SEO Strategies: White Hat vs Black Hat vs Grey Hat

You probably know already that SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and that it has to do with PageRank and digital marketing. If you’ve never heard of any of these things, where have you been?

When given the definition: SEO is a set of strategies aimed at increasing the online visibility of a website by pushing it higher in the unpaid search results of a search engine – you probably still feel a little confused as to what that means.

You don’t know how exactly this “optimization” is done. This is precisely what we want to clarify in this article. But let’s first explain why people care about SEO at all.

Why Is SEO Important to Webmasters?

Online shopping has increased tremendously and, nowadays, people tend to first lookup products and reviews online, even if they’re planning to buy something in-store. This change in consumer behavior has made having online visibility a really big deal.

Why Is SEO Important

The most popular search engine is by far Google with a worldwide market share of 92.71%, but most traffic – about 95% – will go to the websites that appear on the first page of the results (SERPs).

Think about what you do when you can’t find what you’re looking for on the first page. Do you start going through all of them? It’s a lot more likely that you’ll change the keywords and try to be more specific.

Keyword Rankings have an obvious impact on a company’s revenue: if they’re not on the first page, they get substantially less traffic so fewer opportunities to connect with customers and sell. And this is exactly why everyone is racing to get to the most coveted spots.

How Google’s Algorithm Updates Affect SEO

In Google’s early years, algorithm updates were few and far between. Now there are hundreds to thousands of small changes every year, with some major ones playing mischief with the sanity of SEO specialists.

What Google cares about is providing its users with relevant, quality results. Many of these changes are made specifically to try and counteract “black hat” SEO strategies – which are attempts at gaming the system – the system here being their search algorithm.

They have nothing against Search Engine Optimization as long as it doesn’t affect user experience – what we call “white hat” strategies.

White Hat SEO

White Hat SEO strategies are the ones that conform to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines such as making your website easier for crawlers to access – programs that scan the internet for new pages using links from other websites, building a sitemap, making your website mobile-friendly and intuitive, increasing the loading time, using headlines and meta-tags to give accurate descriptions of the content and most importantly, providing relevant, high-quality content.

The algorithm will also factor in how much time people spend on your page if they open it and close it might mean that the content is not relevant or poor-quality as well as what types of links you put in your content and who provides links to your page.

Black Hat SEO

As the name suggests, black hat strategies are the opposite of white hat – they violate the guidelines and are risky because if Google discovers it – and they try really hard to do just that by making changes to the algorithm and giving users platform to alert them, you’re penalized in terms of PageRank score or your website is removed from their index.

Common strategies are:

  • Keyword stuffing – adding a lot of irrelevant keywords to your content to manipulate where the page ranks in search results for those keywords. You’ll notice that some content tends to repeat the same words over and over, or they use variations of the same word like a bar, pub, lounge, café, and so on.
  • Cloaking – this is a tactic that involves showing different content to the crawler than to the users through identifying IP addresses. The idea is to rank high for different keywords but showing users the content they originally intended.
  • Sneaky redirects – are a similar tactic. They’ll use one page that ranks higher to send users to another page, thus increasing its traffic.
  • Poor quality content – this refers to any content that does not satisfy the intent of the user clicking on the link. They’re either using misleading titles, headlines, keywords, or they use duplicate content that has been rephrased with the help of software programs – that’s called spinning.
  • Paid links – a tactic that involves giving some financial incentive to have your link included on another website with more authority.
  • Comment Spam – writing comments which include a link on blogs or social networks.
  • Link farms – a link farm is a network of websites that provide links to each other, so they increase the popularity of a webpage and get higher ranking.
  • Private Blog Networks or PBN – similar to link farms, these are blogs created solely to include links in the content.

Now, if you look through Google’s history of updates, you’ll see how they identify and discourage these black hat practices.

Take the Panda update from 2011, for example. It was developed to detect and reduce the ranking score of websites with thin content by assigning them a quality score. It focused on pages with lots of images but barely any text related to the subject in the title, duplicate content, high ad-to-content ratio (this makes it obvious the goal is to generate revenue, not inform), content that doesn’t match the keywords or barely informative and poorly written content with lots of affiliate links.

Grey Hat SEO

Grey hat SEO strategies are just at the borderline of black hat. They’re not illegal, just dubious, not “in the spirit” of Google, let’s say. They can be legal one day and then become black hat after the search engine identifies them and updates the algorithm.

One strategy is to buy an expired domain with high authority relevant to your keywords. You add pages with good quality content related to what the domain advertises – not illegal – and splash it with a few well-placed backlinks.

Grey hat takes a lot of creativity as it’s basically taking white hat techniques and pushing them just short of becoming black hat.

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