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White Hat vs Black Hat SEO – Which Strategy to Choose?

Marketing & SEO
Danielle Lachance 21 November, 2018
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When you own a business in the digital age, the concept of search engine optimization probably isn’t completely foreign to you. SEO is a more organic form of internet marketing that allows potential customers to find you. But there are many ways to go about optimizing your website for search engines – and not all of them are given Google’s stamp of approval. Essentially, the Wild West of the Internet falls into two distinct camps: the good guys and the bad guys. White hat vs black hat SEO.

white hat vs black hat SEO main image

The hat you wear determines the strategies you’ll use to win. Do you want to play fair and let your efforts speak for themselves? Or would you rather play dirty, whatever the cost? In order to improve your rankings the right way and maintain long-lasting results that will truly help your business, you’ll need to understand some of the main differences between these two tactics (white hat vs black hat SEO). Choose wisely, or you could end up losing it all to the next hombre who rolls into town.

What Is White Hat SEO?

Admittedly, SEO is a bit of a mystery; there are some things we don’t know for sure. But reputable SEO analysts are certain about specific factors: namely, what Google won’t abide. The company hasn’t always been extremely forthcoming, leaving many SEO agencies to make educated guesses about what they felt Google wanted to see. But the proverbial gatekeeper of the internet has laid out some rules about what’s not allowed and what’s recommended.

White hat SEO strategies follow the best practices outlined in the Google Search Console. These best practices really focus on creating the best experience for the human user, rather than trying to game the system by appealing to Google’s crawlers. In essence, an agency that commits itself to white hat SEO is dedicated to achieving organic, value-driven results for their clients. Instead of trying to cheat their way to success, they’ll create relevant content for a human audience and focus on ensuring the user experience is the best it can possibly be. They’re also more interested in long-term, lasting strategies rather than on quick fixes that fade just as fast.

Common Examples of White Hat SEO

Search engine optimization is a complex process, so it’s not surprising that there are many techniques that agencies employ to achieve the results they’re after. An agency using white hat SEO tactics will typically focus on.

Mobile Usability

mobile friendly SEO image

For the sake of user experience, websites in 2018 need to be responsive – meaning they provide the same user experience on any device. Your site must not only be viewable on mobile devices but also must provide the same high-quality experience for users who visit from their smartphone or tablet. An SEO agency that prioritizes this will put human users first and will follow Google’s recommendations (and will acknowledge recent changes in how Google indexes websites).

Content Creation

quality content and wuality sales

You may have heard the expression “content is king.” Even with all of the changes in Google’s algorithm that have been rolled out in recent months, the quality of your website’s content still matters immensely. Not only is your content a great place to optimize for relevant keywords, but it’s also the best manner of providing interesting and helpful information to your audience. If you position yourself as a trustworthy resource with your content, you could become a leader in your industry (and could be rewarded by an improvement in your rankings). Of course, you can’t achieve those results with thin, confusing, or totally irrelevant content – which is why a focus on superior content is undoubtedly a white hat tactic. When it comes to white hat vs black hat SEO, irrelevant, keyword-stuffed content won’t earn you good-guy status.

Link-Building

social media SEO tactics image

While there are certainly unscrupulous ways of achieving desirable backlinks to your website, link-building is a beneficial strategy that can increase your traffic and your trustworthiness while providing something of value (e.g., quality content) to another party. Having a diverse profile of relevant backlinks tells Google that your site is reputable and that other highly regarded websites like what you have to say; when they link to you, they’re basically giving you their vote of confidence. That said, not all backlinks are created equal – nor is obtaining them a “sure thing.” But that’s actually why Google may reward your site for having the ones it deems worthy.

Relevant Keyword Use

long tail keywords search demand

There are ways to utilize keywords that can actually work against you (we’ll get into those later). But if your site uses relevant keywords that can help your visitors find you and understand what your business is all about, that’s when they’ll work to your advantage. Your SEO agency will likely develop a strategy that involves a mix of long-tail keyword phrases and local-oriented keywords to appeal to those searching for specific queries in your area and a few broader keywords to provide context and make your content feel more natural when read.

These techniques are only a small sampling of what white hat SEO agencies will include in a given strategy, of course. But they’re among the most recognizable – and sometimes, the easiest to get wrong (especially if you are learning as you go!).

Ultimately, even if you have a basic knowledge of these SEO tactics, it’s best to work with a professional. In some cases, the line between white hat vs black hat SEO can be very fine; in others, it’s quite obvious. If you’re on the wrong side of the SEO law, you’ll likely suffer the consequences… and it probably won’t be pretty. On that note, let’s talk a bit about the uglier side of SEO: black hat.

What Is Black Hat SEO?

Remember what we said earlier about white hat SEO being ethical and how it adheres to Google’s guidelines? You might have already guessed, but black hat SEO is essentially the opposite. In terms of white hat vs black hat SEO, there are sometimes some grey areas (grey hat SEO), but for all intents and purposes, black hat SEO tactics explicitly ignore and openly flout the rules that Google has put in place – all in the name of personal gain.

