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White Hat vs Black Hat SEO: Knowing the Difference

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White Hat vs Black Hat SEO: Knowing the Difference

Effective search engine optimisation (SEO) is an essential part of securing success in the digital space but not all SEO tactics are created equal and some are much riskier than others. Whilst many of these risky – so called black hat – techniques used to offer quick wins with moderate risk, many now carry considerable risk with only nominal gain.

Although the boundaries between black and white hat SEO aren’t always clear, it’s essential to understand what each term means, in addition to the potential implications of choosing to forge ahead with one strategy over another.

Essentially the difference between black hat and whitehat comes down to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and what the search engine deems acceptable practice and what it deems unacceptable.

Let’s break down each approach to SEO, including the blurry and ill defined area in the middle, which has come to be known as grey hat.

  • What is black Hat SEO?

Black hat SEO is a term that refers to the practices of enhancing ranking positions in search engine results pages (SERPs) by utilising tactics and strategies that do not completely adhere to the guidelines set out by search engines. Content automation, keyword stuffing redirects and page swapping are all examples of established black SEO tactics but as we will see, the lines between black and white hat techniques can be distinctly blurry.

  • What is White Hat SEO?

White hat SEO is a term that refers to the utilisation of optimisation techniques, strategies and tactics that fully adhere to the best practice guidelines and policies published by search engines. The creation of valuable content, ethical link building and back-linking are all examples of accepted white hat techniques that have been proven to deliver meaningful results.

  • What is Grey Hat SEO?

Although this might initially appear to be a black and white issue, search engine guidelines are not as definitive as many SEO professionals would perhaps prefer. There are certain strategies that seem to sit somewhere between black hat and white hat, which is where the term grey hat SEO comes into play.

The Boundaries of Acceptability are Constantly in Flux

SEO is notoriously complex and the fact that previously acceptable white hat tactics can drift into the grey or even black hat categories adds an additional layer of complexity. The boundaries of acceptability can shift when tactics start being abused. A prime example of this occurred in 2007 when spammers began to target widgets. A once white hat tactic was ultimately deemed to fall into the black hat category until 2014 when Google amended its guidelines to clarify that only hidden, low-quality or keyword-rich links embedded within widgets were unacceptable.

To understand why some might opt to take the risk on black hat and/or grey hat techniques, let’s compare a black hat technique with what many consider a grey hat tactic.

Content Spinning (Black Hat)

Content lies at the heart of every effective SEO strategy. Although Google’s advanced algorithm is becoming more adept at identifying the difference between well-written and sub-par content, it still favours sites which frequently publish fresh content that audiences find valuable enough to engage with.

Pumping out content at volume isn’t easy which has led to a distinct rise in spun content. Crucially, however, those same sophisticated search algorithms are now also finding it easier to identify this type of content. Many optimisation experts agree that spun content has traversed from grey hat into black hat territory, largely because search algorithms are becoming markedly better at classifying it and the sophistication of spinning software has basically plateaued.

Investing in high-quality content that has been well-researched and thoroughly edited will pay off, but you may need to be willing to cut back on the volume of content you are publishing. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as quality will always trump quantity (although having both is the best of both worlds).

Private Blog Networks (Grey Hat)

Private blog networks (PBNs) are a number of blogs owned by a single individual or company with the sole intention of building links. These individuals swoop in and purchase expired domains with high authority and use them to point high-quality backlinks to external websites. High authority domains can deliver an immediate boost to link building strategies, which has made this tactic a particularly appealing one for some time. Additionally, as you retain full control over the domain, if you were to receive a Google penalty, you could remove any contentious links in a matter of seconds.

PBNs aren’t an easy strategy though and the time and monetary costs of maintaining a portfolio of authoritative domains is considerable, particularly because when there are hosting and security costs factored in. Many private blog network owners will also invest time into the creation and maintenance of social media profiles for every domain to add an additional layer of legitimacy to their network. This isn’t a particularly ethical way to build links as search engines would view it as artificial (all links should be earned in the eyes of Google) but it has proved effective, if not costly and timely to execute.

In Conclusion

The risk factor varies considerably between the different grey hat and black hat techniques and those that might be mildly risky today could become far more dangerous in a very short space of time. It is therefore important to only work with experienced SEO professionals to ensure that you are not caught using tactics that could land your site in some serious hot water with search engines.

I am the founder of Startup Today. I am the main writer and have put in many hours of work into creating this blog. If you want to find out more about me then lets get in contact.

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