If you’ve researched SEO strategies and agencies, you’ve likely seen the terms “white hat SEO” and “black hat SEO” thrown around. In this article, we’ll define both and why your business should embrace white hat SEO tactics above all else.
What Is White Hat SEO?
White hat SEO is the correct and ethical way to optimize your website for Google and other search engines. This means that a white hat strategy generally falls under the following guidelines:
It Plays by Google’s Rules
Above all else, white hat SEO strives to follow Google’s Webmaster Guidelines to the letter. These are the rules Google has set forth to help you properly optimize a newly launched website or refine an existing one. While the guidelines might seem complex, they can generally be summed up by one simple idea: Never try to manipulate rankings or deceive Google’s algorithm.
White SEO Focuses on Improving User Experience
As touched on above, white hat SEO also focuses on making changes to your website that are beneficial to your visitors. When you consider that Google’s top goal is to provide users with the most relevant search results, it makes sense that this is a huge component of any white SEO strategy. Common examples include:
- Publishing high-quality, industry-relevant content.
- Optimizing page speeds and load times throughout your website.
- Ensuring your website is easy to navigate, especially on mobile browsers.
It Focuses on Long-Term SEO Gains
Adhering to Google’s guidelines to create a positive user experience can often be more time-consuming than black hat SEO methods. But because SEO is a long-term digital marketing strategy, there are very few shortcuts or “hacks” worth your time or investment.
As a result, white hat SEO methods reward the patience to see things through the correct way, providing steady, positive rankings for your chosen target keywords. Because white hat SEO strategies are focused on the long-term, designed to improve your overall site experience in the process, they secure the win with lasting results for years to come.
What Is Black Hat SEO?
Contrary to the Google-friendly tactics used for white hat SEO, black hat SEO focuses on gaming the system to manipulate and exploit weaknesses in the Google algorithm. They’re typically geared towards search bots rather than humans, carrying a much higher risk of being penalized by Google. As a result, these methods exhibit the following behaviors:
Black Hat SEO Violates Google Search Guidelines
As the polar opposite of the white hat SEO methods mentioned above, black hat tactics seek to violate Google’s search guidelines at every opportunity. In fact, Google references many of these tactics directly. Examples include:
- Automatically generated content
- Participation in link schemes
- Sneaky misdirects.
They Aim to Manipulate the Algorithm
Whereas white hat SEO seeks to improve the user experience, black hat SEO is all about skirting Google’s guidelines for higher rankings. To put it simply, black hat SEO aims to trick Google’s algorithm at every turn, making it think a site is more user-friendly than it actually is.
Black Hat SEO Focuses on Quick SEO Wins
As mentioned above, black hat SEO chases quick SEO rankings by any means necessary, often with as little work as possible. While some of these tactics can produce visible results, these results are almost always short-lived, placing guilty businesses and websites in Google’s crosshairs as a result.
Google is always striving to improve its algorithm, and its not-so-recent focus on user experience solidifies its commitment to providing users with the most relevant search results at all times. While the temptation to chase quick ranking wins might stem from seeing a few websites exhibit “success” from the endeavor, these sites risk significant rankings losses with each new algorithm update. In other words, the cons far outweigh the pros.
White Hat SEO vs. Black Hat SEO: Some Examples
With the distinction between white hat and black hat SEO so cut and dry, it should be no surprise that there’s very little overlap when you compare the two. Here’s a quick visual of how the two would look on paper:
White Hat SEO
- Relevant content
- Relevant links and references
- Well-labeled images with alt text
- Complete sentences with proper spelling and grammar
- Unique and relevant page titles
- HTML that’s compliant with Google standards.
All of these points can be boiled down to fairly simple principles. For starters, when you’re optimizing a website for white hat SEO, you’re designing your website with users in mind, not search engines. You prioritize quick-loading, mobile-friendly pages, using the necessary tools to do so. It also means that you’re not setting out to deceive your users, only presenting them with content that’s 100% relevant to their search and interests. In a sense, you provide real value to your site’s visitors.
Likewise, it means you actively avoid using tricks to improve your search rankings. At the end of the day, if you can look at your website and page content and be comfortable telling a Google employee or a direct competitor what you’ve done, you’re on the right track. With these white hat practices in mind, let’s consider the features of black hat SEO.
Black Hat SEO
- Duplicate or irrelevant content
- Links from websites with unrelated content
- Keyword stuffing and invisible text
- Cloaking, or showing one piece of content to users and another to search engine algorithms.
