The Dangers of Dark Patterns

There’s no doubt that SEO and Internet Marketing has come a long way. The past few years have been chockfull of substantial shifts in the ways that we do business – causing quite a few growing pains. But with an ongoing transition away from spammy tactics and a refocused spirit on elevating the needs of our customers, it seems that the industry is finally reforming its ways.

But then I see this…

Or this…

Or scammy stuff like this (actual monthly price 4.99)…

And I wonder are we really changing that much? Or are we just shifting our crafty tactics to new areas?

Understanding Dark Patterns

These types clever UI techniques are known as Dark Patterns. Based off of the inverted principles of usability, they’re intended to fool users into opting-in when they otherwise wouldn’t.

Where user interfaces are there to make things as clear and intuitive as possible, dark patterns utilize all the black magic of confusing structure, double negatives, and bait and switch techniques in order to drive users to convert. In essence, dark patterns can be boiled down to an “easy-in” / “difficult-out” philosophy where, instead of giving users honest choices, companies assume their desired actions.

And they’re everywhere…

So What About Us?

Now, you may say, “This isn’t my doing,” and for the most part, you might be right. But here’s the deal, when it comes to A/B testing or CRO, most of us are convinced entirely by testing results. And guess what? These kinds of practices test really well.

For example, take a look at the options below. Which one do you think will do better?


It’s pretty obvious to assume that Example 2 will provide a higher conversion rate… tempted right?

In his presentation on Dark Patterns, Harry Brignull summarizes the problem perfectly. He describes how these patterns are usually found in “aggressive environments” where there’s a “huge emphasis on metrics.” When designs are strictly dictated by marketing, there’s usually an over-emphasis on conversions, which often opens the door to ethically ambiguous design decisions.

Does this sound familiar? Do you base the success of designs primarily off of testing results? Now it may sting to admit it, but if you’re the driving force behind analytics – you’re the cause…

Why this Matters

We’re at a cross roads in our industry. For years we spammed, stuffed and faked our way to rankings with little attention to our end user. We ultimately cared more about our metrics, than we did about the people using our products. As Google has caught on and made painful adjustments though, we’ve changed our ways and decided to flaunt our white hats.

But I can’t help but ask have we really changed? In all the talk about doing “real company shit” and creating excellent content, do we really care more about our user? Or are we hiding our metrics obsession in craftier ways?

When it comes to SEO, we have a strong force of accountability: it’s called Google. There’s not doubt it will become more and more difficult to get away with black hat marketing techniques in the years to come – and so we’ll stop doing them. But, the reality is, there will always be opportunities to “black hat” in the work that we do. There will always be dark patterns we can use to manipulate and deceive for our own benefit.

When it comes to UI, there currently isn’t any kind of accountability beyond our users. There’s no way to stop or discourage this kind of behavior. But in the end, does it really even help? Does it really make our customers appreciate us more? Refer us more? Utilize us more? Or is it just another short-term way to make a few bucks?

As we continue to fly our white hats and talk about elevating our users, we have to ask ourselves: Do we really care about the needs and desires of our customers? Or do we only care when we’re being held accountable?