What Determines If You Are Using White Hat, Grey Hat, or Black Hat SEO Tactics blog

How SEO Tactics Are Divided

White hat, grey hat, black hat. These are terms you may or may not have heard floating around regarding your SEO strategies. But what do they mean? And how do Google see these tactics compared to SEO companies? In this episode, Jesse and Sue discuss the differences between SEO methods and inform listeners of the kind of tactics used to better your SEO. Are there rules and guidelines in place to direct your SEO efforts? Find out in this episode!

Do you have a question for the team? We have you covered! Our question page will help you get in touch with us about whatever nagging issue is on your mind.

Thanks for checking us out and enjoy the show!

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What you’ll learn

  • What defines different SEO tactics.
  • Google’s guidelines aren’t necessarily helpful for SEO.
  • Why different approaches may be riskier than others.

Transcript For What Determines if You Are Using White Hat, Grey Hat, or Black Hat SEO? – 151

Jesse Dolan: Every search engine has its own method, its own algorithm on what it’s going to display for results. And search engine optimization, SEO, means optimizing your website, your content, your brand, your entity, et cetera, to be found in search, to be found higher in search.

Welcome back the Local SEO Tactics, where we bring you tips and tricks to get found online. I’m your host, Jesse Dolan, here you know Sue Ginsburg.

Sue Ginsburg: Hi, everyone.

Jesse Dolan: How’s it going today, Sue?

Sue Ginsburg: Really well, really well, how about you?

Jesse Dolan: Not too bad. Waiting for spring to break here in Minnesota. Can’t see up my window in the background, but there’s snow melting and dripping. I can hear it on the roof and hitting the ground and it’s… you know, you’re from Minnesota too. It gets you excited, but then we know there’s feet of snow in our future still until we hit April. We’re not out of the woods, but it has that feeling in the air today.

Sue Ginsburg: Now that you mentioned that, we’re recording this, the week of Groundhog Day, did, what’s his name, Punxsutawney Pete see his shadow?

Jesse Dolan: Punxsutawney Phil, I don’t know. Screw that little bastard, he’s never right.

Sue Ginsburg: He’s never right, you’re right.

Jesse Dolan: Winter continues forever here.

Sue Ginsburg: Who gives him the power.

Jesse Dolan: I don’t know. If we lived there, we’d celebrate it, but we’re far from that, but no.

Sue Ginsburg: I saw my shadow and it means spring’s coming, how’s that?

Jesse Dolan: There you go. It’s coming eventually.

Sue Ginsburg: That’s right.

Jesse Dolan: Eventually. All right, what do we got for a question here today? What are we talking about, Sue?

Sue Ginsburg: Okay. Question today that has come up a number of times, but the first time it came up from one of our Stellar team members, Brandon. Thank you, Brandon, for asking. What determines if you are using white hat, gray hat, or black hat SEO? Really good question. Quote of the day from Louis C.K. is, “Pushing the envelope’ sort of implies that you’re inside the envelope with everyone else, and you’re trying to find the edges on the outsides.”

Jesse Dolan: Right on.

Sue Ginsburg: It also reminds me of another quote, something like, “The advertising industry…” no. “We know that half of all of our advertising is wasted, we just don’t know which half,” which I know John Wanamaker said that of the Philadelphia Retail Store Wanamaker’s. Still don’t know the exact quote, but it’s like, “What works, what’s above board, what’s legit, and how far do you want to push the envelope,” right?

Jesse Dolan: Right. Always be testing, seeing where the edges are.

Sue Ginsburg: It’s true, it’s true. And I think every individual and every business has its own boundaries as to how far they will push. And I think history says that once you step over the boundaries, it’s not going to be the last time you do. I remember when my kids were in junior high and at the age where I was going to lecture after lecture on what do I do so they don’t take drugs and now they’re going to be exposed and what do I do? And the thing that stands out in my mind from all these experts is that, first they usually will start smoking cigarettes and then once they cross that boundary, the other boundaries are easier to cross because they’re already outside the limits of what their parents want them to do or whatever.

So anyway, I often hear you say, Jesse, that this or that is black hat SEO, or we always want to be doing white hat SEO, that’s the way we work and those are our values and et cetera, et cetera. So I have heard it, thankfully we don’t do it and I don’t have any experience with black hat. So I don’t have a lot of stories, but it seems like it’s a technique that used to be okay and isn’t now, or they are techniques that used to be okay or that involves the dark web or something else that’s not okay or that isn’t going to be okay? And great thing to know in the realm of SEO and websites, what determines what’s okay and what isn’t, is there a rule book, are there website laws or what defines the boundaries?

