In SEO, if you use a strategy that violates Google's terms of service, or if you make a move that harms the average user's experience, you could see a decline in your rankings or even face a strict "penalty" that harms your chances of ranking in the future. Fortunately, despite Google's tendency to keep the nature of its algorithm a secret from users, the company is fairly explicit about what practices are good and which ones could earn a penalty--spelled out in its Webmaster Guidelines.
Obviously, there's a sliding scale at work here; making a minor slip might cause you to fall a couple of spots in the rankings, while an egregious offense could blacklist your site, at least temporarily, barring it from search engine results entirely. It's possible to recover even from these extreme cases, but the process is usually slow and arduous.
But what about the worst of the worst? Are there any SEO strategies that are actually illegal?
The Gray Area
SEO is a strategy meant to take advantage of the offerings of private companies (i.e., Google). Accordingly, there aren't any laws that explicitly outline what optimization strategies are allowed or disallowed. However, there are some tactics that could qualify as SEO that violate other laws regarding how businesses are supposed to operate.
SEO tactics will always exist in a kind of gray area since intentions, actions, and effects can all vary significantly. However, these SEO tactics, under the right circumstances, could be interpreted as illegal:
In general, any effort you make to deliberately damage, defame, or sabotage another business could be interpreted as an illegal action.
Do You Need to Worry?
After reading the headline and learning that some SEO strategies could be illegal, you might be concerned about your own practices and strategies, but don't worry--even most black hat tactics (which I strongly discourage you from using) aren't illegal, and at their worst, will only earn you a penalty.
However, if you're concerned that you've done something wrong, or have committed a misdemeanor by interfering with another business, it's best to contact a lawyer proactively and see if it's necessary to prepare a criminal defense.
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