(image courtesy MadMagazine)
The SEO industry has many different hats and faces. In the grand scheme of things, it’s still a relatively new field – one that’s been in existence for just a couple of decades – and people continue to push boundaries, explore gray areas, and look for shortcuts to success.
When launching an online strategy, every business and marketer has a choice to make: Follow the rules and trust that a long-term, disciplined approach to SEO will eventually yield desirable results OR skirt the rules and game the system in order to get quick results that push the business forward sooner rather than later.
The former method is the preferred method. But in today’s culture of instant gratification, many marketers unfortunately opt for the less savory of the two strategies and pursue black hat SEO techniques in order to garner a quick return.
As you build your brand and venture into the vast world of SEO, you have a similar choice. But when you dig into the foundational elements of SEO and why certain strategies work, it quickly becomes evident which hat should be worn.
What is Black Hat SEO?
Let’s begin this deep-dive with a look at black hat SEO, which is essentially the process of using hacks and shortcuts to manipulate search engines and exploit weaknesses in their algorithms. While some black hat techniques may be laced with malicious intent, most aren’t evil. Instead, black hat SEO strategies are geared towards search bots first and human readers second. In other words, they don’t care a whole lot about satisfying human readers (which is Google’s primary focus). A black hat strategy would rather find an algorithmic loophole that can be exploited to make search bots salivate.
The exact definition of black hat SEO has evolved over the years. In fact, many of the practices that were common in 2003 or 2006 are now considered black hat. So while nothing is etched in stone, there are a few criteria that generally classify an SEO technique as being black hat.
- Breaks Google guidelines. Quite simply, if Google says you can’t do it, you shouldn’t be doing it. You can disagree with Google all you want, but it’s their system and they set the rules. (If you don’t want to play by their rules, feel free to use another search engine or start your own.) Breaking guidelines for the purpose of gaining a competitive advantage is considered black hat SEO.
- Attempts to manipulate. There’s a lot of “gray area” in the world of SEO. Marketers that implement manipulative tactics that go around Google’s rules and attempt to generate rapid results are almost always engaging in black hat SEO.
- Prioritizes quick victories. SEO isn’t intended to be a get-rich-quick strategy. It’s a long-term play that requires a steady investment over many months and years. If you’re only prioritizing quick gains, you’re probably engaging in shady SEO techniques to realize these wins. And though you’ll experience some promising results in the present, these victories will be short-lived and will ultimately lead to penalties and long-term losses.
Marketers that focus on black hat SEO techniques are constantly changing their strategies so as to avoid getting caught by Google and other search engines. Their objective is to stay one step ahead of new updates so they can avoid penalties and continually beat the system. Here are some popular black hat techniques, how they work, and why they should be avoided:
- Unrelated keywords. Google wants relevancy. If your URL, titles, images, and content indicate that your page is about one thing, but the content is spliced with random keywords that are unnatural and unrelated, this is considered a black hat SEO technique. Search engines want consistency and predictability.
- Keyword stuffing. Relevant keywords are necessary in order to rank on Google, but too many keywords will get you in trouble. When the same keyword appears over and over again in the same paragraph or page, it indicates a clear effort to manipulate search algorithms and rank for that search term. Google would prefer a more natural approach with semantic keywords.
- Duplicate content. Under no circumstances is duplicate content allowed. You can’t just copy a few paragraphs on one page and paste them into another page. Even though you wrote the content and own the rights to it, you can’t reuse your content as many times as you want. It’s designed to stay in one place.
- Content spinning. In order to get around duplicate content restrictions, some marketers will use a content spinner to automatically recreate certain blog posts and page copy without having to manually rewrite content. Unfortunately, the content that comes out of these spinners is typically littered with errors, grammatical mistakes, and fuzzy copy that hurts your search rankings more than anything.
- Content cloaking. This is one of the most deceptive SEO strategies on the block. The objective is for search engines to see one type of content and human visitors to see something else. This is usually accomplished by posting the search engine content in tiny white font on a white background (making it invisible to visitors) and another set of content with standard black font that people can see. While it may seem clever, today’s sophisticated search engine algorithms are smart enough to see right through these black hat techniques.
- Doorway pages. Another blatantly deceptive SEO strategy, doorway pages are essentially fake URLs that are stuffed with keywords. But once a person clicks the search result, they’re automatically redirected to another page. Again, Google eventually finds these doorway pages and the consequences are stiff.
- Blog spam. Somewhere along the way, black hat marketers got the idea to plug backlinks into the comment sections on other blogs. And while there’s nothing wrong with commenting on a blog post, adding some value, and occasionally plugging in a link, automating this process is spammy and frowned upon. Not only will it not help you, but it’ll actually lead to penalties that will hurt your rankings.
Black hat SEO is no joking matter. Google and other leading search engines despise the use of black hat techniques and will penalize you where it hurts.
If you’ve broken a rule that’s clearly documented, but doesn’t necessarily have any malintent behind it, Google reserves the right to take a manual action against your site. This is where they give you a chance to fix the issue and reclaim good standing.
In serious cases where black hat techniques have been implemented with a clear purpose and intent, Google will actually demote your pages in the search rankings (which results in reduced traffic and conversions). If the black hat strategies have been repeatedly implemented in spite of warnings, your site could even get excluded or banned from the search results. While bans are rare, they’re the proverbial kiss of death.
What is White Hat SEO?
Okay, enough with all of the depressing talk of black hat SEO. Let’s take a slightly more positive angle and look at the healthy side of the industry: white hat SEO.
White hat SEO is everything that black hat SEO is not. It consists of a set of search engine optimization techniques that Google encourages. When followed, these techniques eventually lead to improved search rankings, a bump in website traffic, and (presumably) more conversions.
Compared to black hat SEO – which marketers use to hack their way to results – white hat SEO does a couple of things differently.
- Puts people first. Google is in the business of satisfying its customers (search engine users). Thus, Google is all about incentivizing businesses and websites to provide internet users with exceptional website experiences. White hat SEO techniques that put people first and search engine bots second ultimately leave Google users happier and more engaged. It should be no surprise, then, that these websites succeed and move up in the search rankings.
- Long-term vision. White hat SEO techniques aren’t implemented with the objective of garnering quick overnight results. Instead, they’re centered on the notion that it takes long-term vision to be successful.
While white hat SEO has evolved over the years, the foundational principles tend to remain the same. Here are a few time-tested, Google-approved white hat techniques that generate traction:
- Quality content. At the heart of every white SEO strategy is quality content. Instead of publishing four or five short blog posts every day, white hat marketers focus on publishing one or two quality, long-form posts each week. The latter produce far better results and tend to make the search engine algorithms happier.
- Long tail keywords. The way in which people search for content on Google has changed over the years. If someone wants to find an ice cream shop, they’re no longer typing in the phrase “ice cream.” Instead, they’re searching, “Where’s the best ice cream shop nearby?” By targeting natural keywords like “best ice cream shop nearby,” businesses are better able to reach people in the correct stage of the purchase process.
- Mobile optimization. Did you know that 20 percent of all searches now have local intent? Of smartphone users, 94 percent of people search for local information. Thus, it makes sense that white hat SEO is all about mobile optimization.
- Relevant backlinks. While there are spammy ways to acquire backlinks – like incessantly plugging in URLs in blog comments – there are also plenty of ways to generate organic backlinks that send authoritative “juice” back to your web pages. In fact, quality backlinks are one of the top-ranking signals on Google. They can be acquired through strategic partnerships, guest blogging, and a variety of other techniques.
- Internal linking strategy. As important as external backlinks are, you also need to think about internal linking within your own website. White hat SEO focuses on plugging in at least two or three deep, rich links to other resources on the site. If you can do this, you’ll create a web that’s (a) appealing to Google, and (b) keeps visitors on your website for longer periods of time.
- Rich meta descriptions. A meta description is the first couple of sentences that appears in the search results beneath the title or headline of your page. While many people over-optimize these descriptions, the best white hat SEO approach is to tailor them to human readers. Instead of over-stuffing with keywords, meta descriptions should be engaging – piquing curiosity and encouraging people to click.
When you use white hat SEO techniques, you accomplish a couple of things. First off, human website visitors have a satisfying experience, stay on your website longer, click through multiple pages, and possibly even convert. This directly benefits your business. Secondly, Google search crawlers notice that you’re playing by the rules and gradually move you up in the rankings (which increases exposure and drives new traffic to your pages).
Plant the Right Seeds, Reap the Right Harvest
At the end of the day, SEO is like farming. While you can go to the supermarket and buy some vegetables that have already been grown and harvested, you have to continually come back for more. If, on the other hand, you till a garden, plant seeds, and nurture them, you’ll reap an abundant harvest over and over again.
It’s tempting to take shortcuts and hack your way to quick SEO results. But if it’s your desire to reap long-term rewards that are organic and cost-effective, you need to plant your seeds the right way and patiently wait for them to grow so they can be harvested at a later date.
Implement a Long-Term Strategy With SEO.co
At the heart of any successful white hat SEO strategy is a firm commitment to organic link building. At SEO.co, we partner with businesses like yours to provide white hat link building services that help your brand efficiently and effectively scale. Our formula is simple: write quality content, secure placement with authoritative publishers, and earn stellar links for our clients.
If you’re interested in learning more about our white hat link building and content marketing services, please contact SEO.co today!
In his 9+ years as a digital marketer, Sam has worked with countless small businesses and enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP and human rights organization Amnesty International. As a technical SEO strategist, Sam leads all paid and organic operations teams for client SEO services
, link building services
and white label SEO
partnerships. He is a recurring speaker at the Search Marketing Expo conference series and a TEDx Talker. Today he works directly with high-end clients across all verticals to maximize on and off-site SEO ROI through content marketing and link building. Connect with Sam on Linkedin
Latest posts by Samuel Edwards (see all)