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Black Hat vs White Hat SEO: Which Hat Will You Wear?

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Black Hat vs White Hat SEO: Which Hat Will You Wear?

Hilary St Jonn
Black Hat vs White Hat SEO: Which Hat Will You Wear?
Please note this post is published under “Opinion” category and reflects the personal views of the author. If you disagree or have an opinion you would like to offer, feel free to discuss in comments!

Do you know what kind of SEO methods you are using? It can be difficult to know where to start with search engine optimization, as most experts have an opinion on what works, and what doesn't work. If you are using black hat SEO techniques, they may bring you short-term results, but that doesn't mean they will set you up for a solid future in search results. 

Learning the difference between white hat SEO, black hat SEO, and the gray that is in between can help you in your long-term SEO goals. So let's dive into what these different types of hats are, so you can make your own choice of how you want to rank.

White Hat SEO: Google's Golden Child

White hat SEO is basically doing search engine optimization exactly the way Google wants you to. It is following Google's guidelines and creating a long-term game plan that will withstand any Google update.

Let's sum up how Google would want everyone to optimize their websites. (I highly recommend you read Google's guidelines yourself for more details.)

High-Quality Content Created for the User

High-quality content is the number one thing you want to focus on if you are actively doing SEO. Why? Because no matter what else you do, if you don't have content that people want to read and share, you will not rank well.

It is also the cornerstone to white hat SEO. In Google's ideal world, you will create content that is absolutely amazing, it adheres to all of Google's Guidelines, and people read it and share it like mad. This is the gist of white hat SEO. 

If you aren't creating great content, if you are writing for search engines and don't care what your viewers see, you are already leaving the realm of white hat SEO. 

User experience also falls into this category.  If your content is hard to read (let's say your user is on a cell phone and your content isn't formatted for mobile use) or takes forever to load, this doesn't create a good user experience.  It lowers quality. And it will lower your chances of ranking high in the search engines.

Knowing what keywords your users are searching for and using those keywords in your content is ok, but it can quickly turn into keyword stuffing, which is black hat SEO.

I suggest you do keyword research, see what people are looking for, and then write your content in order to answer those questions.  (Of course, SEMrush has some great tools to help you with this, such as the SEO Content Template. Don't mind my shameless plug!). 

Help Google Find & Understand Your Site

Now, is amazing content enough?  No! If Google has issues viewing your site (remember, Google is a bot that just reads code; it does not see what we see), then you are going to have issues ranking.

You want to make sure that your site is indexable (you can use your robot.txt to tell Google what pages you want it to crawl and which ones you don't), Google can crawl your site properly, and you have a proper sitemap with all your important pages.

It is a very good idea to use the Google Search Console to upload your sitemap and to see if they are having any issues crawling your site. 

Good internal linking on your website is also something you should keep in mind. Important pages should be found in the menu and link from one page to another. This can go back to user experience (it is so annoying when you can't navigate a site properly!), but it also helps Google understand which pages are important and which aren't.

Of course, SEMrush's Site Audit tool dives into all the type of site errors you may have that could affect your rankings. It is important to regularly check your site to make sure there are no new site issues coming up.

Black Hat SEO: Trying to Trick Google

Google is pretty clear about what you should NOT do.  They have a good tip too. "A good rule of thumb is whether you would feel comfortable explaining what you have done...to a Google employee."

Black hat SEO is about breaking all the rules. And sure, it might work at first, depending on what method you are using, but it is more of a short-term strategy. Google updates its algorithm quite regularly, and if you are doing something that you know will get you in trouble eventually, well, then, it most likely will!

Most of the black hat techniques I am going to go over no longer work, and doing them will only hurt your chances of getting ranked. But it is good to know what not to do at times too, so let's go over them.

Hidden text - Ok, we know that if we mention certain words, this can help with rankings. But don't think you are tricking Google by making the text of certain words match the background of the website. In the distant past, this worked. People couldn't see the ugly, clunky text, but Google could and would rank these sites. But Google quickly caught on. 

Cloaking - This is when websites have the HTML that shows up for the visitor, and the HTML that shows up for the Google bot, differ. It worked for awhile because some sites, like those that used Flash, needed to show search engines what was on the website. (The main reason Flash died as a way to build websites is because search engines couldn't view it properly). 

Steal Content - This can also show up as duplicate content.  If you see a great article somewhere, don't think you aren't the first one who has ever thought that "Oh, if I publish this on my site, then my site will rank too!".  We learned in school that plagiarism is bad. In any case, Google will quickly catch you. This is why it is so important to get unique content!

Automatic Article Spinning - Perhaps you are thinking, "Ok, what if I don't steal the content but just change the words to synonyms making most of the new content unique?" For a while, people would use automatic programs to change words in an article (spinning) to create unique content, post it, and then it would rank. It would have similar keywords, similar meaning, and websites that generated a lot of "new" content could rank higher. But the content didn't read very well, and it was very similar to the original article and didn't provide anything unique or new. 

Link Farms - This is when a bunch of websites all link to each other. Links are a large signal to Google that your content is interesting to others, so this used to work.  But now, it is easy to get caught with a backlink profile that isn't natural looking. Plus, if the sites linking to yours weren't relevant to each other, it is pretty obvious to Google that you are trying to cheat. 

Purchasing Links - People are still selling this. 'Buy X amount of links for X dollars!' Don't do it. Most likely the links aren't good quality, and if you are a newbie, you are more likely to waste your money then help your rankings!

Negative SEO - Ok, this isn't a black hat technique per say, but it belongs in the same category. So you may be thinking to yourself "Well, what if I buy some bad links for my competitor? That will surely hurt their ranking, which by default will help me, right?". No. Again, you are just wasting your money and time (and being quite mean, too!). 

