All You Need to Know about Black Hat vs. Grey Hat vs. White Hat SEO
Designing an amazing website is only the first step towards a successful online presence for your business. You can either use it to generate leads or sales or just provide additional information for people who’ve heard about you from somewhere else – either way, you still want your prospective customers to find your website without too much of a hassle.
Therefore, you need to optimize your website for search engines to make sure it’s ranked as high as possible for certain keywords. You might have heard that search engine optimization (SEO) is a process which requires quite a lot of time and effort (which is 100% true), so it might be tempting to simply hire the cheapest SEO agency out there to do all the legwork for you.
However, SEO isn’t as straightforward as it may seem, since there are loads of different practices which result in different outcomes. Search engine optimization strategies and corresponding techniques can be allocated into three main groups: black hat, white hat, and grey hat.
So which strategy should you choose for your website? Bear with us to learn all the differences between them – misuse of SEO techniques might even result in your website getting removed from search engine indexes, so it’s important to know what’s considered to be right or wrong by Google and other major engines out there.
Black Hat SEO
As the name might suggest, black hat SEO practices are generally out of bounds of what’s considered “ethical” by SEO experts and search engines alike. That’s why black hat is also known as “unethical” SEO, but it doesn’t deter plenty of websites and agencies from using this method.
Naturally, black hat SEO comes with a few advantages of its own. Unfortunately, most of them help the dishonest agencies to get paid instead of enabling your potential customers to find your website easier in the long run.
- Quick results. As we’ve already mentioned, search engine optimization is typically a very lengthy process, so even if you do everything right, it might take several months until you start seeing some tangible results. Using black hat techniques can considerably improve the speed at which the development happens – some unethical SEO providers might be able to get your website ranked at #1 in just a few weeks.
- Lower price. Black hat SEO providers will usually charge you a much lower fee than an established white hat agency. Even if you choose to optimize your website on your own, filling it with relevant top quality content will usually require some help from a professional, which can also be quite costly.
Well, that’s pretty much it for the advantages. That’s exactly how black hat providers work: they promise almost immediate results at a fraction of a cost that the competition can offer, receiving a nice paycheck after the client sees their website at the top of their desired search results pages. It doesn’t end here though…
- Imminent penalties. So you might enjoy the artificially inflated ranking of your website for a while, but sooner or later Google (and other search engines) will find out that your pages are ranked way higher than they should be. It might result in anything between a warning and a long-term ban of your website from the engine’s results pages, meaning your prospective customers won’t be able to find you online.
Even if you are only warned by Google and eliminate any black hat techniques, the ranking of your page will take a serious hit, so the money you spent on that promising agency will be gone without any results to justify the expenses.
If you think that the risk is worth taking, we’d suggest to consider it once again, since no one is safe from the wrath of Google when they find out that you’ve been dishonest at optimizing your website. A few examples of major companies blacklisted by Google include BMW, Ricoh, and, more recently, TopSEOs, a leading SEO awards company.
- Negative reputation. While the use of black hat SEO practices will usually have little influence on the customers’ decision to choose you over the competition, it all depends on the market you’re working in.
Unethical SEO techniques probably didn’t result in less cars sold for BMW, but appearing on a major digital marketing blog or news website as an example of black hat SEO can certainly result in loss of credibility in the eyes of some of your potential customers.
All things considered, unless you’re looking for some very short-term gain and have nothing against disappearing completely afterwards, we wouldn’t recommend using the black hat method for your SEO efforts.
So how do you avoid getting blacklisted by Google for unethical practices? Well, there are plenty of well-known black hat SEO techniques which are frowned upon in the SEO community. You should either avoid using them yourself or keep an eye on your SEO provider in case you don’t trust them 100%.
The list below is non-exhaustive, but we tried to gather as many proven (in a bad way) unethical SEO techniques as possible in a single place. So here are the practices you should avoid unless you’re ready to take the high risks which come with the black hat SEO methods:
- Doorway / gateway / jump pages. These pages are usually optimized for a certain keyword, but instantly link the visitor to another page which is typically much more visually appealing, but might not include the information the visitor was looking for in the first place.
- Hidden content. There are a few different ways to hide keyword-stuffed content on a webpage, including putting it between the comment tags (<!–text –>) which can’t be seen by the visitor or using the same color for both the text and the background.
- Link farming. There are thousands of free-for-all websites on the Internet which exist for a single purpose: linking to different websites which are usually completely unrelated. If links to your pages appear on a few of those “directories”, you risk receiving penalties from Google.
- Meta keyword stuffing. Meta tags are used to provide information for both search engines (although frequent keyword stuffing has lowered their importance for your page rankings) and the prospective visitors of your website (since the description appears on search engine results pages). Filling it with keywords instead of relevant information about your business is one of the most popular unethical SEO techniques.
- Keyword stuffing. Listing all of your keywords instead of incorporating them into your content can also result in penalties from search engines. This technique is frequently used in combination with hidden content to ensure that the website is appealing to the visitor.
- Website cloaking. Cloaking is a technique which shows a totally different page depending on the user accessing the website, so a page can be highly optimized with keywords for search robots, while real visitors end up seeing something far more appealing.
