What Is White Hat SEO?
White hat SEO means following the “rules”. Purely, you use only ethical tactics and follow search engine guidelines.
What Is Black Hat SEO?
Black hat SEO means using unsafe practices. You can 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 wild activities (which can lead to manual actions).
What Is Gray Hat SEO?
As with a lot of SEO, there are differing opinions on what gray hat SEO is.
Take the initial 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 tactic that is currently neither white nor black hat but changes to the ways search engines work could become the opposite in the future.
- It’s a combination of white hat and black hat techniques.
Both of these definitions have a commonality.
Gray hat SEO is neither black hat nor white hat, but some entity is in the middle.
Either transitioning between the two or a mixture of the two, It’s a fade line.
Not something you should robotically be penalized for.
Not something that you would voluntarily inform Google you are doing.
It’s not necessarily a poor practice, but it is being done with the intention to get ahead in the rankings.
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 those otherwise redirect visitors away to other sites rapidly tend not to rank well on Bing. Your content should be simple to navigate, should be rich and engaging to the website visitor, and provide the information they seek.”
Just so happens that the content is best quality that other sites need to loop to it as a resource.
Creating content of value to visitors with the goal of teaching, informing, or delighting them.
Private Blog Networks (PBNs), adding your website link to any blog comment you can, and paying rewards for links.
These all audibly go against Google and Bing’s webmaster guidelines.
Creating content clearly for the sake of gaining links could be considered against Google’s guidelines by the definition given above.
However, if that content is really suitable and valuable to visitors to the site, is it really against the spirit of the guidelines? A gray area.
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.
Implementing black, white, or gray hat techniques all carries risks.
Black hat techniques have a direct 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 separated from the search indices.
White hat techniques run the risk of being inactive.
The web might be the best place if every website played by the search engines’ rules, but they don’t.
If you are determined to play by the rules you might sacrifice the top rankings in some instances.
As such, if your brand is in a competitive industry you might not be able to rank against competition that is employing black hat techniques.
PBNs and other link schemes can be extremely effective. Gray hat techniques have the risk of being penalized later.
If the activity you are carrying out is border-line against the guidelines then you don’t know when the search engine might secure algorithms to crack down on it.
Black hat techniques might be effective in the short term.
But if they are discovered rapidly by the search engines, then the effects might be short-lived.
Investing time and money into designing a private blog network that gets discovered and the links demoted might be a waste.
White hat techniques have the best 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 swap 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 surveys from the search engines over time which could reduce their effectiveness.
If you use your existing work to help win new clients or secure the next promotion, your methodology is critical.
Speaking about your PBN scheme is not going to win you your next search award.
Most employers, if they know much about SEO, will be unwilling to take a risk on someone who boasts openly about their success with content farms.
It’s also most likely to make risk-averse clients very nervous.
Playing by the search engine rulebooks can be a relaxed, more frustrating process than black hat SEO.
If you are fortunate without cutting corners then it is something to definitely shout about.
White hat SEO techniques, used successfully, show good skill.
Gray hat SEO, in truth, will form a huge part of any SEO campaign. As such, it is hugely 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 simply cut violations of the webmaster guidelines.
Many people reading this article will likely have a differing viewpoint on what activity is the white or gray hat.
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 topper will be impressive in an interview.
White hat SEO and black hat SEO might seem easy to define on the surface, but in truth, most 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 holder does not understand the risks, then it is never acceptable to expose the site to those risks.
White hat SEO might seem the clear 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 gingerly considered gray hat SEO is likely your safest route.