White, Gray, Black – Why Do SEOs Wear so Many Hats?
We don’t actually wear any hats. Hats are just a term used by those who work in the search industry to easily explain tactics to those outside the industry.
Once upon a time, tactics were defined by a handful of search engines. Now, SEO tactics are defined and controlled by the big daddy of search: Google. So let’s quickly define what is a hat and what a hat means.
Hats are simply a tactic. Color is the purity of the tactic according to how close you are to the webmaster guidelines of the search engine you have chosen as your police officer.
OK, now that you understand that hats are just tactics, colors are just how closely the rules are followed, and the ethics are in the reveal, what do the hat colors mean?
If you use a white hat tactic, it means you staying within the terms and conditions set by your police officer (your chosen search engine, which will be Google for 99 percent of you).
This means you are being pure and untainted in your approach. Following the rules. Going 55 mph and not 1 mph over the posted speed limit.
Not all SEO professionals choose white hat as some moralistic stance on other SEOs. For many it is just common sense.
Going white hat means going by the search engine’s rules. If you go by the search engine’s rules, when an update comes it is much less likely you will be affected. Why? Because the police officer isn’t looking for you; the police officer is looking for the rule breaker.
White hats drive in the right lane, while the black Lamborghini is getting pulled over and given a ticket for speeding 50 mph over the limit in the fast lane. Granted, it’s quite possible that Lamborghini may never get that ticket as you’re watching it zoom by, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a cop just a few miles up the road waiting with a radar gun.
Now let’s be honest here: a true white hat SEO is as rare as snow in Vegas. Why? Because almost no SEO professionals want to wait for a natural link profile to build (and oddly enough, when I have seen these types of link profiles, they look almost fake).
Whether building or buying, links are the way Google determines if people like you. Links come and go, but links are rarely all natural.
Having said that, some very large and well-known sites and marketers use strategies to attract natural links, but those too are as rare as hen’s teeth.
Impatience, budget, and lack of understanding all factor into the need for a gray hat plan.
Gray Hat SEO – Mixing it up!
Gray hat is a tactic that is merely a mixture of pure white, do only what Google (or whoever) tells us we can and then add a dash of strategies that bend the rules a little.
So for example, if pure gray hat you might build links to your site through link distribution methods, but never would you purchase links directly from a link seller. Or you would write content is great quantities, knowing it isn’t perfectly relevant, but making sure it is of some quality, relevance, and substance, but you would never use a content spinner.
This method is commonly used to help speed up results, but minimize the risk of penalties by the search engines.
If done by someone with excellent skills and a lot of experience, it will appear natural and the site will seem to have acquired its algorithm weights naturally.
If not careful, this can appear to slip into black hat SEO.
Black Hat SEO – Evil?
There are two forms of black hat SEO. It can get very confusing because they are never really clearly separated by definition. Also, depending on which space or vertical you work in, both forms of black hat SEO can mean very, very different things.
For the purposes of this article I am going to draw a hard line. Black hat SEO is not negative SEO or competitive leveling (a term I much prefer); it is the tactics you use that are specifically forbidden by the search engine.
So if you were using Google as your police officer, buying links would be considered black hat. If Bing is your police officer, something such as buying Facebook likes would be black hat.
Black hat tactics are generally the target of Google updates such as Penguin and can be seriously detrimental to a site if they are discovered.
Black hat SEO is incredibly difficult because you have to get under the radar, not be discovered, and not get your client fire bombed.
If you’re unable to successfully do this 99.999 percent of the time, you should never do this on a main site (personally I think you should never do this on a main site anyway) and if doing it on burner sites your success rate better equal your pay rate and the client better know what they are asking you to do and what they penalties might be for doing it.
If you do suck at black hat SEO, or just do it to make money and suck at it, well you’re a very, very special type of SEO. You, my friend, are an asshat SEO. Asshat SEOs aren’t SEOs at all, but they make money using our techniques while making the rest of us look bad.
Again, if you use tactics against the search engines terms of services that are known to create penalties and do not inform your client you are not black hat, you are an asshat!
If you are not good at black hat, but endanger your clients even when they know the risks, you’re an asshat! Get out of the SEO pool!
And if you are just someone who has a shady agency with link wheels and blog rings and false directories “building links” that are easily detected with common Class C IP address blocks, or use of Google Analytics, so you can cash big checks before the sites even fall then you are an asshat, and should stop soiling the names of SEOs who really do their work.
All that being said, there are many legitimate SEOs with as many legitimate uses for black hat SEO tactics, because it’s just a tactic, that when done right can equal quick gains for clients.