White Hat Vs. Black Hat SEO – Everything You Need To Know

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), the art of improving your website so it rises through the search engine results, is a crucial component of any digital marketing strategy. However, depending on who you talk to, there are two distinct approaches to SEO: White Hat SEO and Black Hat SEO.

People use the term ‘White Hat SEO’ to refer to the ethical and legitimate tactics used to improve a website’s search engine rankings. This includes creating high-quality content, optimising website structure, and building backlinks through organic means. On the other hand, Black Hat SEO involves using deceptive and manipulative techniques to achieve quick results, like keyword stuff and cloaking.

Understanding the difference between White Hat and Black Hat SEO and the benefits and risks associated with each approach is key to choosing the best strategy to improve your online presence and drive traffic to your website. 

Not So Black And White

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of Black Hat SEO and White Hat SEO, it’s important to note there is no firm definition of either. In our experience, SEO techniques exist on a spectrum, and every SEO expert you talk to will have a different opinion. 

Further complicating matters, popular definitions can also change over time based on Google’s algorithms and stances. Google’s guidelines should be read and understood but not necessarily referenced as complete truths. Ultimately, their goal is to give us guidance rather than the exact rulebook—that would make it even easier for bad actors to trick the system. 

That being said, there is a clear consensus about the morality and effectiveness of some SEO strategies and places where Google has drawn a clear line about what is and isn’t acceptable. 

What Is White Hat SEO?

White Hat SEO uses ethical strategies that follow search engine guidelines to improve a website’s ranking. This approach prioritises providing genuine value to users, ensuring content is engaging and informative. It involves creating original content that meets your audience’s needs, incorporating keywords naturally without overdoing it, and improving the website’s on-page SEO and user experience by making it easy to navigate, fast to load, and mobile-friendly.

White Hat SEO also includes building a website’s reputation through legitimate links from reputable sites, known as link building. Although this method may take longer to produce results, it establishes a strong foundation for sustained success. It builds trust with audiences and search engines, leading to higher rankings, increased traffic, and better conversion rates in the long run.

What Is Black Hat SEO?

Black Hat SEO refers to manipulative tactics that violate search engine guidelines to improve a website’s ranking quickly, essentially cheating the system. Bad actors do this by exploiting loopholes in search engine algorithms to gain an unfair advantage, often at the expense of user experience. While Black Hat SEO might offer short-term gains, it poses significant risks, including penalties from search engines, which can lead to a drop in website traffic or even complete removal from search results. Ultimately, Black Hat SEO undermines a website’s trust and credibility, potentially causing long-term damage to a brand’s reputation and online presence.

Black Hat SEO Techniques

Below are some typical Black Hat SEO tactics to avoid as a rule of thumb if you don’t want to be penalised. There’s no room for debate on whether any of these examples are considered Black Hat SEO methods or not—Google made it very clear in their Spam Policies for search. While they don’t use the terms Black Hat and White Hat SEO directly, they explicitly warn against certain practices commonly used to improve SEO quickly.

These include:

  • Keyword stuffing
  • Cloaking
  • Hidden text
  • Doorway pages
  • Link farms
  • Scaled content abuse

Keyword Stuffing

Keyword stuffing is one of the most common black hat methods, as it requires little to no technical skill. It refers to the practice of overloading web pages with keywords. This often results in poor user experience and content that’s difficult or impossible to read. Here’s an example Google uses in their guidelines:

“Unlimited app store credit. There are so many sites that claim to offer app store credit for $0, but they’re all fake and always mess up with users looking for unlimited app store credits. You can get limitless credits for app store right here on this website. Visit our unlimited app store credit page and get it today!”

Cloaking

Cloaking is the practice of presenting different content or information to search engine crawlers than to human users. People do this to mislead search engines into ranking the site higher for certain keywords or phrases that might not actually be relevant to the user-visible content. Cloaking can also be used for more nefarious purposes, like hiding inappropriate or questionable content from crawlers. 

One example might be showing a page about travel destinations to search engines while showing users a page about discount drugs.

