White vs Grey vs Black Hat SEO: A Manager’s Guide

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‘White vs Grey vs Black Hat SEO’.

You probably heard these terms while you were interviewing your SEO companies. Most likely there were used in this context, “We’re a white hat SEO company and would never engage in any black hat SEO tactics.” How do we know? Because almost every SEO company says that.

But are they really engaging in white hat SEO as they claim? And even if they were, should it matter to you? Those are the questions that this article explores.

Defining White vs Grey vs Black Hat SEO

white vs black vs grey hat seo

White Hat SEO

White hat SEO refers to search optimisation techniques that are safe and follow Google’s guidelines to the letter. This sounds great, but it may not be for everyone. Google considers any attempts to build links to manipulate its search results as ‘illegal’, so you have to be very patient when it comes to building your site’s authority. And, as I’ll explain later, there are a lot of clueless ‘SEOs’ simply masquerading as white hats.

  • Low risk of penalty. There is little to no chance of being penalised by a current or future update.
  • Slow results. Results may take months or years, depending on your competition.
  • Very expensive if done right. If you’re not paying or willing to pay S$3,500 / month and above, I doubt you have engaged a real white hat SEO company.
  • Content creation and outreach. These are their main link building tactics. Some may not even be building links at all, citing its ‘risks’. Guest posting is also another viable white hat tactic.

Grey Hat SEO

Grey hat SEO is hard to properly define. There are many elements of grey hat SEO that are similar to white hat SEO and follow Google’s guidelines, but they also engage in slightly riskier link building activities so that they can get results faster. I would say that there are shades of grey – grey hat SEOs that lean more towards white hat tactics and those that have an affinity for black hat tactics.

  • Medium to high risk of penalty. Depending on the tactics used, there is a medium to moderate chance of being penalised.
  • Medium to fast results. You will typically see results within a year, typically after a few months.
  • Moderately priced. These are usually in the range of S$700 to S$1,800 a month, depending on the tactics used and the competitiveness of the niche. As a general rule, the more white hat tactics used, the more expensive it will be.
  • From PBNs to automated link building. Grey hat SEO specialists use a wide variety of tactics from building public blog networks to gain links to using automated link building (or spam building) software. Some tactics are inherently more risky than others.

Black Hat SEO

Black hat SEO companies use tactics that are definitely viewed as illegal by Google, as well as in some countries. This may include cloaking, keyword stuffing, doorway pages and so on. Some would go as far as to hack other websites to leave their links in them.

This may sound scary, but don’t worry, I doubt you will come across many black hat SEO specialists. Even if you do, it is unlikely that they will take clients and will monetise their skills in other ways. They will operate in highly competitive niches where the only way to rank is to use extreme black hat tactics.

  • High risk of penalty. You will almost definitely get penalised.
  • You probably won’t come across black hat SEO. It’s a scare tactic some salespeople like to use to spread FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt). Black hat SEO experts usually don’t monetise their skills from client SEO. They earn money by competing in high-risk-high-reward niches where a first page ranking for just one week may earn them six-figure incomes.
  • Cloaking, hacking etc. Their main tactics border on the illegal.

Clueless-Masquerading-As-White-Hat

There is also another class of SEO companies that I want to draw your attention to. These guys read a few blogs and claim to be white hat SEO experts but they barely know what they are doing. Their main optimisation workflow is (1) change page title tags to include target keyword (2) place your sites in a few business directories and (3) wait and hope.

Well, some may take a few steps further and maybe change your site copy and add in a few internal links, but I think you know where I’m going with this. They know the basics, try their luck and tuck tail and hide when everything fails. Well, I would like to believe that most won’t go so far as to run away with your money; their SEO packages usually have a 100% refund or keyword guarantee (which goes against Google’s guidelines by the way). But they are still a waste of time and sometimes their advice does more harm than good.

The usual culprits are web design or social media companies that want to add an additional revenue stream by adding SEO services. Maybe one day, they will be good at it. But for now, when you hire them, you essentially pay for the privilege of becoming their guinea pigs.

The thing is, it might work for you if you’re in a vertical that has very low competition (which is becoming rare in itself). That’s where most of their portfolio of ‘success stories’ comes from.

  • Low risk of penalty. Because you’re barely doing any SEO.
  • Cheap to dirt cheap. Because barely any work is being done.

Is it Really a White Hat SEO Company?

First, I want you to understand that the line between white and grey is vague. That’s because Google’s guidelines change over time. Some tactics that were considered white hat are now grey or black hat.

From White to Grey to White Again

For example, back in 2007, creating valuable topic-related widgets that contained your backlink and promoting them on other sites was a popular white hat tactic. You were, after all, creating something that others found valuable enough to place on their sites. But they started getting abused and Google changed their tune and said that they would penalise sites engaging in this tactic.

“Keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites.”

They considered this to be a link scheme.

However, they changed their mind again in 2014 and said that this tactic was now fine, as long as you were not abusing the rules by using tactics such as keyword stuffing in the widgets.

So you see, whether a tactic is white or grey is also not very clear and it can change over time.

Taking another example, guest blogging, a very popular white hat SEO tactic, has been on thin ice for a while now due to the fact that it is being overused. I won’t be very surprised if Google soon considers it to be a grey or black hat tactic. Your white hat SEO best practices in 2018 will become the grey hat tactics of 2019.

When All Link Building is Manipulative

This confusion stems from the fact that Google views all link building as manipulative. As long as you are building links in the hopes of ranking higher in the SERPs, you are not engaging in white hat SEO. If you take this view, everyone who engages in SEO or hires an SEO company is not legit in Google’s eyes. They want people to naturally link back to your site because of the quality of your content.

I would like you to recognise that when you execute SEO campaigns, whether internally or with an SEO agency, you are always going to be on the wrong side of Google’s guidelines. Just because white hat SEO tactics are deemed ‘safe’ today, it does not mean that they would be penalty-proof in the future. The panda or penguin might still be stopping by.

What you need to understand is the amount of risk behind your SEO’s basket of tricks and how comfortable you are with that.

Identifying White vs Grey Hat SEO Companies

Let’s say you have decided to play it safe and have started interviewing white hat SEO companies. The thing about SEO companies is that most of them will claim to be white hat, but they still do engage in some grey hat tactics anyway.

white hat seo company cloudrock

Here are the questions you should be asking your SEO company to determine if they are as ‘white’ as they claim to be.

  1. Do you engage in any link building? The main differentiation between the two will be in how they build links.
  2. If you don’t, then how are you going to build links to my site to increase its authority? In most cases, content creation and outreach are the only effective white hat link building tactics today. Guest posting is another alternative.
  3. If yes, what are your primary link building tactics? Other than content creation and outreach, most other link building tactics will be grey hat.
  4. Do you currently own or have control over any websites with which you can create links to point back to my site? If they do, then it means that they have a public blog network (PBN) at their disposal. A PBN is squarely a grey hat tactic and a potentially risky one at that.

Did we miss out any other questions you could ask to differentiate between White vs Grey vs Black Hat SEO? Does it even matter? Let us know in the comments below.