Blackhat CRO: The Dark Side of Conversion Rate Optimisation

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The dark sie of cro

I really miss the good old blackhat days, but Google has done really well of ridding the interwebz of spam recently.  As I’ve been delving a lot into conversion rate optimisation (CRO) recently, I thought it would be good to look at blackhat CRO tactics. Like blackhat SEO, there are all different shades of grey depending on your morality, but with blackhat CRO you are deceiving real people not just search bots which is fine.

To carry out blackhat CRO you need to understand the main principles and techniques of CRO, then fake them.  Here’s how Wikipedia defines CRO:

conversion rate optimization (CRO) is the method of creating an experience for a website or landing page visitor with the goal of increasing the percentage of visitors that convert into customers. It is also commonly referred to as CRO

Key elements of CRO

CRO is about understanding the psychology of your visitors and providing them with the experience they need to reach your goals. There are many factors effecting a users decision making process, but they are always driven by emotions then reinforced with logic once the decision is made.  Many CRO techniques are taken from old marketing ideas around influence, like Cialdini’s Psychology of Persuasion.


The key element of CRO is to create credibility and trust on your landing page or website. You need to give the users the confidence to proceed and complete your goal whether  it’s subscribing to a newsletter, gaining a Facebook like or proceeding down an ecommerce buying funnel.  The ecommerce conversion funnel is more complex than a simple converting landing page,  each step creates risk of abandonment.  Each step of the funnel needs to be examined to find negative user sentiment so it can be eliminated, each of the steps can also include blackhat techniques.

Conversion funnel

What is Blackhat CRO?

Blackhat CRO is any tactic used to mislead a user to complete a desired goal.   Harry Brignall describes these as ‘Dark Patterns‘, which he describes below:

Dark Patterns are User Interfaces that are designed to trick people.
Normally when you think of “bad design”, you think of laziness or mistakes. These are known as design anti-patterns. Dark Patterns are different – they are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interests in mind.

Google’s Blackhat Conversion Tactics

Even Google is partial to a few blackhat/greyhat conversion tricks.   Ever found it hard to detect Google’s sponsored links?  Moving your laptop screen around to see the colours?   That’s Google intentionally changing the adsense background colour to ‘trick’ people into clicking through.  To me this is pure deception.  Google used to get around 30% of adwords clicks with 70% going to the organic listings, but I would love to know the ratios now for a query like this.

Google SERP hidden ads

Another shady tactic is Google’s new arrow box on adwords.  I’ve actually clicked on one of these on my ipad thinking I as about to scroll right to the next page. With 25%  of ad clicks coming from mobile, I’m convinced this is done out of pure deception.

Adsense Arrow

Now we have seen examples of Google’s art of deception, lets look at some of the tactics used by other websites skating the grey boundaries of user experience (UX).

Blackhat Copy

The key element of blackhat copy is to get the user to convert as quickly as possible on the landing page or start them heading down the conversion funnel.  Tactics range from straight out lying to greyhat use of hidden truths.  Below are a few examples that I found.

Many sites will use the terms ‘FREE’, even though you will have to hand over your card details to register.  Sites will then conveniently not remind you after 30 days to cancel your subscription.  It’s more than likely you will forget.  This tactic is called forced continuity and can been seen on hundreds of websites, here is the stage of LoveFilm’s free trial.

LOVEFiLM free sign up

Once you have subscribed and given your card details, many sites will use the tactic of making it difficult to cancel the service.  This tactic can also be aided and abetted by 3rd party transaction houses.  I have noticed Paypal hide away your payment subscriptions. Try it now, log in and see how long it takes you to find all the websites and services you are subscribed to.  I recently did a Paypal review and found I was subscribed to over 30 services, which I have now reduced. You only see a paypal transaction on your bank statements so never see the service you are subscribed to.  2Checkout also makes it difficult to to see what the payments relate to.

Paypal Subscriptions

Greyhat copy is also seen where the whole truth or offering is misleading. Here are some examples that have been held up by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), who continue without taking down their false claims.  These sites are named and shamed on the ASA website until they change their copy.

Below Webhost was found to be using ‘100% customer satisfaction’ misleadingly as they could not provide evidence to the ASA.

