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    10 mins

    White Hat vs Black Hat SEO

    31 January 2023

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    What is White Hat SEO and Black Hat SEO?

    The terms ‘white hat’ and ‘black hat’ are commonplace in SEO. Put simply, white hat refers to good SEO practices that search engines recommend, while black hat refers to bad SEO practices that break search engine rules.

    Google has a rulebook called “Google Search Essentials”, which, until October 2022, was called the “Google Webmaster Guidelines”. Adhering to the rules and recommendations made in Search Essentials is considered white hat SEO. Black hat SEO goes against these rules and recommendations and instead tries to gain quick wins by “gaming” the Search Engines.

    Gary Illyes, at the time a senior analyst at Google, summed it up neatly in an interview that he gave to Bruce Clay:

    “Bruce Clay: Is there something else that we should chiefly be paying attention to other than the Webmaster Guidelines?

    Gary Illyes: There’s nothing more that you really want to focus on. If you follow the Webmaster Guidelines, you will do good.”

    Google has always been clear that it reserves the right to penalise any website that it deems fit. If your website is in contravention of the Spam Guidelines, Google Policies or Search Essentials recommendations, then it runs the serious risk of either a penalty (manual action), or an algorithmic devaluation (either by an algorithm specifically suppressing your content’s rankings, or by promoting the content of other sites at the expense of yours).

    However, the search giant has made it clear that breaching the guidelines is not the only way to get a penalty. If it deems you to be going against the spirit of the guidelines, you may also be on the receiving end of some form of devaluation. Until October 2022 (when Google switched from Webmaster Guidelines to Search Essentials), the following featured prominently in the guidelines overview:

    “These quality guidelines cover the most common forms of deceptive or manipulative behavior, 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.”

    Because of this, it is safe to say that black hat SEO is not only SEO that goes against the specific wording of the Guidelines, but that also goes against the spirit of the Guidelines.

    What is Google Search Essentials and what are their Spam Policies?

    Google is filled with information regarding black hat vs white hat SEO. Some of the more prominent areas of the site that deals with this are:

    Search Essentials

    Spam Policies

    SEO Guide

    Other Policies

    We recommend familiarising yourselves with the documents and practices contained within the above. Not following them is the quickest way to see your website demoted in Google, whereas following them is as close as you will come to a guarantee that you will see sustainable performance (Google is keen to point out that there is no such thing as sustainable performance. Search changes, and all websites will see performance fluctuate over time).

    We also suggest familiarising yourself with previous iterations of the Guidelines. Google constantly updates the Guidelines, to better answer some of the more pressing issues of the day and to give a good reflection of the current status of the algorithm.

    For instance, things that Google found hard to crawl in 2016, they may not find so hard to crawl now. Those hard to crawl things may have been against the guidelines in 2016, but might not be now. Other times, guidelines violations that were commonplace in 2016, and so were heavily mentioned in the 2016 guidelines, may not be so common in, say, 2025 and so may not be so heavily mentioned in the guidelines of the day.

    That does not mean that those things are now good practice. As a rule of thumb we’ve found that Google rarely changes its mind about any specific black hat SEO practices, or does an about turn on something it once considered to be elicit, unless there is a very good reason for it. So, if something was not recommended ten years ago, chances are it is still best to avoid now, even if it’s no longer in the guidelines.

    All documents in Google Webmaster Guidelines, 2022

    And here’s a view of the standard layout, 2022

    Webmaster Guidelines, 2022

    Webmaster Guidelines, 2020

    Webmaster Guidelines, 2017


    Is black hat SEO ever worth it?

    Black hat SEO can be effective in the short term. It’s possible for websites to temporarily evade detection and gain great Google rankings via elicit practices. But, you should never confuse good rankings as meaning that Google condones or endorses your content. Web spam that ranks well in Google because it has not yet been caught is still web spam. And, when it’s caught, which it will be eventually, it will be dealt with in the same way that Google always deals with web spam: some form of devaluation.

    If Google was a bullet proof system that caught web spam every time, and at the moment it arose, the search results would be an even higher quality than they already are and Google wouldn’t have to spend so much resource every day fighting spam! The fact that Google still regularly releases spam-based algorithm updates and has such a large quality team is proof enough that spam can slip through the net.

    White hat techniques, on the other hand, are based upon building great website experiences, led by great UX, great content and great, PR style backlinks. It will rarely be updated to oblivion or incur penalties. These methods should lead to sustained, long-term improvements to rankings and a more visible site.

    Black hat SEO techniques

    To understand proper white hat SEO methods, we must first look at what is considered black hat.

