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Who? What? and When: A Complete Guide to Black, White, and Grey SEO

black white and grey

Over 50% of website traffic comes from search engines. 

Yet, 65% of clicks happen on the first five search results. With hundreds of thousands of searches happening every second, the top five is where you want to be. 

In a perfect world, your business appears in the first spot on Google. Furthermore, it shows up there for all relevant searches. You get thousands of new visitors a week and your revenue is through the roof! 

But, this isn’t a perfect world. 

Ranking well in search engines is hard. And the SEO world is so advanced that even the ones who run it don’t fully understand how it works. 

So, what do you do? 

You can help yourself by optimizing your content to rank well in search engines. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do that. 

There’s actually a kind of wrong way do it, too. But don’t worry. By the end of this article, you’ll understand the difference between black, white, and grey hat SEO techniques. 

What is SEO?

SEO, or search engine optimization, is optimizing your content to appear on the first page of Google. Let’s look at an example. 

Pretend you’re interested in learning how to train your cat. So, you turn to Google hoping to find the information you need.

You search for “how to train your cat”. Magically, the results appear and you click on the first one. It has everything you need to know. 

You buy a training kit and you’re off teaching your cat how to high-five, sit, and follow other commands. 

Now, flip that example upside down.

You’re the company selling cat training kits to excited cat parents. These customers are what keep your business flourishing. 

It makes sense that you want to reach them when they search for related terms on Google, right? Right. And you want to appear first because you know that the number one spot has a 34% click-through rate

The process of getting your website to rank number one is the essence of SEO. 

How Do Search Engines Decide Who Ranks Where? And no, it’s not Magic

Google uses at least 200 metrics to determine what order to display results. Search engines are always looking for ways to make their algorithms more human. As they do this, they become more complex and harder to understand. 

Even Google doesn’t know 100% how it works. 

That’s why people spend their entire careers studying and experimenting with SEO. There’s so much to know and it changes by the minute. But, there are some ranking factors known to affect where you appear in search results. 

The Top 9 Ranking Factors

Although nobody knows the most important metrics, there are many factors that have proven to make a difference. 

1. Actively Publishing Content

Google favors websites that are continuously updated. This means you should be creating and delivering content regularly. It can also be beneficial to update old articles that may not be performing well. 

2. High-Quality Content

The length of your content matters. But, it only matters if you’re providing valuable information to your audience. Adding “fluff” to your articles for the sake of making them longer can actually hurt your rankings.

The average length of a top ten article has at least 2,000 words. But each of those words is valuable. They’re there for a reason. 

Google values sites that go all in and produce the best content. 

3. Mobile-First Design

More people use their phone to search. Before 2016, Google only crawled the desktop version of your site. Once they realized that most people aren’t using desktops, they changed how they index websites. 

In 2016, Google rolled out an update that began indexing mobile websites to create a better mobile user experience. 

Google prefers websites that are mobile responsive and are easy to use across all devices. 

4. Page Speed

The internet is a world of instant gratification. The age of learning from encyclopedias and other in-print media is over. Because of that, people expect things to happen almost instantaneously. 

Even one second makes a difference. That one second can cause conversion rates to drop by over 20%.

Sites that load in 3 seconds or less are best for the mobile user experience. 

5. Backlinks

Backlinks are a signal of authority and popularity. The more people are talking about your website, the more Google trusts you as a source of high-quality information. 

6. Site Security

Google wants its users to have a safe browsing experience. If your site isn’t secured by an SSL license, you probably won’t appear in search results. 

7. User Experience

Have you ever clicked on an article only to find the text way too small to read on your phone? You immediately hit the back button, right? 

Dwell time, bounce rate, and other technical metrics measure user experience. Make sure your site is easy to use and navigate no matter how someone accesses it. 

8. Relevancy and Optimized Content

Search engines use keywords and semantic keywords to learn what an article is about. You can help Google get a clear picture by using relevant keywords throughout your articles and pages. 

9. Social Signals

Anytime someone shares an article on social media, it passes along a signal. This signal tells Google that the post was good enough to share. 

Google cares about showing the best articles first. Creating content that gets shared on social media can boost your website in search engine results. 

So, How do You Get Your Website in that Coveted #1 Spot?

Moving up the ranks takes time. So, let’s talk about black, white, and grey hat SEO techniques you can use to help speed up that process. 

Black, White, and Grey? Here’s What Hats have to do with SEO 

“Hats” are philosophical views and opinions. What color hat you wear depends on how you approach search engine optimization. Wearing the wrong hat could actually hurt your search engine rankings.


What is White Hat SEO?

White hat techniques are acceptable by a search engine’s policy and guidelines. They’re considered “best practices” in the SEO world. 

The goal isn’t to trick the algorithm. 

Using white hat SEO tactics can benefit your business long after you’ve stopped putting in work to rank on the first page. It also helps you avoid being penalized (or banned) by Google. 

As humans, no one is perfect. Most people want to wear a white hat but actually, end up wearing one that’s almost white. 

Common White Hat Techniques

You can confidently use these white hat techniques without getting a slap on the wrist. 

