Black Hat vs White Hat vs Gray Hat SEO Techniques

November 2, 2018
Posted in SEO Audit
November 2, 2018 Krista Grenier

SEO & It’s Many Hats: Black Hat vs White Hat vs Gray Hat

Search Engine Optimization! As the name suggests, SEO is the optimization of the content on your website to increase the quantity and quality of traffic to your website. This is ideally done through organic search engine results, an example being googling “Women’s knee high boots” and having Nordstrom pop up as your first result. Hooked yet?

I’m am going to hazard a guess and say probably not. That’s fine, in the world of digital marketing SEO is decidedly one of the least sexy elements to discuss, and honestly, for good reason. It can be confusing, it changes often, and it can be incredibly hard. Many agencies will shy away from offering SEO as a service for these reasons, and I don’t blame them.

But having your website appear on the first page of a Google search can make your site successful. The more you appear in searches, the more likely people will pay your site a visit, and buy things, etc. you get the gist. People coming to your site = good. You want more! How do we make that happen? My next few blogs will go into this explanation, but first, we start with the HATS.  

“Hats? Krista are you sure that wasn’t a typo?” – My father, the only reader of my blogs (hi dad!)

Yes, there are hats in SEO. They are how we sort techniques and practices for making yourself appear higher in search engine rankings. There are some that are great, and Google approved, they fall under White Hat. There are some that aren’t fully NOT allowed, but mildly frowned upon, we call them Gray Hat. And finally we have the search engine disapproved Black Hat practices. Read onward for further details on the good, the bad, and the ugly!

Black Hat SEO Techniques

We’ll start with the ugly, Black Hat SEO. Which to boil it down to one sentence is the tactics that you are definitely not supposed to use under any circumstances. These tactics are usually extremely aggressive, cater exclusively to the search engine and not to organic traffic, and blatantly breaks search engines rules. Examples include,

1. Link Farms

A link farm is a group of websites, either small or ginormous, that all link to each other. For example, I could be the proud operator of a link farm (overalls and all) and own the domains,, and On each of these sites I would link to any and all other domains that I owned, creating a giant web of links. This tactic works by spamming the index of the search engine. Search engine algorithms used to look at this and go “Oh, this site is linked to by all of these other sites, it must be credible information if it’s being shared!” and bump it up on searches. This link farm has created a false sense that people are actually visiting your site, and linking back to the content that they enjoyed when they aren’t.  

2. Paid Links

Nice and to the point, I give you money, you link to my site. This is frowned upon because it removes the organic aspect of the internet. Do not confuse these with ads that you see on webpages!! Ads are marked as such, these links are not marked and there is no indication that the site owner paid for their placement on the page. This practice is harder for search engines to sniff out, but it can become rather obvious on sites that suddenly have 100 new links on one page or something similar. For a deeper dive into this concept, I advise taking a look at this Paid Links article from AHREFS.

3. Hidden Text

Another simple one! Hidden text is, as the name suggests, text that is cloaked from the users eyes on a site (think white text on a white background). While you the site visitor cannot see this, the search engine algorithm can. However, this tactic is regarded as ‘search spam’ by each of the search engines, and no longer helps your ranking in the slightest.

These are only a few examples of Black Hat SEO, others include, Scraping, Keyword Stuffing, Blog Spam, Doorway Pages, Parasite hosting, and Cloaking. To learn more, I highly suggest a look over this helpful infographic. My rule of thumb in SEO, if it feels like it might be wrong, it most likely is.

Gray Hat SEO Techniques 

Now onto the bad(ish). Gray hat SEO tactics inhabit the space inbetween, where no one is 100% sure if what they’re doing is allowed or super frowned upon. These practices tend to be slightly questionable, but not entirely bad, and they can work if done correctly. However, done in mass and you will be penalized by our almighty internet overlord, Google. Examples include,

1. Three Way Link Exchange

This practice is similar to paying for your link to appear, except it’s exchanging your link on someone’s site for their link on yours. It was a hugely popular practice for many years, however, Google has recently devalued such links. But, where there’s a will there’s a way, so now webmasters will usually cloak this with an extra layer of exchange. Shuffling the link swapping until the algorithm no longer tags it as suspicious. This isn’t necessarily wrong but, Google doesn’t fully endorse this.

2. Buying Old or Expired Domains

This tactic is a bit more gray than the rest of these examples. What linkbuilders will do is buy old domains that are no longer in use, usually domains with higher authority, and use them to link back to other sites that they want to rank better in search results. Much like link exchanges, this isn’t totally wrong, but when you are creating content that someone wouldn’t necessarily happen upon organically, or find useful, Google will start to flag it as suspicious, and everything goes downhill from there.  

3. Article Spinning

Article spinning is a tricky one – and also more of a dark, black gray. For this tactic, webmasters will take content that is currently relevant or trendy and post a unique version of that content on their website. They will usually take already written articles, and re-work them to avoid plagiarism accusations and penalties. This can backfire, especially if the content they are rewriting was already plagiarized. You NEVER want to take content that is already on someone’s page, and duplicate it word for word with no credit applied to the original author. This will cause you to be penalized in search results, and possible legal action if the original writer finds out.

Gray hat SEO, not all that bad, not all that great either. If this is something you choose to utilize in your SEO tactics (which I don’t 100% advise, but I am not a gambler), remember everything in moderation. Too much, and you will most likely be penalized, you also always want to make sure that the content you are putting out onto the web is yours, and is relevant to what users may be searching for.

White Hat SEO Techniques

We’ve made it! White hat SEO tactics! These tactics fall under Google’s expressed quality desires, meaning that they are ethical ways to boost your search engine rankings. Not to say these are the quick and easy way up, but they will produce long lasting results without the anxiety of penalties hanging over your head.  Examples of these best practices include,

1. Guest Blogging

As the title indicates, this tactic involves you writing blog posts for other people’s sites, and you will usually link back to your own site in an author bio or in your article. While this can be a time consuming tactic, it is one that should be applied as a major workhorse in SEO strategy. People are always looking for new content for their sites, and being able to collaborate and organically spread your thoughts and ideas is what the internet is all about!

2. Link Baiting

This sounds bad, I know. Baiting is generally a negative term, but in this case not so much. Link baiting is rooted in creating some REALLY stellar content, that many would find useful and would want to cite as a source or a useful place to find more information. This content can be anything from a long form article, to a well put together infographic. You are just trying to make it the best piece of content the internet has ever seen, so that everyone will link back and come to your site.

3. Site Optimization

Kind of a basic one, but definitely something that can be forgotten in the wave of all of these tactics. Optimizing your site is making your site content, wording, and structure as search engine friendly as possible. Site optimization is easily the backbone of SEO, and for good reason. Having solid titles, meta tags, and content that is search engine friendly can do a world of good for your search ranking. Remember, you’re trying to make your site as search engine friendly as possible to drive traffic.

Now, these aren’t all of the white hat tactics, others include Quality Content and Internal linking. But in my opinion those fall under Site Optimization and Link Baiting, if you’re doing those tactics correctly. Remember, White Hat SEO tactics can be time consuming, but at the end of the day they are your best options for creating long term results.

Hopefully you find this helpful for your SEO strategy, and we’ll meet back here next month to discuss SEO best practices further!

Krista Grenier

Krista Grenier is a Digital Marketing Manager at Markitors. She is a proud graduate of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University (Go Devils!). As an avid runner and undercover outdoors dirt-bag, you can usually find her outside with her dog or haunting her local REI.