It’s high noon on the first page of Google. A black hat SEO stands across from a white hat SEO, and there isn’t enough room in this SERP for the two of them.
Or, at least, that’s how search engine providers want us to think.
The truth is that “black hat” and “white hat” refer to search engine optimization tactics, not classifications of people. Even the blackest of “black hats” will use sometimes use white hat tactics, if for no other reason than it gives them an extra advantage over anyone who would stick solely to black hat tactics.
What is black hat SEO?
In Google’s case, this usually involves violating Google’s webmaster guidelines. When Google detects black hat SEO techniques, it will usually punish the website through a manual action, de-indexing, or generally lowering the site’s visibility on the search engine results page (SERP).
If, tomorrow, Google decides that using multiple H1 tags is a black hat practice, they can change their guidelines and start penalizing websites. It has nothing to do with “legal” or “illegal.”
The real danger of black hat tactics is that Google updates itself to catch the most popular black hat techniques. For instance, Google’s Penguin update targeted low-quality content that was buttressed by spammy links.
Periodically, Google releases updates to combat black hat tactics. That means that the results of black hat tactics are short-lived. Time and money spent on black hat tactics are wasted if Google is just going to catch up and penalize your website.
What is white hat SEO?
On the other hand, white hat SEO techniques raise the visibility of a website in the SERPs without violating any search engine guidelines.
For instance, compressing images can increase the speed at which a website loads which is a ranking factor in some cases. Google will reward, not penalize, this kind of SEO tactic.
White hat SEO leads to long-term gains that are more resistant to Google updates.
What is grey hat SEO?
Contrary to some online blogs, grey hat DOES NOT refer to mixing white and black-hat tactics. As noted above, almost every “black hat SEO” uses some white hat tactics.
Instead, grey hat SEO refers to techniques that live in the “grey area” between violating and following Google guidelines.
For instance, auto-generating articles can be penalized when they “spin” content (see below). However, what happens when an article is auto-generated by an AI that adds valuable information to the topic? According to Google’s guidelines, there may be no penalization.
If you want to play in the grey area as an SEO, it's essential to know what Google considers “black hat” so that you can avoid penalties.
Examples of Black Hat Techniques
1. Content Spinning
Google detects duplicate content by creating a Checksum for each page. A checksum can be thought of as a fingerprint based on the words used within an article. When Google detects two pages have the same or similar checksums, it labels it duplicate content. Software exists which can replace words with synonyms and re-order sentences to the point where the checksum between two pages won’t match even though the content itself is identical.
This enables SEOs to instantly create new content which can rank for keywords without actually doing any work. However, Google is VERY aware of content spinning and is VERY good at detecting basic word-replacement software.
Usually, content spinning is combined with automated content “scraping.” This is when software copies the content from a different site, runs it through the spinner, and posts it as though it were an original article.
2. Links Schemes
3. Keyword Stuffing
An early black hat technique that quickly became obsolete is keyword stuffing. This is when words or numbers are added repeatedly to a website in order to manipulate rankings. Google’s example is
“We sell custom cigar humidors. Our custom cigar humidors are handmade. If you're thinking of buying a custom cigar humidor, please contact our custom cigar humidor specialists at email@example.com.”
This lead to a focus on “keyword density,” the number of times a keyword appears on a page. As Google has shifted from a focus on strings to things, keyword density has become less important than entities.
Cloaking in SEO refers to showing different content to visitors and search engine crawlers.
For example, offering HTML text to search engines while actually providing a page of images to users. Alternatively, cloaking could be combined with keyword stuffing so that only crawlers see the keywords.
Cloaking can refer to presenting different URLs to human users and search engines. However, this is not always prohibited. For example, it’s acceptable to replace search engine-unfriendly links with search engine-friendly links for the sake of crawlers.
Black Hat SEO Works... Until It Doesn’t
While some black hat SEO techniques are now totally defunct (such as keyword stuffing), there are successful practitioners of black hat SEO. Without naming any names, many of the self-proclaimed “white hat SEOs” dabble in the dark arts once in awhile to boost their rankings.
However, the core problem with black hat SEO tactics is that they do not have a long shelf-life. As Google and other search engines become smarter, they become better at catching the newest black hat techniques. This makes black hat tactics especially vulnerable to Google updates.
For every tale of black hat success, there are dozens of examples of black hat SEO tactics backfiring. And you can be sure that, a few Google updates from now, that success story will come with some major caveats.