    Black hat SEO is a direct attempt to trick a search engine into thinking a website is more relevant to a search query than it actually is. In contrast, white hat SEO actually makes websites more relevant to search queries with no trickery involved.

    This element of “trickery” means that black hat sites that appear at the top of search engine results might be useless to visitors. This, of course, is not what Google et al. want, so they do all they can to discourage black hat methods and punish those who use them.

    Search engines don’t just dislike black hat SEO for its dishonesty, but because it often leads to a bad user experience. Unlike white hat SEO, which aims to benefit site visitors and search engines, black hat SEO is aimed purely at search engines, often ignoring users entirely.

    Despite Google’s hardline stance on black hat SEO, there are still some individuals or agencies that continue to use black hat methods, hoping they do not get caught. These people and companies are best avoided if you have any interest in maintaining the long-term visibility of your website.

    Black hat SEO practices that should always be avoided but may still be in use include:

    Keyword stuffing

    Keyword stuffing is a form of spam that involves overuse of certain keywords in order to manipulate a search engine into ranking a page higher for those terms. Keyword stuffing usually consists of adding multiple spurious keywords to title tags to the point that they read very poorly or do not make sense.

    A keyword-stuffed title tag for this page may read like this: “White Hat and Black Hat SEO | SEO White Hat | SEO Black Hat | SEO.” It’s clear that this title was written so a search engine would see the terms ‘SEO’, ‘white hat’ and ‘black hat’ several times with little regard for grammar, readability or integrity.

    More extreme keyword stuffing involves a similar tactic being used in the main body copy of a web page.

    Using a few keywords in your title tags and content is actually recommended by Google, as it’s helpful to the user and helpful for Google bot. Just don’t go overboard.

    Hidden content

    Usually a form of keyword stuffing, some black hat practitioners will use tags to hide content on a page that is invisible to the user, but clearly visible to a search engine. Placing spurious keywords into  a page’s code is one example of this. Developers can also use the tag and various others to place invisible spam in their pages.

    Bad paid links

    Links pointing back to your site, particularly with relevant anchor text, can increase search engine rankings. This form of link building is acceptable until money changes hands. Google considers paying for links that exist purely for the sake of link building, manipulative, and therefore black hat.

    The worst forms of paid links are links from spammy directories that exist solely to make money from sending links to customers’ websites. Google’s updates have made these directory links very risky.

    Informative, insightful PR style links with useful content for the reader, however, always work to a site’s advantage and are considered white hat.

    Doorway pages and thin content

    Google describes doorway pages as:

    “Doorways are sites or pages created to rank for specific, similar search queries. They lead users to intermediate pages that are not as useful as the final destination. Examples of doorways include:

    • Having multiple websites with slight variations to the URL and home page to maximize their reach for any specific query
    • Having multiple domain names or pages targeted at specific regions or cities that funnel users to one page
    • Pages generated to funnel visitors into the actual usable or relevant portion of your site(s)
    • Substantially similar pages that are closer to search results than a clearly defined, browseable hierarchy”

    And gives another update here.

    Sistrix gives a good explanation of doorway pages. Essentially, the most common forms these days are pages that only vary based on location (i.e., separate pages for “Plumber London”, “Plumber Kensington”, “Plumber Chelsea”, “Plumber Shoreditch”, “Plumber Angel”, “Plumber Elephant and Castle” etc.), that offer subtle variations of similar products (“Carpet White”, “Carpet Off-White”, “Carpet Brown”, “Carpet Yellow”) etc, that offer subtle variations of the same keywords (“Artist London”, “Artists London”, “Artists in London” etc.) as well as pages that are not accessible through the site’s main navigation (i.e., pages created by internal search engines).

    Thin content is any page that does not contain much content at all, or that does not provide much by way of unique content.

    What are black hat SEO penalties?

    It’s in a search engine’s interest for its results to be useful to users, so any site caught using black hat techniques will be penalised, either manually or algorithmically. Google does this by imposing a penalty that either removes the offending page or the entire website from the search rankings either for one search keyword or for any query at all.

    This happened to the lyric website Rap Genius in 2014. The site was caught offering promotional tweets to bloggers who placed several spammy links back to Rap Genius on their websites. A member of Google’s spam team caught wind of this and the next day Rap Genius fell off the map. The site no longer ranked for most of the lyrics it had ranked for previously, and it didn’t even appear as first page result for the ‘Rap Genius’ brand name.

