You may have come across the terms ‘white hat SEO’ and ‘black hat SEO’ before but understanding what they encompass in terms of approach and techniques isn’t straightforward. Least of all because, what constitutes black and whitehat SEO are changing all the time, as Google and it’s guidelines and algorithm evolve.
Generally speaking though, there’s a right way (white hat) and a wrong way (black hat) of going about securing those high spots. In this guide I want to explain the difference between the two and why relying on black hat techniques could harm your presence in the SERPs. We’ll also take a bit of time to look over the disputed blurry middleground between the two, what is often referred to as grey hat SEO.
Google’s Algorithm and Webmaster Guidelines
Before we get properly stuck into explaining white hat and black hat SEO, it’s important to understand a little but about Google’s algorithm and Webmaster Guidelines. With so much information available on the web, finding exactly what you need would be impossible without some assistance. To find those relevant results, Google uses ranking factors which are related to content, URL, inbound links, metadata, keyword intent, page load time and many, many other influencing factors. The algorithm is the method Google uses to find, rank and return the results of your search query.
Google publishes Webmaster Guidelines to help you understand what, in its opinion, they do and do not want you to do to help Google find, rank and index your content. There are General Guidelines and Quality Guidelines, the latter of which are used by Google’s quality raters to keep webspam at bay and rate the quality of the SERPs by giving Google feedback to see if the algorithm is doing its job and displaying the best results for a search. The former is more like an overview of best practices and includes advice on stuff like securing your site with HTTPS, qualifying outbound links to Google, avoiding duplicate content and browser compatibility. They also contain an SEO Starter Guide.
It is Google’s Quality Guidelines that contain the most useful information when it comes to understanding the line between white hat and black hat SEO, as these talk a lot about bad practice. Some of the prohibited techniques Google lists in these guidelines are self-explanatory and most others have been out of use for many years, as they simply don’t deliver any benefit. They are:
- Automatically generated content
- Sneaky redirects
- Link schemes
- Hidden text and links
- Doorway pages
- Scraped content
- Affiliate programs
- Irrelevant keywords
- Creating pages with malicious behavior
- User-generated spam
- Ways to Prevent Comment Spam
- Report spam, paid links, or malware
What is White Hat SEO?
Put simply, white hat SEO refers to any practice that improves search performance on a SERP whilst following that search engine’s policies, which, in Google’s case are its Webmaster Guidelines. Google constantly updates its algorithm in often subtle ways (and sometimes not so subtle) that affect how websites are rewarded or penalised for their SEO and new content. This means that a website can’t rest on its laurels and must keep making the changes necessary to keep up with Google.
Some of the current top white hat techniques include, but are not limited to, the following:
The content on your website is one of the most significant ranking factors within search engines. It needs to be an appropriate length, relevant, well-sourced and fresh. Your content should be both authoritative and interesting enough to draw links from others. Whilst Google’s algorithm cannot read and understand content in the same way a human can (the AI is good but it’s nowhere near that good), it has developed hugely over the years and is extremely good at picking up on poor quality content. This may be clumsy use of language and sentence structure, overuse of keywords, poor grammar and telltale signs of spun content (more of that below).
Focus on Mobile First
Since 2016, more people have been viewing web pages from mobile devices than desktop computers. Due to this, Google has adopted a mobile-first indexing system. This means your SEO must take a mobile-first approach. If your content isn’t easily accessible on mobile devices, or images don’t load properly, you will fall very quickly down the SERPs.
‘User intent’ is the goal someone has in mind when they type something into Google. For example, their intent may be to find information, make a purchase or find a specific site or resource. By tailoring your content using the principles of user intent you will make it more valued by your readers, which will help to boost your rankings.
User intent has always been at the heart of good SEO practice as Google’s founding principle has always been to serve users up with the most relevant search results based on their query. As Google’s algorithm gets better at processing the nuances involved in this, the importance of understanding user intent and what your web pages are actually for becomes more integral to successful SEO.
Structured Data and Schema
Structured data, also commonly called Schema Markup, is a type of code that improves the way search engines read and represent your pages in the SERPs. Structured data is used to create ‘Rich Snippets’, which are normal Google search results with additional data displayed. Most Google search results display the same three pieces of data: title tag, meta description and URL. Rich Snippets add something extra, for example, reviews, recipes or events.
Normal snippet example:
Rich Snippet example
Rich Snippet results are more eye-catching than normal results and they can improve your organic Click-Through Rate (CTR) by up to 30%.
White Hat Link Building
Links are an important ranking factor for your pages. However, the quality of your links is far more important than the number of your links. The three main factors that determine the quality of your links are the authority of the linking page, the authority of the linking site and how relevant the linked content is. If Google detects your links haven’t been earned organically, you can receive a penalty and your place in the rankings will tumble.
Link building is the altar upon which so many SEO strategies either fail or succeed. It is also one of the most contentious and blurry areas of SEO and that’s because, unlike so many of the other practices listed here, it’s so easy to slip into bad habits. We’ve written a guide to doing link building without getting burnt, but suffice to say the emphasis should be on quality and relevance over quantity and scalability. Links are important and ultimately most SEO requires going out to look for them but erring on the side of caution when it comes to building them is recommended.
