Black Hat SEO and White Hat SEO: What's the Difference?

Hilary St Jonn

Nov 20, 20209 min read
white hat vs. black hat SEO, and the gray

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. 

Learning the difference between black hat SEO vs. white hat SEO and the gray 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—black hat SEO, which doesn't focus on content quality. In Google's ideal world, you will create absolutely amazing content, 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 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 and Understand Your Site

Now, is amazing content enough? No! If Google has issues viewing your site (remember, Google is a bot that reads code; it does not see what we see), you will 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 an excellent idea to use the Google Search Console to upload your sitemap and 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 types of site errors you may have that could affect your rankings. It is important to regularly check your site to ensure no new site issues are coming up.

White SEO vs. 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 a Google employee."

Unlike white hat SEO, 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 will 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 - 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 a while because some sites needed to show search engines what was on the website.

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 than help your rankings!

Negative SEO - Ok, this isn't a black hat technique per se, 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 competitors 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 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 Hat SEO and White Hat SEO

Gray hat is basically any SEO strategy that may not necessarily be 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). 

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 excellent 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 or white hat SEO zone?

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 a kind donor's website!

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.

For search engine optimization specialists new to the field, I recommend following your gut. If it feels wrong, if it feels like you are trying to cheat Google, 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.

Instead, focus on creating value for your readers, providing good content, making sure your on-page SEO is optimal, and building online relationships. When it comes to deciding between black hat SEO vs. white hat SEO, make sure you're following the right steps to ensure your site is on the right path.
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Affiliate Manager at BeRush, Semrush's official affiliate program. Passionate about educating others on the power of digital marketing.