Introduction to Blackhat and Whitehat SEO

You may have heard SEO tactics referred to as ‘blackhat’, ‘whitehat’, or even ‘greyhat’.

But what does that actually mean?

In simple terms, blackhat SEO is used to describe optimisation tactics that go against the guidelines of search engines like Google. If you’re ‘whitehat’, you’re abiding by the guidelines.

The lure of blackhat SEO

The lure of blackhat SEO lies in the opportunity to ‘game’ algorithms and shortcut a route to organic search success. 

Here’s a basic example: in the early days of organic search, exact-match keywords on a page were a more significant ranking factor than they are today. A common blackhat technique involved stuffing page footers with relevant keywords in a transparent font. This way, they were visible to search engines but not disruptive or abrasive for users. Sneaky.


Why you should avoid blackhat SEO like the plague

Blackhat tactics are often:

  • only impactful for a short time (until search engines ‘catch up’)
  • totally ineffective 
  • or worst of all, susceptible to penalties

The third bullet point is a particular risk for obvious reasons. The blackhat technique of ‘keyword stuffing’ is now likely to be ineffective, or result in a penalty. 

Search engines like Google carry out broad, core updates several times per year. With each update there are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, but not every significant ‘loss’ is a penalty. 

There is a big difference between improving organic traffic to a site that’s not being rewarded in search engines, and improving organic traffic to a site that’s been penalised! 

There’s more detail on penalties (and how to work out if you’re suffering from them) in future modules. For now, here’s a list of common penalty types and the blackhat techniques that have been known to trigger them. The big lesson from all this? Blackhat SEO tactics aren’t worth the risk.

Example search penalties, and the blackhat tactics that could trigger them

Penalty type: cloaking 

Blackhat activities that may trigger this: 

  • presenting search engines with content that’s different to what users see
  • redirecting users to a different location than search engines

Content should never be published for search engines at the expense of user experience. There are rarely white-hat reasons for presenting search engines with different content to users, but one example could be a site with paywalled content.

Penalty type: thin content

Blackhat activities that may trigger this: 

  • publishing questionable machine-generated content
  • publishing at-scale near-duplicate content throughout a site
  • scraping content from other sources

Machine generated content can be whitehat if the output is high relevance and high quality. An example of at-scale near duplication could include duplicating a high performing piece of content and changing only the target keyword.

Penalty types: unnatural links

Blackhat activities that may trigger this: 

  • buying or selling natural-looking links from other websites that aren’t appropriately marked as sponsored (more on this in future modules)
  • acquiring irrelevant links from irrelevant sites
  • requiring a link as part of a contract agreement
  • using a private network of blogs to build links to a site

It’s worth noting that large and reputable sites are often affected by penalties for unnatural links. In fact, blackhat link building could be a lesson in itself. Links gained through digital PR coverage represent a common and effective whitehat link acquisition technique. 

So what is greyhat?

Greyhat is a catch-all term to describe techniques that although technically not against existing search engine guidelines, do contradict the general principles and ethics they represent. 

Link-building is a great concept for illustrating greyhat SEO. Here’s a quote from Google’s Webmaster guidelines

“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines”.

The line between this and totally naturally gained links is a very fine one. Technically, anyone researching and reaching out for link opportunities could be seen to be practicing greyhat techniques. The risks of honest, professionally carried out link-building are low to non-existent. Other tactics might be higher risk. So be careful, what’s grey today could be blackhat tomorrow.

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