White Hat vs. Black Hat SEO

White Hat and Black Hat SEO are terms created by SEO experts to distinguish between beneficial and possibly detrimental SEO practices.

The terms ‘White Hat’ and ‘Black Hat’ are derived from old Western movies, in which the good guys donned white cowboy hats and the baddies wore black ones.

This dynamic rings true in one of my favourite TV shows, West World (and I quite liked the original movie too) where the hero, William, wears a white hat and the villain, “The Man In Black”, wears not surprisingly, a black hat.

This is how I envision the two ‘Hats’ if they manifested into being.

White hat vs black hat SEO


White Hat SEO

White hat SEO is the ‘William’ of SEO. He’s the good guy, playing it safe by following the rules (Google’s Webmaster guidelines ).

It takes a long term approach to your website, focusing on quality content that is useful, answers a query, or can benefit the user in some way. It’s slow and steady but worth the effort.

If your content is tailored to your user’s needs rather than trying to rank in Google you are going about things the right way.

If your content doesn’t answer a user’s query but appears high in Google search because it was manipulated to appear there, you’ll probably have a high bounce rate; this is in itself a ranking signal, telling Google that the result it served didn’t answer the user’s query.

It emphasises the user experience, such as the user journey and page speed, and eliminates any friction that the user may encounter while attempting to accomplish their purpose for visiting.


Black Hat SEO

Black hat SEO is the mass-murdering “Man in Black of SEO”. Well, maybe without the mass murder… It’s just bad. Bad SEO.

It’s creating pages and content that use techniques to try and manipulate search engines. Black hat generally refers to techniques that violate Google’s guidelines.

Most of these techniques will be picked up by Google and result in either the site be penalised, or the manipulating practices being ignored.

Why do webmasters use this technique?

Well, it can be quick to get a site ranking in Google. Keyword stuffed Auto-generated content (which often doesn’t read well) and purchased backlinks can rank a site pretty fast. Or at least prior to Google’s Penguin algorithm in 2012 it could.

There are varying ‘badness’ to each technique. In Google’s view, some are worse than others – I’ve given them a ‘badness’ rating , 1 being a bit naughty, 5 being full-on “Man in Black”

1. Keyword Stuffing

This is generally using the same words or phrases over and over again until it becomes unnatural.

2. Cloaking

Cloaking gets full points for badness. Cloaking involves displaying users one piece of material while search engines see a separate piece of content.

Why? To try and rank spam content that is unrelatable to the search term.

3. Redirects

Not all redirects, just the sneaky ones. Redirecting a highly authoritative website with many backlinks to an irrelevant page is an example.

A 301 redirect transfers Page Rank (a metric of how much authority a page has) from one page to another – probably around 80%.

This means that black hat SEO practitioners may employ redirects purely to rig search engine results.

4. Doorways

Doorways are essentially multiple pages with similar content but tweaked slightly to target a keyword. These pages all ultimately funnel down to the same destination. For example, having multiple pages targeted for different cities and directing users to a single final page.

5. Scraped Content

Some websites copy content (scraped) from more high ranking websites in the hope that it will boost their own page in Google Search.

Because Google can tell where a piece of content was originally published, this is completely pointless.

If a website only contains content that has been scraped, it has no unique value for the end-user and hence is not considered an authoritative source of information by Google.

6. Automatically generated content

It’s also known as spun or “auto-generated” content because it was generated by a computer programme.

These articles are grammatically correct but generally don’t make any sense to the reader. They are created to generate a lot of content quickly with as little effort as possible.

Google may take action against content that is designed to manipulate search rankings rather than serve the needs of users.

7. Link Schemes and paid links

Google uses links to determine a site’s reputation.

In order to give a page a high ranking, Google has to know that other people find the material valuable, and it accomplishes this by looking at how many other sites link to your website.

Backlinks that attempt to manipulate a site’s position in Google search or its PageRank could be considered part of a link scam and in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

8. Hidden text and hidden links

Text that is the same colour as the background of a webpage is referred to as Hidden Text since it is not visible to the user. It’s a means of either inserting nonrelevant keywords or hidden backlinks to pass Page Rank. It’s quite an outdated technique and can easily be picked up by Google as a violation of their guidelines.


So don’t do Black Hat, Right?

Well, yes is the simple answer.

However, West World isn’t just black and white (yes, I’m back to the very loose analogy again). Sometimes we need to don a grey hat. Sometimes we need to give a possible backlink a little nudge in the right direction, so that it may not be acquired totally naturally.

Sometimes we need to change the content slightly so it includes our keywords, maybe a little more than the natural flow of the content would allow.

But only sometimes 😉



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Posted by Gareth Allen

Over the past 20 years, I have worked on magazine/newspaper design & pre-press production, advertising, POS, DM, brand creation and guardian. I'm a front end-digital designer (html/css), SEO & SEM with a passion for digital marketing.