Hidden Text

This is the practice of placing white text on a white background (or similar schemes) to include extra keywords or links on a page for search engines while they remain invisible to users. Here’s the complete list of what Google defines as hidden text: 

  • Using keywords in white text on a white background
  • Hiding text behind an image
  • Using CSS to position text off-screen
  • Setting the font size or opacity to 0
  • Hiding a link by only linking one small character, like a hyphen in the middle of a sentence

Doorway Pages

Doorways are low-quality web pages packed with keywords and phrases that rank high in search results and then redirect visitors to a different page. This bad SEO tactic aims to expand a website’s reach for any specific query without putting in the time and effort it takes to produce good content accordingly. One example is having multiple similar URLs like ‘web-design-canberra’, ‘canberra-web-design’, and ‘canberra-websites’ that, in fact, all redirect to one page that actually has valuable content. 

Link Farms

Link farms, or link schemes, refer to groups of websites that link to every other site within the network to increase their link count and, by extension, their ranking in search results. These artificial backlinks suggest the websites are more valuable and relevant than they actually are. Here’s an example:

Imagine a network of 50 websites covering lots of unrelated topics, from cooking recipes and fitness training to financial advice. Each site in this network links to every other site, regardless of the relevance or quality of the content. For instance, a site dedicated to pet care might include links to a financial advice site and vice versa, even though these sites have no logical connection. 

Scaled Content Abuse

Scaled content abuse refers to the practice of mass-producing content across many pages, often using automated tools like Chat GPT, with the primary goal of manipulating search engine algorithms rather than providing genuine value to users. This content is typically low quality and lacks substance and originality. Here’s an example:

A company creates hundreds of websites, each targeting specific keywords or phrases within a broad industry, such as “cheap home insurance in [city name]” for multiple cities around the country. To populate these sites, the company uses automated software to generate articles that superficially discuss home insurance in each location. These articles are often barely readable, stuffed with keywords, and offer little to no real information or advice that a person looking for home insurance would find useful.

Is Link Building Black Hat SEO?

Link building is not necessarily Black Hat SEO. It’s a big part of white hat SEO strategies when done correctly. The difference lies in how you obtain those links. White Hat SEO techniques include earning links through the quality of your content, products, or services. It’s about creating something valuable that other websites want to link to because it enhances their content and provides value to their audience. 

On the other hand, using Black Hat SEO techniques for link building involves:

  • Manipulative tactics like buying links.
  • Participating in link farms.
  • Using automated programs to create links.

These practices aim to trick search engines into ranking a website higher than it deserves and can, when discovered, lead to penalties or a drop in rankings.

All in all, while link building is an essential and legitimate SEO technique, it’s the method of acquiring those links that determines whether it’s considered White Hat or Black Hat SEO. Ethical link-building focuses on quality and relevance, aiming for long-term benefits rather than quick, risky gains.

Is AI-Generated Content Considered Black Hat SEO?

With the rise of Chat GPT and other natural language processing models, AI-generated content is now at the centre of the Black Hat SEO debate. For the moment, Google doesn’t consider AI-generated content itself to be inherently black hat SEO. Just like link building, intent and strategy makes all the difference. The distinction lies in how and why the content is produced and used. AI can be a powerful tool for creating content, but its alignment with SEO ethics depends on the quality, relevance, and value it provides to users.

When AI-generated content enhances user experience by providing valuable, relevant information, it aligns with white hat SEO practices. This means the content must be well-researched, informative, and tailored to meet the audience’s needs. It should complement human creativity and insight, ensuring the final output is useful and engaging for readers. On the other hand, if you use AI-generated content to deceive search engine bots with no regard for user value by producing large volumes of low-quality, irrelevant, or spammy content, it would be considered a Black Hat SEO.

Grey Hat SEO – Murky Middle Ground

Grey Hat SEO is a technique that sits between White Hat and Black Hat SEO. It uses tactics that are not clearly defined by search engine guidelines as either acceptable or unacceptable. Grey Hat SEO is a blend of both, often employed to achieve quicker results than White Hat SEO but without the significant risks associated with Black Hat techniques. 

Some examples of Grey Hat SEO practices are slightly aggressive link building or creating content that is more focused on search engines than actual users, but not to the extent that it gets penalised for being spam. Grey Hat SEO may offer a temporary boost in rankings, but it comes with its risks. 

Search engines continually update their algorithms to provide the best results for users. What’s considered a grey area today might fall into black hat territory tomorrow, leading to penalties. Businesses using Grey Hat tactics need to be prepared to adjust their strategies frequently in line with algorithm updates and understand the potential for future consequences.

