The Importance of SEO
Quality over quantity is a great motto for life, but is it also the key to SEO? With all the complex layers that come along with practicing effective Search Engine Optimization, it can seem overwhelming to figure out what should be prioritized. Let’s set one thing straight - there is no golden technique with SEO. In fact, everyone practices it slightly differently depending on what works best for their website and brand. That being said, there is a fine line between playing around with tactics that work for your website, and manipulating search engine algorithms to up your rankings. The difference between good and bad SEO practice is known as White Hat and Black Hat SEO.
What are White Hat and Black Hat SEO?
The terms ‘White Hat and Black Hat’ actually come from old Western movies, where the good characters would typically wear white cowboy hats, and the bad guys would wear black ones. In the modern tech industry, these terms are used in reference to ‘white-hat’ or ‘black-hat’ hackers. Today, SEO experts have coined the terms White Hat and Black Hat SEO to differentiate between good and bad Search Engine Optimization practices.
Understanding the Difference
It is crucial to understand the difference between White Hat and Black Hat SEO. Even if done unintentionally, practicing Black Hat SEO can result in a penalty from Google or Bing, which can significantly hurt your SERP ranking in the long run - or worse, get your site banned from search engines altogether. By understanding the difference from the start, you will be able to lay a strong foundation for your brand, and trust that the SEO strategies you’re implementing follow guidelines while remaining effective in growing your website over time.
Here is what you need to know about Black Hat and White Hat SEO:
Black Hat SEO
Black Hat SEO is defined as, “a set of practices that are used to increase a site or page's rank in search engines through means that violate the search engines' terms of service.” Through manipulating search engine algorithms, websites may receive higher SERP rankings at first, but it’s likely to have the opposite effect in the long run. Here are a few red flags indicating Black Hat SEO, and things to both avoid and be mindful of when optimizing your sites.
Keyword Stuffing & Sneaky Links
There is a long list of Black Hat SEO tactics to avoid, but some of the top no-gos include keyword stuffing, hidden text, and manipulative links. The comical thing is that there is little evidence that these tactics actually work, and it is almost guaranteed that they will actually damage your rankings.
Keyword Stuffing is when Black Hat SEOs attempt to manipulate their website’s rankings by repeating their main target keywords unnaturally and out of context. It is clear when keyword stuffing is taking place as the text typically sits outside of the main content, and makes little sense when read aloud. It is an outdated strategy that will not work with Google and Bing’s algorithms today, and is almost certain to result in penalty.
Hidden Text is text that is colored to match the background color of a webpage so that it can not be visible by the viewer. Hidden text is also commonly implemented by Black Hat SEOs in hopes to sneak extra text or relevant keywords onto the webpage to appeal to search engines. Sometimes, the text is even written in a font size of zero. This is a deceptive strategy, advanced search engine crawlers will likely catch on to this sneaky tactic and lower your ranking.
Manipulative Links, or link schemes, are one of the most common forms of Black Hat SEO. Mutual backlinking occurs when Black Hat SEOs hide links in various parts of their sites, blog comments, and even physically hidden (font size zero or matching the background color of the webpage). Since adding links to your content is a good way to up your rankings, Black Hat SEOs pack them into their sites, even when they add no value to their content, in order to rank higher. Again, this malicious strategy is likely to be shut down quickly by search engines.
Violation of Guidelines
All Black Hat SEO tactics clearly disregard Google and Bing’s Webmaster Guidelines, and should be avoided at all costs. If you suspect that a web page or site is violating guidelines and might be implementing Black Hat SEO, you can file a report for spam.
White Hat SEO
White Hat SEO is the exact opposite of Black Hat SEO. White Hat SEO is defined as, “any practice that improves your search rankings on a search engine results page (SERP) while maintaining the integrity of your website and staying within the search engines' terms of service.” White Hat SEO plays by the rules, and betters your website and brand as a whole in the long run. Through shifting away from the goal of achieving high rankings quickly, and focusing more on strengthening connections with your viewers, you will see the best results over time. Here are some highlights of White Hat SEO, and signs to reassure you that you’re following best practices.
Puts Users First
If your content is geared towards your users’ needs rather than the search engine’s - you’re in the right place. Search engine crawlers have advanced well past old tactics that used to work, and are now way more focused on user satisfaction. While certain algorithm-focused strategies may get users initially on your page, your bounce rate is likely to be high if their needs are not being met by your lack of quality content. This hurts your SERP rankings in the long run, so your best bet is focusing on meeting your user’s needs instead.
An Investment Worth Making
While certain quick-fix Black Hat SEO tactics may spike your rankings in the beginning, the long-term results will be detrimental to your website and brand as a whole. Instead, choosing to invest in content that caters to your audience will strengthen your credibility both from users and search engines, growing your SERP ranking over time.
Quality over Quantity
Focusing more on the quality of your content will also help you significantly SEO wise. Continuously updating your information with dates, relevant sources, and refreshed content will keep your audience engaged and coming back for more. You should think of effective White Hat SEO as a process, not a checklist that you can simply complete and be done with. Shifting your focus away from stuffing your pages with irrelevant links, keywords, and pictures just to appeal to search engines is a good idea - try to find other ways to keep your audience engaged with relevant quality content instead.
Grey Hat SEO
Grey Hat SEO is - you guessed it - a mix of Black Hat and White Hat SEO. Grey Hat SEO is unofficially defined as SEO practices that, “belong in neither the Black Hat nor White Hat category because the terms of service regarding the issue are unclear.” In other words, it’s SEO practices that might be perceived as either White Hat or Black Hat depending on who you’re asking - the truly blurred line between the two. Here are some signs to watch for that indicate you may be getting into Grey Hat SEO territory:
Not perfectly wrong, but not perfectly right… Grey Hat SEO is certainly right in the middle. As Search Engine Journal puts it, “A tactic that is currently either white or black hat but with changes to the ways search engines work, could become the opposite in the future.” While there is no true harm in practicing Grey Hat SEO, it's best to be careful if you find yourself pushing the limits of certain strategies to up your rankings to ensure you aren’t slipping into Black Hat SEO areas. Some SEO experts swear by Grey Hat SEO, in an effort to not limit themselves to just White Hat, some SEO experts wouldn’t take that risk of penalty. It truly is up to each user, but should be approached with caution.
The line between White Hat SEO and Black Hat SEO is certainly blurred. The best advice is to approach with caution if you find yourself in that grey area between right and wrong practices according to search engine guidelines. A great way to avoid penalties is to refer to Google or Bing’s Webmaster Guidelines. If you aren’t sure if what you’re doing is technically allowed, ask yourself if you would willingly inform Google of what you’re doing. Being honest and following your instincts should keep you in the clear.
There’s a lot to remember about practicing SEO the ‘right way’. Here’s what you should keep in mind about White Hat SEO and Black Hat SEO going forward:
Everything in Moderation
The key to effective SEO is all about balance. Aiming to stay in White Hat SEO and carefully considered Grey Hat areas is your safest route. If you adhere to search engine guidelines and focus on your user’s needs, you’re golden.
What Would You Do?
When in doubt, asking yourself if you would feel comfortable telling Google or Bing what you’re doing is a good way to gauge whether or not you are remaining in the White Hat SEO areas. Honesty is always the best policy.
Lastly, remember to keep yourself in check. Being okay with admitting you’re wrong is a tough thing to do, but being honest with yourself about your SEO practices is the best way to remain in the clear. Taking time to reflect on what you’re doing to better your website is an excellent way to remain on the right track of safe SEO.