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White Hat vs. Black Hat vs. Gray Hat SEO: What’s the Difference?

Black hat, white hat and gray hat SEO. How do they differ and what do they mean for your SEO approach? Find the answer here.

White Hat vs. Black Hat vs. Gray Hat SEO: What’s the Difference?

Black hats and white hats were used all the way back in the 1920s in Western films. They were an easy way for the audience to tell the difference between the hero and the villain.

The hero wore a white hat.

The villain wore a black hat.

The terminology has been adopted in various industries through the years, notably security.

Black hats and white hats are a way of describing malicious and ethical hackers.

The SEO industry has adopted the same phrasing in relation to SEO activity.

  • White hat SEO.
  • Black hat SEO.

What Is White Hat SEO?

White hat SEO means following the “rules”. Simply, you use only ethical tactics and follow search engine guidelines.

What Is Black Hat SEO?

Black hat SEO means using risky practices. You use tactics that can (and, let’s be honest, do) work. Until they don’t. These range from using tactics that go against guidelines from search engines to more dangerous activities (which can lead to manual actions).

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But, says who?

This isn’t a legal issue, per se. Not following Google’s guidelines isn’t illegal. Though if you get caught doing some very nefarious SEO tactics (e.g., hacking), then you could face legal issues.

There is no governing body who determines what lies within ethical SEO practice.

It’s purely a general consensus among SEO professionals based on the guidelines given by the closest organizations we have to a governing body.

The search engines.

What Is Good & Bad Practice in SEO?

The only rules we have to go on in SEO are the ones given to us by the search engines.

At the end of the day, it is their platform.

Search engines get to decide what conditions must be met to feature on it.

The algorithms used by the major search engines have been developed over the years to combat obvious and unhelpful manipulation of the search results.

They are there to catch websites that go against the spirit of the ranking systems.

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The search engines determine what is fair play and what is illicit behavior.

Google’s Guidelines

Google is well known for having quite clear webmaster guidelines that are used by SEO professionals to identify what could land a website in hot water if discovered.

Google calls our attention to the “Quality guidelines”, those that denote “the most common forms of deceptive or manipulative behavior”.

In these guidelines, we see mention of activity like “cloaking”, “doorway pages”, and “scraped content”.

The guidelines directly relate to the changes in Google’s algorithms over the years.

Penguin, Panda and Payday all included measures to lessen the presence of websites in the SERPs that don’t follow the guidelines.

The Difference Between Black Hat & White Hat

The core difference between black hat and white hat SEO is whether you are working in the spirit of the search engines’ guidelines.

There may be nuances to the guidelines that you find unclear, but are you working to meet the guidelines or get around them?

What Is Gray Hat SEO?

As with a lot of SEO, there are differing opinions on what gray hat SEO is.

Take the first page of Google’s results on “what is gray hat SEO” and you’ll see articles with a mixture of definitions, broadly falling into the categories of:

  • It’s a mixture of white hat and black hat techniques.
  • It’s a tactic that is currently either white or black hat but with changes to the ways search engines work could become the opposite in the future.

Both of these definitions have a commonality.

Gray hat SEO is neither black hat nor white hat, but something in the middle.

Either transitioning between the two, or a mixture of the two.

It’s a blurred line.

Not something that you would willingly inform Google you are doing.

Not something you should automatically be penalized for.

It’s not necessarily a bad practice, but it is being done with the intention to get ahead in the rankings.

Why Do These Definitions Matter?

Essentially, the use of white, black, and gray hat terminology is arbitrary.

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What it arguably does do is help keep SEO practitioners in check when they are working on websites that they don’t own.

Black hat techniques, ones that deliberately go against the search engine guidelines, carry risks.

As such, websites that go against the guidelines could be penalized by an outright, or partial ban from the search engine.

That’s very serious if the website isn’t your own.

You may cause a business to lose its largest source of income if it can no longer be found through its main organic source.

In the absence of a governing body, clients of SEO pros do not have much to go off, except:

“Do you use only white hat techniques?”

A question I’ve heard prospective clients ask.

Examples

What are some activities you could place in the black, white, and gray hat categories?

Link Building

Google’s Webmaster Guidelines state:

“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.”

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White Hat

Creating content of value to users with the goal of educating, informing or delighting them.

Just so happens that the content is so good that other sites want to link to it as a resource.

Black Hat

Private blog networks (PBNs), adding your website link to any blog comment you can, and paying for links.

These all clearly go against Google and Bing’s webmaster guidelines.

Gray Hat

Creating content purely for the sake of gaining links could be considered against Google’s guidelines by the definition given above.

