Link Building Explained: White hat, Black hat, and Grey hat Tactics

Link building practices can be identified by three distinct colors and caps. But what exactly do these different link building terminologies mean? What is the difference between a white hat and a black hat? Why does it matter what color the hat is?

Types of SEO: How They Impact Your Business

If you are new to SEO and, more specifically, link building, you may have come across references to black hat, grey hat, and black hat tactics.

These need addressing, even though we will look at some of these approaches in more depth further into this guide.

What is white hat SEO?

Quite simply, white hat SEO refers to the usage of SEO strategies that strictly abide by Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and take an ethical approach to earn top-ranking positions. It places a strong focus on optimizing for human audiences and is seen as a long-term approach to earn sustained visibility on the search engines. 

The focus here is on providing users with the best search engine results. I.e., you prioritize the user over anything else.

As a white-hat, you will generally:

  • Play by Google’s rules (they’re pretty clear about these in their guidelines);
  • Optimise for humans not search engines;
  • Create quality content that people actively want to read and share;
  • Create a website that stands out from others in your niche (for the right reasons!)

Some of the main qualities of white hat SEO techniques include:

  • Fresh, relevant content
  • Link building from relevant industry sources
  • Optimized image labels
  • Relevant page titles and tags
  • Natural keyword density

What is black hat SEO?

On the flipside, there is black-hat SEO. This is considered to be the ‘opposite’ of white-hat SEO.

Black-hat mentality focuses on finding and exploiting algorithmic loopholes.

Many of these loopholes don’t hurt anyone, except your competitors. But some of them are incredibly unethical, such as hacking into websites to inject backlinks.

As a black-hat, you may:

  • Break (or at least ‘bend’) Google’s guidelines;
  • Focus on search engines over users;
  • Attempt to deceive users with things like cloaking and doorway pages;
  • Hack into peoples’ websites.

Some of the main qualities of white hat SEO techniques include:

  • Duplicate content, non-relevant content
  • Keyword stuffing
  • Link farming
  • Cloaking links or invisible text
  • Redirecting to another site or page
  • Blog comment spams

Black hat SEO users violate the Google guidelines and try to rank a site higher with manipulative tactics, usually looking to gain quick wins. Black hat SEO is usually frowned upon, and can actually hurt your site rankings if you are not cautious of your link building practices. Google employs a webspam team whose core focus is to ensure that websites using black hat tactics do not rank.

Why you shouldn’t consider blackhat SEO

  • Black-hat SEO is more expensive than ever before: Google is much smarter than it used to be; blatantly spammy, low-cost tactics—e.g., keyword stuffing—are no longer effective. So as a black-hat, your only option is to turn to more expensive tactics, such as building a PBN. And when you take into account the costs of doing this correctly (i.e., buying many expired domains, dedicated hosting, private whois, etc.), black-hat SEO can get real expensive real quick.
  • Black-hat SEO is VERY risky: Nobody wants a Google penalty. But if you go down the black-hat route, there’s a decent chance you’ll get one. It, therefore, seems the obvious (and only) choice to many, ourselves included.
  • Black-hat SEO requires some level of “technical knowledge”: If you go down the black-hat route, you won’t get too far unless you have a profound and detailed understanding of how the web works and how you can exploit that knowledge to your advantage. Most of this knowledge is not shared publicly, which means that many people don’t see black-hat SEO as a viable option.

What is grey hat SEO?

Grey hat SEO sits somewhere in the middle, using tactics that could be seen as manipulative and are riskier than white hat tactics, yet aren’t as obvious a violation of Google’s terms than black hat. As grey hat SEO practices are riskier than white hat SEO practices, there is still a questionable risk associated with grey hat SEO practices.

Generally, Gray Hat SEO practices belong in neither the Black Hat nor White Hat category because the terms of service regarding the issue are unclear.

Gray Hat SEO is difficult to define. In the words of SEO Consultant John Andrews: 

Gray Hat SEO is not something between Black Hat and White Hat, but rather “the practice of tactics/techniques which remain ill-defined by published material coming out of Google, and for which reasonable people could disagree on how the tactics support or contrast with the spirit of Google’s published guidelines.”

-John Andrews, SEO Consultant

Common Grey hat SEO Practices

Note: these practices could be questionable and haven’t been fully defined in Google’s terms of service. Do further research on the results and experiments of these grey hat SEO strategies on Google’s search engine results page before trying these strategies:

  • Domain grabbing: Domain Grabbing is the process of buying expired domains and linking it to your website. This practice is popular for those who want to improve their back link profiles fast and easy and accelerate the process of ranking on the search engine results page. Simply done, check if the domain you are buying has good backlinks, and then do a 301 redirect of the whole domain to your website.
  • Link building in web 2.0 websites: Web 2.0 websites posses the capability for users have the ability to collaborate with the webmasters. For Google, links where users have the control of its approval, anchor text, placement, etc. is unethical. However, the purpose of Web 2.0 sites is collaboration and reward people who contribute by allowing them to link out to their own websites or resources.Examples of Web 2.0 are Wikipedia, Quora, Medium, WikiHow, and Reddit. 
  • Link exchanging: Generally, link exchanges are fine. If both webmasters have content related to each other, why not link to each other as resources right? It is when people abuse this strategy that it goes bad. To Google, the most ideal way of getting a link is organic, people read your content, people like your content, people link to your content and it makes sense. Don’t overdo your link exchanging, and you’ll be fine!
  • Social bookmarking: Social bookmarking websites are places that allow users to submit and share their content for promotion and bookmark other content that fits their interest for later reading. Websites like Folkd and Mix (formerly StumbleUpon) are popular because not only can you dump your links around but could also get some referral traffic.

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