Relevant Keywords

If you offer composite manufacturing, you don’t want to appear when someone searches for sheet metal fabrication. Google doesn’t want that either. 

Google needs to know what your pages and articles are about. Using the right keywords helps them make sure you appear when someone searches for something relevant to your business. 

Proper Keyword Placement

It’s common practice to place keywords in your H1 tag, meta description, image alt tags, subheadings, and throughout your content. 

As Google becomes more human, it’s able to figure out the overall idea of a specific article. So, using semantically similar keywords is beneficial, as well. 

Creating Quality Content

Search engines know that a page with a handful of words isn’t going to be valuable. They’re interested in articles that go above and beyond explaining topics in-depth. 

You can help yourself rank higher by writing long-form, valuable, and entertaining articles.

Content Marketing

Content marketing is developing a content plan aimed at attracting the right people. Usually, it means creating content around a group of keywords you know your audience uses. 

Going back to the cat training example, a proud cat parent might also be interested in cat food. So, you write a series of articles around cat food targetting different keywords. 

Content marketing creates a big picture for your blog. 

Optimize Page Speed

Things like image size, website coding, Javascript, and CSS affect how quickly a page loads. You can reduce image sizes or deliver smaller images on mobile devices. Additionally, you can optimize your Java and CSS codes to reduce the overall file size. 

Use Pingdom to see how fast your site loads. 

Web Design for the Mobile Experience

As you know, Google values sites that perform well on mobile devices. Using a theme that is responsive can help ensure your site looks great across all platforms. 

What is Black Hat SEO?

Black hat techniques fall outside of a search engine’s policy and guidelines. They’re tactics used to trick the system and artificially increase rankings. 

While black hat tricks aren’t illegal, they can expose you to harsh penalties and algorithm changes. As Google realizes how people are tricking the system, they create an update that “fixes” the problem. 

Because of that, black hat tactics are not sustainable for long term growth. And, you could be banned from Google forever for using them. 

It’s risky but it’s a risk a lot of businesses are willing to take. 

Common Black Hat Techniques

Use the following black hat techniques at your own risk (although you probably shouldn’t). 

Keyword Stuffing

Long ago, content creators realized that using a keyword more often meant higher rankings. So, people began repeating the keyword over and over again. It wasn’t uncommon to have that keyword repeated 20-30 times in a row. 

Google learned that this created an awful user experience. Now, keyword stuffing is against the rules. 

Invisible Keywords

Knowing that Google didn’t like repetitive keywords, people started adding them where no one could see them. They’d make paragraphs of repeating keywords the same color as the background. 

Once Google realized what was causing artificial rankings, they banned the practice. 

Unrelated Keywords

To make their content appear more often, people used keywords that were irrelevant. They would include it multiple times in all the right places hoping to make their articles show up for unrelated searches. 

Again, once Google realized what was going on, they put an end to it. 

Buying Backlinks

There are websites out there that allow you to pay for backlinks. Not all links are created equal. Most of these sites are considered low-quality or SPAM. 

Receiving a backlink from a site Google thinks is SPAM can hurt your rankings. All in all, buying backlinks isn’t a good practice. Work on getting them organically by creating great content. 

Doorway Pages

Doorway pages work by ranking for certain search phrases yet sending users to a different page. They’re considered bad for the user experience. They often lead to multiple versions of the same page appearing in search results. 

What is Grey Hat SEO?

There isn’t a fine line between black and white hat SEO. That blurry line in the middle? That’s where the grey hat comes in. 

Grey hat techniques aren’t fully defined. They don’t technically fall inside or outside of a search engine’s guidelines. These may get you penalized in the future but have a much lower risk. 

Building backlinks is the most common form of grey hat SEO. 

According to Google, doing things to attract backlinks to your site is against the rules. Yet, it’s deemed as an acceptable thing to do because attaining backlinks naturally takes too much time. 

Most businesses end up wearing a grey hat. 

Common Grey Hat Techniques

Clickbait Titles

These are titles that promise something but fail to deliver. You likely see them all the time, particularly in the news and entertainment industry. Tabloids are notorious for clickbait titles

These may get someone to visit your site but once they realize you lied to them, they won’t stay long. 

Link Building Schemes

Guest posting, guest posting networks, and influencer outreach are examples of link building schemes. They’re used to generate high-quality backlinks to your site but in an “artificial” way. 

Backlink Trading

Trading backlinks is a specific link building scheme. Trading happens when you agree to give someone a backlink and they give you one in return. This might be seen as a way of inorganically building backlinks. 

White Hat vs Black Hat vs Grey Hat SEO

Black, white, and grey SEO techniques each come with their own advantages and disadvantages. 

Most businesses hope to wear a white hat. But most of them end up wearing an almost white (or a grey) one, instead. These practices are less risky than their black hat counterpart. 

The type of optimization you’re comfortable with depends on what you’re willing to risk. Getting banned from Google can be a permanent roadblock for your business. 

Is it worth it? Probably not. 

White Hat SEO Done for You

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