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50 Shades of SEO: Going Black Hat, White Hat or a Shade of Gray?

Posted on 5.23.2016

:: By Gareth Simpson, @SimpsonGareth ::


A lot of people market themselves as white hat SEOs, proudly touting their squeaky clean SEO credentials. In a world where technically all deliberate search engine manipulation is off-limits, is being truly white hat really even possible? Let’s cut through some of the mythology and get real about the shades of SEO; looking at the actual pros and cons of using black hat and white hat SEO techniques in 2016. Could it be that combining both techniques and going gray hat, is the smartest way to do SEO in 2016?

Some background context on SEO segmentation

The SEO landscape fundamentally changed a few years ago when Google came out with a succession of big updates targeting spam, thin content and low-quality SEO: Panda in 2011, Penguin in 2012 and Hummingbird in 2013. This post covers some declining SEO techniques. In the fall out, many sites, link farms and blog networks were hit with massive penalties, some never recovering. This scared people into clearing up their SEO act; many SEOs renounced their black hat ways, saying goodbye to spam ‘for good’. For a while it seemed like SEO black hat days were over.

But since then the dust has settled from these major changes, and it’s clear that black hat SEO is still very much around. So, if SEOs are still finding black hat methods profitable- should you try them too? Is there still a place for black hat methods in 2016 SEO?

Key differences between black hat/white hat SEO

Black hat SEO is mostly aimed at search engines, not users.

A black hat SEO won't be too concerned about complying with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and will use automated techniques to scale their efforts. Their aim is achieve more in a shorter space of time and at a lower operating cost than their white hat counterparts.

Some popular black hat tactics still seen today are buying links, redirecting expired domains for backlinks, private blog networks and spun content.

White hat SEO is less aggressive, user-focused and has lots in common with general marketing.

White hat SEO centers on good on-page SEO and creating content-rich websites. It approaches building links in a content-oriented way, touting its techniques as user friendly and aimed at humans.

For an overview of link building methods from across the spectrum check out this recent link building 2016 post from Charles Floate.

So what’s the big deal then?

Black hat SEO techniques are more likely to attract search engine penalties by going against search engine guidelines. Some people feel that black hat techniques involve deliberately manipulating the user experience on the Web, potentially misleading consumers.

A white hat SEO will generally try to follow search engine guidelines and best practice. But even within white hat SEO, there are many shades of white, and trigger issues such as outsourcing and automation cause arguments. Being a truly pearly SEO white may not be so easy after all…

Benefits and drawbacks of white hat SEO

Going for a completely white hat SEO tactic definitely has its benefits; you can be surer that your rankings won’t drop during the next algorithm update. White hat SEO is the norm in large digital agencies who work with image-conscious brands.

White hat SEO benefits:

● Clients less likely to suffer from penalties so customer relationships can span long periods of time

● Ability to be open and honest with clients about techniques used

● Some organizations only accept white hat SEO, so it may open doors if you build up a name for it

● White hat SEO has many points in common with other useful disciplines like digital PR, content marketing and digital marketing, so there’s scope for diversification

White hat SEO is a good idea if you are working for clients who are likely to be severely injured by upcoming search engine penalties. It’s also good for clients who want to have an integrated search and digital marketing strategy, or for clients who have moral scruples over black hat techniques.

Drawbacks for white hat SEO

● Expensive, because it relies on manual techniques.

● Time consuming, because it relies on things like content creation

● Unreliable in the results it yields, you may be outranked by black-hat anyway

White hat SEO techniques that deal with onsite content and techniques are easy enough to follow and generally accepted as best practice. A real white hat SEO shows his/her worth during content creation, outreach and link prospecting.

Benefits and drawbacks of blackhat SEO

Blackhat SEO has bad press, but a thriving black hat SEO community proves that black hat techniques are still paying off. Today, most blackhat SEO is aimed at manipulating search engines, rather than misleading users.

Blackhat SEO can be a powerful SEO tool, and if you play your cards right, very lucrative too.

Benefits of black hat SEO:

● More control over link building due to self-sufficiency

● Cheaper activity and potentially better ROI

● Opportunity for faster SEO development

● More money to be made from riskier tactics if willing to take the plunge

Drawbacks of black hat SEO:

● Penalty risk means few sites will be able to sustain rankings over a long period of time

● Not always the best choice for a brand or business, I refer to Will Reynold’s Moz presentation from way back in 2012

● Constant need to innovate in face of new algorithm updates, so techniques are less stable and industry more volatile

● Moral scruples of clients and SEOs might be stretched, depending on how black hat you are going to go

Some SEOs find that exploring black hat techniques can be a great way to widen their skill set and understand more about search algorithms.

Rise of gray hat SEO

A gray hat SEO is someone who combines a black hat SEO’s eye for algorithm opportunities, with a white hat focus on usability and content. A gray hat SEO would be blatant about his/her search engine focus, but would still avoid the riskier tactics to protect rankings. For example, a gray hat might use some black hat techniques to build links to Web 2.0s that link to their actual money site, but never associate their main site with spam. A gray hat would always monitor links and their effects very closely, steering clear of techniques that are too spammy.

Someone practicing black hat SEO is very likely also doing plenty of white hat and gray hat SEO too. Often black hat SEOs utilize white hat SEO techniques like content creation and guest blogging to build up their personal SEO brand. It helps them to be taken seriously, not only by the SEO community, but also by potential clients and business partners too.

So is it possible to have the best of both worlds? There’s always going to be an element of compromise with gray hat SEO, but it does make sense in some niches to go gray. Especially in the affiliate world or when working on solo projects, the temptation to go gray hat can be big.

Where to draw the SEO line?

Match your site with the most appropriate SEO technique by considering risk, longevity and profit. Always consider the following when deciding where to draw the SEO line:

● Business/brand reputation & loyalty

o Are the tactics used likely to impact customers or key stakeholders negatively?

o Would key business stakeholders approve of the tactic?

● Benefits gained from potentially riskier tactics

o Does the site need to rank fast?

o You may see a rankings boost, but are the results sustainable?

o Are the tactics reversible?

● SEO credibility

o If found out, will your methods harm your personal SEO credibility?

o Do you actually know whether your methods work?

o Is there a ‘camp’ you want to avoid being associated with?

An SEO strategy is dependent on the site you want to rank, the niche you operate in and your potential SEO budget. You have to match the right SEO tactic to the right project to get the best results.

The most important aspect is transparency and consideration of the end-user. What are your thoughts?


Gareth Simpson is a SEO Consultant based in Bristol, UK. Prior to going freelance, Gareth worked for an agency, managing their clients’ digital marketing campaigns. You can learn more about him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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