The terms white hat and black hat search engine optimization (SEO) may be thrown around in some offices more than others, but it’s important for every digital marketer and SEO professional to know the basics of white and black hat SEO in order to ensure the safety and ethics of their digital marketing tactics.
This article will provide a brief overview about the differences between white and black hat SEO and why avoiding black hat SEO can help your website succeed in the long run.
White hat SEO is essentially the practice of SEO that follows recommended guidelines put forth by search engines (especially Google, which continues to hold the largest search share in most of the world at almost 75% of the global market). Webopedia defines white hat SEO as the practice that focuses on a human audience. White hat SEO is sometimes also called ‘ethical SEO.’ This is because white hat SEO practices don’t attempt to manipulate or work around guidelines and requirements of search engines.
Manipulation is a good way to encapsulate the definition of black hat SEO, which Webopedia has defined as “aggressive SEO strategies…used by those who are looking for a quick financial return.”
Black hat SEO is still used by some marketers because it can get quick results, even though it may lead to disastrous results down the road. Conversely, white hat SEO has a long-term approach that focuses on building a website and online presence that will last and stand the test of time. We discuss examples of the different white and black hat SEO strategies later in this post.
When SEO was first getting off the ground in the late 1990s and early 2000s, SEO wasn’t really split into black and white hats. SEO professionals were just learning how to utilize specific tactics with their websites to change how their websites were shown in search engines. It took a lot of experimentation, which is something that still happens today (though search engines are much more aware and involved with the SEO community to communicate what is a best practice approach).
As SEO was just getting started, search engines were still relatively in their infancy as well, and thus were more vulnerable to changes that website owners were making to their websites. Search engines weren’t necessarily aware that changes on the website could significantly impact the type of information that was being displayed in search results.
However, as SEO professionals got smarter, so did search engines, which began to establish guidelines and boundaries for how they rank websites. Some of this information is public, like the Google Search Quality Rater guidelines, while some still remains a mystery because of search engines’ proprietary algorithm process.
Google and other search engines make regular tweaks to their algorithms and standards for indexing and ranking websites, but over the past 25+ years, SEO has evolved from an ‘anything goes’ mentality to a stricter set of guidelines due to the evolution of the industry. This is why white and black hat SEO are now contrasting fields that offer different tactics on opposite ends of the spectrum.
White hat SEO are the basic fundamentals of SEO that every professional worth their salt is going to know how to implement and maintain. While there are several components to white hat SEO, here are some of the most important:
Organic and technical SEO are two sides of the same coin, but essentially comprise what you can implement on the back-end of your site and in the CMS that is a best SEO practice. Some of these include:
This is a description of your website and it is often a user’s first impression of your site. In the two examples above, the meta titles are OK, but the descriptions need some work. If you don’t manually enter the meta titles and descriptions of every page on your website, Google automatically pulls the top recent information available on the page. It’s important to manually edit and improve meta titles and descriptions because it allows you to give a better, clearer explanation of what is on your website. Below is an example of a search result where the meta title and description have been modified.
In this example, you can see that the description gives the user a ‘preview’ as to what the page is about, as well as some initial information related to their query (e.g. buying geckos).
These are just a few of the available website optimization tasks that can be used for better SEO.
Content has likely evolved the most since SEO was first created. In the beginning of SEO, there were many ways to manipulate content in order to affect search engine rankings. However, with recent algorithm changes, including the rollout of the Panda update from Google in 2011, this is no longer the case. Panda was rolled out to de-value low quality content. This was hugely detrimental to ‘content farms’ – websites that published massive amounts of content without regard to their honesty, uniqueness (e.g. not plagiarized), and usefulness to the user.
Many SEO professionals saw this as Google taking a stand against low quality content, especially because it pulled many sites it saw as not useful from its search results. This resulted in sites like About.com and EZineArticles.com completely overhauling their content quality guidelines in order to avoid losing revenue and traffic due to lower appearances in search results.
Now, content must be high quality and useful in order to gain traction in search results. The ‘skyscraper’ technique created by SEO expert and Backlinko founder Brian Dean has been popular for building high quality content. It focuses on looking at the existing content covering a certain keyword, and then creating something that surpasses it in quality.
But, no matter what approach is used, content must be high quality to gain long-term traffic and conversions.
If you want your website to have long-term success and grow over time, it’s best to avoid any type of black hat SEO tactics and strategies, even if they promise a fast gain in links or traffic. Someone using black hat SEO may see a growth in traffic or search ranking for target keywords initially, but over time, search engines will eventually discover their strategies and penalize them.
Here are a few examples of black hat practices that were common at the beginning of SEO but that are now frowned upon and don’t work.
Tracking backlinks and getting links from other websites is part of SEO, but any links should be shown clearly on a website. Trying to hide links in website content or through code is highly frowned upon, as it attempts to cover where the link is on a website.
A good example of this is placing white anchor text on a website with a white background; users can’t see the links, but they are still being crawled by search engines that are looking at the code.
Using hidden links is just one-way black hat SEO practitioners fulfill orders for links. Websites can also buy links or traffic in an attempt to show search engines that their website is popular. However, because these links are likely from a bot or low-quality resource, and not from a real person or reputable website, search engines will determine that the website that has the paid links or traffic coming to it is not trustworthy either. This affects how a website ranks in search results.
Basically, when it comes to black hat SEO, any attempt at manipulation or ‘tricking’ search engines (instead of putting in the hard work of implementing SEO best practices or writing high quality, useful content) is going to be frowned upon by search engines and will negatively affect your organic SEO traffic.
For more examples of black hat SEO tactics that are not recommended and will likely have a negative impact on your website, visit this roundup by Cognitive SEO.