White hat vs black hat SEO: Knowing the difference

There are many search engine optimisation techniques out there that can improve your ranking. However, not all of these are created equally.

black hat SEOWe take a look at the concepts of white hat and black hat SEO and sets out tactics that fall into these categories and where the blurry line known as grey hat SEO begins and ends.

What is white hat and black hat SEO?

The line between white hat SEO and black hat SEO is, according to Google, a clear one. In reality it’s not that simple. White hat SEO techniques are those which comply with current search engine best practice and guidelines (the bible of SEO known as Google’s Webmaster Guidelines).

On the other hand, black hat SEO, while it can be effective, utilises techniques that do not adhere to these guidelines or explicitly flaunt them. The problem comes with the fact that Google’s guidelines are constantly changing, meaning that today’s white hat tactic may become tomorrow’s black hat technique.

Grey hat SEO

To further complicate matter, the term grey hat SEO has become increasingly popular in recent years. Grey hat refers to techniques that are not clearly defined by current search engine guidelines, meaning it is questionable as to whether these practices are white or black hat. This is down to the fact that many SEO practices start off legitimate but become spammed to the point where the whole practice becomes disreputable and Google’s algorithm eventually changes to penalise everyone using it.

A good example of this is directory listings, which were intended in the early days of the internet to direct traffic to a website through hyperlinks. As each hyperlinks is a ranking signal, individuals began exploiting directories, leading to hundreds of thousands of illegitimate directories being set up just to build links. Nowadays, whilst listing on reputable directories is fine, the practice of doing it en masse is still viewed with caution by some in the SEO community.

The fact is that many SEO techniques can be and are abused. White hat SEO tactics can, over time cross into grey hat or even black hat territory if improperly implemented. As you can see, this can become a bit of a minefield for business owners and non SEO professionals to navigate.

White hat vs black hat tactics

Given the transient nature of SEO guidelines, it can be difficult to know which techniques are acceptable and which should be avoided.

Link building is one such technique. Linking has long been seen as one of the most important of the factors that Google uses to rank websites. While high-quality backlinks can help you increase your visibility, it is important to realise that linking as an SEO technique can fall into the white, grey or black hat categories. It just depends on how you do it. As a rule here, it’s always best to go for quality over quantity.

For example, internal linking to other pages on your site using anchor text and outbound linking to relevant, authority websites are both white hat. However, linking strategies that can be considered black or grey hat include buying and selling links, unnatural link promotion and hiding links within your text (such as putting them behind punctuation marks).

Other examples of white hat tactics include:

  • Optimising for keywords. Optimising web copy, page titles and meta data to target prominent keywords helps the search engine to know what your page is about. Of course over optimisation for keywords, also known as keyword stuffing (see below), is not good.
  • Adding headers. This simply means having a single H1 that describes what the page is about, followed by relevant H2 and H3 sub-headers, as appropriate.
  • Adding keywords to images. Image descriptions and alt tags are good places to add relevant keywords.
  • Publishing long-form content. In-depth, well-written articles of around 2,000 words can help you to rank highly. Make sure keywords are included naturally.
  • Website structure. The structure of a website (that is it’s URL structure) is fundamental to the way Google crawls your site. Having an intuitive site structure that breaks content into relevant areas of topics (known as silos) is a powerful and often overlooked SEO tactic.

Examples of black hat tactics include

  • Automated or spun content. Putting content on your site that has been automatically generated won’t just turn off any genuine readership it can lead to your site being penalised.
  • Hiding text. Similar to hiding links, this involves such practices as placing text behind images or putting white text on a white background.
  • Keyword stuffing. This is an old-school tactic that involves incorporating keywords into text beyond what is considered appropriate density. Among other things, it flags that a site is unprofessional.
  • Cloaking. Users are taken to content they did not expect to see when they clicked on your link in the search results. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to a high bounce rate.
  • Scraping. This unethical tactic involves republishing content taken from other websites without permission.

SEO techniques which fall into the black hat camps attract additional risk. In the world of SEO, risk means the chance of landing a penalty that can see your site disappear from search results, drop down the rankings and lose visitors.

So, while black hat tactics can seem simple to implement, and may even achieve significant results in the short term, they can be counterproductive in the longer term. This is why many site-owners and SEO professionals prefer to keep their strategies white hat.

Working with an SEO agency

Falling foul of SEO guidelines can be costly. At the most extreme, your site could be removed from Google’s index altogether. That is why many startups and established businesses hire an SEO agency or reseller to find professionals whose job it is to successfully manage risk on their behalf and to navigate the choppy waters of white, grey and black hat tactics.

When looking to bring in professional help, it is important that you choose an SEO expert who will ensure the tactics and techniques they use to achieve a high ranking bring rewards, not penalties. The sands of SEO guidelines are constantly shifting, which means it is crucial to stay on top of any changes and adjust strategies accordingly in order to achieve optimum results over the longer term.