- Duplicate content. Filling your website with content which can already be found elsewhere on the Internet won’t play well with the search engines. So while it’s the easiest way of getting new content, it will never work in the long run.
- Extreme cross-linking. An excessive amount of links between two, three, or more websites is generally frowned upon by search engines, especially if the websites are completely unrelated.
- Link hoarding. As the name suggests, link hoarding is having loads of inbound links to your website or page without any (or very little) outbound ones. It might be grounds for further investigation of your website by search engines, but it’s considered to be unethical only if the links come from unrelated or untrustworthy sources.
- Links to questionable websites. It works both ways, so if your website contains plenty of links to other websites which are considered to be unethical (including link farms or fake blogs), you might get penalized by Google and other engines.
- Spamming. Last but not least, spamming other websites, forums, and blogs with links to your pages to increase the number of inbound links is considered to be highly unethical and can hurt the reputation of your business in the long run.
Some of these techniques might also fall in the next category (it’s a matter of opinion), but we wouldn’t recommend using any of them in any case. So if you notice that your agency is doing something from the list, we’d think twice before doing any further business with them.
Once again, there are certainly a few advantages in using black hat strategies when optimizing your website, but it will only work if you’re looking for some quick revenue (and we can’t really think of any legitimate business which would want that and only that). Otherwise, it’s time to move on to the middle ground – the grey hat SEO method.
Grey Hat SEO
There are two ways to define grey hat search engine optimization. Firstly, it can be a mix between black and white hat SEO methods, so providers which use some questionable techniques in addition to proven best practices can be considered to be grey hat.
In addition to that, grey hat SEO can involve bending the existing search engine rules to achieve the desired results quicker and easier. Grey hat techniques are not illegal or unethical if they’re used in the right way, but staying up to date to ever-changing search engine guidelines requires loads of knowledge and experience.
So why do people use grey hat SEO techniques?
- Competitive advantage. Although using grey hat SEO tactics probably won’t result in your rankings rising as quickly as if you were utilizing full-on black hat methods, the difference between pure white hat and shady grey hat is still there.
This way of “beating the system” can result in a vital advantage over your competition, especially during the festive times of the year with largest sales, such as Cyber Monday and pre-Christmas.
- Lower cost. While grey hat SEO techniques require more time and effort than black hat ones, they’re still not as labor-intensive as the widely accepted ethical practices. So if you’re hiring someone to carry out a grey hat SEO campaign for you, chances are the total you’ll spend will be significantly lower than the price of a 100% white hat optimization.
Beating your competition to your potential customers doesn’t come without any downsides though, since the higher rankings you achieve have a tendency of getting back where they’re supposed to be after a while.
- Short-term gain. Some grey hat techniques make the list below only because they’re not considered to be black hat yet. Search engine algorithms will be updated to spot the dubious practices sooner or later, so you can’t expect to enjoy the results you achieve forever.
However, some methods are safer to use than the others – for instance, it’s really difficult to prove that a webmaster of another website included a link to your page because you paid them, so paid links fall into the grey hat category.
- Required knowledge and experience. Grey hat SEO still comes with plenty of risks, so you’ll need to know exactly what you’re doing to carry out a successful campaign. Otherwise, you might face the same search engine penalties you’d receive for using black hat SEO techniques, ranging from a warning to a ban from search engine listings.
Therefore, you can’t expect grey hat SEO to bring the same “clean” long-term results as a successful white hat campaign. It comes with a few upsides though, but you have to make sure that the person who optimizes your website doesn’t take any unnecessary risks.
Grey hat SEO comes with a much shorter list of techniques than the black hat method, since plenty of practices which were considered to be grey hat before are now explicitly blacklisted by Google and other search engines. As we’ve already mentioned before, search algorithms are improved on a regular basis to catch the websites using any questionable practices much more effectively.
There are still a few techniques which might help you to improve your website’s rankings more quickly, but you need to do a really good job hiding them from the search algorithms.
- Spun content. Spinning is a technique of taking an original piece of content and rewording it to upload to different websites all over the web (while including links to your page). There are loads of free and paid automated spinners available online which range from OK to ridiculous (for instance, “grey hat SEO” might become “ash cap SEO” if you’re using free software).
You can also hire people (usually from overseas) to do the rewriting for you, but you can’t expect great results paying $2 or $3 per article. If you can pay more, it’s better to come up with completely unique content in each and every case.
- Paid links. While purchasing links is forbidden by Google, it’s very difficult to ascertain whether you’ve paid for a link if it appears on a real website with real readership. There’s a selection of online link marketplaces which can make the job easier, but you don’t want to get caught doing that by Google.
- Purchasing old domains. Buying old domains (especially the ones with high authority) which aren’t used anymore by their previous or current owners can serve as a good place to fill with links. It’s usually done in combination with…
- Disposable websites. These websites are set up for a single purpose: to place the links you sell through the link marketplaces or elsewhere on the web. It’s typically done by grey hat SEO providers, but can be used to add links to the website you’re optimizing as well.
We wouldn’t recommend doing that though – if your website has loads of inbound links from questionable sources, you will be investigated by Google sooner rather than later.
