Learn what these terms mean, what actions fall under each category, and how they can affect your site.

Here, you’ll find:

  • Definitions for white hat and black hat SEO
  • How to spot each type of method
  • What “grey hat SEO” means
  • How to implement the right white-hat methods

Let’s talk about something that doesn’t come up in a ton of digital marketing conversations: Accessories.

Hats, specifically.

OK, so we’re not talking about literal hats you wear — but these hats are important nonetheless.

The terms “white hat” and “black hat” are search engine optimization (SEO) techniques that marketers can use when optimizing a website. They have to do with search engine guidelines, ethical considerations, and, ultimately, your ranking on the search engine results page (SERP).

Want to make sure you’re doing everything right when it comes to SEO — and nothing that Google or another search engine can penalize you for? Keep reading.

men in a crowd with white hats on

White hat SEO is all about putting in the work and taking the time to slowly but surely build up your brand’s credibility. (Image via Unsplash)

What is white hat SEO?

White hat SEO is basically made up of the Google-approved techniques you can use to optimize your site and online presence. As Crazy Egg explains, this means your site meets ethical criteria such as:

White hat SEO is all about putting in the work and taking the time to slowly but surely build up your brand’s credibility so you can continue to rank higher in search results. It’s like running a marathon: if you want to win the race, you’ve got to invest in all that it takes (eating right, consistently exercising, stretching, and resting) to get you there.

girl on bridge wearing a black hat

Black hat techniques attempt to trick search engines into thinking a site is more reputable or valuable than it actually is. (Image via Unsplash)

What is black hat SEO?

Black hat SEO falls under the same category as a “get rich quick” scheme: it involves skirting ethical boundaries and trying to game the system.

Black hat techniques often attempt to trick search engines into thinking a site is more reputable or valuable than it actually is. According to HubSpot, black hat methods include:

  • Keyword stuffing (overly using keywords or location info on your site)
  • Cloaking (presenting different content or URLs to users and search engines)
  • Using private link networks (blogs created solely to generate links to other sites)
  • Misleading URL redirects 
  • Low-quality content
  • Spammy blog comments
  • “Invisible text” hidden in the code of your website

What are the effects of using black hat SEO?

Since black hat techniques are for the benefit of the algorithm and not users, it’s common for people to have a bad user experience when dealing with these sites or links.

Not only that, but those who leverage black hat SEO are at risk of getting dinged by Google in the form of “manual actions” and algorithm updates. Manual actions are a one-to-one situation where a person reviewing on behalf of Google flags your site for violating its guidelines. At worst, this can cause your site to be prevented from appearing in any Google search results whatsoever.

As far as updates go, seasoned marketing pros know that the algorithm is changing and evolving almost constantly. These changes are usually implemented to help searchers get the most accurate results for their searches. These updates are also implemented to combat various black hat techniques, which is why leveraging them could cause your ranking to tank during the next surprise update.

Note: While black hat techniques are found to be unethical, they’re generally not against any law from a legal standpoint.

man in a grey hat

Put simply, there’s no “one weird trick” that’ll magically shoot your company to the top of the SERP. (Image via Unsplash)

Looking to up your SEO game? Check out our guide: 10 Quick Tips to Improve Your SEO Today.

What is grey hat SEO?

The term “grey hat” means your SEO includes methods that may be ethically questionable but aren’t currently penalized by Google. It’s important to note, however, that these methods could be banned in the future, which is why it’s critical to keep a close eye on algorithm changes and penalty updates.

Posting fake reviews (whether positive or negative) or paying for reviews could be considered grey hat. While not technically black hat, these tactics are extremely frowned upon. And it’s relatively common for people to purchase expired domains and link or redirect their sites from it — this also falls under the grey hat category.

All domains carry some sort of link equity, so those who buy one and redirect it to their main domain will absorb all of the site’s old links. While this may earn your site a bunch of links quickly, it’s a risky move that you could end up being penalized for, especially if the purchased domain had nothing to do with your current business.

How can white hat SEO be implemented effectively?

Now that you know the ins and outs of white, black, and grey hat SEO, you can be more proactive about ensuring that you’re taking advantage of all the white hat (and possibly some grey hat) techniques at your disposal.

These techniques are not only search engine-approved, but they’ll make for a better user experience for those visiting your website. They’ll also offer a more accurate, professional look at who you are as a brand, which will allow you to stand out.

Some of the most effective white hat SEO methods include:

  • Being transparent about your company and its offerings
  • Creating well-written content that speaks to your target audience — not just search engines
  • Not over-promising, inflating statistics, or misquoting clients
  • Making sure your site is speedy, educational, easy to navigate, and optimized
  • Not falling for quick SEO wins that sound too good to be true (they probably are!)

Need more help with your SEO efforts? That’s why we’re here.

The takeaway

Put simply, there’s no “one weird trick” that’ll magically shoot your company to the top of the SERP. Quality SEO takes time to cultivate. And that’s OK! Even if you’re feeling impatient about your SEO results, know that you’re not alone.

With time, effort, creativity, and some white hat techniques at your disposal, you can rest assured that you’re doing everything you can to garner more traffic — the right way.

This post has been updated and was originally published in December 2019.

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