More Than Magic: Defining White Hat SEO and Black Hat SEO
There was a time when most search engine optimization could be considered “black hat” SEO. The proverbial SEO hat refers to the types of tactics marketers would use to manipulate search engine results.
Black hat tactics are from a time when Google wasn’t quite as popular as it is today (an understatement) and algorithms looked for very straightforward signals of content relevance like how many times a page mentions a word that matches a user query. The “black” of the hat comes from an early comparison of these techniques to the tricks of a cheap magician.
White hat tactics are the next gen of SEO tactics that work to optimize websites and content to meet the needs of their target audiences. “White” is a nod to the way SEO makes websites more discoverable and visible.
What are some black hat SEO techniques?
Keywords have been the modus operandi for targeting audiences since search engines became widely-used in the 90’s. Back then, search engines were less scrupulous of the words on the page, so long as the keywords on the page matched the keyword in the query. SEOs could use the same keyword over and over again on the page and in the metadata to make it seem like there was an abundance of information about that keyword on that page.
Now, algorithms weed out pages that use obviously redundant copy anywhere and look for signals other than keyword quantity to measure the potential experience of a web page. If your page repeats the same word over and over, your users will probably bounce anyway, further hurting your search rankings.
Cloaking Your Content
Along the same line of thinking as keyword stuffing, cloaking involves placing white or black text against a background of the same color so that only web crawlers can actually read the content. This would help SEOs stuff even more keywords onto a page - even keywords that didn’t really match the rest of the content on the page.
Again, algorithms pick up on this, but really, this tactic creates content that disrupts screen readers for seeing-impaired users. Thanks to the American Disabilities Act, this tactic is not only “black hat”, it’s also potentially going to get you into a lawsuit over non-compliance.
Link farms are websites or clusters of websites that serve no other purpose but to link out to your target websites - the ones you actually want to rank - and make them seem more popular via number of backlinks. This is the seedy underbelly of link building, unfortunately. While it works in theory if you need multiple sites or experiences to fully educate your audience, most of the time, the algorithm can tell that the link farm has a poor site experience and it will discount the value of its links to other sites.
Link farms also add to your list of websites to maintain and manage, and they need all of the SEO treatment that your main website needs. It’s just not a great investment, in most cases.
Scraping and Duplicating Content
Some of our lazier predecessors would actually steal content from other websites to publish on their own! Content isn’t cheap to develop, as we know.
Web crawlers can be deployed to websites to “scrape” content (copy the content on the page and paste it in a repository) pretty easily, even today, but many info security teams use server-side techniques like limiting how fast you can move from page-to-page before you are blocked from the site to prevent web crawlers from ever crawling the site to begin with.
What are some white hat SEO techniques?
Good user experience has been on the list of must-haves for SEO ever since Google’s Panda update. Thin content, misleading search optimization, or orphaned, pages without internal links are de-prioritized for pages that will give users the kind of experience they’ve come to expect.
Without really doing anything SEO-y, one can just publish really relevant content for their target audience and have a good chance of gaining organic traffic because of it. If you know the kinds of questions your target audience might ask, you can try to answer those questions on your website.
Metadata is the data you provide to the search engine to help it understand what is inside of your site. It’s data about data - hence “meta”. This data is usually a forgotten step in content development and publishing. You can significantly improve your rankings by updating things like page titles and headers to include target keyword phrases.
Schema markup is another form of metadata. It puts an additional layer of information on top of your content, showing the search engine points of interest within the page that the search engine might want to serve as a feature on its results pages. Adding schema can help your content and products be featured on SERPs for queries that your customers might not want to click into.
Site Structure and Tagging
Site structure and tagging are a part of the information architecture of your site and help web crawlers understand how your inventory of content across the site works together to tell an overall story. “Structure” refers to the hierarchy and names of the subdirectories on your site and “tagging” refers to how your long-form content is marked up with data attributes and featured throughout the site.
Relevant Inbound Links
Google prioritizes pages that it sees being used as sources of information for other websites. Links coming from other sites to your site could not only drive traffic, but (if the linking website is relevant and reputable) they can show Google that your site is trustworthy and valuable.
Clean Website Navigation
“Clean” is a very subjective word but essentially this technique is the practice of strategically limiting navigation items to help guide your users and web crawlers through a hierarchy of information. Anything in the navigation must have a storytelling purpose for the brand as links in the nav will be seen as priority links to a web crawler. Websites with confusing navigation and hard-to-find or orphaned pages will be de-prioritized by Google.
Mobile Experience and Page-Load Times
If your site is slow, Google won’t serve it as a result to its customers. Slow load times are a signal of very, very poor experience.
Is black hat SEO bad?
Black hat SEO techniques don’t work and algorithms are really good at weeding out pages that employ them. Not only will these tactics likely cause your search ranking to inevitably tank, they will make managing content more tedious and make any future changes to the site much, much more complicated.
For the most part, these tactics are terrible ways to meet the expectations of target audiences and search engines. Instead of helping searchers, black hat SEO tactics work to trick search engine algorithms into serving not-great content.
Remember - while white hat SEO illuminates a webpage, black hat SEO is tricky and shady.