There are two main approaches to SEO: white hat and black hat.
Like in those old Western movies, white hat SEOs are the reliable cowboys who play by the rules. Black hat SEOs are the rogue outlaws.
Of course this is SEO, so it’s not quite as simple as that. There’s a lot of gray area in the middle.
As an SEO, you need to have a good knowledge of every aspect of search engine optimization. That’s how you know what to do, what to avoid, and how to get the best results for your clients.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- The definitions of white hat and black hat SEO
- Benefits and disadvantages of each approach
- Differences between white hat and black hat SEO techniques
Definition Of White Hat SEO
White hat SEO refers to strategies to improve a website’s visibility in search results that adhere to search engine guidelines.
This typically involves producing high-quality content that addresses users’ needs. It also means making your website accessible and easy to navigate for users and search engine crawlers.
Definition Of Black Hat SEO
Black hat SEO is the use of tactics that break search engine rules and guidelines. These methods are often used to achieve quick results, even if those results are not sustainable long-term.
Black hat techniques are often championed in get-rich-quick style schemes for their short term wins.
Benefits Of White Hat SEO
Search engines want you to use white hat SEO tactics. There are plenty of benefits if you stick to the rules and keep Google happy.
Using white hat SEO means your ranking improvements are more likely to last. You can achieve sustainable results, not short-lived jumps in traffic.
Over time, you can increase organic search rankings and generate consistent organic traffic. That means you get to show off graphs like this to your clients:
Mission accomplished 👀🙋🏻♀️💥 pic.twitter.com/frlghb3vE3
— Aleyda Solis 🇺🇦 (@aleyda) November 19, 2018
Better Website Experience
The fundamentals of white hat SEO are providing great content and a great user experience. It’s about making your website responsive, easy to navigate, and providing the information users are looking for.
This will help you rank higher in search results. But it will also help you keep visitors engaged and boost conversions.
No Risk Of Penalties
Search engines penalize sites that don’t play by the rules. If you stick to white hat tactics, you don’t have to worry about your search engine rankings dropping off a cliff with the next algorithm update.
Disadvantages Of White Hat SEO
White hat SEO provides a foundation for long-term success. But it does pose challenges.
It can take time to get significant results using white hat SEO techniques. You might not see an impact on traffic or rankings for several months.
A survey by Ahrefs found that 45.6% of SEOs believe it takes 3-6 months for SEO to work:
Quality content creation, on-site optimization, and genuine blogger outreach require upfront investment. You need to hire experts or invest resources long before you can expect to see a return.
White hat SEO is the accepted industry standard. That means there are many competing websites using the same best practices. You have to be innovative or willing to invest more time and SEO budget to get an edge over competitors.
Benefits Of Black Hat SEO
You won’t find many SEOs openly recommending black hat tactics. But a lot of people use these methods.
A survey by Search Engine Roundtable found that 51% of SEOs admit to using black hat SEO tactics to some degree:
It’s important to understand why these tactics are so common. Let’s take a look at the benefits of black hat practices:
While the white hats patiently grind out fresh content, you can use black hat tactics to rapidly climb the rankings. You can get an immediate boost in visibility and a temporary spike in traffic.
Lower Initial Effort
Some black hat tactics require less effort than doing things the “right” way.
For example, you can use AI tools to automate content generation. It requires much less effort compared to creating high-quality content manually.
Very wary of mass producing AI content and publishing on websites I care about, unless HEAVILY edited.
Even if it’s brilliant.
Got the feeling the rug could be pulled, and AI content gets treated like ‘duplicate’ content, I mean, it pretty much is.
I think a mass AI play makes…
— Joe Davies (@fatjoedavies) June 19, 2023
Competitive Advantage (Temporarily)
With faster results and less effort, black hat SEO can provide a competitive advantage over websites that use white hat techniques.
Many websites have used black hat tactics to dominate niches.
Do these results last?
No. These websites crash out of the SERPs when Google catches up with them.
But, they capture organic search traffic for some very competitive keywords over a short period.
Disadvantages Of Black Hat SEO
Using black hat SEO offers some benefits. But it comes with significant drawbacks:
Penalties And De-indexing
If search engines discover you’re using black hat techniques, they can penalize your website.
In most cases, that means lower rankings. But Google has de-indexed entire websites before.
Conch House is a well-known example of a website that used black hat practices to scale the SERPs before being de-indexed.
Their auto-generated content managed to rank massively. If I had to guess, they probably made $1M in affiliate commissions in the time they were ranking (speculation given metrics). pic.twitter.com/X89TH6nCT1
— Thomas Jepsen (@JepsenThomas) August 30, 2022
Black hat SEO results are often temporary.