Here Nuratrim were found to be using ‘scientifically proven‘ without any research to back up the statement.

scientifically proven

Here 25poundlogo make the date dynamically change to today’s date every day. The ASA found this to me misleading.  Time sensitive sales is a great conversion tactic used by many legit sites like Groupon and Qwertee.

offer never ends

The ASA concluded kidz5aday  did not provide a child with 5-per-day and used misleading claims.

5 a day powder

Widgets such as calculators can also be used to give people false information in the form of price ‘estimates’ encouraging the user to proceed.  Here were found to give totally misleading gold prices in their calculator.

Gold Daddy 2

Hidden Costs

Advertising a product or service with a disguised low price is a common problem online. As with the widget example above, the aim is to get the user to click through and proceed.  There are hundreds of pricing tricks out there, but here’s a couple of examples.

Hosting companies showing prices that are monthly but only if you sign up for more than 1 year.

pacific host

Here Pacifhost show monthly prices that you would assume are for a 1 year contract.  The $2.49 price is actually for 3 years and this basic package for 1 year is $4.99.  Even clicking through to compare the plans does not highlight the deal properly, you have to hover over the pricing to see the time spans.

Pacific Host CRO

 click to expand

Here broke the advertising standards code by quoting prices exclusive of V.A.T.  Ex VAT prices are also incorporated into many prices comparison calculators.

price ex VAT

Fake Endoresments & Testimonials

Social proof is an extremely powerful marketing tool to aid CRO.  Users have a strong psychological need to see what others have done in order to make the correct decision themselves.  Social proof is also one of the easiest to fake and least regulated, there must be hundreds out there. The ASA will also take action for the misuse of logos on a website, but they need a few complaints before they investigate the website.


misuse of logos 2

Here’s one using Kristi Hines’  image, feel free to call her Pamela from now on! :)

Krisi Hines


This site’s whole ‘Testimonials’, ‘As seen on’ and ‘Featured Clients’ must be totally faked.  At the time of writing Kristi just got her images removed after much hounding.

krisi Hines fake testimonial

 click to expand

The above are totally fabricated, but what about using affiliates to promote your product and writing amazing reviews?  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US has previously fined websites in which the affiliates did not disclose the full intent of their promotional material. As started by the FTC’s head of consumer protection, David Vladeck:

Advertisers using affiliate marketers to promote their products would be wise to put in place a reasonable monitoring program to verify that those affiliates follow the principles of truth in advertising

As an affiliate of a few products myself, I’m not sure if I comply to these ‘principles of truth‘.

With the huge growth of the review market, I can see a few sites being fined in the future for falsifying reviews.   Last year Beony International was hit with a $13m judgement for producing fake news based around the miracles of the acai berry.

Adding dirt to the conversion funnel

Along with tricks to help conversion, some ecommerce sites will add extras in the conversion funnel to maximize profits.  Greyhat CRO tactics are not just about the conversion, but ensuring customers are converting on the products that are most profitable.

Adding extras to your shopping basket

This is my pet hate.  Here you will see 123Reg adding in other domains to my purchase by default. You have to deselect them otherwise you will buy 2 extra domains.


Making most profitable products default

Setting the most profitable option as default is also a common trick.  Sorry Buzzstream, we still love you but that Solo plan is really hidden away!!

buzzstream deception

 click to expand

Paying for extras

Making you pay for things that are essential, like a bag when you fly!  Ryanair.

Ryanair 1 bag

I hate you Ryan air (but that’s a separate rant), so I decided to pay for some user testing.  They make their whole conversion funnel so messy, even including adsense on the final pages.  I believe the tactic is to create a nasty experience so you rush through the order process adding their extras as you go.  The final assault is the big push to get you to buy ‘Ryanair talk’.   I plan to do some further testing on this site to investigate cookie based price manipulation.

ryan air funnel

 click to expand

Ryanair User Testing 


Another one of my pet hates and worth a user test. To be fair, they have cleaned up their whole site and sales process considerably.

The test highlighted Godaddy making the domain registration of a .com 2yrs by default. When the tester amended to 1year and hit the back button to test something, it reverts back to the 2 yr default.

Users are continually getting smarter with these types of tricks, I believe a clean user experience is the best way to increase conversion.  ASOS previously reduced their abandonment rate by 50% by using more transparacy in the checkout process.

Blackhat tactics for Social Media CRO

Conversion goals for social media include likes, shares, follows, comments etc . As companies are seeing real ROI from social media marketing, more dark tactics are being found across the Internet.   Again many shades of grey exist in this arena, you can decide what is white, grey and blackhat from the examples below.

