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If you're in any way familiar with search engine optimization (SEO), you’ve probably heard that there are “good” and “bad” ways to do it. There’s white hat, which stands for “good” SEO, black hat that stands for “bad” SEO, and a grey hat that uses both types of tactics but is still not acceptable by Google.
Though black hat SEO has been declared “dead” by many in the industry, having had its heyday in the early days of the internet, it’s actually still alive and well, and can provide an unlikely source of inspiration for all white hat
A Brief History of Black & White Hat SEO
Black hat SEO wasn’t always considered poor practice. Tactics that are now considered black hat, such as keyword stuffing and blog comment spam, were previously widely used across the SEO community. It wasn’t until several years ago that Google started pointing out these practices, labeling them as negative, and asking websites to clean up their acts in an effort to improve user experience. And with several algorithm updates to back up its statements, the use of black hat tactics started slowing down.
Today, black hat SEOs still aim to find search algorithm loopholes that they can exploit to get a higher ranking. They also continue to use some of the old-school black hat techniques. White hat SEOs, on the other hand, take the correct approach to SEO in a less aggressive way, focusing on satisfying Google’s existing algorithms by providing relevant content that adds value for users. White hat SEOs often focus on onsite optimization, great content, quality backlinks, and plenty of keyword research. It’s really about “playing nice” with Google, as opposed to trying to trick Google into giving you the ranking you want.
What White Hat SEOs Can Learn from Black Hat SEO
Black hat strategies can be viewed as over-amplified versions of white hat strategies. There’s always a grain of truth in them. For example, link building can be very effective, but when it gets spammy, it’s often quickly recognized and penalized by Google’s search algorithm. Here are five lessons white hats can learn from black hat SEOs:
1. It’s OK to Spend Money on Tactics that Work
Black hat SEOs seem to have no problems with spending money to make money. For example, they often pay for automated link-building tools, purchase links, buy sites for private blog networks and pay for inclusion in networks. While these tactics will get them penalized by Google, there is a takeaway for white hat tactics: sometimes you have to spend money to make money.
Legitimate tactics could include: paying micro-influencers to promote your content via organic links; investing in advertisements to earn natural links and exposure; and paying for tools that make it easier to track campaigns, such as KISSmetrics and AdvancedWebRanking.
2. Focus on Backlinks - the White Hat Way
Backlinks are an extremely important part of search engine optimization. In fact, the strength of your link building is often cited as the most important part of Google’s ranking algorithm. It’s often been thought that the more backlinks a page has, the better it will rank in Google, and a recent study proves this.
As mentioned, black hat SEOs often purchase these backlinks or build them in a less than reputable way. White hat SEOs, on the other hand, rely on partnerships, PR, guest blogging, and testimonials to build their library of backlinks. And that’s exactly what you need to do to move your brand forward. Don’t be shy about asking your partners for backlinks. You can also pitch other publications with newsworthy content, write testimonials, create viral content, and list your business on third-party directories. All of these activities satisfy the same goal: getting other sites to link back to yours!
3. Avoid Keyword Stuffing, but Focus on Keyword Research
Ah, keyword stuffing. We remember it like it was yesterday. Even the most reputable SEO firms once stuffed their content with keywords they were targeting to try and get higher rankings. (See the example in the image below).
But “keyword stuffing” still happens today, albeit on a much smaller scale. Black hats may have it wrong by incorporating too many uses of a keyword, but the importance they place on keywords is spot on. You still need to find the right keywords to use and place them naturally throughout your content, with the natural part being the difference. Your content should be easily readable and user-friendly. To find the right keywords, start with Keyword Tool.
Simply type in the keywords that you want to target, and the tool will provide a list of suggested keywords and the number of searches for each. It’s free to use on a limited basis, but you’ll need to pay for the Pro version for additional features. Once you find a keyword you want to focus on, naturally include it where relevant in your content - don’t stuff - and you’ll see your rankings increase.
4. Internal Linking - Effective in the Right Doses
Google is a robot that is constantly looking for connections inside and outside of your website. It’s important to organize your content in a way that the search engine understands. Internal linking, or linking from one page of your website to another, is a great way to do this. Organize your content so that Google can easily see what each page is discussing. Pillar content is one effective approach that focuses on creating pages that cover one specific topic in-depth. This one big topic/post can now trickle down to many smaller topics and posts which reference the original article - a perfect fit for internal linking.
While black hat SEOs stuff internal links into every piece of content (akin to the type of links you would see on Wikipedia), these unnatural links aren’t helping them with SEO in the long-run. Focus on adding 2-4 internal links for each piece will make it user-friendly but only if they are a natural fit, remember to focus on adding value for the user.
5. Always Test Your Methods
Some in the SEO industry would argue that black hats are more likely to test things than White Hats. Though that’s certainly a generalization, it’s true that black hats could test some of their theories faster than white hats because they can run automated software for controlled experiments, while white hats don’t invest in that same software and find testing more manual and time-consuming. Additionally, many white hats are reformed black hats who now take Google’s word as law. They don’t see the need to do much testing because they are following the guidelines that they’ve been given.
If you’re working in search engine optimization, you have to test and optimize based on your findings. You can’t simply base all of your strategies around best practices or only do what other people say works. By doing SEO testing specifically for your brand, you can learn a lot to help you improve your rank. Some tests may include: running two content strategies at the same time and determine which one earns the most engagement, tweaking links, keywords, etc. and measuring how they influence traffic over time, and using traditional split testing to determine which types of pages are most likely to pick up natural backlinks. Ensuring you're SEO compliant is the first step to success but to really optimize effectively, you need to test and refine your approach over time.