White, Gray, and Black Hats of SEO

July 15th, 2010 by Search Influence Alumni

What’s the Difference Between White, Gray, and Black SEO Hats?

When I was starting out in SEO, I was so confused by what the best practices were and I remember at my first search conference a speaker (I want to say it was Matt Cutts but it probably wasn’t) started explaining the “hats”. There are three different hats a SEO can wear and each color represents how clean they are with their  search engine tactics.

Nice Hat.

White Hat SEO

A simple way to explain white hat SEO is making content for people, not search engines. Instead of worrying about keyword density and h1 tags, you worry about visual appeal and readability. When I think of white hat SEO I usually visualize my mother trying to start a website that is highly revelant to her demographic (middle-aged women who like enjoy natural food receipes, spiritual sessions with lightly muscled tan men, and designer leather handbags). She’s not worried about the order of keywords or what the h1 tags should say – she just wants to make a site that people like her will love. In fact, most professional SEOs aren’t white hat. If a SEO firm promises you page one listing and they say they strictly adhere to search engine guidelines, don’t believe it.

To be effective at optimizing a site, you have to be conscious of how search algorithms work and how you can manipulate them to give your client the best results. In today’s search hustle, there is no way achieve first position in Google (because frankly it is the only search engine anyone cares about) simply by creating great content and having well designed site.

Black Hat SEO

What is exactly is black hat seo? “Black hat SEO attempts to improve rankings in ways that are disapproved of by the search engines, or involve deception,” according to Wikipedia.

At the beginning of my search marketing career, I always believed black hat SEO was the most effective way to rank well. It’s fast and highly effective. However I soon realized that cloaking content on the page and creating link-spamming bots got me to the top, but I always fell further than I had previously and would get flagged.

Search engines are smarter now and most legitimate businesses stay clear of these tactics. So if a search firm is suggesting you “hide” the h1 or use deceptive redirects, they likely have dealings with overseas internet pornsites or contact form spam for clients.

Wearing a black hat isn’t a good look for any professional SEO.

Gray Hat SEO

Those who wear gray SEO hat, largerly obey search engine rules but know that in order to beat a competitor, you have to bend the rules. You can think of gray hats SEOs as risk takers who were once white hats but decided getting a little dirty never hurt anyone. They practice the necessary precaution, they develop highly relevant content and webpages, but they use some darker methods to ensure the highest possible ranking.

Whether the SEOs uses link schemes or aggressive keyword stuffing, most search internet marketers are gray hats. It’s just the nature of the beast. Being a white hat only gets you so far and once you’ve put on the black hat you might as well start all over again because you’re going to be banned.

Bottom line, you have to be successful but be aware of the repercussions, you have to take risks… and that’s why gray hats exist.

Image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationaalarchief/