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How Dark Patterns Damage Your Search Index Ranking


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Taking a multidisciplinary approach, the team at SEO Sydney introduces the notion of dark patterns – a common concept in user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design, that shares a similar background with black hat SEO tactics. Today, we discuss the different types of dark patterns, and the damages they may bring to a website’s search index ranking, client base and reputation.


What are Dark Patterns? 

For those unfamiliar with the term, dark patterns are user interface implementations designed to trick users into transactions or actions they may not agree to (mostly email newsletters or payment subscriptions). This is done through obscured or misleading information, and is essentially unethical or black hat UX, by way of exploiting user tendencies unjust gain.

A very brief explanation to dark patterns

For example, imagine you just landed on a website, immediately you are greeted by an alert message asking for permission to send you notifications (these may range from minor annoyances to malicious programs). There are two options, a coloured button and plain text besides it. Instinctively, you move your cursor to the plain button. It says “Accept”, that’s not what you want, you turn to your other option. What does it say?

Dark Patterns Search Ranking | Sydney SEO


If your background is more SEO or marketing-oriented, you would be familiar with black hat SEO. There is significant overlap between black hat SEO techniques and dark patterns.

The common essences of both are deception and reaping additional benefits for the company at the expense of existing and potential customers. Both can also lead to Google docking the company’s search index ranking. 


Dark Patterns Will Hurt You (and your search index ranking) 

It is becoming increasingly known that user experience affects SEO. In the same way good user experience and interface design work together with ethical SEO, dark patterns can go hand in hand with black hat SEO techniques. 

Black hat SEO techniques attempt to deceive search engines while dark patterns deceive users through taking advantage of natural human behaviour. These techniques may be similar to each other.

Misdirection is a common type of dark pattern. This often manifests in the form of hidden text that is designed to be skipped or misread. This is possible due to its surrounding visual elements diverting the user’s attention.

SEO Sydney exemplifies ux dark pattern misdirection that harms search ranking

How often do you remember seeing the small, lighter text at the bottom of an input form? While hidden text for the purpose of SEO is intended to be out of the visitor’s sight and has a different purpose, hidden text is still acknowledged by this page of Google’s Quality Guidelines as deceptive. 

In 2019, Experts Exchange, an IT help-forum website, was known to request payment from users for access to full answers. This could be recognised as a use of the misdirection dark pattern, as the hidden answers were only fully available for free if the user selected the less noticeable “View your complimentary solution” option. Although Experts Exchange has shifted towards a more open-access approach nowadays, the case study is still a notable example showcasing the dark pattern practice that can influence user experience and search index ranking.

Prompt tricks subscription to view solution | Dark Patterns | Sydney SEO
Experts Exchange hides solutions behind the prompt of a subscription trial
(as of August 2019).

In terms of Experts Exchange’s Search Index ranking, they are far outperformed by Stack Overflow which offers similar services. Stack Overflow’s main difference is the absence of these payment prompts. If you search “excel cannot run the macro”, Experts Exchange’s solution for this basic problem is ranked lower than Stack Overflow’s and a few other websites’.

SEO Sydney explores how dark patterns result in lower search ranking

This is a significant advantage Stack Overflow has over Experts Exchange, given that topics about Excel are very common in Experts Exchange. For programming-related questions which are more of Stack Overflow’s domain, results from Experts Exchange cannot be found in the first page.

Aside from the lower ranking given by the search engine, Experts Exchange has a poorer reputation among users and visitors. It is no surprise users and visitors turn to alternatives that offer transparency and easier access to their services.

Another common type of dark pattern is disguised advertisement. Often, links to advertisements are disguised as a button a user or visitor thinks they need to click in order to proceed. This is considered “malicious behaviour”, according to this section of Google’s Quality Guidelines.

Disguised advertisement ux as a practice of dark patterns | Sydney SEO

These dark patterns that resemble black hat SEO techniques are in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This will lead to Google lowering the website’s search index ranking or even warn visitors that it may be malicious.

Furthermore, a website’s search index ranking can be damaged by visual, text and link-based dark patterns in other ways. Firstly, the authority of the website’s content can be undermined by these types of dark patterns. Then, it may also lead to a reduce in backlinks. Both of these can lower a website’s search index ranking.

However not all dark patterns are similar to black hat SEO techniques and thus, may not have their ranking lowered for being suspected of black hat SEO or being untrustworthy. Many websites with large user bases used or currently use dark patterns. Some big names are Youtube, Netflix and Quora

Dark patterns are deceptive in nature, as a result they are unethical practices. However, they are usually not considered illegal. An exception is the case of a lawsuit against LinkedIn for misusing access to their users’ contacts.

LinkedIn settled a $13 (USD) million lawsuit that is unlikely to be forgotten for a long time. In 2015, LinkedIn was ordered to compensate every user affected by their “Add Connections” feature. The lawsuit started in 2013, while LinkedIn began sending unauthorised invites in 2011. For the unfamiliar, this feature was present in LinkedIn’s Sign up process.

Dark patterns affected LinkedIn's reputation and search ranking | SEO Sydney
Source: Dan Schlosser

It appeared as grey, smaller-sized font under the email input field that said it would import the user’s address book to suggest connections and manage contacts. However, what it actually did was use the access to the user’s address book to send email invites for LinkedIn’s service to the contacts in the address book with the user’s identity.

LinkedIn email invites using users’ identity | Dark Patterns | Sydney SEO

As of now, this feature has been changed. However, the impact of this dark pattern was significant and remains relevant today. Many users were not aware that LinkedIn spammed their contacts using their names. Much of the basis of the lawsuit surrounded users’ damaged professional reputations and relationships. It resulted in many users deleting their accounts and LinkedIn’s brand image suffering.

Some dark patterns lie in policies, such as roach motels (having a difficult cancellation process that involves contacting customer support), hidden charges and VATS and forced continuity (having to give your credit card details even when commencing a free trial). In these cases, search engine algorithms may not detect any problem but users and visitors often end up feeling cheated or frustrated. 

Netflix's forced continuity dark patterns practice| Sydney SEO
(Screenshot taken August 2019)

The example above is of the forced continuity dark pattern. Where a service will offer a free trial but requests credit card or other billing details. The user will potentially forget to cancel their free trial and will be billed.

Search index ranking is affected by factors like dwell time, backlinks, content quality, visitor usage and satisfaction. Logically, upsetting site visitors and users through dark patterns in policies can still lower search index rankings. 

Additionally, its use has more negative effects outside the context of search engine rankings. 

While user research proved that people mostly skim-read information on websites and thus, will make mistakes and skip over information, they can recognise its characteristics well enough. 

The website may end up on the Dark Pattern Hall of Shame. The Dark Pattern Hall of Shame is a collection of tweets where people point out dark patterns they encountered and the companies guilty of using them in their websites. 

This proves the use of dark patterns breeds animosity within site visitors and users. They may express their frustration by leaving negative reviews and recommending against visiting or using the website. This will eventually hurt the company’s reputation and image. 


Summary and Further Reading – Avoiding Dark Patterns as Black Hat SEO

To summarise, dark patterns are tricks that are mostly hidden within websites. They are designed to trick users into actions they might not agree with. These actions benefit the business operating the website. They are disturbingly common even in trusted and well-known online services. Some dark patterns resemble black hat SEO techniques which search engines recognise. This will damage the site’s search engine ranking. Dark patterns may anger visitors and users, which can lead to a ruined reputation. 

Dark patterns can be implemented unintentionally due to lack of information. Avoiding dark-pattern related problems (search-engine related and otherwise) is doable. People of all backgrounds should learn more about dark patterns and call them out when they recognise them. Raised awareness and less tolerance of dark patterns will help to fight deception and the use of it for profit at the expense of customers.

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