The increased rankings only last as long as the next algorithm update or until you get noticed by the Google spam team.
These tactics become less effective over time.
Here’s an example of a site that was hit hard by Google Penguin and Panda updates:
Its traffic was killed off entirely by the March 2019 core update. The domain is now up for sale.
Costly In The Long Run
Once a website gets penalized, rectifying the black hat practices can be time-consuming and expensive. The costs of the recovery outweigh any gains from the black hat strategy.
I missed this last week – just seeing it now as I prep for recording podcast. If you have parts of your site that aren’t in line with Google’s guidelines, even if they are old, they can still be seen as a negative by Google. https://t.co/hs4Q0Jfm0u
— Marie Haynes (@Marie_Haynes) June 17, 2020
Difference Between White Hat And Black Hat SEO Techniques
Here at FATJOE, we don’t use any black hat tactics.
But we do know how other sites and service providers use these techniques.
Understanding the differences between the approaches is essential for anyone dealing with online content.
Here’s a breakdown of what white and black hat SEO looks like in practice.
Content is the reason people visit your website. Creating content targeting the right keywords can boost your visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs).
White Hat SEO
The white hat approach is to create unique and valuable content that people want to read. The aim is to answer users’ questions and offer solutions to their problems.
Black Hat SEO
The focus of black hat content practices is to manipulate search engine algorithms rather than offer value to the user. This can involve duplicating content across sites, keyword stuffing, and hidden text.
The big difference between these approaches is the “why.” Is the content created for human users or search engines?
Here’s how Google describes the difference in Search Central:
White hat and black hat SEO practitioners try to make their content appear relevant to users and search engines. But the tactics used are very different.
White Hat SEO
Create content that genuinely matches the search intent – the reason behind a search query. That means making sure content is aligned with the target keywords so users find exactly what they’re looking for.
Black Hat SEO
Black hat strategies attempt to boost the relevance of content artificially.
One of the most used tactics is using clickbait titles and subheadings. These headings contain keywords, but the actual content doesn’t deliver what’s promised.
It can also involve optimizing for high-volume keywords, even if those terms are unrelated to the content’s central theme.
Human Audience vs. Search Engine Crawlers
Is your website built for humans or search engines?
The big thing here is user experience (UX).
UX is the overall feeling that people get when they visit your website. It covers everything from the layout and visuals to the navigation structure.
White Hat SEO
The white hat approach to UX prioritizes ease of use and transparency. It’s about improving page speed, mobile compatibility, and website navigation.
Google Search Central gives a good overview of page experience and its impact on search ranking:
Black Hat SEO
Black hat strategies often neglect users. The main goal is to manipulate search engines, even if it means a poor experience for visitors.
For example, keyword stuffing interrupts the flow of content and causes users to lose concentration.
Some SEOs use deceptive techniques like doorway pages. These pages exist solely for search engines and redirect users to a different web page.
Link Building Strategies
Backlinks are one of the most important ranking factors. And link building is an area where many black hat SEO practices are used.
White Hat SEO
Build authority organically. This is achieved by crafting high-quality content that others want to link to. It can also involve genuine outreach, digital PR, and other legitimate link building tactics.
Black Hat SEO
Black hat SEO link building is about looking for quick and sometimes deceptive ways to get links. That can involve buying links from third-party websites, using link farms and PBNs, and spamming blog comments.
Gray Hat SEO
There is a third approach.
Gray hat SEO is the middle ground between white and black hat SEO.
While it doesn’t use deceptive tactics, it uses strategies in the gray area of Google’s guidelines.
For example, you could hire a specialist to run a link building campaign to improve your rankings. This could be seen as an attempt to manipulate search results.
It’s not strictly black hat, but it’s not entirely white hat, either.
If you’re in a highly competitive niche, ranking using purely white hat techniques can be challenging. It can be almost impossible when competitors are using aggressive strategies.
Link Building in 2022 pic.twitter.com/v0GCcOttEO
— Gael Breton (@GaelBreton) November 25, 2022
Gray hat SEO doesn’t directly break search engine rules and guidelines. But, it does include some strategies that Google may not explicitly recommend.
Why White Hat Wins: Genuine Results Over Quick Fixes
If you sell SEO services, focus on white hat techniques. You can help clients achieve steady growth using transparent tactics.
While black hat SEO can offer quick results, the risks are high. Nobody wants to have a difficult conversation with a client about lost rankings or Google penalties.
For long-term success and a good reputation, stick to white hat SEO from reputable providers.
Head of Content
Become a Pro at SEO
Join 65,000 others and learn the secrets to SEO success with our weekly blog posts.