SEO 101, Volume 2: Black Hat vs White Hat SEO

SEO

Ever since SEO hit the scene as a go-to digital marketing method, its practitioners have fallen into two distinct camps: black hat and white hat SEO.

Which side you fall on is determined by the approach you use to optimize your website, and how well your techniques match up with the official Google guidelines for SEO best practices.

The truth is, not all SEO strategies are created equally – or ethically. Here in the second edition of our SEO 101 series, we examine the definitions and methodology associated with these two prevailing methods.

White Hat SEO: The Gold Standard

White hat SEO is the gold standard of SEO practices which every reputable agency or SEO tech strives to embody. What separates white hat techniques from their more “shady” counterparts? Google approves of white hat SEO strategies. That means if you follow these techniques, you are more likely to be rewarded with higher search engine result page (SERP) rankings and more website traffic.

Some examples of white hat SEO strategies include:

  • Writing high-quality, engaging content in diverse forms with keywords included naturally throughout, including meta tags and meta descriptions
  • Using personalized outreach strategies to authentically build backlinks to your site
  • Engineering the entire website to put user experience first
  • Matching content to user intent, ensuring its relevance to searchers
  • Creating internal links throughout your website

White hat SEO has an ethos that prioritizes user experience above getting ranks fast. It follows the direction provided by major search engines, with some thinking of it as a fundamentally conservative approach to SEO.

So how do you spot where white hat SEO is used? You’ll see it in websites geared to answering searchers’ questions, providing useful information relevant to search terms and end users. These sites also load fast and dynamically across a vast range of devices. Essentially, if you’re finding it hard to stop reading or leave a website, its marketers are probably using white hat SEO.

Black Hat SEO: Risky Business

If the rush to achieve your SERP ranking goals is influencing the SEO techniques you use, there’s a chance you have used black hat methods to get there. Basically, black hat SEO refers to strategies that aren’t endorsed by Google or are explicitly advised against. They are more aggressive in the pursuit of results, which means they carry a higher risk of incurring rank penalties.

Examples of black bat SEO techniques include:

  • Keyword stuffing – the practice of shoving keywords where they don’t belong, making content less readable
  • Using duplicate content
  • Using hidden text search engines can’t see
  • Cloaking – this is when websites sneakily redirect you to another page after reeling you in from SERPs
  • Purchasing backlinks in hopes of increased site link exposure

Using black hat techniques to optimize a website often results in poor user experience. While there is evidence to suggest they can get results in the short-term, these efforts usually fall flat once Google catches onto them. This often means your site pages will lose rankings or even get de-indexed entirely, depending on the severity. Are the short-term payoffs worth the risk?

Grey Hat SEO: The Middle Ground or a Slippery Slope?

As with many things in life, not everything is completely black and white. Somewhere in the ambiguous “grey area” of SEO resides the aptly-named grey hat techniques. Thought-leaders in the SEO community have called grey hat SEO a series of ill-defined or ill-advised techniques whose ethics are up for debate.

As the name and criteria suggest, grey hat techniques carry a certain level of risk. At the end of the day, if you’re using a technique you’re not sure aligns with Google’s guidelines, it’s a smart call to play it safe and give it a miss. If marketers start justifying these techniques, it can easily become a slippery slope to black hat status. In fact, many marketers consider grey hat techniques to be black hat methods masquerading as white hat ones.

Risk vs Reward

Although their names carry moral connotations, some leading SEO experts such as Neil Patel highlight the prevailing similarity between the wildly differing techniques: they share the same end goal. Of course, that’s ranking highly on Google, Baidu, Bing, and the others. What separates a black hat technique from a white hat one comes down to how you reach your end goal, along with the longevity of any results you achieve.

Ultimately, black hat techniques are high-risk with short-term rewards. On the other hand, white hat techniques are low-risk but yield better long-term results that stand the test of time. Once you earn your SERP ranking the white hat way, you don’t necessarily have to worry about it disappearing overnight.

Some SEO techs will believe they’ve “gamed the system” by devising shortcuts around the standard practices of white hat SEO. Temporarily, perhaps, they may accomplish this with short-term traffic and rank boosts. But it doesn’t last long! The end result of using black hat techniques is both inevitable and very hard to scramble your way out of.

Which Path Will You Take?

While white hat SEO requires a little bit of patience, the results are more than worth it. Black hat strategies may give you a quick fix, but they foster no loyalty or genuine engagement among visitors. Using white hat methods tends to create more exciting companies with websites that are truly worth visiting. Wouldn’t you rather have your brand associated with providing high-value, memorable online experiences?

We hope this post has shed some light on the contrasting nature of black and white hat SEO. If you missed our first edition or need some clarification on the basics, check out our Introduction to the Fundamentals Of Website Ranking