While white hat SEO is thought of as a more organic strategy that focuses on human readers, black hat SEO is geared towards getting quick results by trying to trick Google’s bots. They may be SEO hacks that knowingly violate Google’s policies. Despite its unethical foundation, black hat SEO is often enticing – especially to startups and small businesses that are struggling – due to the promises those who use these techniques will make. But you should keep in mind that there is no guarantee with good SEO.

There actually isn’t supposed to be. Anyone who says they can increase your rankings overnight or double your traffic in less than a month is the kind of person who’d have a bridge to sell you and would run off once they had your money.

We aren’t saying that every agency that uses black hat SEO hacks are outright criminals. They may not actually scam you if you choose to work with them. They may even seem to deliver on those promises – at first. But when you choose to go against Google’s guidelines, you’re playing with fire… and you’re probably going to get burned.

Common Examples of Black Hat SEO

If you want to stay on the right side of the SEO law, it’s important to be able to recognize these black hat techniques within the concept of white hat vs black hat SEO. If you spot them, run and hide. Whatever you do, don’t get involved in tactics like…

Cloaking and Doorway Pages

White hat SEO focuses on integrity and provides a positive experience for both human and bot visitors alike. But black hat SEO often strives to pull the wool over our (and Google’s) eyes. The practice of cloaking, for example, actually shows humans and bots two completely different sets of content. With this tactic, search engines are actually programmed to present different content to search engine bots than to real visitors in an attempt to improve search rankings. Doorway pages are also a technique used to trick search engines. In an effort to game the system, fake pages will be filled with keywords. But when a user clicks on the link in search results, they’ll be redirected to a completely different page. Instead of resorting to techniques like these, your SEO company should focus on creating a consistent experience for everyone (or everything) visiting your site.

Duplicate Content

duplicated content SEO issues

We mentioned earlier that content is king. But you’ll only reign supreme if you create original, high-quality content for your site. Black hat SEO will often involve something a lot less time-consuming. In some cases, duplicate content – either from other parts of your website or from a completely different source on the internet – will be posted on a new page to improve rankings. In addition to the confusion, this practice creates with Google’s bots, plagiarizing content from sources without credit or permission can land you in legal trouble. Even copying and pasting the same content from elsewhere on your own site is a bad idea. When in doubt, make sure your content is totally unique and relevant to your business.

Buying Links

We know that backlinks to your site can boost your domain authority, but some people want the easy way out. Instead of hoping that a reputable site will link back to their own, they might be inclined to actually purchase backlinks from these sites. This pay-for-play method of optimization is something Google really doesn’t like. Unless the site discloses your sponsorship, the Federal Trade Commission won’t be happy about it, either. Watch out for other link schemes (like the automated creation of links or excessive link exchanges) too, as these won’t have a positive impact on your site in the end. If you want to improve your backlink profile, create some highly shareable and valuable content and develop a mutually beneficial link-building strategy.

Keyword Stuffing

Believe it or not, there can be too much of a good thing with SEO. If you over-optimize your content (meaning it’s filled to the brim with keywords to the point where it looks unnatural), your efforts are going to backfire. Some people choose to keyword stuff their content or meta tags, meaning that they’re actually using too many keywords. The result here is that content will often look unnatural and may even be unreadable. Google will see these techniques as red flags and will likely penalize your site. While you do need to use keywords to signal to Google what your site is all about, you can’t afford to go overboard. In some cases, less is more.

There are many schools of thought in the digital marketing community, leading to a spectrum between what we consider “good” and “bad” SEO. What some people see as black hat, others might consider more grey hat SEO. Methods of successful search engine optimization (and SEO hacks) vary greatly, particularly because the SEO landscape continues to change as Google tweaks their algorithms.

White Hat vs Black Hat SEO – Understanding the Risks of Black Hat

Those who opt for black hat SEO are the outlaws of the internet. They might impress you with their shiny stirrups and their fancy artillery, but they’re not to be trusted. And sooner or later, they’ll be taken down by the long arm of the law. They aren’t always caught right away, but you can bet that when justice is served, it’ll be swift and significant.

white hat SEO guidelines

There are actually a number of risks you take when you utilize black hat SEO practices. The most obvious – and the most deadly – is that your site could be severely punished by Google. At best, your rankings could take a huge hit; at worst, your site might not even show up at all in search queries. Ultimately, that means total destruction for your business. If potential customers can’t find you online, how can you expect to stay afloat in the digital age? When considering white hat vs black hat SEO tactics, most business owners decide that it’s simply not worth the potential penalization.

Any action taken by Google can be devastating, but it’s actually not the only way black hat SEO can harm your business. If you’re using irrelevant keywords or aren’t even considering the user experience, bots aren’t the only ones who will take notice. Your human visitors will be affected, too – and they aren’t going to like what they see. Your bounce rate will probably increase (which is another signal Google takes into account when determining rankings) and your overall brand trustworthiness will falter. This could actually cause loyal customers to high-tail it to one of your competitors. So even if you aren’t penalized by Google right away, you’ll probably feel the effects when live human web users decide you’re unhelpful and irrelevant.