What is Black Hat SEO?
Black hat SEO techniques contravene Google’s guidelines. People use these techniques in order to manipulate them to deliver quick results and quickly gain higher rankings, but it’s a risky business. Google expects website owners to stick to their rules when trying to improve their SEO. For those who break the rules, either algorithmic or manual penalties can be applied and your website will fall down the SERPs or even worse be removed from the index. Examples of black hat SEO include:
Keyword stuffing refers to the practice of unnaturally using keywords multiple times within your content in order to generate rankings rather than just using it naturally as language dictates. Google is very good at noticing irregular language and overuse of keywords and will penalise your website accordingly.
Google likes content that is fresh and new. If it finds duplicate content, either from your own website or a different one, it will be de-indexed. Duplicate content refers to substantial blocks of text either within one domain or across several that either match exactly or is very similar. This might be entirely innocent, for example, if your website has printer-only versions of web pages, and there are steps you can take to address duplicate content issues. However, if you are plagiarising another site or just using the same bits of text on every page of your website, you may receive a penalty from Google.
Doorway pages (also known as gateway, bridge or jump pages) are optimised for targeted keywords and designed to rank highly for particular queries but have very little or no usable or relevant content for the reader. These are pages designed for search engines and serve only as an intermediate or bridge page to propel the user onto the useful page.
A common example of a doorway page is a series of pages designed to rank for a particular service in a particular city. The content on these pages may be extremely similar but targeted at that city. These pages all then link through to the same single page on the site, which contains information on the service itself.
Poor Quality Link Building
Buying tons of links on third-party sites is a practice that was widespread a decade or so ago but it’s a tactic that will quickly leave you to getting penalised nowadays. These links usually come from poor quality private blog networks with tons of completely unrelated content to yours, as well as content with toxic links to gambling sites and the like. The line between good quality white hat link building and black hat link building will come across fuzzy depending on who you talk to but any SEO worth their salt knows how to do it at scale but without compromising quality.
Blog Comment Spamming
Adding comments on blog pages that include a link to your website is an easy way to create free backlinks. However, Google now disregards such links, so it’s a big waste of time. Don’t bother and any SEO company that includes it in their service, I’d recommend steering clear of.
Content spinning is the practice of using software to rewrite an article to enough of an extent that Google thinks it’s new content. The software replaces words and phrases with synonyms or changes sentence structure, but it’s still ultimately the same content. There is probably no greater source of professional distaste to our Content Director, Joe Cox than the idea of content spinning. Not only is the technology incapable of producing readable articles, but it also goes against every principle we stand for here at Superb Digital when it comes to producing quality content that appeals to both readers and search engines.
More to the point, it doesn’t work and is very likely to get you penalised.
Private Blog Networks
A private blog network (PBN) is a network of websites used to build links to a single website in order to manipulate search engine rankings. PBN owners usually buy expired high-authority domains and convert those websites into blogs with the specific goal of using them to deliver backlinks to the websites they wish to rank. The authority of the expired domains gives an instant score boost as the links appear to be of good quality.
There is a lot of debate around the use of PBNs in SEO. Technically it is a grey area, even though it is considered black hat practice by Google and that’s because anyone who owns more than two blogs and links to their website on them could be said to be leveraging PBNs. Generally, this is fine but the difficulty comes in when this is done at scale. You can read a very frank assessment of the challenges, financial commitment and rewards of running a PBN in this article by our friend Derek Iwasiuk of US-based Search Tides.
The Blurry Line: What is Grey Hat SEO?
I want to wrap up this guide with a section on grey hat SEO. In many ways, grey hat can’t be defined in the same way as white hat and black hat, as it represents the blurred line between them and so is by its nature conjectural and ill-defined. In many cases, techniques like link building can straddle both black hat and white hat, depending on how you’re doing it (asking respectable bloggers for links to relevant content = good; buying links en masse from poor quality PBNs = bad.
Sticking with the example of link building, in Google’s eyes, all links should be earnt and never ‘built’. That’s fine if you have a lot of money, established brand recognition (and the accompanying huge social media following) and are able to create big-time unique content that will naturally attract those links. But for the other 99% of businesses out there, investing thousands or even tens of thousands on a single piece of content, without the pre-existing network to promote it simply isn’t an option. Whilst investment in high-quality content is important, the majority of businesses need to go out and ask for links from other sites in order to get this content the recognition it needs.
Though there are still some black hat SEO techniques out there that may garner some quick wins, the associated risk is never worth the investment. This is especially the case when you consider the fact that Google’s algorithm is constantly updating and an undetected black hat tactic today could become an algorithmic penalty tomorrow.
By concentrating on white hat SEO your results may be slower, but they will be steady and sustainable and have a lasting impact on your visibility within the rankings. Of course, there are some unavoidable elements of any SEO strategy, like link building, that has the potential to blur the lines between black hat and white hat, depending on how you’re doing it. This is why it always pays to work with an experienced SEO agency, in order to maximise the return on your investment whilst staying on the right side of Google at all times.
Because at the end of the day, SEO is never black and white.