However, if that content is really relevant and valuable to visitors to the site, is it really against the spirit of the guidelines? A gray area.

Content Quality

Bing’s guidelines on website content clearly indicate the level of quality needed to rank well:

“Websites that are thin on content, showing mostly ads or affiliate links, or that otherwise redirect visitors away to other sites quickly tend not to rank well on Bing.  Your content should be easy to navigate, should be rich and engaging to the website visitor, and provide the information they seek.”

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Google’s advice is similar. Content quality is important for ranking well.

Still, there are some gray areas.

White Hat

Content is written to aid user navigation, answer queries, and delight the user.

It ranks well because it is relevant and helpful, optimized to help the right audience find it in the search engines.

The content is written with the users’ needs first.

Black Hat

Content is specifically a doorway page, scraped from other websites without adding extra value, or contains keyword spamming.

The copy is purely there for the search engines.

Gray Hat

The content is written purely for the purpose of ranking the page well. It contains just enough keywords to drive visitors to the page but doesn’t really add much value.

The page would be just as useful to the visitor without the text but ranks better with it. A common SEO practice.

Is it in the spirit of the guidelines or does it go against them?

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The Ways They Differ

It’s not just in their definitions that black, white, and gray hat techniques differ. It’s in their risks and rewards too.

Risk

Implementing black, white, or gray hat techniques all carry risks.

Black hat techniques have a clear risk of manual actions.

If you are caught going against the search engine guidelines then you may be penalized by some or all of your website content being removed from the search indices.

White hat techniques run the risk of not working.

The web might be a better place if every website played by the search engines’ rules, but they don’t.

As such, if your brand is in a very competitive industry you might not be able to rank against competition that is employing black hat techniques.

PBNs and other link schemes can be highly effective. If you are determined to play by the rules you might sacrifice the high rankings in some instances.

Gray hat techniques have the risk of being penalized in the future.

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If the activity you are carrying out is borderline against the guidelines then you don’t know when the search engine might tighten the algorithms to crack down on it.

Longevity

Black hat techniques might be effective in the short-term.

But if they are discovered quickly by the search engines, then the effects might be short-lived.

Investing time and money into building a private blog network that gets discovered and the links demoted might be a waste.

White hat techniques have a greater chance of standing the test of time.

If the search engine guidelines are in place to help promote quality on the internet, then it is unlikely that the definition of quality would change substantially enough for something that was once considered in-line with the guidelines to suddenly be outside of them.

Gray hat techniques might fall under more scrutiny from the search engines over time which could reduce their effectiveness.

Case Studies

If you use your existing work to help win new clients or secure the next promotion, your methodology is critical.

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Talking about your PBN scheme is not going to win you your next search award.

It’s also likely to make risk-averse clients very nervous.

Most employers, if they know much about SEO, will be unwilling to take a risk on someone who brags openly about their success with content farms.

White hat SEO techniques, used successfully, show great skill.

Playing by the search engine rulebooks can be a slower, more frustrating process than black hat SEO.

If you are successful without cutting corners then it is something to definitely shout about.

Gray hat SEO, in truth, will form a large part of any SEO campaign. As such, it is largely well accepted in the SEO community.

Although they straddle the white hat/black hat divide due to the intention to manipulate the search results, they pay dividends and aren’t clear cut violations of the webmaster guidelines.

Many people reading this article will likely have differing opinions on what activity is white or gray hat.

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As such, this activity really isn’t taboo. Innovative link building campaigns win awards.

Discussing a strategic content plan designed to get your category pages ranking higher will be impressive in an interview.

Conclusion

White hat SEO and black hat SEO might seem easy to define on the surface, but in truth, most of SEO seems to fall into the gray zone.

Black hat SEO carries substantial risks.

If the website you are working on is not your own, and the owner does not understand the risks, then it is never acceptable to expose the site to those risks.

White hat SEO might seem the obvious way to go if you want to know that you are above reproach.

Is it going to make you competitive enough though?

Gray hat SEO sits somewhere in the middle.

In this author’s opinion, white hat SEO and carefully considered gray hat SEO is likely your safest route.

More Resources:

FAQ

What is white hat SEO?

White hat SEO means following the “rules”. Simply, you use only ethical tactics and follow search engine guidelines.

What is black hat SEO?

Black hat SEO means using risky practices. These range from using tactics that go against guidelines from search engines to more dangerous activities (which can lead to manual actions).

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Helen Pollitt

Managing Director at Arrows Up

Helen is the Managing Director at Arrows Up. She is an SEO consultant and trainer with a passion for equipping ... [Read full bio]

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