Faking followers

Even big brands have been caught out creating fake profiles to either manipulate Facebook’s edgerank of to appear more popular.  Users are more likely to like a page if others have also done so, its back to social proof again.

Account automation

Not really blackhat but once you have trusting faithful followers you won’t have to do much to garner more likes and comments to keep your brand fresh in people’s mind for a future promotional opportunity.

Neil Patel2

‘Like’ to Play

I actually really love this campaign, even though it is slightly greyhat into deceiving FB users to share the Ecover page.  You cannot enter the competition without liking the page first.

Ecover Facebook Page

Creating ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ with fake status updates 

Here nothing actually happens, but has created hundreds of interactions.


 Oauth Misuse

From apps that kindly update your status for you to pure blackhat hacking of Facebook accounts, Oauth has plenty of room for misuse.

Like Jacking

Like jacking is the technique of making users like a page without them really knowing it, it stems from the old technique of clickjacking and is a social engineering attack.  You can get browser plugins to identify hidden widgets on a page.  Here you can see like jacking in action on a page

If you want to play with some like jacking codes, Martin Mcdonald did a post on it a while back, giving you all the code you need.

Have you seen any deceptive CRO techniques lately?  Let me know in the comments.  Thanks.



  1. Ricky says

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article. Oh how I hate Ryan Air. Their website is so terrible but so fiendishly deliberate too.

  2. says

    Hey Gareth,

    Really enjoyed this read, you’ve obviously put a lot of work into the research. I commented around christmas time about the huge increase of ecommerce sites adding stuff to your basket at checkout on your behalf. it may get an extra few bucks out of some please but often I will never use that company again.

    In terms of a few other ideas:
    Pay with a Tweet? – Similar to your “like to play” example
    Also on the twitter theme RT/follow to enter compatitions
    Auto subscribing to email lists is all too common as well

    • Gareth says

      Thanks Gaz, yep email capture is whole area I didn’t cover. I started writing about about affiliate conversion tricks too like cookie stuffing and the voucher code stuff, but it was a whole separate post!

  3. says

    I’ve seen the ones where the rate is lower and promises no commitments, yet you have to pay for low monthly rate for an entire year, otherwise it goes up monthly. It’s sad that so many businesses are duping people like you’ve shown in these examples. Thanks for bringing them to light!

  4. says

    Great article Gareth. Marketers should read to see if they do any of these things. I have to admit, I had to stare a bit at the arrow box example. I didn’t see it at first, but then I saw the ad text to the left and realized it was a wide ad. And I can’t believe someone would use another person’s image.

  5. says

    Looks like you put a ton of work into this.

    I don’t really have much to say besides “thank you” and “great job”. Some were pretty eye-opening.

    • Gareth says

      Cheers Glen, I appreciate your comments! Looks like you are in Thailand from the ip, hope you are having fun!

  6. says

    Interesting read Gareth – that’s a lot of writing/research! The hosting company examples were of particular interest considering my background, and it is something I particularly dislike about the industry. Unfortunately, we have to display pricing in a similar manner to be competitive buy try to be a little more honest and upfront than some of the competition.

    Some web hosts will try and charge you for 5 years of service to get the lowest monthly price plan. No one can predict what their hosting needs will be in 5 years time or even how the hosting landscape will look. Ridiculous.


  7. says

    Thank you for putting this together It is an eye opener for me. I felt disgusted of how some businesses are deceiving people.

  8. says

    excellent article, I actually read it thoroughly 😉
    this is why I really hate buying anything from not well established sites – I feel like they are going con me. very sad
    thanks for sharing!

  9. says

    Great article for me to share on my website. I strongly believe that building a business around trust and is the key to long term success. Some techniques is good in their own area and we must learn how to use them the proper way so that it doesn’t compromise the users relationship.

  10. Martin Soler says

    Great article. Aside from straight dishonesty there is the “over optimising” problem of marketing people with “amazing” ideas that think this will revolutionize everything. It happens in SEO, in design, in ads, in promotions and just about anywhere where sales need to occur. It’s sad, in the hotel space we see these sites that are cluttered with crap. As if someone hits the home page of a hotel, was wondering what to do that afternoon, saw a special offer, and booked it. It’s just not the way people buy. As Ogilvy so nicely said, The consumer isn’t an idiot… forced CRO is all about thinking they are.