring your competitors’ rankings is a great way to flag whether something untoward is taking place.

    If a website tends to rank well overall, but is lacking Facebook shares, this could be a loose indication of something shady.

    Use a tool like SERPstat to compare organic keywords against Facebook shares. If most of the top ranking pages have absolutely no/very few Facebook shares, it’s worth scrutinising these.


    You can also use Ahrefs Positions Explorer to view fluctuations in the individual keywords your competitor is ranking for.

    From the overview page, click on ‘Organic Research’ > ‘Recent Changes’

    recent changes in search positions

    This will generate a day by day report, showing fluctuations in rankings for individual keywords. In the example below we can see that the keyword ‘invention ideas’ entered the top 100 results for the first time today (‘NEW’).

    search ranking fluctuations

    Did you know: Ahrefs is now tracking rankings for 240 million search keywords?

    If a competitor is suddenly shooting to the top for a particular keyword or page, head over to their social channels. If they’re pushing content relevant to said keywords and pages, fair play.

    If however there is no indication of relevant content being shared, the gap in social coverage could mean the recent ranking boost isn’t down to above-the-board tactics.

    If this is the case, do some onsite checks of these pages.

    Step 4: Analyse Their Site

    Noticed something suspicious in your competitors’ rankings? Then it’s time to delve into their onsite content to locate any noticeably questionable tactics.

    Keyword stuffing isn’t as uncommon as we’d like it to be. The good news? It’s easily identifiable.

    Take a look at the pages with significant ranking improvements and scour the content. If it’s repetitive, keyword rich and includes phrases in places that don’t make sense, they might be up to no good.

    Similarly, check out their navigation bar for keywords. If these are replacing natural, readable tags, something’s wrong.

    Internet archiving tools, like the WayBackMachine, will help you to pinpoint any obvious changes a competitor may have implemented. Compare the look of their site prior to any ranking fluctuations with how it appears now to see if you can locate something that might have impacted their position.

    Examples could include:

    • Hidden text (for example, ‘read more’ boxes)
    • Keyword stuffing
    • Different website structure
    • Different keyword targeting
    • Products or sections of content not present in the past

    Note: Some of the examples above may also have legitimate reasons for implementation and may not necessarily be an indicator of spammy tactics. You’ll need to use your experience to make a call on that — which brings us to step number 5:

    Step 5: But Are They Actually Using Black Hat SEO Techniques?

    What could appear to be shady SEO tactics could actually be the result of a hack.

    If this is the case, it’s likely spam pages have been generated within the site and that your competitor might not even know about them. To compound things, dodgy links may then also have been built to these pages.

    Check whether the content on the pages generating inbound, questionable links correlates to what your competitor sells. If they’re an SEO tool, but links are pointing to a page saying ‘buy cheap Versace bags’, it’s very likely that their domain has been targeted by hackers.

    Additionally, a sudden influx of low quality inbound links, may not mean that your competitor is building black hat links themselves — they may in fact be a victim of a negative SEO attack.

    So What Can You Do About It?

    Despite more and more of the SEO world uniting against the folks with the black hats, shady SEO tactics are still being sold, and widely implemented, across the web.

    Extensive analysis of your competitors, as well as regular monitoring with tools like Ahrefs, will allow you to determine when something doesn’t smell right and dig into it.

    So, if you do find something, what can you do about it?

    Well, there are 2 main options:

    Option 1: Wait It Out

    Google is getting better and better at picking up web spam, and pushing offending sites out of the index. You may find that your competitor will quickly drop back down the search rankings, or in extreme cases, find themselves banned. I guess, that’s a win for you!

    Option 2: Take Action

    The second, and more aggressive option is to fill out a Google spam report — but think very, very carefully before doing so.

    Is your competitor really up to no good, or are they in fact victims themselves? You should only fill out a spam report if you are 100% sure that they are spamming/cheating their way to the top and even then…

    Well, I’ll leave that up to you.

    Of course, there is a third option, which is to copy your competitor’s shady tactics, but as I said right at the start, that’s not something you should even consider… at least not if you’re in this for the long haul!

    So, that’s some of the methods you can use to spot black hat SEO techniques  from your competitors. If you have any questions or comments, then please leave them below!

    Rowena Heal
    A self-professed grammar nerd – and lover of the ‘dash’ - Rowena is a content composer at digital marketing agency RocketMill. She’s also a SciFi geek and spends too much of her spare time reading and watching anything that involves the supernatural…

    Article stats

    • Referring domains 13
    Data from Content Explorer tool.

    Shows how many different websites are linking to this piece of content. As a general rule, the more websites link to you, the higher you rank in Google.

    Shows estimated monthly search traffic to this article according to Ahrefs data. The actual search traffic (as reported in Google Analytics) is usually 3-5 times bigger.

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