White Hat vs. Gray Hat vs. Black Hat SEO

There’s a lot of misuse of digital marketing terms in the industry, and it can cause all sorts of communication problems. Whether you’re having a strategy talk in-house, or talking with a client or potential client, making sure you’re all on the same page about what exactly you mean when you toss around industry jargon can really help eliminate a lot of headaches before they pop up.

One of the biggest misused group of terms are white hat SEO, gray hat SEO, and black hat SEO.

What is White Hat SEO?

Let’s try to keep this as simple as possible. Anything that is white hat in terms of online marketing means that is super crystal clean and safe. It basically means following the various search engines’ webmaster guidelines to a T, though as Google is the big bog of search, most people default to whatever Google’s webmaster guidelines says.

Some of the major abuses Google penalizes websites for are:

  • buying or selling back links to or on your site
  • using automatically generate content
  • using duplicate content
  • abusively stuffing your target keyword onto a page

The term white hat is very strict, and basically any type of manipulation with the goal of improving your search engine ranking would be considered outside the scope of white hat SEO.

What is Gray Hat SEO?

As the name suggests, gray hat SEO is not as clean as white hat. A giant chunk of the search engine optimization industry, from those selling services to those working on their own sites, lives in this gray space.

A lot of people question why anyone would go gray. A couple reasons are that it typically shows much faster results than pure white hat, and that many smaller businesses and one-person operations simply don’t have the resources to go head-to-head with larger companies. Thus, they need to do what those businesses practicing cleaner techniques won’t.

It doesn’t come without risk though. For those that push things a bit too far, they can get penalized by the search engines. Google uses a variety of ways to catch those abusing techniques they deem as less than legitimate.

First, their core algorithm scans for serious violations like spamming your site with low quality backlinks. Next, they developed a series of filters occasionally run. The two major filters are:

  • panda
  • penguin

Panda focuses more on the quality of your website and has been known to penalize sites using duplicate content or keyword stuffing. Penguin focuses on the types of sites linking to your site and how they do so.

Lastly, Google has also employed people to manually check suspect websites and issue penalties where they see fit.

Some of the more common gray hat technique involve:

  • making private blog networks to create backlinks to your own sites
  • buying links from other webmasters
  • using content spinners to scale content across multiple websites

There are various shades of gray hat SEO, and while many webmasters frown upon it, it’s extremely commonplace.

What is Black Hat SEO?

Before I delve into this, I want to make it clear that while I have done a lot of white hat and gray hat SEO, I’m am far from the expert on black hat SEO. But, I think it’s important to mention because it’s a term that is so horribly misused.

When most people say something about black hat techniques, they are actually referring to gray hat techniques. The simple fact is they are unaware of both the term gray hat and actual black hat techniques.

Black hat refers to doing much more than buying some links. It’s much more extreme.

A few examples I’ve seen are when someone gains access to your website’s backend (hacks your site) through either a poor user name / password combination or some other vulnerability like a WordPress plugin that wasn’t updated after a security risk was discovered.

The abuser with then start creating extra pages on your site with their own content, usually through software, to try and leech your websites authority. They might even spam your site as well to help push their pages up for a short time, not caring if they get your website penalized in the process.

There are other techniques as well that I simple don’t know. But, as you can see, this style of search engine manipulation is much different than what one would consider gray.

In Summary

There are many different way to try and help your website show up in people’s searches. Some follow search engine webmaster guidelines like they’re gospel, which others are outright illegal. But, most SEO takes place between those two extremes.

For more information about SEO, check out my SEO basics guide.