Let me tackle a subject that has me punching my computer screen every time it rears its ugly head. icon-frown-o icon-gavel
I’m referring to the SEO industry’s classification of SEO tactics using 3 coloured hats; black, grey and white.
Thinking of SEO practices in terms of these three colours or categories is misleading. It’s stopping you from becoming the best SEO you can be.
Before I explain why, let’s quickly define the terms White Hat, Grey Hat and Black Hat SEO so we’re on the same page:
Black Hat SEO
Black hat SEO refers to a set of practices that are used to increases a page’s rank in the search engines through means that violate the search engines’ terms of service.
White Hat SEO
This refers to optimisation practices and tactics which follow search engine guidelines and are entirely focused on the user.
Grey Hat SEO
This refers to SEO practices and tactics that are somewhere in the middle of black hat and white hat, or the stuff that Google has not really defined in their webmaster guidelines.
If you do SEO, you’re wearing a black hat my friend…
If we conclude that ‘black-hat’ SEO is, in essence, practice that breaks Google Webmaster Guidelines, then it would probably serve us to have a closer look at these guidelines, right?
This is one of the four basic Webmaster’s Guidelines by Google…
“Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings”
We might as well pack up and go home, because pretty much everything we do as search engine optimisers is a ‘trick’ to improve search engine rankings.
Write a page title with a target keyword in it? Trick to improve search engine rankings.
Add authoritative outbound links to our ranking pages? Trick to improve search engine rankings.
Make sure there are a few alt tags on the page with relevant keywords in? Trick to improve search engine rankings.
Maybe you think I’m taking this out of context and I’m not appreciating the sentiment from which the guidelines were published. Well then, let’s look at the list of specific items that Google condones:
- Automatically generated content
- Participating in link schemes
- Creating pages with little or no original content
- Sneaky redirects
- Hidden text or links
- Doorway pages
- Scraped content
- Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value
- Loading pages with irrelevant keywords
- Creating pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other badware
- Abusing rich snippets markup
- Sending automated queries to Google
*Can we just take a second to notice some of the language used in this list; tricks, schemes, abusing, sneaky, malicious – You’d think Google was describing a paedophile ring here!
Participating in link schemes?! Bloody hell, that sounds shady – what the hell is link scheme? Let’s ask Google…
As useful as the ‘OK Google’ feature is 😉 , let’s write some of that down:
“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 manipulation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site”
According to this, any activity that attempts to get links coming to our website to improve our Google ranking is a link scheme and therefore against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. And remember what we said earlier? That’s black hat, baby.
Put simply, if you’re making a conscious effort to engage in the optimisation of your site for search engines (or what I like to call ‘SEO’) then you’re carrying out ‘black hat’ tactics. Everything we do as an SEO is an attempt to influence/manipulate Google’s assessment of our site in the hope of gaining higher rankings!
So, now we know that all SEO is black hat SEO, can we please stop using this ridiculous classification system and just call black hat SEO what it really is; SEO.
How Do We Describe Different SEO Tactics Then?
People genuinely get high and mighty about this stuff. They pride themselves on only partaking in ‘white hat’ practices (which now we know don’t exist – unless you’re releasing content with absolutely no regard about how it might fare in the search engines!).
I’ve even seen the word ‘ethical’ banded around when describing link building tactics. This isn’t vegetarianism or your stance on abortion. This is just trying to get our website ranked on a bloody search engine.
I’ve got no problem using catchy phrases to describe risky or short-term SEO tactics. My problem comes with the insidious association of good and bad with these phrases. White = good and ethical. Black = evil and immoral.
Black-Hat is neither good nor bad.
Grey-Hat is neither good nor bad.
White-Hat is neither good nor bad.
These aren’t really describing anything. All of this is just SEO.
Instead, I’d like to be the first to propose 4 categories to describe various SEO techniques (and don’t shoot me down you SEO-hat lovers out there):
- Doing stuff that doesn’t work
Examples: keyword stuffing, generating 100% unique content without any kind of strategy behind it.
- Doing stuff that works but will be penalised by Google if they find out, and the likelihood of that happening now or in the future is high
Examples: purchasing automated page crawling software to replicate engaged website visitors on your page, using automated link-building software.
- Doing stuff that works but will be penalised by Google if they find out and the likelihood of that happening now or in the future is low
Examples: Aiming for a certain keyword density icon-video-camera on your page to match the keyword densities of the top-5 results for your chosen keyword, building private blog network icon-video-camera links.
- Doing stuff that works but won’t get penalised
Examples: Consistently releasing good-quality content as part of a content marketing icon-video-camera strategy, adding your primary target keyword as your <h1> header.
I know those aren’t catchy coloured hats, and I know there’s a spectrum between number 2 and number 3, but I implore you to start thinking about your SEO efforts in these more general terms.
We can rule out category number 1. Those things are never going to work.
You may consider operating in category number 2 but, from personal experience, it’s a fool’s errand. The results maybe sweet, but they’ll be extremely short and not worth the time investment.
This leaves category number 3 and number 4. Working in these categories will ensure the best results in an acceptable time frame. You can’t play it safe all the time,. You need to test and try different SEO tactics to see what works best, and you must be able to accept a certain level of risk in anything you do to make it to the top.
Always ask yourself, ‘is it likely that Google could/would isolate this SEO tactic’, and then decide whether you still want to do it. Think for yourself. Don’t let SEO gurus tell you to just do it.
Leave your black, grey and white hat in the wardrobe. Choose the sensible SEO hat instead.