White Hat vs. Black Hat SEO: Our Users-First Approach to Ethics in SEO
One of the first stories I heard at the start of my digital marketing career changed the way I thought about ethics in SEO, forever.
My very first SEO manager, within a couple of weeks of starting, told me a story about JC Penney — how they went from an SEO powerhouse in 2011 to almost completely blacklisted from Google’s SERPs (search engine results pages) overnight.
You can read the full story from the NY Times here, but I’ll give you the short version. JC Penney had spent a couple of years buying thousands of links on completely irrelevant websites (think a link with the anchor text “washing machine” on a gambling website). They did so much of this that they started showing up number 1 for everything, in particular over the holidays.
This was great for business, temporarily, but it showed a flagrant disregard for Google’s search engine guidelines and was a perfect example of these "black hat SEO” tactics. They tried to hack the system and shortcut their way to page 1.
Eventually, Google caught on and hit their site with a manual action. They lost almost all of their traffic from one day to the next. They eventually gained a fraction of that back a few months later, but only after they took a huge hit to their reputation and lost potentially millions of dollars in business.
Not to mention, it led to Google’s rollout of the Panda update, which hit all kinds of sites employing these get-rich-quick tactics and changed the way everyone did SEO forever. The moral of the story?
Just because something gets you short-term results does not mean it will lead to sustainable, long-term growth.
This is just one example of a company trying to appease a search engine’s guidelines at the time instead of prioritizing real human beings and what matters to them.
I hope to show you, with some real examples and a few minutes of your time, that taking a user-first approach to your digital marketing, and in particular your SEO strategy, will always be better for you, your customers, and your bottom line in the long run.
Differences Between White Hat & Black Hat SEO
When you see these two terms, “white hat” and “black hat” SEO, they represent so much more than the terms themselves. There are lots of different ways you could define them, but these are the definitions I’ll be working with:
➡White Hat SEO: An approach that puts users first, follows search engine rules & guidelines, and seeks to build sustainable, lasting value.
➡Black Hat SEO: An approach that seeks to manipulate search engines with “hacky” techniques that win in the short term but can cause lasting damage to a website’s reputation and visibility.
At GR0, we take pride in our users-first approach to SEO that builds a real organic audience. Our goal is not to “growth hack” or get quick wins. Instead we want to build digital assets that can help you not just build an audience, but turn that audience into paying customers.
The rule we live by is this:
If we aren't proud to explain our methods to our clients—we find a new method.
Examples of White Hat SEO Strategies
As we said — white hat SEO techniques put users first. They align with search engine guidelines, and they emphasize quality content and positive user experience. These are the foundation of what we do at GR0, and we recommend everyone to do the same.
Here are some of the things we focus on to grow organic traffic in a healthy, ethical, sustainable way.
Keyword Research and Audience Targeting
The foundation of any legitimate SEO campaign is a solid understanding of your target audience and the keywords they’re searching for. It's not just about stuffing keywords into your content — it's about using them naturally and contextually to provide meaningful information to users.
We start every campaign at GR0 with multiple rounds of extensive keyword research to make sure both our SEO teams and our clients are on the same page about:
➡Who the target customers are
➡What they are searching for regularly
➡What their pain points are, and how the product solves them
➡What content is going to be most relevant to them
Content Creation and Optimization
Speaking of which — high-quality content is another cornerstone of white hat SEO. Google has been doubling down on this in recent months through an emphasis on E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authority, and Trust) and the continued improvements & tweaks to its Helpful Content System.
There are lots of little details to think about, but the core thing to remember is if users like your content, Google will, too. If you make unique, relevant content that provides value to your site visitors, Google will absolutely reward that.
After you make the content, you also need to make sure you’re leveraging optimized meta tags, adding relevant structured data markup within the HTML, and optimizing any images and videos on your webpage, to name a few items.
The optimization and tweaking of content after you hit publish is extremely important, but all the details are beyond the scope of this article. If you’re curious to learn more, I recommend checking out this awesome piece from our friend Travis Dailey at Clearscope.
Website Structuring and Optimization
A well-structured website not only aids search engine crawlers in understanding & indexing your site, but it also enhances the user experience (again, always think “user-first”)
This includes things like designing a clear navigation structure, keeping relevant pages internally linked together for ease of access, and generally creating a good UX.
A lot of SEOs will tell you that you have to sacrifice UX to appease Google, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The mantra we follow is that:
“If it’s good for a human, it’s good for Google”
Alongside good website structure, it’s important to maintain the technical health of your website. This category could include lots of things, but Technical SEO is, at its core, the practice of helping search engine spiders crawl and index your site’s content.
This includes things like making sure your site is mobile-friendly, making the site secure (HTTPS), building helpful XML sitemaps, and writing useful, structured data markup — among many other things.
Organic Link Building
Last but not least, let’s talk about link building (one of the most common areas for black-hat practices).
True organic link building is about earning backlinks from other reputable websites, which signals to search engines that your site is a trusted authority.
I like to think of backlinks as referrals. If I need a plumber, the first thing I do is ask my friends nearby if they have a plumber they would recommend. Google does the same thing.
