The boundaries between White hat, grey hat and black hat SEO can sometimes be unclear, however, it is critical that each term is fully understood before implementing a new strategy or testing a new technique.
The Blurry lines between White, Grey and Black Hat
White hat SEO is a term that refers to the usage of optimisation tactics, techniques and strategies that fully adhere to search engine policies and best practice guidelines. Ethical link building, keywords, back-linking and creating valuable content with a keen focus on organic ranking, audience engagement and relevance are all examples of effective white hat SEO tactics.
Black hat SEO refers to the practice of boosting page rankings in SERPs by utilising strategies and tactics that do not adhere to search engine guidelines. Page swapping, irrelevant keywords, redirects, content automation and keyword stuffing are all prime examples of black hat SEO practices.
Although it might sound like a term that covers everything sitting somewhere between white hat and black hat, grey hat SEO, in fact, refers to tactics and strategies that are ill-defined by search engine guidelines. It is, therefore, possible for a grey hat tactic to cause search professionals to disagree on whether it supports or goes against search engine policies. Clickbait is a perfect example of a grey hat tactic.
Shifting Boundaries of Acceptable SEO Practice
It’s important to note here that the boundaries between white, black and grey hat techniques are in a constant state of flux. Over a period of time, it’s not unheard of for widely respected white hat techniques to edge into grey hat or even cross over into black hat. This tends to happen if they are abused.
For example, backlinks within widgets were an effective white hat technique in 2007. When spammers began to abuse the link-bait technique, however, Google’s guidelines changed and recommended that all widget links contained a nofollow attribute. In early 2014, Google clarified that only “keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets” are unacceptable, making the technique a white hat practice once again, providing the rules are followed to the letter.
Grey Hat SEO Techniques
The SEO landscape is highly competitive and whilst taking some risks can deliver significant results, it does require a strong constitution and a high-risk tolerance. As tactics for long-term growth, some use of grey hat tactics when mixed in with an overwhelmingly white hat strategy can pay off. Just don’t become reliant on them or you will inevitably get caught.
Let’s look at some common grey hat tactics and try to understand when they can be used and how and when they can become a waste of time at best or a dangerous approach at worst.
Content is the meat on the bones of any SEO strategy. Whilst Google’s algorithm is becoming increasingly adept at understanding the difference between well written and poorly written content, there is still an overwhelming emphasis on regularity and sheer volume. This desire to create more content more frequently has inexorably lead to the rise of spun content. Traditionally this has been done by spinning software but as search algorithms get better at detecting this, so this tactic has become increasingly grey hat.
The efficacy of this approach is waning but there is evidence it still has some value if used in the right context and the content is proofread for readability. In the long term though, investing in well researched and high-quality content will pay dividends, even if it does mean sacrificing on volume.
Possibly one of the most contentious issues in SEO, link acquisition is strictly against Google’s webmaster’s guidelines, which would lead many to conclude that it sits firmly in black hat territory. Of course, the reality is often more complicated than this. Paying to publish content with links in it is fine, as long as it’s marked as sponsored and links are marked up as no follow. Of course, it can be hard to control what a third party publisher does with any links that are left in content so there is definitely a blurring of the lines here.
Of course there is evidence now that Google will discount links that are in content marked as sponsored, even if they are follow links. The reality is that there are a lot of publishers who will happily allow you to link in unsponsored content, as long as you pay. The practice certainly hasn’t gone away. The jury is out as to where this sits on the grey hat / black hat line but what isn’t debated is that if you abuse this tactic, you’re running the risk of a big fat Google penalty.
Private Blog Networks
Private blog networks buy expired high-authority domains and use them to deliver high-quality backlinks to other websites. The authority of expired domains will provide an immediate score boost, which makes this practice particularly appealing.
Utilising PBNs brings a sense of freedom to link building strategies as the URL and anchor text remains entirely within your control. This control also means that if you were to receive a Google penalty for this practice, you can remove the offending links in just a few clicks.
There are, of course, risks which must always be considered. The monetary and time costs required to build a portfolio of authority domains can be considerable as there are also security and hosting costs to factor into the equation. You might also want to think about the time associated with creating social media profiles for each domain in order to provide further legitimacy.
All this takes a considerable amount of time and investment and the benefits are often outweighed by this. In the right circumstances though, PBNs can make a lot of sense and give you full control over content, linking and anchor text. Just don’t abuse them.
Small Site Updates
As Google explicitly favours fresh content, newly updated websites often experience a clear SEO boost. Even small changes such as changing the font of your website’s body text can result in a significant increase in traffic.
Making these small changes leads to Google re-crawl your website because it thinks that you might have some updated content that could prove to be relevant and valuable to its users. The risk here is that success can be somewhat hit or miss and you might invest time into making small alterations only to see no tangible benefits in the short term.