1. Glossary
  2. Google
  3. White Hat vs Black Hat SEO

White Hat vs 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.

Though black hat techniques may appear to lead to quick and easy boosts in search rankings, they never pay off in the long run, and are likely to incur penalties from search engines, ultimately leading to huge drops in rankings. Search engines also make it their business to alleviate the effectiveness of black hat SEO through algorithm updates.

White hat techniques on the other hand will never be updated to oblivion and will never incur penalties. These methods will 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 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 is 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.

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

What are black hat SEO penalties?

It is 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. Google does this imposing a penalty that either removes the offending page or the entire website from search results 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.

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 is 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.

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, structural markup, clear code and easy navigation will make a difference.

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.

White hat and black hat SEO reading list

For more on Google penalties see the following articles: