There are right ways and wrong ways to handle nearly any problem, project, or goal life throws at you. Most business owners juggle all three scenarios in different ways each day, honing their understanding of the best way to manage each as they arise. While no substitute for the experience of trial and error exists, we’re here to help you avoid as much of the “error” portion for your website’s search engine optimization (SEO) today by lending our expertise on black hat SEO, white hat SEO, and grey hat SEO.

While I’m sure you’ll be disappointed to hear these aren’t actual hats for your website, we promise to make it up to you with an overview of what these terms actually mean, as well as some specific examples of what each entails. This way, while you’re developing your website or looking for someone to entrust your SEO needs to, you’ll be equipped to read between the lines and maximize your time and/or investment.

Black, white, and grey hats
While we’d never dream of telling you how to accessorize your outfit, trust us when we say white hats are in when it comes to websites.

To get started, here are the definitions of each of the three terms we’ll be discussing today:

  • Black Hat SEO: SEO techniques that seek to boost your search engine ranking by using practices that seem to work fast and really powerfully but are frowned upon or outright defy a search engine’s terms of service
  • White Hat SEO: SEO practices that aim to boost your ranking on search engines through use of currently approved practices, including those that are listed in terms of service or published by search engine providers themselves
  • Grey Hat SEO: Falling between the black and white hat SEO methods, these toe the line of white hat as closely as they can without being considered black hat.

Looks pretty simple on paper, right? Unfortunately, it is often anything but.

SEO’s primary complication stems from how much it has evolved in the last 20 years. There are over 200 factors of varying importance that Google takes into account today, and this list constantly has additions, removals, and adjustments to account for. Since Google is also pretty tight-lipped about how they manage search engine rankings, it’s also a safe bet that even this list has errors and is not comprehensive.

Many SEO companies fall into three traps as a result of these constant evolutions:

  • They fail to consistently research SEO practices, making them slow to adapt to new developments
  • Changes are disregarded in favor of upholding perceived customer expectations
  • Old, efficient practices are left untouched because they are assumed to be more relevant than they actually are

All of these are bad for you, the paying customer, because you’re not getting the service you should and/or think you’re receiving more than you are. The last of these issues is especially dangerous (like most situations involving ignorance) because companies in this trap don’t recognize the harm that they’re causing customers on a daily basis.

Large “big box” companies who think they’re doing well are common culprits of this behavior. Their assembly lines are frequently littered with steps so far behind the times that they’re harming clients with black hat SEO techniques that do nothing at best (and often result in hefty penalties). As a result, you lose extra time and money both during the inadequate work and the resulting cleanup a good SEO company has to do in order to get you back on track.

Needless to say, we do not want that for you or anyone else, so we’re going to outline some examples of techniques that are known to be black hat. Once you go over these, you’ll be armed with some of the questions you need to ask in order to avoid damaging your budget and reputation.

Black hat SEO may look good on the rack, but trust us – it isn’t your color

If you haven’t read last week’s article covering 5 common SEO mistakes, we’re going to recommend that you start here. Most of these errors qualify as black hat SEO and all are bad practices.

Black hat SEO doesn’t simply stop with them though. As you’ll recall, we called out the use of dated SEO techniques earlier, so let’s continue by elaborating on a few of the common ones.

The first involves using paid links. Much as the term suggests, you’ll find these when a company offers to pay other websites to set up backlinks to theirs in order to make their authority look better than it actually is. You can’t bribe your way to the top with this method though, and there’s one simple reason.

If Google catches you, you’re going to hear about it.

Given that Google sells the ability for you to be visible at the top of search engines, private transactions that game their algorithms run counter to their interests. Add in their focus on and commitment to user experience, and there’s simply no angle paid links are going to look good from.

Another black hat SEO technique that was successful back in the day involves creating networks of websites that are used exclusively for backlinking. While creating several websites with lots of good content from scratch is closer to the grey hat area of the spectrum, sites that are full of spam and fluff land firmly in the court of black hat SEO (since you’re just paying for links with extra steps). Consequences involving these are usually minimal since these links aren’t going to generate any trust or authority, but they’re definitely a waste of money.

Advanced black hat SEO link wheel
Some link wheels are fairly simple, others are even more complex than this. Years ago, a setup like this would have taken you far.

Just remember that all this hard work is only going to land you on Google’s blacklist today. Link wheels haven’t been accepted practice for a long time.

A more complicated version of this process involves using what is called a link wheel. These are a bit sneakier and are used along with individual websites by many larger SEO firms. A link wheel is composed of a series of sites, which we’ll refer to as 1, 2, 3, and 4. Site 1 has a link to site 2, which links to site 3, which in turn links to site 4, and site 4 finally links to your website. Your website could also be linking back to site 1 in this scenario.

Link wheels are always considered black hat, and have a better than average chance of sinking your ranking or kicking you out of results. While they were a popular trick years ago, Google’s algorithm can see these for what they are today – a thinly veiled way to try and game their system. This is especially true when link wheels link to more than one website during each step.

The last method we are going to discuss in detail is hidden text. This involves either hiding text on a page (such as by making it the exact color of the background) or by hiding it in the code of your website for Google to read (cloaking). You’ll find this goes hand in hand with keyword stuffing – another black hat SEO technique that involves adding extra unrelated or unnecessary keywords in order to get more hits in search results.

Coding hidden text in is popular with shadier companies because it allows the presentation of your website to appear one way to visitors while Google’s spiders are presented the same website in another way during their crawl. From there, keyword stuffing abounds, Google catches you, and at best you get no benefit. At worst they decide to remove the benefits from ALL your natural traffic.

Hardly seems worth the effort, right?

For additional information on black hat techniques, Google provides a pretty handy cheat sheet outlining practices that violate their quality guidelines. Make sure you give it a read before deciding whether to hire an SEO company you aren’t sure about.

White hat SEO is the ONLY strategy good enough for your website

If you’ve read our blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that we talk about good SEO practices a lot. Rather than completely rehash what we’ve already said, here are a few practices we’ve already taken the time to fully elaborate on:

All of these take a lot of work, even when you’re an expert on the subject(s) in question. Trust us when we say we get that. Since Google is really good at reading websites like a normal person and has people manually looking sites over too, there’s simply no substitute for good, knowledgeable content.

Construction foundation
The key to building anything you intend to last is a strong foundation.

Anyone who says otherwise is lying to you.

Strong fundamentals and informative content aren’t the only game in town, however. They’re more of a foundation for the next step toward SEO success: relevant backlinks from trusted authority sites. Good content is key for attracting attention from these major players, and so long as you’re avoiding bad practices, a backlink from one is among the best things your website can receive.

That doesn’t mean there’s no benefit in getting backlinks from smaller sites – quite the opposite! A lot of relevant connection to your content demonstrates your information is worthy of being recommended to others, which is another great way to build your website’s trust and authority.

Grey hat SEO involves walking a very fine line, and isn’t always worth the risk

Translucent glass
Staying in the gray area isn’t easy when it is this unclear.

Have you ever sat down to play a board game with a group of friends, only to come across a complicated situation that will ultimately determine the winner of the game, but isn’t explicitly covered in the rules? Without fail, there’s at least one person at the table with a strong opinion and reasons to back it up, some of which they use because “the rules don’t say otherwise.”

That’s grey hat SEO in a nutshell. Many grey hat practices could easily be viewed as black hat SEO, but are cleverly disguised behind a veil of technicalities and seemingly positive practices. Because they’re on the shakiest legal ground, these types of tactics are always going to be at the highest risk when search engine algorithms change.

Take link exchanges as an example. Backlinks that are designed to build your brand are clearly white hat, while those created for the sake of being created are almost universally black hat. If you and a peer agree to a link exchange, there’s now a quid pro quo element that is present between your websites.

If both of you have something to offer the other, this is generally accepted as white hat. Should your two sites have nothing in common with one another (niche, industry, etc.), you’re usually going to find yourself in black hat SEO’s territory. Somewhere between the two? This is where the issue gets muddy and most grey hat questions are going to start cropping up.

Another popular example of this is guest blogging. Google’s gone on record as being for and against this (with a better clarification in 2017), and when you think about what constitutes white hat and black hat SEO, it makes a lot of sense.

Guest posts that are crafted with care can often be a great way to grow your brand. Posting on an authoritative and active website that is active in itself is actually an excellent way to give your brand natural, organic exposure, which is something Google absolutely loves to see when determining rankings.

Conversely, if you affiliate yourself with a throwaway website whose sole purpose for existing is to link back to yours, a guest post is going to hold little weight. At best, you’re going to come across as self-aggrandizing, and at worst gaming the system. Either way, this is more of a black hat SEO practice.

So how good is good enough? How bad does a guest post have to be in order to be black hat? These are the sorts of questions that can put you in grey hat territory quite quickly.

A good rule of thumb to follow when you aren’t certain of whether a technique is white hat, grey hat, or black hat: take time to conduct research, consult with an expert, or steer clear. Placing undue risk on your website doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially if you’ve already invested a lot of time, effort, and money to get where you’re at.

This is a lot to navigate, is Midwest Websites able to take care of this for me?

Absolutely. We only utilize white hat SEO techniques and only take on projects where we know we’ll be able to help you and your business. Send us an email or call 319-229-5225 to schedule a time to go over your goals with us. We’ll be happy to see what we can do to help boost your search engine ranking.