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White Hat vs. Black Hat SEO

You've heard of Black vs. White Hat SEO but what does it mean for your bottom line?

White Hat vs. Black Hat. Good vs. Evil. The Light Side vs. the Dark Side. It all sounds a bit dramatic, no? Here’s the deal about SEO, everybody is trying to rank better. If you hire an SEO agency, that agency will try to rank your site over your competition. It’s a matter of how they do that and if how they do that is the right fit for your business model. 

White vs. Black is a Spectrum 

I’ve been in internet marketing since 2005. This means I have been around long enough to know that things now considered “Black Hat” was very much approved. The goalposts keep changing. Everything depends on the Google algorithm. As an SEO, I want to find the loophole or manipulate the rankings for my client’s benefit. I want to push the envelope without risking my client’s site be penalized. 

I could play it *very* safe and never do anything to risk anything near a penalty ever, and my client would never rank for anything. Or, I could do all the things I can to make a rank happen, and my client will likely be penalized in the near future. SEO is a spectrum. And the gap between white and black hat isn’t huge. 

The Big Picture of Google

At the 30k foot view, Google is in the Ad business. They sell ads. And they specifically sell those ads on their SERPs. This means it will always be in the best interest of Google to have people want to use their SERPs. If people stop trusting Google to find that new restaurant or answer their kid’s homework question, they will stop Googling. And if they stop Googling, Google can’t sell ads. 

There’s no mystery why the Google algorithm is a mystery. They don’t want to go the way of Alta Vista or Ask Jeeves. If their algorithm were easy, unscrupulous SEOs would rank their crappy sites. People would, in turn, stop Googling. Google would then be out of business. 

So keep in mind that the primary purpose of Google is to keep the trust of the worldwide public. Their lifeblood is people Googling stuff: All-day, every day. 

This isn’t 2005

When I started SEO, the major content mills were full of keyword-stuffed spam. It was all about article spinning. Oh, the joys of pre-panda. And everyone was focused on rankings instead of what happened after a site ranked. The audience wasn’t as complicated. Those making money online were still early adopters, risk-takers. People falling for the Nigerian prince scam were the weird ones spending all their time online. The world hadn’t heard of Twitter yet. 

Google Updates and Updates and Updates

Panda is probably the most famous Google update because it was the first to be so widespread. It turned the whole SEO world on its head. Google was taking back control from spam. And it’s a good thing too because, if it hadn’t, Google would be dead. But since then, Google has had a whole host of updates. Minor updates happen every month. We don’t know all the details, and that’s the point. You can’t tell the proprietary recipe to Bush’s Beans either. And it makes the world a better place. 

Is Black Hat SEO Bad? 

If we agree that SEO is a spectrum from white to black, does that mean that Black Hat SEO is bad? No. Every point on the SEO spectrum has its place. There are situations where pushing the limits, going all in, and risking the moon to buy the galaxy make sense. 

The flip of that coin is also true. White Hat SEO is what we do, but only because it makes sense for our client’s business models. If our clients were different, we would be different. 

So What is White Hat SEO? 

Essentially, White Hat SEO is using the latest in industry knowledge to rank your client’s website without risking penalties. And like there are misdemeanors and felonies in the law, Google has minor and major offenses. Most White Hat SEOs will make minor offenses from time to time. Either because they are feeling particularly frisky or just because the algorithm moved the goalposts on them. 

Keep in mind that Google only discloses information regarding significant updates. The rest are up to SEOs to figure out on their own. And even the significant updates don’t come with a how-to manual. So SEOs that aren’t paying attention are quite possibly performing Black Hat tactics without realizing it. And the SERPs aren’t all the same. The Panda update was major, but it still took a few years for all the SERPs to feel the impact. I was a utility SEO writer back then, and my directions varied wildly from client to client. Because the “laser hair removal center” clients could get away with a lot more than the “used car” clients could. 

So all of this is to say is: it’s complicated. The most successful SEOs are going to pay attention to their SERPs and their competition. It’s not universal. I could list the top 10 things every White Hat SEO is doing vs. what the Black Hat SEO is doing, but it wouldn’t be entirely accurate for each SERP result. And it would change in a few weeks. 

Who Should Hire only White Hat SEOs? 

If you intend to have a single website domain for years, you want to hire White Hat SEOs. If you are would rather have consistent, long-term traffic than spikes, you want to employ White Hat SEOs. If you are okay with it taking a longer time, as long as, in turn, whatever progress you make is sustainable, you want to hire White Hat SEOs. 

What happens when you hire Black Hat SEOs?

It’s not the end of the world, and the worst-case scenario is you have to build a new domain from scratch. Not fun, but there’s nothing illegal about Black Hat SEO. Google algorithms are not law. Nobody is going to jail. Black Hat SEO is not hacking. 

Black Hat SEO tactics are, by their very nature, easy to do. I don’t want to diminish my Black Hat colleagues; these campaigns take a lot of planning and coordination. But each individual component of these tactics is easy. For example, building up a bunch of domains or creating fake blogs so you can then give fake backlinks to all of your clients is a popular (and effective) Black Hat technique. But what do you think happens when you fire that SEO agency? 

This happens: 

We reached out to this law firm on May 14th of 2021, by cold email. On the subsequent phone call, the client realized she hadn’t seen blogs for approval lately. On May 18th, she informed them they were fired. And whoosh! A bunch of these links was lost or broken overnight. How can they do that? Easy, they had created all these links. And so, it was no big deal for them to delete them. That doesn’t happen in White Hat SEO. High-quality links can be lost, but not in a massive batch like this! 

Is Black Hat SEO Worth it? 

There are pros and cons to all things SEO. If ranking faster is more important than ranking long term, then you want a Black Hat SEO. If the risk of a Google penalty doesn’t bother you, then you want a Black Hat SEO. Everything is on a spectrum. 

Which is Better? Black or White Hat SEO? 

That’s entirely up to your risk tolerance and your business model. As Google gets more intelligent, there will be a growing need for both kinds of SEO. And as the algorithm gets more and more nuanced, the harder it will be to catch up with your competition. SEO isn’t one thing. And the strategy you leverage (or your agency leverages for you) should always be fluid. SEOs using the same tactics as five years ago aren’t doing you any more favors than an SEO with a completely different spot on the spectrum. The Best SEO for your company is one that is giving you, your SERPs, and your competition the personal attention they require. 

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