One of the first things you will hear related to SEO is ‘make sure you get a white hat SEO’. To be clear, White Hat is generally what you want. Black hat should generally be avoided. But there’s a lot of nuance to these terms, and very few SEO strategies truly imply a completely ‘white hat’ approach.
My intention with this article is to help readers better understand the spectrum with White Hat on one end and Black Hat on the other.
To start... Where did SEO come from?
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. That is, optimizing websites to appear on top of search results. This is part of what is known as ‘Search Marketing’ and it isn’t new.
Before search engines, people searched for businesses using the yellow pages. I personally remember finding businesses like AAA Repair by Robert. The reason some businesses named themselves with multiple As at the beginning of their name was that yellow page listings were ordered alphabetically. Just like with search engine results, most people would check the first few options and then make a decision. So many businesses thrived because of their marketing focused name.
This historical context shows the mindset behind the original search marketing strategies; game the system. Books like Ca$hvertizing were all about gaming the system and growth before the term ‘growth hacker’ was ever coined.
The Internet, the Birth of SEO Spam and a White Hat Code
While it may have been annoying that so many businesses in the 90s had multiple As in front of their name, it didn’t really cause any headache for normal people. In the end, it was really hard to get more than one yellow page listing, and the benefits were marginal compared to the cost.
But with the internet, you could easily create 1000 websites programatically, and have 1000 business listings, making it so that customers couldn’t even find anything that wasn’t your business. And that is what happened. In the early days of Altavista, some searches lead to 100s of links all pointing to the same business.
That is when the concept of ‘Black Hat SEO’ was born. It was someone who would do things against the common interest of Webmasters, users and Altavista/Google/etc. He was a ‘bad boy’, hurting everyone in the hope to help himself.
Search engines come up with rules and punishments for those that broke the rules. People who followed these guidelines were ‘White Hat’ and people who were selfish and wantonly risked penalties were ‘black hat’.
Grey Hats... and 50 Shades of Grey
SEO has two parts; on page and off page. On page is editing everything about a website, from the text and images, to the hosting and technical elements of the website coding. Generally on page SEO principals tends to be similar for most SEO hats.
Much of SEO isn’t controversial. But then there are two hugely controversial rules that are required to be ‘pure white hat’:
- Don’t build links to your website for SEO, only links for users.
- Use no follow on paid advertisements.
In the purest sense of the form, these two rules mean that any SEO that says ‘we are building links that will help your rankings’… is no longer truly white hat because of the intention he just declared.
If that same SEO would have said ‘we are going to build links that will drive traffic and benefit users and have a side effect of good SEO’… then he could be white hat.
It all boils down to ‘intent’ which is something that’s messy and hard to prove.
To better understand, lets use an example of a Dog Food company that wants to have completely a white hat SEO campaign.
The ideal link for such a company might be a popular blog that reviews dog food brands. Such an ideal blog link may be placed on a post called: Best Dog Food Brands of 2020. The post would mention the words dog food many times, and link once, on the top part of the article, with the link having the words “dog food” or “best dog food” point to the dog food company’s website. Such a link if it is a ‘do follow’ would give the dog food company’s website a boost in rankings for the words used to make the link (in this case, dog food)
So the SEO will want to contact such website owners and ask for such a link… but very carefully. This is the conundrum a pure white hate SEO faces:
A white hat can contact a dog food review blog and let them know that X Dog Food company has a new product and suggest that including some article about them would be beneficial. He might offer an interview or a factory tour. But that’s about it.
The dog food SEO CAN’T offer a free sample, as that would make the post a ‘paid ad’ and therefore something Google wants to see a no follow on (barter is still considered income).
The dog food SEO also can’t ask for the blog to link using the words ‘dog food’ to the dog food companies website. Requesting specific text that is not the company name would indicate intent to manipulate Search Engine Rankings, so that’s a no-no for white hats.
If a link is offered in exchange from the Dog Food company’s website to the blog, it becomes a ‘link exchange’, which can be devalued by Google.