While Google’s recommendations for white hat SEO are fairly general, more in the spirit of what they’d like to see as their algorithms progress, their list of black hat SEO “NOs” is more direct.
For example, Google is explicitly against any automatically generated content, participation in link schemes, or the creation of pages with little to no relevancy to their content. Similarly, sneaky redirects, hidden text or links, or stuffing pages with irrelevant keywords can also land your website in hot water.
On the subject of keywords, Google also dislikes when websites attempt to stuff relevant keywords in an effort to game the system. As an SEO digital marketing agency, this is something we have to be careful with ourselves, as our inbound content strategy and outbound client content strategy involve keyword usage on a daily basis.
Articles like this one require extensive research and thus go through an editorial process of their own. If the keywords we’ve used seem stuffed or packed a little too tightly, we fix those accordingly, hopefully resulting in better, more user-friendly content in the end.
Likewise, any pieces we write for our clients undergo the same strict editorial process. A beauty and skincare digital marketing piece for a cosmetics client will have guidelines about keyword usage laid out well-beforehand, and any deviation from those guidelines will need to be corrected long before publication.
Without these SEO and editorial guidelines in place, we risk exposing ourselves and our clients to potential losses in search rankings and/or manual actions from Google. That’s not who we are at VELOX, so we always steer clear.
Is There a Grey Area?
With all this talk about white hat and black hat SEO, you might be wondering if there’s a middle ground to worry about. The answer is “sort of,” as the practices that fall under this category haven’t been officially named by Google as methods to avoid. These include tactics like creating doorway pages, submitting to link directories, and building microsites.
That being said, while these methods might not have an official Google stamp of disapproval, they’re generally not worth the risk. They could be considered manipulative in most cases, so it’s best to avoid them entirely.
What Are the Risks of Black Hat or Grey Hat SEO Tactics?
Actively using tactics to manipulate Google’s algorithm has two major consequences. These include:
Google Algorithm Updates
As highlighted above, Google updates its algorithm regularly, and each of these updates is designed to improve the results it delivers to searchers. In addition to helping users, these updates will often close loopholes that black hat SEOs seek to exploit.
Of the more notable examples, Google’s Penguin update in 2012 was deployed to put a stop to the spammy link practices some websites were using, along with the practice of target websites buying links. As a result of this update, thousands of website owners using deceptive link practices saw their organic search rankings drop, losing all the results they’d gained from those practices.
In the years since, Google has done thousands more updates to its algorithm, each designed to target and put an end to manipulative SEO practices. While these don’t necessarily ban offending site owners from search results, they have a serious and noticeable impact on their search rankings.
Important Note: This does not mean that all link-building practices are considered black hat SEO. It does, however, mean that the way in which you go about building those links should be compliant with Google standards. In other words, you shouldn’t participate in link schemes or affiliate programs. Likewise, you should always steer clear of paid links, as the truth about paid links and Google Search rankings is an exercise of caution.
Manual Penalties From Google
Sites caught using black hat SEO tactics are subject to manual action from Google. These penalties are handed down by human reviewers from Google’s staff, indicating that a website has been flagged for violating the search engine’s guidelines. Worse yet, manual actions don’t just stop at a loss in search rankings.
In fact, they can prevent websites from appearing in search results altogether. In this case, black hat SEO doesn’t just put you at risk of losing rankings; it actively invites the opposite result of what black hat SEOs intend when they resort to those tactics.
The Bottom Line: Stick to White Hat SEO Tactics
At the end of the day, while white hat SEO takes a significant amount of time, effort, and often money to achieve success, that investment is well worth it. While the temptation to speed up that process with black hat SEO methods might creep up from time to time, the cons of that decision far outweigh the pros, especially if you’ve already been struggling to compete in a crowded industry.
Instead, your best bet is to invest in a white hat SEO strategy, leveraging all the SEO tools at your disposal to ensure your website and digital marketing campaigns are compliant with Google’s standards. Should you find yourself in need of some extra help optimizing your SEO strategies with Google-friendly white hat methods, the digital marketing experts at VELOX Media can help.
With over 10 years of experience in SEO, paid advertising, link-building, and website development, our SEO team has achieved countless successes across multiple industries, earning our place as a Google Premier Partner among the top 3% of agencies in the world. Reach out to the SEO experts at VELOX Media today to learn how we can help you grow your business and achieve organic search dominance the right way.