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:

  • Sitting on a trademarked domain. In SEO, you can draw significant power from the domain you choose to use; it's a factor in your relevance to various queries and could attract more traffic. However, if you poach a domain name that's trademarked by another company, and refuse to sell it for a reasonable price, you could be considered to be cybersquatting. Cybersquatting is a complex issue in the legal world, but it can be considered a crime if you do it for the sole purpose of exploiting someone else's trademark for a quick profit. While choosing a strong domain name can be effective for your SEO strategy, it's best to stick to uncopyrighted terms you know belong to you.
  • Negative SEO. Negative SEO is so named because it exists as the opposite of traditional SEO; ordinarily, you take efforts to boost your own domain's rankings within search engines. In negative SEO, you'll intentionally harm your competitors' rankings so you increase by comparison. For example, you might build spammy links to your competitor's domain to cause them to incur a ranking penalty. This can be considered a form of deliberate sabotage and could be considered to be illegal. To further discourage you from trying this, it's also been shown to be not a particularly effective strategy.
  • Pagejacking. Pagejacking is an advanced form of plagiarism on the web. Offenders see a page of a website that's ranking highly in search results and attempt to duplicate it (including its HTML code). Of course, this isn't tolerated by Google's search algorithm and is considered a form of copyright infringement as well.

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.

In the meantime, you can clear your conscience and reduce your risk of being accused of a crime to zero by sticking to only best practices that fit squarely into "white hat" territory. In general, if you're trying to provide better content to your users, if you're making the web a better place, and you aren't deliberately sabotaging or damaging other companies to do it, you'll have nothing to worry about from a visibility or legal standpoint.
November 16, 2017

Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.

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Search Engine Guide > Jayson DeMers > Are There Any Search Optimization Strategies That Are Illegal?