Gray, Black, and White Hat SEO: An Introduction
- Simply put, white hat SEO is optimizing your website for organic search using techniques that clearly follow the terms of service outlined by search engines.
- Google’s main objective is to provide information that best relates to the topic and intent of a specific user’s search, and white hat SEO does this.
- Black hat SEO tactics, on the other hand, are those which purposely try to circumvent or manipulate the ranking factors in a search engine’s algorithm.
- As the name may suggest gray hat SEO lies somewhere between white and black hat
- Because gray hat techniques usually focus on improving your rankings by exploiting a loophole in the algorithm, chances are the next update will wipe your gains.
Imagine this: it’s a Monday morning in 2020, or so you hope it is, but who really knows anymore with all these extended lockdowns. You open your inbox to find an email from your boss, the VP of Marketing. In the email, she says she read a great article on how SEO can help companies better position themselves during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. She wants you to report back with what the best course of action is. You decide the best course of action is to bring in a professional SEO agency, like RMG, to guide your SEO strategy.
Before the meeting, you decide to do some research to understand the concept of SEO. During your research, you find forums talking about backlinks, optimizing meta tags, keyword stuffing, internal linking, and even see people talking about partnerships they have that can get a certain number of backlinks for a price. You see the terms white hat SEO, gray hat SEO, and black hat SEO when referring to some of these techniques. Not knowing what this means, you decide to research further…
What is White Hat SEO?
Simply put, white hat SEO is optimizing your website for organic search using techniques that clearly follow the terms of service outlined by search engines. With 86% of search occurring on Google, it is important to understand Google’s guidelines for search engine optimization.
While it may seem straightforward, there is more to it than just following Google’s guidelines and staying within its terms of service. As Google puts it, “You should build a website to benefit your users.” Since Google puts users first, it views the pages of your website as maps to guide the users to the information they need. Those maps should be as easy to read as possible.
So, why are things like keyword stuffing considered to be black hat SEO? One of the primary reasons is it makes for a poor reading experience. If this blog post had started each sentence with a variation of “white hat SEO is,” chances are you would have clicked the back button after the first paragraph. The same would have occurred if the page loaded too slowly or there was a lot of unrelated content.
White Hat SEO is About the Users
As SEOs, we sometimes blame Google for low search rankings, but look at your website and ask yourself, “are users having a good experience?” If your keyword rankings dropped, this is likely why. Google’s main objective is to provide information that best relates to the topic and intent of a specific user’s search. If your website does this, your website will rank well. White hat SEO techniques primarily help users better understand or experience the page and secondly provide ranking signals to search engines.
One of the first optimizations you should consider in any SEO campaign is the optimization of your meta tags, specifically page titles and meta descriptions. First, let’s consider if this is truly a white hat SEO technique? Does it help the user? Yes, it does, by providing a clear page title and meta description, the user will have a clear indication of the content they will see if they click on your page within the SERPs. If a user has a clear understanding of what your page is about, they will spend less time on information that does not address their search. Second, does this fall within the search engine guidelines? Yes, it does. Google specifically calls out page title and meta description optimization as a best practice. Therefore, we can confidently determine that optimizing your meta tags is a white hat SEO technique.
Looking at the future of SEO, focusing on user experience will only become more important. On May 5th Google announced Core Vitals as “a set of metrics related to speed, responsiveness and visual stability, to help site owners measure user experience on the web.” A few weeks later, they announced that these metrics would become direct Ranking Factors next year, reinforcing how important user experience is in white hat SEO.
What is Black Hat SEO?
Black hat SEO tactics, on the other hand, are those which purposely try to circumvent or manipulate the ranking factors in a search engine’s algorithm. It is important to note that it has nothing to do with legality. To put it bluntly, it attempts to cheat the system. These techniques go directly against the terms of service for search engines.
If a search engine notices back hat techniques, they may naturally rank your page lower. However, Google could also take a manual action against your website. These manual penalties can completely remove your website from search or put you towards the bottom of the search results. The devastating effects on your organic traffic can take a long time to recover from. We have seen some websites take years to recover from manual actions, and some never do.
Black hat SEO is designed to create a burst of organic traffic to your website, but because it is traffic generated by manipulating the search engines, the traffic you gain will be outweighed by the losses of traffic if your website is hit with a manual action. You can also expect your conversion rates for leads or sales to decline as less qualified organic traffic is pushed to your website.
What are Some Black Hat SEO Techniques?
A well known black hat SEO technique is link schemes. Link schemes have specifically been called out by Google as an illegitimate way of manipulating PageRank, the Google Search algorithm. Black hat link building, through link schemes, looks to artificially create backlinks to increase the perceived authority of your page. Paying for links or exchanging links for links goes against Google guidelines. In contrast, a white hat SEO link building strategy, per Google, would “create high-quality, relevant links by creating unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community.”
Not all black hat techniques are part of a scheme to intentionally manipulate a search engine’s algorithm. If you haven’t spent much time optimizing your site for technical SEO, you may find that a poorly built website may have issues that specifically go against a search engine’s guidelines.
For example, an improper or lack of canonical tags can result in a duplicate content issue. Duplicate content, according to Google, is “substantive blocks of content within or across domains that either completely match other content or are appreciably similar. Mostly, this is not deceptive in origin.” Because search engine crawlers are just robots, they may interpret technical issues like these as attempts to manipulate the search algorithm.
What is Gray Hat SEO?
As the name may suggest, gray hat SEO lies somewhere between white and black hat. There is no clear indication from a search engine that these techniques are a direct violation of the terms of service or in Google’s case the webmaster guidelines. These techniques will not result in a manual action; however, you can expect volatility in search rankings as search engines improve their algorithms.
Because gray hat techniques usually focus on improving your rankings by exploiting a loophole in the algorithm, chances are the next update will wipe your gains. Does that mean that these techniques should not be used? No, each gray hat technique needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis with clear understanding of the risk. First, ask yourself: will this improve a user’s experience on my website? If it does and it does not violate any guidelines, this may be an initiative worth pursuing. On the other hand, if a technique is strictly an attempt to manipulate a search engine and improve rankings, then it may be best not waste valuable resources for gains that can be wiped out overnight through an algorithm update.
White Hat Ensures Long-Term Success
When comparing white hat vs gray hat vs black hat SEO one thing is clear: search engines are always evolving, and what worked last year may not work in today’s search. By keeping your focus on your users through white hat SEO you can ensure long-term success in organic search. At RMG, we’re well versed in the complexities of Google’s search guidelines and can evaluate your site for any black or gray hat risks. If you have any questions, reach out to the team!