- Social media automation. Buying social media followers is not an ethical practice, but using other tools which allow you to follow, un-follow, or send requests to thousands of users with a single click is not forbidden by Google as of yet. Social signals are becoming more important for SEO, so we should expect that this technique will be added to the Google’s black list in a short while.
Overall, grey hat SEO is slightly better than black hat since there are some techniques which are obviously unethical but aren’t blacklisted by Google. However, we’d be very cautious about using any of them if you’re looking for high quality, long-term results. If that’s your goal, there’s only a single option which you should consider for your SEO efforts: the white hat method.
White Hat SEO
White hat SEO is a completely honest and ethical approach to the process of optimizing your website. The main idea of the white hat method is following the guidelines provided by Google and other search engines and avoiding the black hat and (most) grey hat tactics listed above.
While the black and grey hat alternatives can help you to rank your website faster, the results achieved by a successful white hat campaign are usually the same or even better. Sure, it will take a good while before you reach the desired rankings, but you won’t have to worry about any unexpected fluctuations which are typical to websites optimized using a black hat strategy.
- Long-term results. There’s a popular notion that it’s impossible to perfectly optimize your website since search engine algorithms are constantly changing. People tend to forget the reason they’re (slightly) changed every other week though: to catch and penalize websites using black hat practices.
Otherwise, there haven’t been any major changes to the way sites are ranked for a long time, so if you’re using white hat techniques, you can be sure that the results you manage to achieve are there to stay.
- No risk. If you follow the guidelines provided by Google when you’re optimizing your website, there are pretty much no risks of penalties involved. Your website will never be removed from the search engine results pages and should do well in maintaining the ranking you achieve in the first place.
- An appealing website. Since white hat SEO involves creating top quality content and building the website to be comfortable to browse around for the visitors, one of the best outcomes of the white hat SEO method is a website which looks great and provides loads of valuable and engaging information.
That’s why you can expect to receive a sizeable amount of organic shares and backlinks, resulting in an even higher ranking for your website in the long run.
So it seems that it’s certainly worth your while to use white hat techniques when optimizing your website. The method has a few downsides as well, but every single website has to face them during the optimization process.
- Serious competition. Most of your competitors will do their best to be ranked higher for certain keywords as well, so using all the well-known white hat SEO techniques will usually not give you a competitive edge. That’s why the quality of your content and the integration of other online marketing methods are so important.
- Higher price. White hat SEO requires a lot of time and effort, so if you’re not doing everything by yourself, you should expect to pay more than you would for black hat SEO services. Pricing for white hat optimization varies depending on the keywords and the content, but it’s in four figures for most websites.
- Slower results. Another issue you’ll have to face is the time required to see some tangible results. White hat SEO techniques are much slower than black hat ones, so it might take several months for your website to be ranked in the position it deserves.
So you’ll need more money and more patience when carrying out white hat SEO campaigns, but the results are certainly worth it. So which of the vast range of SEO methods are considered to be 100% white hat?
White hat SEO is simpler than it may seem, as it focuses on a just a few key elements. Implementing the below techniques successfully might be difficult, but they’ll certainly help your website to be ranked higher in addition to causing no risk of penalties from Google and other search engines.
- Quality content. This is definitely the #1 issue when it comes to white hat search engine optimization. A large amount of interesting, relevant, and unique content (including text, images, and videos) is the first step to being ranked higher in search engine results pages.
- Appropriate keyword placement. The keywords you’re planning to be ranked higher for will certainly have to appear on the website for a handful of times (not too many though!). Their placement is also significant, as the words placed in the title or subheadings are regarded as more important by search engines.
- Semantic website mark up. Using title, paragraph, and heading tags helps the search robots to understand the structure of your website better. Separating content from design in the code of the page can also assist Google and other engines in finding the most important bits.
- Correct meta data. The title of the page is definitely the key part here, but correct meta keywords and descriptions are still important for your SEO efforts. In addition to that, they can attract the users to click on your website instead of the others in the search results pages.
- Link building. While purchasing links is unethical, asking other people to add a link to your website (or a great piece of content there) is a proven tactic which can help you to get an edge over the competition. Be sure to pick websites with a good Page Rank, as inbound links from better positioned websites will result in a higher ranking for your page as well.
- Community building / social media. Likes, shares, and mentions on social media are becoming more and more important, so building a community which would be interested in what you have to say can boost your SEO efforts in addition to bringing in additional visitors from social media interactions.
- Orientation to the user. Finally, it’s always a good idea to create a website which would be oriented to your prospective customer instead of the search engine. You don’t have to try and deceive Google about your website’s popularity if you’re doing a really, really good job – with the help of social media, your content can be all over the Internet.
All things considered, white hat SEO is pretty much the only way to go to achieve higher rankings for your website which would last longer than a few weeks. However, crafting your website, creating quality content, building links in reputable websites, and catering to your social media communities (all at the same time) can be costly and very, very time-consuming.
You will need to do all that to rank your website higher in the search results pages, so if you need any help setting everything up, do get in touch with us to book a free consult. This way, we can learn about your current situation and future plans and pick the best solutions for your success.