If the dog food company offers the blog a free website, post, logo, template, or tool, they also can’t ask for a link without it becoming a ‘link manipulation scheme’.
So the SEO can ask the blog to link and then hope that the blog does so and if they do, that they use the words ‘dog food’ for linking to the dog food company.
If this seems silly overkill, it’s because it is. Truly white hat SEO is like driving without the radio (a distraction) hands on 10 and 2, not look to the sides, driving exactly the speed limit all the time and never, not once commit any infraction or deviation from how people are taught to drive in the DMV manual.
Now, if the Dog Food SEO offered to send a free sample to the blog owner asking to use a do follow link when linking, that’s not pure white hat. But it also doesn’t really feel like black hat, where the rules are thrown out the window and spam takes place.
Welcome to the 50 shades of grey hat.
Off White/Grey Hat: Nuance, Risk and Reward
Grey hat ranges from a grey that is just slightly off white, which is the SEO equivalent of driving a couple of miles per hour above speed limit to the very dark grey, where people will push the envelope… sometimes too far.
Grey hat looks to follow the rules, but then makes some decisions to possibly bend the rules in favor of functioning more effectively in the real world.
Good grey hats will generally always strive to ensure win-win for the end user. They look to provide value and avoid spam.
Following the example of the dog food company SEO, a grey hat will ask for links with specific anchor text. They might want to develop an awesome dog-feeding widget to give out to blog owners to help their visitors keep track of the time between feeding… in exchange for a link.
Such tactics are not black hat by any length of the meaning. Just as driving slightly above speed limit doesn’t make you a criminal. But it is illegal, no matter how little above the limit you are. Google will officially frown on asking for a specific anchor text for SEO purposes, but the odds of anything really happening are low, something akin to risking getting a ticket for being a 1/2 mph above speed limit.
Grey hat looks at the rules and asks ‘do they make sense’ – ‘what’s the risk and what’s the reward for breaking the rules?’ – ‘how far can we push the envelope without push back?’
Blue Hat - Try Everything - Results Above Everything
In 2006 at a trade-show there were a panel of gurus who were asked if advanced SEO exists. That’s when Eli created his blog series: Blue Hat SEO.
A core concept behind this is to try everything, but understanding the risks and rewards. Blue hat might involve finding a URL that someone forgot to renew, following with the dog food example, maybe a dog review website owner forgot to renew his or her domain. So the Blue hat will register the domain as soon as it expired.
They might even put up the content. They might promote this newly ‘resurected site’ as if the original still existed, hoping the search engines will see it positively. Then start to put in reviews of the dog food company, with high quality links. This would allow the website to generate revenue for the dog food company by sending traffic, sales AND provide SEO benefits.
In a way, Blue Hat SEO can be related to business development and growth hacking as it doesn’t fit into any one category. It is at a cross section of marketing and tech know how.
SEO Depending on Niche
There are areas where certain types of SEO are the dominant form, generally with good reason. Most keywords that would seem ‘shady’ are places where black hat or darker shades of Grey Hat will seem to thrive. Some keywords in some industries almost require darker shades. Examples include niches such as adult entertainment, certain types of financial offerings, gaming, etc. Basically, anything you’d receive a spam email for.
Some people have even theorized that Google allows these niches to get spammed as a way of detecting what spamming techniques are being applied, and thus protect search results for more reputable niches.
The general guideline is: the shadier the industry, the more the industry participants might need to consider shady SEO techniques. Not necessarily apply, but consider.
If you represent a big brand, or own a business with a well established brand, you will want to keep your SEO as white as possible. Most people will want this.
If you are in an industry where spammy websites rank on top, you might need to get a little darker if you want to have any opportunity of ranking. Providing some competitive analysis to see what is working for your particular industry is a basic part of any SEO strategy.
In general most SEOs aren’t completely white hat. Maybe white-ish. But just like with driving, rarely do you see people keeping their hands 10 and 2 and driving exactly the speed limit for hours on end.
This article isn’t advocating in favor of grey hat. Simply a clarification of exactly what these terms mean.