If you’ve ever researched Search Engine Optimization (SEO), you’ve most likely come across terms such as white hat SEO, black hat SEO, and grey hat SEO. This article will tell you more about the meaning of many colors of hats SEO experts wear when trying to rank #1 on Google.
You will see how each hat has its own set of tricks and learn how pulling a rabbit out of the (black) hat and trying to be too clever can often backfire in the SEO world. Stay tuned to find out more!
What Is White Hat, Black Hat, And Grey Hat SEO?
To understand “hats,” you first need to understand the purpose of Search Engine Optimization. In short, through SEO, you intend to improve the ranking a website has in the search results for a given term you want to compete for, a.k.a. “keyword.”
For example, if you run a pet grooming salon in Vancouver, you would probably want to rank for “best pet salon in Vancouver” but maybe also for “German Sheppard grooming Vancouver” or even “how to trim your dog’s nails.” All of those terms are related to your business, and people who are looking for those are usually not just random visitors. They are actually looking for information regarding their pets, which automatically makes them a potential customer. That’s why showing above your competitors in the search results matters. Your potential customers are more likely to click on your website instead of theirs if it ranks higher.
But, ranking high on Google is easier said than done, which gets us to those famous “hats.”
What is White Hat SEO?
White hat SEO is the safest of all SEO techniques. If you don’t want to take any risk and suffer a potential Google penalty, white hat SEO is for you. By optimizing your site “white hat” you only follow the established guidelines, trying to rank by improving site speed, content quality, user-friendliness, etc.
What we described in the pet grooming example above is pure white hat SEO. You find a keyword opportunity – “German Sheppard grooming Vancouver” – and you try to rank for it. You do that by writing articles, including the keyword on your website, performing technical optimizations on your site, etc.
While white hat SEO is risk-free, it has one massive downside – it’s extremely slow. Writing articles takes some time, but it will take months for Google to rank them.
Also, all of your competitors are probably implementing white hat SEO techniques, which means it will be tough to stand out and be better than them. You all rely on the same set of well-known techniques.
What Is Black Hat SEO?
Black hat SEO is opposite to white hat SEO. Instead of following the rules, black hat SEO techniques take advantage of the rules, trying to trick search engines into ranking the site higher than it deserves.
For example, it is a well-known fact that search engines value links. If sites with excellent domain reputation link to your articles, Google will recognize that, and your rankings will improve. Black hat SEOs know this, which is why they try to trick Google by buying links from shady PBNs and link farms.
Other black SEO tactics include keyword stuffing, hidden text, article spinning and plagiarism, negative SEO… The list is extensive, but any behavior that is directly against the rules can be referenced as black hat SEO.
While black hat tactics can be very effective in the short term, they will almost always result in a Google penalty in the long run. Therefore, if your business relies on having a stable website that will keep getting traffic for years to come, black hat SEO is not for you.
What Is Grey Hat SEO?
Grey hat SEO stands between white hat and black hat SEO techniques. While it doesn’t blatantly break and manipulate rules as black hat SEO does, it isn’t really playing by the white SEO book either.
Grey hat SEO is all about finding loopholes or rules that are not precisely defined and play around them without suffering a penalty. It is basically trying to stay ahead and trying to outsmart Google.
What Optimization Techniques Do Gray Hat SEOs Use?
One of the examples of gray hat SEO techniques would be rewriting entire articles that rank well. It is a known fact that Google doesn’t like plagiarized content (nor do site owners, who can even sue you), it is pretty easy to avoid obvious plagiarisation. You just hire a content writer, telling them to rewrite the article and make minimal structural changes.
That kind of article will pass Copyscape, as there was no copy/pasting. But, the article won’t have anything original in it, and will provide exactly the same information as the article you used as a model. Therefore, it probably won’t get you a penalty, but spinning articles isn’t something Google would look forward to if they found out you’re doing it.
Finding link building opportunities is another example of a gray hat SEO tactic. We know that buying links is forbidden. We also know that writing guest posts is allowed. But is actively searching for guest posting opportunities with a goal to get a backlink forbidden? It isn’t, but again, this is not something Google would applaud too.
Another tactic is buying expired domains that used to have decent authority, and linking to articles you own, trying to boost their ranking.
Therefore, whenever you employ a tactic that doesn’t blatantly break the rules, but your gut feeling tells you it is probably a good idea not to brag publicly about it – you are most likely in the grey hat SEO territory.
Bottom Line: Should You Use Grey Hat SEO?
Anyone should deploy white hat SEO tactics – doing that will never hurt your site if done correctly. On the other hand, anyone looking to rank long-term should stay off black hat SEO, as it will end up in a penalty.
As for the grey hat SEO – the answer is more complicated. One benefit of grey hat SEO techniques is that they can turn to white hat SEO in the future. However, they can also turn to black hat SEO, which means that grey hat has the potential to cost you dearly if you are not careful.
Therefore, if you decide to go the grey route, the most important thing is to constantly be on the lookout, following Google updates and monitoring the algorithm while also keeping track of all the changes you made. That way, if it turns out that some of the tactics you employed are about to turn black hat, you can prevent the damage by undoing them. For this reason, it is the best idea to leave the grey hat and other advanced techniques to SEO professionals.