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The 2 Sides of SEO Strategy (2023)

An old management decision framework maxim asks: “Is this decision irreversible?” If you rely on black hat SEO tactics to drive traffic to your site, you may end up with consequences almost impossible to reverse. On the other hand, a white hat SEO strategy is virtually risk-free and rooted in marketing fundamentals. Learn about the difference between white hat vs. black hat SEO.

What is white hat SEO?

White hat SEO is any search engine optimization technique that complies with search engine guidelines. Search engines want the websites that appear in search results to be relevant, easy-to-use, helpful, and trustworthy—and white hat SEO tactics help achieve this. Some of the most common white hat SEO techniques are:

Keyword optimization

Search engines encourage websites to include relevant keywords in their meta tags and on-page content. This is considered a white hat SEO technique, so long as the keywords are actually relevant to the page and aren’t overly repetitive.

UX improvements

Page-load speed is one of the most important considerations for SEO. A site that loads quickly contributes to a positive user experience (UX). Other UX improvements that help SEO are clear navigation menus, mobile-responsive designs, and high accessibility.

Crawl directives

Search engine crawlers look for explicit instructions from websites on which pages to crawl (and potentially show in search results) and which ones to ignore. There are several technical methods for setting these instructions, including sitemaps, robots.txt files, and the <meta> HTML tag.

Quality content

One of the best ways to rank in Google is to publish quality content that answers your audience’s questions. This can include informational blog posts, product reviews, and video tutorials. As long as the content is original, unique, trustworthy, and helpful, it is a white hat SEO technique.

If an ecommerce website can only focus on one strategy, Paul Shapiro, head of technical SEO and SEO product management at Shopify, suggests ecommerce entrepreneurs focus on their backlinks strategy. “The importance of creating the right content for earning backlinks cannot be overstated,” he says. “Your goal is to create something others will find valuable and worth referencing, whether that means providing original data, a unique viewpoint, or a perspective that aligns with a distinct persona or article topic.”

What is black hat SEO?

Black hat SEO is the exact opposite of white hat: it’s any SEO work that goes against the guidelines provided by search engines. Search engine algorithms look for certain signals (keywords, backlinks, and more) to determine which pages to rank highly because these signals are a proxy for quality. In black hat SEO, instead of actually demonstrating quality, the website owner attempts to trick search engines into considering the content high-quality, regardless of the site’s actual content quality (typically poor).

Black hat SEO is risky and often counterproductive. If search engines discover your website is using black hat SEO techniques, they can remove your website entirely from their index. “Black hat SEO sacrifices long-term success for theoretical and unproven short-term gains,” says Greg Bernhardt, SEO strategist for Shopify. “Companies that succeed in the long run are the ones that invest in customer and product-oriented SEO foundations such as value and user experience.” 

Some of the most common black hat SEO practices are:

Keyword stuffing 

Keyword stuffing is when a website repeatedly uses its target keyword in its content in an attempt to achieve higher relevance for a keyword, regardless of the page’s actual purpose or benefit to the user. 

Backlink schemes

Search engines regard links from other sites to yours as a proxy for understanding your site’s quality. They expect you receive these links as a result of your marketing campaigns, published content, and partnerships. However, if you inflate backlinks by buying links, using private blog networks (PBNs), and using other illicit tactics, search engines will likely penalize your site.

Doorway pages

Doorway pages are large sets of poor-quality pages where each page is optimized for a specific keyword or phrase. In many cases, doorway pages are written to rank for a particular phrase and then funnel users to a single destination. These create a poor user experience and are a form of deception, since they mask the website’s actual landing page.

Hidden content

Search engines know not all content on your page will be immediately visible. For example, many sites use an accordion format to showcase their frequently asked questions, and this is an acceptable practice. But when content is hidden expressly to deceive search engines—such as putting keywords in white text on a white background—the practice is considered black hat SEO.