At first, Google started punishing people with a bad backlink profile. And then some mean people thought "Oh, I'll just buy crappy links for my competitor's to hurt them". Now Google usually ignores bad links, and even if they don't, people can disavow a link they think is hurting their rankings. Did I mention that negative SEO is just mean? Don't be mean!

These are the most common black hat techniques.  While some of these worked in the past, and some may still work today if you know what you are doing, I really don't recommend doing it. 

Now, we don't always live in a black and white world. What about this gray hat SEO that falls somewhere in between?

Gray Hat SEO: A Little Bit of Black & White Hat SEO

Gray hat is basically any SEO strategy that is maybe is not necessarily in the white hat SEO zone, but it doesn't really fall into the black hat SEO area either. An example? Completely re-writing an article that did well, but not providing anything original to that article. Another one is 3 or 4-way linking building. Example: site A links to site B which links to site C which links to site A. 

What is and isn't gray hat SEO can also depend on who you are talking to. I have heard that guest blog posting is a form of gray hat SEO. Perhaps this is because Matt Cutts, a former Google engineer, said in 2014 that guest blogging is dead. It isn't.

Google doesn't say it is a bad thing for us to write articles for other websites. Now, if you write for a website and throw a bunch of your links in there, then yeah, you are quickly getting into the gray/black hat SEO area. But writing a guest blog post and having a link to the website you are associated with at the bottom of the article in your bio, no. That is still fairly white (ok, maybe beige). 

Is Link Building White Hat, Black Hat or Gray Hat SEO?

I have come across some larger companies that flat out say "we don't link build!" I think that is pretty cool, and generally, if you create great content, are well known, have very good on-page SEO, then the links and rankings will come naturally. 

When I first heard this, I started to wonder, is link building falling into the black hat SEO zone?

My answer (for now): It depends on how you do it. If you are participating in link farms, then yeah, that is black hat SEO.

What about buying links? Yeah, if you buy mass links, yes. But what if you are a sponsor for a non-profit and you get a link on their site? Is that technically a bought link? I suppose so. On the other hand, it is natural for a non-profit to want to link to the website of a kind donor!

What if you use something like SEMrush's Brand Monitoring tool to find if someone mentions your brand but doesn't link to your site? Is it really so bad to reach out to them and say "Hey, thanks for the mention! Would you mind linking to us as well?" Not really.

This is why search engine optimization is one of my favorite aspects of digital marketing. While there are some right and wrong answers on how to do it, there is a lot of gray in between (and therefore a lot of arguing between top experts).

For search engine optimization specialists new to the field, I recommend following your gut. If it feels wrong, if it feels like you trying to cheat Google, then Google will most likely feel the same way. And if the algorithm doesn't catch your sneaky technique now, it probably will in the future.

There is no "get rich quick" scheme when it comes to SEO. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is (and it is probably a black hat technique!)

Instead, focus on creating value for your readers, providing good content, making sure your on-page SEO is optimal and building online relationships. 99% of white hat SEO techniques come from simply doing these things.

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Affiliate Manager at BeRush, SEMrush's official affiliate program. Passionate about educating others on the power of digital marketing.
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Sean Gugerty
When it comes to buying links it comes down to who you're buying them from as to whether it is socially acceptable in the eyes of Google.

For example, getting listed in many authority passing directories in many instances cost money, like the Chamber of Commerce.

Additionally, purchasing a 400 dollar press release in which Fox, ABC, Huffington Post, and 197 other News authorities backlink you and syndicate your images/videos/content on the release VERY much juices up your site almost immediately.

This of coarse isn’t looked negatively upon because Google makes money on it. Basically if you’re putting money in Googles pocket you can do just about whatever you want.
Awesome! I love this content. This is too much helpful for all guys who are looking their career in digital marketing.
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Garen Arnold
I really hate black hat SEO and wish it never existed. It’s the most unethical way to make money online and it really creates a lot of problems for everyone. I mean, I’m in the business of buying and selling websites and there are a ton of preventive measures we have to go through because of the blackhat SEO industry.

For me, it really doesn’t make much sense to create something, do a bunch of dodgy stuff to it and then when Google catches on, and they will start over again.
Hilary St Jonn
Garen Arnold
I agree that black hat SEO doesn't make sense. Google will catch on, and usually, it is pretty quick!

For example, some webmasters were using the event markup incorrectly, putting their discount codes up as events. Then at the end of November Google warned that they would penalize sites that did this. (Article: https://searchengineland.com/google-warns-webmasters-not-use-misleading-event-markup-287299)

It is Google! They are always watching!
_JASONPADEN
I love/hate Google. As they spiral down the "Absolute Power" path, they continue to squeeze that Iron Fist they rule with a bit tighter, and tighter. Especially for SEO's, you never know.
What is considered "White Hat" today, The Goo may be calling "Black Hat" tomorrow.
Hilary St Jonn
_JASONPADEN
Very true, we are all in the hands of this Iron fist!

Though the trend seems to be, at least for now, good content, good user experience and a site the Google bot can understand. For now... :)
_JASONPADEN
Hilary St Jonn
I'll give you that, as of late most of the trends are clearly forging a better internet experience. AMP sucks, but that's really my only complaint, as long as I just don't think about it. 8)
As far as your article itself, I enjoy your style. The piece flows well, holds my attention and presents solid content. Definitely worth taking time out of my busy day to read, and recognize.
Hilary St Jonn
_JASONPADEN
Oh thank you! It is always nice to hear positive feedback. :)

Yes, AMP will be interesting... Google seems to be doubling down, but it does feel like an arm twist for us to start using AMP. Really, though, all they want are fast, clean mobile sites!

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