White Hat vs Black Hat SEO: Your Guide

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is an activity you can carry out in multiple ways. At its crux, you could see it in just two: white hat and black hat.

You may have come across these concepts – perhaps in relation to hackers. They differentiate the black hat malicious hackers, who want to steal your money or data, from the white hat ethical hackers, who help organisations fix their security holes.

The idea of the hat one wears allegedly originated from old cowboy films where the protagonist would wear a white hat and the antagonist a black one.

We’ve put together this guide to help you understand the differences between white hat and black hat SEO.

White hat vs black hat SEO

White hat SEO means you adhere to all the search engine guidelines. You don’t engage in any risky practices and would not find yourself at risk of a penalty from a search engine. White hat SEO is generally part of a long-term strategy since it involves work that doesn’t usually deliver immediate gains.

Black hat SEO, on the other hand, means you engage in practices that go against the guidelines and could see you punished for it. With black hat SEO, the focus is on gaming the search engines to rank highly, rather than focusing on what a user wants from your site.

Although black hat SEO might see you jump up the rankings quickly, you’re more likely to find that you’re punished for it in the long term.

Examples of white hat SEO

White hat SEO is about providing good experiences for users – and the benefit is that search engines reward you for that.

Creating quality content is probably the most discussed white hat SEO tactic. This involves analysis of the right keywords, matching the user’s intent, and providing real and unique value with what you create. Strong content is also more likely to attract backlinks, which is one of Google’s most important ranking factors.

White hat SEO also includes effective internal linking. Google awards pages PageRank, with the best pages receiving higher amounts. Through internal linking, you can pass PageRank from your best performing pages to others. Make sure you’re linking to relevant pages.

A fast and well-structured website will mean users can navigate it well. It also means search engines can crawl it properly and rank it appropriately.

These tactics all take time to implement properly. They’re not quick fixes. But you won’t face any potential penalties by making them part of your SEO strategy.

Examples of black hat SEO

Black hat SEO can see fast results. That’s why it can be tempting to implement these measures. But it comes with significant risk.

One of the most obvious examples of black hat SEO is buying links to your site. There are a few reasons why this is a bad idea:

  • Spammy sites accept money for links

The sorts of sites that take your money to link back to your site are generally not the most respected. Being associated with more spammy sites can lead to your own site being seen by search engines in the same way. This can cause a drop in rankings – the opposite of what you were trying to achieve.

  • Could result in a penalty

Unless a site is posting an advertorial – and this should be clearly labelled as such – obtaining links this way goes against search engine guidelines. This could see your site slapped with a search engine penalty, which could mean it’s demoted down the rankings or de-indexed in the worst cases.

  • Unlikely to lead to traffic

Bought links rarely translate into real traffic, which means there’s a minimal impact on your firm’s bottom line. The ROI on buying links is typically very low, which can make it a less than sensible financial decision.

In addition to buying links, black hat SEO also encompasses keyword stuffing, using unrelated and irrelevant keywords, and making text invisible so search engines can read it but users can’t.

Grey hat SEO

It can be difficult to see results with an entirely white hat approach. But venturing into black hat territory may be too risky for many firms. This results in something known as grey hat SEO.

Let’s take link-building as an example. It’s against Google’s guidelines to buy links, but what about paying a PR agency to create something designed to get you links? This is where link-building can become grey hat.

You’re not directly buying links, but you are trying to manipulate the rankings. You are creating something valuable, but you’re also doing it with the intention of securing links rather than offering help to users.

Attitude to risk

SEO is tricky. There are multiple approaches to take with it, but one thing to always bear in mind is the risk involved in an activity.

The risk of implementing work and then waiting to see results that just don’t manifest is the concern with white hat SEO. With black hat, you face the worrying threat of penalties and ranking demotions.

As with investments, your attitude to risk might dictate which approach to SEO you take. Just ensure you’re properly considering all the potential outcomes and carefully weighing up those risks.


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