White Hat – Gray Hat – Black Hat | Whats The Deal?

With the release of Penguin, Panda and the upcoming Penguin 2.0 update it’s even more important to know where your website stands in terms of ‘legitimacy’. By this I mean, is your link profile spammy and fake? Is your on page SEO over optimised? Are you associated with bad neighbourhoods?

As an ethical SEO consultant, I always tend to stay on the right side of Google’s guidelines, however; I do like to dabble in black hat and gray hat practises, mainly for testing purposes and only ever on my own websites – I never head into the experiments expecting to rank highly or even keeping my rankings, I have achieved good results using these tactics but they never seem to stick around!

In this post, I hope to explain the differences of being a guideline abider (white hat SEO) and a Black hatter – as well as the murky waters between.

White Hat SEO

This is my preferred choice, especially when working with client sites. If I happened to get a client penalised like whoever headed up the SEO campaigns for Intaflora and JCPenny I would be so embarrassed I’d quit!.

White hat SEO aka ethical SEO basically means strictly sticking to the guidelines laid out by Google. Though it can be argued even manual link building is going against Google’s guidelines since it is in essence ‘manipulating the PageRank algorithm’.


Any links intended to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme

For example would you write a guest post on a blog if it didn’t mention your website, or if there was no link back to your site? I doubt it, which means you are only doing this to build links and technically breaking the rules. Obviously you do also gain attention and authority on particular subjects via guest posting even without a link, as long as you have an author bio that is.

I would say the ONLY link building tactic that doesn’t break any of the guidelines is creating link bait – that is if it is actually a valuable piece of content, which link bait should be.

However, ethical link building will should not get you penalised, but Google is making this harder to do and (I believe) eventually links will hold half the weight as they do now, and social signals will be of much higher importance in Google’s algorithm. And eventually they will be giving us as individuals credibility (hence authorship mark-up) which means – if a person well known in your industry tweets about you, it will carry more weight than if I tweeted about you – anyway that’s another topic and another post…

What classes as ethical link building in a post penguin/panda world?

  • Effective link building tactics:
  • Guest posting
  • Social links and mentions
  • Creating link bait
  • Creating YouTube videos
  • Slide sharing
  • Infographics
  • PDF sharing

Some of the above can in fact be ineffective and essentially black hat (automated systems, duplicate content), the trick is to do everything manually and not share rubbish content.

Not so effective yet what hat tactics:

  • Article marketing (using high quality unique articles)
  • Directory submissions (manual submits & high quality directories)
  • Web 2.0 profiles and off site blogs

White hat on-page SEO

Over optimisation has hit a lot of websites since the algorithm updates, however this is the easiest thing to fix and I don’t understand why I still see webmasters plastering keywords everywhere and stuffing titles with them. I’ve recently updated my ‘Keyword Density Article‘ to accommodate the changes made to the Google algorithms, I now recommend having a keyword density of 1%- 2% (this is usually up to 6x in a long article and less in a short article) within the body text (using exact match terms), rather than anything below 5%. I also recommend using partial match keywords on the page; I go into more detail on this here.

One of the most important places for your main keyword to appear is within the Page Title, but I would not duplicate that with the first H1 tag on the page (like WordPress does as standard) use the main keyword in the title, and a different variant in the H1 tag, so they both say the same thing but in a different way.

I know it’s cheesy but it’s true – you should ‘always write for humans, not the search engines’.

Gray hat SEO

Gray hat SEO is a tricky one, it borders on the side of black hat and white hat. Using tactics that are less likely to get you penalised (but penalties can still occur) for example:

  • Three way linking
  • A high keyword density but not overly stuffed
  • Indirect paid links – Say you contributed time or money to a cause, and as a thank you they linked back, creating what is technically a paid link.
  • Link exchanges
  • Creating thin content just to have more pages

The good thing about most gray hat tactics are the chances of actually getting caught and penalised is slim, and in some cases future proof. For example indirect paid links will most likely never be found – personally I would never syndicate my own blog posts to article directories, I feel it could cause a lot of duplicate content issues and will dilute the articles authority – I would also find creating thin content risky since the Panda updates.

Black hat SEO

Black hat SEO is fun (please don’t hate), yes it does fill the internet with crap, but the majority of black hat seo’ed websites don’t make it into Google (not very high anyway). However, some SEO’s I know personally kick ass with Black Hat tactics, I’m not sure how long the positive effects will last especially with the new Google updates planned for release this year, but they seem pretty confident that they can alter their tactics to accommodate any algorithm change Google may release.

I’m not going to lie, I do like to dabble in black hat tactics sometimes, but not for this site or for any site I care about. It’s more a way of testing Google, and seeing where the boundaries are – it helps me understand how Google works.

The marketers I know personally that use black hat tactics do actually have very helpful sites with loads of unique content; they just don’t have the patience to sit around and try to build links and rank higher the ethical way. However I would NEVER use these tactics on a client’s website, or on a website that I wanted to stick around for the long term, mainly because one small algorithm update can potentially wipe you out, and I don’t want to be worried every time an update comes around.

Some examples of black hat tactics are:

  • Software to automate article and directory submissions while spinning the content
  • Scraping content and publishing it on your website
  • Basically all automated link building tools
  • Cloaking (showing different content to search engines and visitors)
  • Keyword stuffing
  • Hidden text

So to sum up, never use black hat tactics on client websites – be weary of gray hat and always try to stay ethical, a small hiccup could cost you clients and money.