There’s a lot of mythology surrounding the SEO camps of white hat, black hat and gray hat SEO. The different monikers represent SEO boundaries that can be both fluid and definitive (depending on who you ask). So what exactly is white hat SEO and how does it differ from black hat SEO? Is black hat SEO as risky as everyone says it is? What practices, values and techniques distinguish these SEO camps from each other? Let’s look further at some context, history and tactics.
SEO Camps: Context & History
It’s important to appreciate the differences between the SEO camps, and understand the history behind the split. Let’s start with some of the key differences between White Hat and Black Hat SEO:
- A Black Hat SEO profits from a search engine algorithm loophole that can be manipulated for rankings; they’ll try to rank sites using the same SEO tactic over and over again until the tactic becomes less effective. Black Hat SEOs use some techniques that were current in all SEO before Google’s mass penalizations, but they also innovate to find new ranking loopholes.
- A White Hat SEO focuses on sustainable rankings and adding user-value with relevant content, aiming to build links in a ‘natural’ way. White Hats would shy away from anything they saw as a potential penalty risk.
SEO history & background
In the early search engine days, it was quite easy to rank a site using tactics like comment spam or keyword stuffing. Right from the start, Google wanted to target these and other Black Hat techniques like cloaking and link farms, but developing search algorithms took its time. Things really changed from about 2011 onwards, when a few big Google updates followed in quick succession, aimed at what the search engines perceived to be low-quality content and underhand ranking techniques. Google was even prepared to take down big brand pages, sending a clear signal to the SEO community. Here’s a little bit more about the context of Google’s problems with Black Hat SEO.
Key Google updates:
- Panda 2011- targeting low quality on-site content
- Penguin 2012- targeting spammy link profiles (Penguin 4.0 just became part of the core ranking algorithm)
- Hummingbird 2013- semantic search algorithm update
Rankings penalties and warnings were enough to make a lot of SEOs permanently White Hat, renouncing overt search engine manipulation. But Black Hat methods never really completely went away, they just evolved and went underground.
The search engine stance vs. SEO reality
Google’s official stance on link building is quite Spartan, and not even all White Hat SEOs fall into the category of obtaining natural (un-negotiated) links back to quality content. It’s generally thought that more White Hat, content-oriented link building, probably won’t attract penalties, but recently Google has been targeting bloggers doing brand PR for free products, so this may yet change. Staying strictly within search engine guidelines is hard; it’s something that SEOs are always pushing the boundaries with.
Some Black Hat SEO techniques are definitely targets for search engine penalties. Though some penalties are reversible, and Google has now allowed SEOs to disavow links through Search Console, some manual penalties can be hard to shift and reconsideration requests can take a while. One of the key reasons people avoid Black Hat SEO is because of the associated penalty-risk, but this alone isn’t enough of a deterrent for some people going Black Hat.
Low-down on White Hat SEO
White Hat SEO is the most common type of commercial, client SEO, and the rise of bloggers and social media has hugely contributed to the content marketing arm of White Hat SEO.
White Hat SEO is good for:
- Sustainable rankings
- Creating, quality user-friendly content
- Open and transparent dealings with stakeholders
- Agencies and content creators
White Hat SEO sticking points:
- Some White Hat SEO tactics are getting overused and competition for content placement is increasing
- Time needed for content creation
- Time needed for content placement
Low-down on Black Hat SEO
Black Hat SEO has gone through a transformation. Less about manipulating user-experience, Black Hat SEO is now about manipulating search engines.
Black Hat SEO is good for:
- Figuring out how search algorithms actually work
- People looking to make a quick, easy profit
Black Hat sticking points:
- Penalty risk makes techniques less sustainable and less popular with clients, brands and businesses
- Constant moving goal posts makes for a volatile search environment
- Some techniques can be unethical
Low-down on Gray Hat SEO
This is a category of SEO that falls in between White Hat and Black Hat. A Gray Hat SEO channels the Black Hat SEO’s appetite for links and automation, but remains focused on quality and usability.
A Gray Hat SEO avoids some of the riskier Black Hat methods, but isn’t completely turned off by them either. A Gray Hat SEO might trial some Black Hat methods on a very small scale, monitoring rankings as they go.
Despite what people say, maybe SEO boundaries aren’t so black and white after all…?
What method of SEO works for you?
If you are building links to a live commercial you have to be switched on about the consequences of your actions – read this link building guide as a model – it includes SEO from across the spectrum. Some of those tactics might not be for you – you may want to only follow more accepted SEO link building best practices.
Listen to your instincts when evaluating any SEO tactic. Make sure that you are only doing things that you are happy with, and that you can stand behind your choice.
Here’s a good SEO checklist to follow:
- Risk vs. opportunity: Are the potential profits worth the risk? Is this a good opportunity?
- Credibility: Will this hurt your own, or your site’s, credibility?
- Long-term benefits: Is this something you will regret later?
- Damage control: Can you go back if you need to?
So the boundaries between the different SEO camps are easy enough to define in theory, but can be harder to pin down in practice. A good SEO has knowledge of all the SEO methods out there, but will choose carefully before embarking on any one of them. What do you think makes a smart SEO?
Gareth Simpson – Technical SEO & Startup Founder
Gareth has worked as an SEO for almost a decade now and has recently started freelancing as a technical SEO in Bristol, UK. His SEO specialisms are content and blogger outreach…and he likes green tea.