In either case, your decision to take a shortcut could be disastrous. Although white hat SEO requires a larger time commitment, most business owners know that anything worth doing is worth doing well.

Are Black Hat and White Hat Really That Different?

We’ve pitted white hat vs black hat SEO against one another here to help you understand the gravity of choosing to violate Google’s rules. While you now know you shouldn’t be using black hat SEO tactics, that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable in their own way. In fact, an expert, Neil Patel explains, “black hat SEO is simply a good strategy gone wrong.” It’s, as he says, “the unhealthy exaggeration of a white hat SEO strategy… the black hat takes white hat SEO strategies and magnifies them to dangerous levels.”

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What Patel says makes a lot of sense. Black hat SEO will often start with what works about the white hat – but often takes much longer to build – and cranks the volume up to 11. Analysts who break Google’s rules want the same thing that white hat SEO agencies do; they’re just willing to go to extreme lengths to obtain the results they want. Their motto is to go big or go home, and they’re willing to pay the potential price.

At the core of both types of SEO, however, are a lot of the same practices. White hat, black hat, and grey hat SEO will utilize keyword research, content placement, backlink profiles, optimized tags and anchor text, and more. It’s how these practices are executed that makes the differences between the two philosophies clear. When techniques are taken to the extreme, they’re often categorized as black hat. But as long as you don’t violate Google’s guidelines and implement certain practices in a thoughtful and relevant way, your methods would probably be classified as a white hat. It can be a fine line, which is why it’s best to work with a company that is well-versed in white hat SEO practices and that can optimize your site the right way.

How to Tell Whether an SEO Company is White Hat

Most agencies will be upfront about the fact that they use white hat SEO. After all, it’s a key selling point and instantly tells you a lot about their ethics and their overall approach to digital marketing. They’ll want you to know that they follow Google’s guidelines and won’t pose potential harm to your business with the techniques they use. When your white label SEO company also uses white hat SEO tactics, they’re making an ethical commitment to follow these guidelines as closely as possible.

Of course, it’s possible that an agency could stretch the truth and claim they use white hat tactics when they really don’t. Considering the fact that black hat is unethical, it’s not that far a reach to assume that some incredulous agencies wouldn’t mind fibbing to their customers; if they’re seeing results, they might not be inclined to ask questions. This isn’t necessarily the norm, but it illustrates why it’s important to be diligent when hiring an SEO company.

There are some red flags to look for when embarking on this process of white hat vs black hat SEO detection. A given agency might be using black hat SEO techniques if.

      • Their results sound too good to be true
      • They’re secretive about their services and how they achieve results
      • They make promises pertaining to timelines or ranking placements
      • They guarantee an increase in traffic
      • They don’t even mention white hat SEO on their website
      • Their website doesn’t give out staff information or a location
      • You experience a sudden drop in rankings (and there’s no Google algorithm update to blame)

white hat SEO - follow Google algorithms

While these aren’t the only signs you could be dealing with a black hat agency, they’re among the most evident. And if you spot any of these signs, you should run away and find another provider. A little bit of Googling can help you to avoid some of the worst offenders, too.

Why Wear White Hat (Even After Labor Day)

When comparing white hat vs black hat SEO, it’s pretty clear that going the black hat SEO route can result in some massive penalties. When you run a business, you probably can’t afford to take unnecessary chances. While there are some aspects of even white hat SEO that are never going to be a sure thing, you can be pretty confident that trying to cheat your way to success isn’t going to pay off.

Sure, it’s tempting to go with a strategy that promises fast and impressive results. And there are some people who genuinely believe that they can’t win if they play by the rules. But this simply isn’t true. Just like other areas in life, there are no shortcuts. Companies that are guided by their ethics (and who understand that long-lasting results don’t happen overnight) are likely to be more successful in the long run – both in SEO and in other important aspects of their business. And let’s face it: wouldn’t you rather be known for your integrity and your expertise than for trying to trick both Google and your customers?

White Hat vs Black Hat SEO – Final Words

It takes time to increase traffic organically, but having patience and trusting the process will reflect better on your business down the line. Not only will you position yourself as an industry leader, but you’ll also make sure that your rankings and traffic will keep increasing, rather than being only a brief flash in the pan. Even if you were to increase your traffic and rankings temporarily with black hat tactics, you’ll have to ask yourself: do you really want to base your business on deception and unprofessional conduct? If you want to position your business for lasting success and be seen as a reputable organization, white hat SEO is really your only option here. You’ve got too much on the line to cut corners – and your business deserves better!

In the battle of white hat vs black hat SEO, which will you choose?

Tags: free seo search engine marketing SEO seo guide seo tools
Author: Danielle Lachance
Danielle earned her B.A. in English from Wheaton College in Mass. in 2011. She previously worked in Tel Aviv, Israel as a writing assistant for a women's rights organization.
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