    Google does remove penalties if websites discontinue their black hat practices, but some websites never bounce back to their previous standing. Rap Genius is said to have lost up to 700,000 daily visitors thanks to their Google penalty.

    A website can also be algorithmically penalised. This could be as simple as seeing your website pushed down a few places because Google has promoted higher quality content, or your website plummeting in performance due to an algorithmic suppression.

    How does Google catch web spam and black hat SEO?

    Google is constantly improving the way that it catches web spam. It does this via a number of means.

    Spam-targeting algorithm updates

    Some of the most famous algorithms that target web spam are:

    Google Panda Update

    Google Penguin Update

    Google SpamBrain

    Quality-rewarding algorithm updates

    On other occasions, Google releases algorithm updates that do not actively seek out spam, but instead look to promote high quality content at the expense of low quality content. These algorithm updates may work differently to spam specific updates, but they have similar ends: when a website is promoted for having good content, it will push black hat content down the rankings and make it less visible. A good example of this was the 2018 Google Brackets update.

    Google releases thousands of algorithm updates every year, a number of which are core algorithm updates and many of which are specifically targeted to root out web spam and black hat SEO practices.

    Google spam team

    Google also has a large, human team of quality reviewers that actively seek out web spam and penalise it via manual actions.

    White hat SEO techniques

    White hat SEO involves a web publisher following the guidelines of search engines and working with their algorithms. These algorithms are regularly updated to increase effectiveness and stamp out black hat techniques.

    The other key difference between white hat and black hat SEO is that white hat methods have an end result that benefits not just a website’s search rankings but its overall user experience too. Recommended white hat SEO techniques include:

    Quality content writing

    It’s in a search engine’s interest to point users in the direction of websites full of good, well-researched, informative content. If your website is full of high quality content related to your area of business or expertise, Google and other search engines will see it as valuable and place its pages further up the search results.

    Make sure to follow the principles of E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authority, Trust). If you’re involved in the financial or medical sector, familiarise yourselves with the Google YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) and Google Medic Updates.

    SEO agencies can create content that is not only well-researched and informative, but that also uses industry-relevant language in a non-spammy way to help Google understand that the page is relevant to a search query.

    Keyword research

    Keyword stuffing may be illicit, but that does not mean keywords are unimportant to SEO. Agencies can use special tools to find the different ways people are searching for your site, or the different way they could be, and include these words in your site copy in strategic but non-spammy ways.

    Good web design

    A website that is more functional and easy to use is much more likely to appear in search results. There are several ways a website can be better-optimised. Everything from internal linking and structural markup to clear code and easy navigation will make a difference. It’s also important to make a website easy for Google to crawl, so consider optimising your crawl budget, implementing a silo structure to your content, preventing keyword cannibalisation and improving your site’s navigation.

    As black hat practices are stamped out, good web design is more important than ever.

    The key thing to take into account is that white hat SEO is always better. It brings in better results, leads to a beautiful website and is not subject to penalties. It takes more imagination, creativity, technical knowhow, time, patience and charm than black hat tactics, but as they say: good things come to those who wait.

    Limit use of AI

    Google is very wary about generative AI written content. This is because AI generators such as ChatGPT have been known to make numerous and significant errors, make up quotations, studies and white papers and even falsify caselaw and legal papers. Google is nervous (and rightly so) that, if content publishers start to rely too heavily on generative AI, and do not put the AI generated content that they did rely on through rigorous fact checking and quality control, that the internet, and indeed Google’s SERPs, will become awash with inaccurate or misleading content. We’ve summarised Google’s current position on AI here in our post on AI content and SEO.

    Link building should focus on PR

    In our opinion, the only safe way to build links is to create great content that site publishers will want to link to naturally, and/or to hire a PR agency and engage in a high quality PR campaign. This PR campaign should aim not only to gain exposure and brand mentions but, hopefully, backlinks too.

    A bit more…

    In a nutshell, white hat SEO is SEO that follow’s industry best practice as outlined in Google’s various policy documents and guidelines. Black hat SEO is SEO that looks to find loopholes in the search engine algorithms to gain artificially good rankings. White hat SEO = Good, sustainable practices that are likely to result in longer term, semi reliable rankings. Black hat SEO = bad practices that may work in the short term but will likely lead to algorithmic or manual devaluations.

    We’ve gone into a bit more detail on some of the spammy tactics that would be considered black hat SEO in our spam guidelines. But, remember: just because it’s not specifically name checked in Google’s guidelines, doesn’t mean that it’s not susceptible to penalisation. Stick to the spirit of Google’s guidelines and you should be a-okay!