Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO: The Ethical Battleground

The digital marketing world can feel like every man for himself. With half of all marketers believing that Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the most effective online marketing strategy, competition for search engine “real estate” has never been so fierce.

Such stiff competition for search engine ranking has led many marketers to succumb to pressure to increase ranks at any cost. In response, some use shady tactics to help their business get ahead on the SERPs of major search engines. This phenomenon gave rise to the categorisation of methods according to ethics, known as White Hat SEO and Black Hat SEO. Here, our SEO agency experts discuss what separates White Hat from Black Hat SEO tactics.

White Hat SEO Techniques – Playing by the Rules

White Hat is your way into Google’s “good books”. Essentially, it means you do search engine optimisation according to Google’s guidelines, with a long-term plan to make your site the best it can possibly be. Operating according to White Hat principles pretty much gives you immunity to Google algorithm updates, helping you avoid penalties that affect your ranking.

Providing the Ideal User Experience (UX)

The cornerstone of White Hat Techniques is giving site visitors the best possible experience on your website. Google has always steered site owners towards focusing on designing for UX, the only difference is that now their algorithms are better able to separate the good from the bad.

From load speeds, to easy navigation and intuitive interfaces – UX is a great decider of rankings. Seeing as it’s top-priority in Google’s own software, it makes sense that UX would come first on our White Hat SEO strategy list.

High-Quality Content

We’ve often discussed the importance of content in our blogs. It’s become common knowledge that good content is looked upon favourably by everybody. But what’s considered high-quality content? Original content that engages readers, answers the questions that led them to your page, and delivers real value are common markers of quality content.

Readers and search engines alike are adept at spotting poor-quality content. Try taking a look through your visitors’ eyes. If you wouldn’t read the content on your site, that’s a good sign your strategy needs revisiting.

Mobile-First

Mobile is more important than ever. Optimising your site for browsing on-the-go has become a leading priority for site owners, in light of mobile-first indexing becoming the new protocol. Mobile-friendly is now the bare minimum, considering 2015 marked the year local mobile searches overtook desktop.

You’d think these strategies would be an obvious choice for anyone wanting to boost their rankings, right? While it’s definitely the safer choice, the allure of the potential for short-term results is too strong for some.

Black Hat SEO: Going Rogue

Black Hat SEO tactics use shortcuts and attempted hacks to manipulate search engines. In hopes of higher rankings and more traffic, some site owners cater their SEO techniques to these bots rather than real people. It’s usually executed in hopes of short-term gains rather than playing the long game, as seen in White Hat strategies.

Google is highly aware of these Black Hat SEO techniques, and its algorithms have evolved to spot them. Offenders get penalised for such bad SEO practices, so if any of these manipulative tactics sound familiar, watch out!

Keyword Stuffing

The black hat practice of placing keywords where they don’t belong is one of the most prevalent Black Hat techniques. If keywords a site is trying to rank for are unnaturally shoved in throughout content and meta tags, that’s keyword stuffing. What does it look like? Google provides a pretty good example:

We sell custom cigar humidors. Our custom cigar humidors are handmade. If you’re thinking of buying a custom cigar humidor, please contact our custom cigar humidor specialists at [email protected]

Keyword stuffing ultimately aims to signal relevance of a webpage for a key phrase to major search engines via brute force. Yet, this results in poor user experience with no value being given to readers of the content.

Cloaking

Keyword stuffing isn’t always that obvious. Some Black Hat aficionados obscure keywords with white text, or hide them altogether with CSS coding. In doing so, these websites were able to have invisible keywords en mass without ever affecting how the user perceived the website. Simply put, they would list a keyword a 1000 times or more on a page while disguising it as simply white space.

Another version of cloaking involves masking the true nature of a page. This can take the form of baiting visitors with keywords, then redirecting to another site, or showing HTML to search engines and Flash images to users. Basically, you’re showing one thing to search engines and another thing to visitors. It sounds like a bad magic trick, but it’s a common Black Hat tactic.

For either form of cloaking, search engines have become proficient at picking out this black hat strategy and actively penalise it.

Link Spam

Spamming links is a classic Black Hat technique for link building. Link schemes first emerge when early marketers realised that Search Engine Algorithms rewarded link quantity. As such, they innovated and found ways to plant a massive number of inbound links to their website from all over the web. In this way, websites with thin content or even irrelevant content could rank for a key phrase provided that enough links were built.

In fact, it was even possible to spam links with irrelevant keywords as the anchor text. So long as the page received more links than competing pages, it would out rank in search engines. This was further empowered by the technique of creating private blog networks (PBN) and using these to deliver powerful links from websites with little to no actual human users. Even where webmasters did not have PBN, they would actively work with vendors who sold these unnatural links.

Yet, Google’s algorithm caught up over time, leading to the Google Penguin Algorithm Update. Google Penguin was designed to weed out sites that used link farms and spammy links to artificially inflate their ranking. Between 2012 and 2016, Penguin’s rollout actively targeted link farms and link schemes, strongly penalising caught websites.

Unlike manual actions in your Google Search Console dashboard, penalties from search engines in this case are not explicitly shown. Instead, webmasters need to be vigilant and proactively disavow such artificial links.

Duplicate Content

Stealing other people’s content is a pretty unethical strategy. This could look like directly copy/pasting content from another site, or making slight modifications in an attempt to make it appear original. While it’s good to cite references and get your theories from credible sources, completely lifting content is a strict no-no.

This is because plagiarism is against copyright law. If you do this, you risk legal action and fines. A better alternative to create relevant content that is not duplicated is to use high quality content creation tools. These will allow you to create unique content without having to lift anything from elsewhere.

Review Spam

You may have heard about review spam. This is where businesses pay to promote positive reviews on third party platforms. They’ll often buy fake accounts to leave positive reviews on popular social media sites. After this, these fake reviews are then reposted to the website as a form of proof to audiences.

Naturally, these fake reviews are usually written by paid reviewers who don’t actually know the product. As such, without first hand experience, they often create shallow reviews that add little value to readers.

In order to combat review spam, the Google July 2022 Product Reviews update was rolled out to promote real reviews that go above and beyond the templated information found online. This thus devalued reviews that did not provide strong value to readers.

Black Hat SEO Vs White Hat SEO

As we’ve seen, there are many different types of Black Hat techniques. However, some are far more risky than others. For example, if you’re going to try and game the system by cloaking, you’ll likely end up getting caught. The same goes for duplicate content. You may think that copying someone else’s content is fine, but it’s actually quite risky.

It can be tempting to take the game into your own hands. Just remember that Black Hat SEO strategies might pay off quicker, but the positive effects won’t last. A good rule of thumb is to follow Search Engine Guidelines. They focus on serving users to the best of their ability, so in principle, you should too.

Keen to have industry leading white hat SEO practices for your website? Speak to the experts at Singapore’s leading SEO agency – First Page Digital. Our SEO specialists apply an array of white hat techniques to ensure that your website is never at risk of being penalised by search engines while steadily moving up the SERP for your keywords.

If you’d like to read more about some of Google’s most well-known algorithms, have a read of our previous blog on 4 Google Penalties You Need To Watch Out For. There, you’ll learn about the algorithms that enforce penalties on websites that try to bend the rules.