The purpose of this post is to initiate a track of thought relating to how web developers and SEO use Dark Patterns (intentionally or otherwise) to manipulate their apparent relevance on search results pages causing organic traffic to go up.
Here is what you will find in this article:
What are Dark Patterns?
Harry Brignull first coined the term Dark Pattern to define types of deceptive UI designs, used to trick users into doing somethings that they otherwise would not do.
Rohit Chopra, Commission of the Federal Trade Commission, USA described these deceptive designs as “Dark patterns are design features used to deceive, steer, or manipulate users into behavior that is profitable for an online service, but often harmful to users or contrary to their intent.”
Dark Patterns & SEO
SEO or search engine optimization is an activity that is done to increase traffic to the website. It is usually done by following good UI/UX practices, creating helpful content and helping search engines understand the website better. This is generally done by keeping the user in mind.
For example, a content marketing team may create infographics and animated images with actually useful information that may attract a user’s attention while skimming a page and make them stay there for some time. They may also create designs and buttons to make certain pages of the website more accessible and help users jump to specific parts of a website quickly. These tactics are used in good faith and are not deceptive designs.
For this, Developers may use tricks that cause visitors to stay on the site longer, interact with elements on the page & perform other actions. These may indirectly hint search engines that a particular page is useful for the purpose of that query searched by the user. Though user interaction on a page may not be used a direct ranking factor, aggregated interaction data is used to assess relevance of search result and the keyword. Thus, relevancy signals (though small) can help increase/decrease organic traffic to a website.
It is when these tricks are used in a way that gives fake relevancy signals to search engines but are not actually helpful to the users, dark patterns can be said to have been used. It’s highly probable that some of these tricks overlap with Black Hat/Gray hat SEO tactics. The distinction being black hat SEO & dark pattern is that black hat SEO is a much wider term. Dark pattern in SEO is using deceptive user design to indirectly affect organic traffic of the website and its authority on the internet.
Real Life Examples of Dark Patterns & SEO Used together
Here are some of the deceptive design tactics actively used by many websites to augment their SEO strategies:
Increased waiting time for downloads to make user stay on page
Many websites where you can download a software/file urge you to wait for some time. This wait time has many reasons. Some are justified but others are not.
The sites which let you download stuff for free sell their spaces to ad networks. These networks pay more for an ad where its impression time is more. Another justification is the server availability. For free users, they allocate server usage for file downloads. This may take some time. All of this can be done in a few seconds. So why the waiting time of 20 seconds?
Making Users Jump to Different Domains
This example is again related to websites offering downloads. Sometimes they will let you download stuff, but when you click on the download button, you will be redirected to another website with a waiting time. After you press on that similar looking button, you may be redirected to another domain yet again. I found this website and the pattern is not even subtle!
Clicked on G-Drive:
I Was redirected to another domain. Clicked on the download button again (among many, similar looking buttons)
Was taken to yet another domain. There i had to wait for 10 good seconds before being pulled to another download button at the bottom. Waited for 10 more seconds there.
I did get to download after all this!
Making user jump to 2 different pages on same domain for the same goal
Many websites create separate pages for two things. User first gets on a landing page optimized to rank on search engines, then he is directed to complete actions for his goal. This makes him stay on the website and browse different pages. The content on these pages may/may not be relevant. The obvious exception to this is ecommerce sites where the cart page is different and makes sense. Infact for ecommerce, companies get CRO dene to actively reduce actions users need to complete purchase.
Official Looking Websites Appearing in Search
Many webmasters use methods such as PBNs to get a certain page/domain appear in SERPs for a certain query. They will make these domains very similar to the official website. When you interact with the page, it will either take you to another domain or another page.
This is an old trick used for phishing.
Nowadays, this is also used for making money without inviting legal trouble for at least some time.
Look at this example:
Similar to the official website, this is hosted page on GitHub. It appears on the search results for some queries with high search volume. Also, on the looks of its backlink profile, it appears to be linked with a PBN.
When you click activate, you are taken to another domain, which is similar.
When you click activate again, you are taken to yet another domain which is similar to another page from the official website.
And finally, when you try to “enter code” on a button, you see ads. A lot of Ads. Also, the site seems to be malicious…
Motive of the developer? To get some cash using a PBN, some more domains and Ads.
In the above case the users may report, the original company issues DMCA notice, or search engines may stop showing this type of website in a few days. But there are websites which make sure that the user’s goal gets completed and he does not even know/ or care that the website is not the official one.
There are many devs who make a website just for the sake of getting it to rank for a single keyword. Google sites are being used a lot for this purpose nowadays. They connect a google site to a PBN, publish half-baked content below the fold of the website, and make above the fold look like a page providing some value. These are then again linked to another domain, to manipulate Search engine rankings and direct the user to that website. The User is able to complete his desired action. The webmaster is able to monetize by selling ad spaces on his website, by affiliate links, by resource mining etc. and the official website loses traffic.
Other Notable Examples
- Catchy titles with content that do not actually solve a user query – forces them to read till the end. Helpful content update from Google may finally curb this practice.
- Back button either leads to the homepage or an ad/popup. When you press the back button, it will either lead you to the homepage or show you an offer. Some websites stop here. If you deny the offer, you will be taken to the previous page. Some do not follow this practice; they will net let you leave until you close the tab.
- Changing postdate of content without making any significant changes. Many publishers change the date of the content posted to make it look like fresh content. For many types of queries, freshness of content is taken into consideration for showing them on SERPs. This trick works well along with design/UI updates with a simple theme change in WordPress. Webmasters buy old domain. They use wayback machine to bring back old content, and then change the date of the posts. This trick sometimes works well enough to give them traffic for some time. Until the search engines get it…
Are there some tactics involving dark patterns and significant use of SEO that I have missed? Let me know in the comments.
What Happens to Some of These Website Using These Dark Patterns
Usage of these tricks may bring web devs/SEOs a lot of traffic initially. But when a person once becomes aware of the tactics, he may perform an action (going back on the SERP page and choosing a different result, report the domain, skip that result in this next search. These actions can send a signal to search engines that the goal of the user for that particular search query is not being completed with that result. When this happens for a lot of people, search engines may decide to push back the rankings of websites.
Many of these tactics are identified by search engines as being nefarious and rankings for these kinds of websites may eventually go down.
Useful Resources for Further Reading:
- Website floated by Henry Brignul called deceptive.design (previously darkpatterns.org).
- Guidelines on avoiding Dark patterns in social media platform interfaces by European data protection board.
- How to identify dark patterns on a shopping website: based on a study conducted on 11k websites.
- Take on Dark patterns, its legality and data protection laws in India.
- If you are somehow convinced that dark patterns can help you bring traffic or monetize a blog better, read this post on how using dark patterns can damage it.