Here’s what Google Search Central (formerly Google Webmaster Guidelines) says about tactics that seem shifty but aren’t outright banned: ‘These quality guidelines cover the most common forms of deceptive or manipulative behaviour, but Google may respond negatively to other misleading practices not listed here.’

‘It’s not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn’t included on this page, Google approves of it. Website owners who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes they can exploit.”

Black Hat SEO Practices – Case Study

Imagine a website called “QuickTechSolutions.com.au,” an online store selling tech gadgets. To quickly rank higher in search engine results, the website owner decides to use Black Hat SEO strategies. They stuff their web pages with an excessive amount of target keywords like “best cheap tech gadgets,” “buy tech online,” and “discount gadgets” to the point where the text becomes almost unreadable for visitors. They also engage in cloaking, showing search engines a different, keyword-rich version of their site, while users see a page filled with ads and minimal useful content. Additionally, QuickTechSolutions.com.au buys links from a network of unrelated sites, creating an artificial sense of authority and relevance.

Initially, these tactics might boost their rankings, and they see a surge in traffic. However, this success is short-lived. Users find the site difficult to use and the content irrelevant, leading to a high bounce rate and poor user engagement. Eventually, search engines catch on to QuickTechSolutions.com.au’s manipulative practices. The site gets hit with severe penalties and manual action from Google: their rankings plummet, and they virtually disappear from search results. The quick gains turn into long-term losses, damaging their online reputation and making it challenging to recover. The website loses significant traffic, and its sales drop drastically, serving as a cautionary tale against the use of Black Hat SEO.

White Hat Techniques – Case Study

Let’s imagine “GreenGardenGear.com.au,” a website selling sustainable gardening tools. They use White Hat practices to improve their ranking steadily. They regularly publish high-quality, informative articles on topics like “eco-friendly gardening tips” and “how to choose sustainable gardening tools,” using keywords naturally within the content. They ensure their website is user-friendly, with fast loading times, a mobile-responsive design, and a clear, easy-to-navigate layout. GreenGardenGear.com.au also engages in ethical link-building by creating content so valuable that other reputable gardening blogs and eco-conscious websites link to it without any solicitation.

Over time, these White Hat SEO practices lead to a slow and steady increase in their ranking on the search engine results page. The website starts appearing on the first page of search results for terms related to sustainable gardening tools. Because their site provides a good user experience and quality content, visitors spend more time on the site, reducing bounce rates and increasing the chances of making a purchase. Social media shares and natural backlinks from satisfied readers and respected sites in the gardening and environmental sectors further boost their visibility and authority.

As a result, GreenGardenGear.com.au builds a solid online reputation, enjoys sustained growth in organic traffic, and sees an increase in sales. Their commitment to White Hat SEO not only enhances their search engine rankings but also establishes their brand as a trustworthy source for sustainable gardening, leading to long-term success.

Real-Life Examples

Although the above case studies are fictional and only serve to illustrate a point, they’re an accurate reflection of what happens when you fall on the wrong side of the black hat vs white hat SEO battle.

JCPenney, an American department store similar to Target in Australia, is a real-life example of a business that suffered losses as a result of using Black Hat SEO practices. In 2011, an investigation by the New York Times found that the company was involved in an extensive link scheme. The subsequent article, ‘Dirty Secrets Of Search‘, revealed that JCPenney bought thousands of links from hundreds of websites, all pointing to their website, to boost their rankings in Google’s search results for a variety of keywords, from ‘dresses’ to ‘home decor’. 

Google uses links from other websites as a sign of trust and ranks sites higher accordingly. However, the backlinks that JCPenney purchased were from completely unrelated websites, such as gambling companies, and had no relevance to their products or services. The purpose of these links was to manipulate rankings in search results. 

Google reacted swiftly and severely to JCPenney’s unethical SEO practices by manually penalising the company. This penalty resulted in a significant drop in rankings for almost all of JC Penney’s keywords. The company was effectively erased from the top search results where it once dominated. This immediately and directly impacted the company’s online visibility, highlighting the real risks of engaging in Black Hat SEO. 

It goes to show that while practising Black Hat SEO tactics may result in short-term gain, the real difference between Black Hat SEO and White Hat SEO will become evident quickly when your website is penalised. Helpful content and a good user experience will always win in the end! Ethical SEO is effective SEO.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
  • Juliette Owen-Jones
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