Key differences between white and black hat SEO

Search engines evaluate your site and its pages on the following core principle: If your site performs well by these metrics, it will rank higher. In white hat SEO, a website earns high performance on these principles. In black hat SEO, a website deceives users and search engines into thinking it is performing well on these principles, regardless of its actual quality. There are three primary differences between white hat and black hat SEO:

1. Relevance

Search engines want the page results that they display on search engine results pages (SERPs) to match what the searcher is looking for. This is why keywords are important—they help determine a page’s relevance to a certain topic. However, search engine crawlers aren’t just checking for keywords. Google, for example, uses a complex AI model that analyzes the relevance of every word on the page.

In white hat SEO, a marketer does keyword research to determine what keywords to target. They review the existing pages that rank highly for that keyword and determine what those pages are missing. Then they write content that aims to answer searchers’ questions more thoroughly and clearly. Finally, they make sure to include SEO-friendly meta descriptions and title tags.

In black hat SEO, marketers start by determining which keyword they’d like to rank for. But instead of writing helpful content, they find ways to trick the algorithm, such as through optimized doorway pages, inserting hidden text on the page, or through adding keywords not relevant to the page’s actual content.

2. User experience

Search engines consider user experience to be a positive ranking factor. They measure this a few different ways: They look at how fast the web page loads, whether it’s mobile-friendly, whether users click the Back button after selecting a result (indicating they didn’t find what they needed), and whether the page has a high click-through rate in the SERP.

In white hat SEO, a marketer works to improve the site’s speed, mobile experience, and navigation experience to ensure that as many site visitors as possible find exactly what they’re looking for.

In black hat SEO, marketers try to replicate a positive experience by sending bot traffic to click their page in search results, mimicking engagement.

3. Authority

Search engines want to show websites that demonstrate quality, trustworthiness, and expertise. This is often referred to as a website’s authority. Third-party tools like Semrush measure this as an Authority Score. When other sites that link to yours are established and reliable, it indicates your site is authoritative.

In white hat SEO, a marketer works to develop authority by executing content marketing campaigns and implementing good backlink principles. For example, they would develop relationships with journalists, publish content that includes cited research or data, and collaborate on content with other brands. Backlinks to their site flow naturally as a result.

In black hat SEO, marketers shortcut the backlink earning process by buying links from brokers, leaving spam in other sites’ comment sections, hacking into websites and adding hidden links, and more. Although black hat SEO strategies are based on common SEO principles for establishing authority, they are designed to deceive. 

Black hat SEO is a cat-and-mouse game, and search engines constantly update their algorithms to catch black hat actors. Instead of being worried about practicing black hat, Caitlin Blais, head of SEO at Shopify, suggests focusing on your reader. “So long as you are focused on creating content beneficial for your audience, and you are qualified to write about that content, you don’t have to worry about crossing the ‘black hat’ SEO line,” she says. “Focus on providing value to your users and make it easy for your users and Google to find that content.”

White hat vs. black hat SEO FAQ

Is link building black hat SEO?

Link building is not inherently black hat SEO, but practices that focus on developing backlinks without adding value to a human audience—such as buying or selling links or participating in link farms—are considered black hat.

How do I ensure my SEO strategy is aligned with white hat practices?

The best way to ensure you’re aligned with white hat practices is to read and follow Google’s guidelines. They provide robust, clear instructions on their rules. Other search engines also tend to follow Google’s lead as the standard-setter for SEO practices.

What is gray hat SEO and is it effective?

Gray hat SEO refers to practices that fall somewhere between white hat and black hat techniques. These are typically tactics that don’t explicitly go against guidelines but also don’t help users, such as writing overtly click-baity title tags. These tactics can provide some short-term gain, but they can hurt user trust and should be approached cautiously.

What are the penalties for black hat SEO?

The primary penalty for black hat SEO is a manual action from Google (and the equivalent from other search engines). This penalty will remove or greatly reduce your entire website’s visibility from search results. There is no legal penalty for black hat SEO—only visibility penalties from Google.

Is it possible to recover from search engine penalties?

Yes. If your site has received a manual action, Google provides explicit instructions for how to correct it. You must submit a review request in which you show that you understand why your site was penalized and share the steps you’ve taken to fix the issue.

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