black hat SEO

The 3 Hats of SEO: White, Black & Grey

There are a lot of different tactics and strategies used in the world of SEO. In general, most of these tactics and strategies used fall into one of three different categories, white, black or grey hat SEO. These three “hats” are very different in nature and SEO professionals certainly have different reasons to use each of them.

In the competitive world of SEO, people will try to do anything they can to get an advantage, and sometimes the advantage is unfair to others and not in Google’s (or other search engines or even SEO in general) best practice. SEO uses the different colour hats to explain the different types of tactics being used.

white hat vs black hat SEO

So, what are the three different types of hats in SEO?

In it’s most simplest terms, white hat SEO means that you are strictly following the rules. You only deploy ethical tactics and closely follow any search engine guidelines. White hat SEO tactics are the safest because you will not get a penalty or manual action taken against your site.

Black hat SEO refers to the opposite of white hat SEO and it therefore means you are deploying more risky tactics. Obviously some of these tactics do work (otherwise people wouldn’t be doing them) but then one day, out of the blue (usually after a Google algorithm update), it will stop working and you’ll likely see a drop in rankings.

Not only are these tactics unreliable and you are looking at short term gains for long term pain, you could also receive a penalty or manual action taken against your site. If this action is taken against your website you would be impacted for a significant amount of time, and may never have the ability to return to pre- penalty results.

This is why, if you are considering outsourcing SEO to an external SEO agency that you ensure they aren’t practicing black hat SEO, as this could have extremely negative consequences for your site for something that you didn’t even do yourself or you weren’t even aware of.

Therefore, finding a quality SEO Sydney experts is vital and you should be checking in on them and asking what they are doing on a regular basis. There are a number of pretty dodgy SEO agencies out there, so if something seems to good to be true, it usually is, and quality agencies will not guarantee rankings as no one can be 100% sure on what is included in the Google algorithm.

Black hat SEO goes against the guidelines provided by search engines. It can be difficult to track and find those who are doing the wrong thing (which is why so many get away with it for so long) as it is not technically illegal to perform certain black hat SEO tactics.

However, it is certainly not worth the risk as Google (and other search engines) are getting better by the day at finding websites using these tactics and adjusting their algorithm so they no longer reap such good benefits from doing something not in best practice.

As the name would imply, grey hat SEO is a mixture of both white and black hat. This is a big point of contention in the world of SEO and many people have differing views on whether grey hat SEO is a good thing or not. As SEO evolves, there are now certain tactics that don’t necessarily fit perfectly into white or black hat SEO, so they are defined as grey hat.

This is something you probably wouldn’t willingly go tell Google about, but you also probably wouldn’t get a penalty from either. Many SEO professionals believe that it is difficult to get ahead using purely white hat SEO tactics, so sometimes some grey hat tactics need to be used.

Examples of different hats in SEO

Without providing actual example, it can sometimes be difficult to know if your actions are white, black or grey hat SEO. In general there are two clear examples in SEO, link building and quality of content. These two areas have different actions attached to it that can fit into one of the three SEO hats.

Link building

This is where you try to get other sites to include a link from their website onto your website. Some major and well known websites don’t generally have to perform external link building activities themselves as other sites naturally want to link to them anyway.

But most websites aren’t as lucky, they need to go out and make connections with other people and websites in order to try to get more backlinks. Link building is a major piece of SEO and Google have a lot to say about it.

According to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, “Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking…may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation…”. So you should be looking to build quality links in a way that isn’t manipulating rankings.

If you are performing white hat SEO in terms of link building, then you are creating quality and engaging content that people like so much that they want to mention it on their own website. This content needs to hold some sort of value, it needs to be unique and inform the user of something they didn’t already know.

When it comes to black hat SEO in link building, people here could be performing a variety of different tasks like adding your link to comments of every blog you come across, using private blog networks (PBNs) and paying for links. These types of tasks are clear-cut and if Google finds you, it is a pretty easy decision from their end to slap you with a penalty.

Grey hat SEO is a little bit murky and would involve you creating content for the one and only goal of getting more links. Now this is usually one of the reasons for sites to create content, but it shouldn’t necessarily be the only reason.

When it becomes the only reason you aren’t thinking about users and their experience with your content. But will Google really know what your intentions are, as long as the content is decent?

Content Quality

Having quality content is a must for websites to rank and it is commonly known as one of the biggest ranking factors for Google and other search engines. Google says that if you want your site to rank well then content quality is vital.

In white hat SEO your quality content looks like something that genuinely answers a user’s question, makes the user feel satisfied as well as helps users navigate your site to find more relevant information to further their learning. This content is written for users and considers their needs first, not that of search engines.

One of the biggest areas in black hat content quality is keyword stuffing or spamming. Keyword stuffing used to be all the rage years ago and it actually worked to help rank your website. However, times have now changed and so has Google’s algorithm, keyword stuffing can actually do more harm than good.

Another black hat tactic from content quality is simply scrapping other sites and stealing their content. This is especially bad and something you need to be aware of, even if you aren’t performing black hat SEO, because another site could steal your own content and sometimes it can be difficult for Google to determine who stole from who, and the wrong site gets the penalty.

The content quality of black hat SEO adds no extra value to what is already available on the internet and is commonly only written with the search engines in mind. Therefore user experience on sites with this type of content is usually pretty poor.

Grey hat SEO is where content is written only for the purpose of achieving a higher ranking. The page doesn’t necessarily need content on it (from a user experience perspective) but it will rank better with content on it. Adding content to the page doesn’t add any extra value to the user either.

This is actually quite a common practice in SEO these days and you’ll see it on a lot on e-commerce site on a page that offers certain products and once you scroll down to the bottom of the page you’ll see a few paragraphs about the product or business (or something similar).

The content on these types of pages doesn’t actually add value, as the user came to look at (and potentially purchase) the products. So, keeping in mind Google’s guidelines, you wouldn’t really say this is against their guidelines, but it would be a stretch to say it is following it fully.

Google detective

If you use black hat techniques, Google will eventually find you.

How are these three hats different?

Obviously it is easy to see the difference between these three tactics of SEO by simply looking at their definitions. But there are other ways that are also important to call out to ensure you fully understand what you are getting yourself into when choosing tactics that fall into each of the categories.

Firstly, the risk! As with anything in life, there is always risk involved. All actions, including that of white hat SEO bring risk. White hat SEO would be like waiting until the green man appears at traffic lights to cross the road, it is most likely safe, but you still do run the risk of getting hit by a car.

Grey hat would be like waiting to cross the road, not at a designated crossing, but you see no cars are coming so you cross, you know what you are doing but there is still a chance you could get hit. While black hat SEO is like crossing the road without looking. There is a lot more risk involved, as you aren’t being careful.

As your SEO tactics veer towards black hat the risk becomes greater and greater. There is more chance that you will be hit with a penalty or manual action. Now, there is still risk if you are not performing black hat SEO as other sites bad tactics could have an impact on you. So it is important to do regular checks to ensure this isn’t happening.

Secondly, the longevity! As touched on before, black hat SEO tactics are generally here for a good time, not a long time. While that may work well in the short term, Google is getting pretty good at figuring the dodgy tactics out and shutting them down.

White hat SEO is the most sustainable. While it may take longer to see the results you are looking for, you know they are a true representation of your effort and if you continue to do the right thing your ranking should continue to rise up. You should certainly think about investing your time (and potentially money) into the more sustainable SEO tactics that are proven to give long-term results.