If they’re trying to understand what websites to show when someone searches for “what is white hat SEO,” they’re going to look to see where other websites that they already trust are linking to within that topic area.
As with real-world referrals, some matter more than others, but generally, more referrals is better. In the same way, a backlink from Nike will have a big impact no matter what, but if you’re selling sneakers, it’ll probably matter a lot more.
At GR0, we strive to build genuine relationships with publishers, connecting our clients' content with appropriate outlets. We leverage our clients' expertise and knowledge as sources for reporters from some of the world's largest publications, gaining them exposure without relying on paid placements.
It's important to tread carefully with link building, though. In Google's eyes, certain link schemes can border on being unethical. The key is to remain transparent, focusing on quality and relevance rather than quantity alone.
What Not To Do: Examples of Black Hat SEO Techniques
In stark contrast to white hat SEO, black hat SEO techniques involve manipulative tactics designed to deceive search engines into awarding higher rankings (think back to JC Penney). These tactics disregard the human audience and often result in a poor user experience.
They violate search engine guidelines and put the website at risk of penalties, including full de-indexing and other manual actions.
Here are some common black hat SEO practices I’ve seen across my career:
Link Manipulation and Spamming
One of the most common ways people engage in black hat SEO is by trying to manipulate their backlink profile. This includes using link farms or PBNs (private blog networks) — both are websites created solely for link building — participating in link schemes, or generating spammy backlinks to “hack” a website's ranking.
These methods fail to add value for users and are strictly against Google's Webmaster Guidelines. As with other techniques, they can sometimes see temporary success, but that’s always followed by a sharp drop-off.
Keyword Stuffing and Hidden Text
Overloading a web page with keywords in an unnatural way or hiding keywords in the background (by making the text color the same as the background color, for example) is a technique called keyword stuffing. This practice disrupts the user experience and is frowned upon by search engines, too.
Other black hat methods, such as using doorway pages (pages created solely to redirect visitors to a different page), duplicating content, and blog comment spam, also fall into this category. They may bring short-term gains in terms of rankings, but they pose severe risks in the long run.
Cloaking and Sneaky Redirects
Cloaking involves showing one piece of content to search engines and something else to your users. For instance, a webpage may display keyword-stuffed content to search engine crawlers to appear relevant for those terms, but when a human user visits the same page, they see completely different content.
This isn’t too common these days, but it does still happen from time to time. Generally, Google’s algorithm is smart enough to catch these sites and push their rankings down pretty quickly.
On the other hand, sneaky redirects send users to a different URL than the one they clicked on in the SERP, creating a weird, jarring experience. Again, this was more common years ago, but you may still see it from time to time.
How Do White Hat and Black Hat SEO Compare?
There isn’t really a “comparison” between white and black hat SEO, but there are a few areas in particular that highlight the differences between the two approaches.
User-First vs. Rankings-First
White hat SEO prioritizes the needs and experiences of human audiences. It revolves around creating high-quality, relevant content that resonates with the user’s search intent. Black hat SEO, in contrast, bypasses the user experience, focusing solely on tricking search engine algorithms for quick wins.
Adherence to Search Engine Guidelines
White hat SEO follows search engine rules, fostering trust between website owners, users, and search engines. Black hat SEO techniques blatantly violate these rules, aiming to exploit algorithmic loopholes instead.
Fair Competition and Transparency
White hat practices promote fair competition in the digital marketing space, where every website has an equal opportunity to rank based on the quality of its content and user experience. Black hat methods undermine this fairness, attempting to gain an unjust advantage through deceitful tactics.
The Future of Ethical SEO
Google, and other search engine algorithms, are constantly evolving. It feels like every week, they’re changing things, leading to new strategies that can take advantage of the most recent updates.
The thing is, through it all, the only thing that stays consistent is this:
If it’s good for a human, it’s good for Google.
Search Engine Algorithms & Users
Google and other search engines continuously refine their algorithms to counter black hat SEO tactics and reward practices that prioritize users first.
Websites that consistently prioritize their users instead of an ever-changing algorithm will be best positioned to maintain their position in SERPs regardless of what Google changes.
Emphasis on User Experience
In service of that goal, search engines are increasingly accounting for user experience signals when ranking web pages.
Things like mobile responsiveness, page load speed, site structure, and user-friendly navigation are increasingly important. SEO practices are evolving, too, to create a better user experience on all fronts.
Evolving Ethical Standards in the Industry
The SEO industry is also seeing a shift towards more ethical standards. Practices that were once considered gray hat SEO, such as certain link-building techniques, are now viewed as black hat as search engines update their guidelines.
Prioritize Your Users — Not the Robots
There are no benefits to black hat SEO in the long run. If you aren’t proud to share your SEO methods with your clients, you should find a new method. Adopting white hat SEO techniques might not provide instant results, but it will build a sustainable and trustworthy online presence.
White hat SEO focuses on creating quality content, providing an excellent user experience, and adhering to search engine guidelines. It’s the right, ethical, sustainable choice.
As SEO continues to evolve, the core principle remains the same: prioritize your users, and the search engines will reward you. SEO is a long-term game. Patience, persistence, and adherence to ethical practices will inevitably lead to success in this ever-changing digital marketing landscape.
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