I think it’s a very important question for business owners who want to get leads online, they want to be active with their website and who are not SEO experts, as well as those who are working with a firm like us to know that only employ white hat SEO tactics, we’re not crossing the boundaries. So just like we do-

Jesse Dolan: I’m about to break that earth you’re standing on, Sue in a second, sorry, but.

Sue Ginsburg: Oh no.

Jesse Dolan: Tongue in cheek wise, but yeah.

Sue Ginsburg: Well, I’m involved in the business and I don’t know what that is. And so I’m going to hypothesize that business owners who have a business to run and don’t have time to think about these things and become a SEO expert, they’re busy being an expert on their own business and don’t even think about this maybe. So tell us as best as you can, drop some knowledge on us, tell us how we know whether we’re doing it or we’re hiring somebody else to do it what’s okay and what isn’t okay, and how we know the difference.

Jesse Dolan: Yeah, I think it’s a good topic. Unfortunately, for some of the things you were saying, yeah, there is no SEO laws or list of best practices that’s super hard. It’s just a bunch of different opinions and recipes, things that people have tested that show this works for SEO, that doesn’t. And then even further to complicate it, when we talk about SEO we never really mention it explicitly every time, but we’re always talking about ranking in Google. That’s really what we mean, because Google is the most popular search engine, for sure. Of course here in the United States, globally as a whole, for sure too. But when we talk about SEO, we’re talking about getting found in Google.

That being said, Google’s going to have its own rules, like what does this mean? What’s can you do, what can’t you do? Bing..go, just like every search engine has its own method, its own algorithm on what it’s going to dis display for results and search engine optimization, SEO means optimizing your website, your content, your brand, your entity, et cetera, to be found in search, to be found higher in search. So in addition to not having any set standards and rules and things like this, that’s industrywide. We’re also talking about doing this quote SEO for these individual search engines too. So that adds a whole nother layer of complication just to be clear. Setting the stage, there’s traditionally three hats that we talk about in these conversations. And it really goes back to old spaghetti westerns and stuff, like white hat, black hat. The good guys wearing the white hat, the bad guys wearing the black hat sneaking around the corner in the shadows wearing the black hat. That’s kind of where that terminology comes from, it’s slang how we say it.

And then there is that in the middle, that gray hat, which is you do a little bit on both ends. Shameless plug we do have some hats coming for in tricks in addition to our t-shirts that are going to be gray and that’ll speak to what we’re going to talk about here in a second. Because really I guess the first point to make is that technically, so Google has this document and people can just go to Google and find it, search for Google quality rater guidelines.

Sue Ginsburg: Cool.

Jesse Dolan: There are people out there that their job is to rate websites and take a look at them and help Google understand how their algorithm works, how our websites being constructed, manipulated, SEOed if you will, and rating those websites against the quality guidelines that Google’s setting out.

This is all again, very loose guidelines. This is no industry rule, this is just a Google thing. But since they’re the large just search engine that we’re all trying to jockey for positioning in, that really does act as a lot of best practices for a lot of things. So there’s that exists out there and people can find it and read through that. If you really want to be that white hat, really what this means is you got to follow everything that Google puts out to the T. The hard part on this is one of the things Google makes very clear is that if you are manipulating your website to gain advantage and rank higher in search, that’s against their guidelines, which is like pretty much what we do with SEO. So in all seriousness to a degree, doing SEO is black hat, just by the nature of what it is that we’re doing.

Sue Ginsburg: Interesting.

Jesse Dolan: Again, there’s no law, there’s nothing illegal, there’s nothing that we’re breaking by doing this. But just to be very clear, when we talk white hat, black hat, gray hat, all this is really just putting a label on how aggressive and maybe dangerous for your entity sometimes or your tactics for trying to gain rank in Google. Like you said, we definitely put ourselves more in that white hat camp. That being said, we’re like any good SEO more in the gray than anything else.

Just because again, going through each page meticulously, rearranging words uses certain keywords, inserting links on the page like that granular manipulation of a page in order for it to rise in the search engine rankings and show higher in Google. We’re doing things explicitly for that reason. And so we just can’t say that we abide by all Google’s guidelines, it’s impossible.

If we have a GBP and we’re talking to a client and we’re like, you need to throw the name of your city into that thing, because everybody else is doing, that’s the only way you’re going to rank. Well, guess what? We just broke one of Google’s core guidelines for your GBP. You can’t do that. Your business name on Google needs to be your actual business name. Well, that’s just not how the game is played sometimes. So really anybody that’s out there doing this professionally, it’s going to be like at minimum gray hat, just to be very clear.

Hey, everyone. Just want to quick interrupt on the show here to talk about BrightLocal. If you haven’t checked it out yet, go on out to localseotactics.com/brightlocal, or you can go to our resources page, scroll through that, which has a bunch of different resources that we recommend and use ourselves and look for the mentions about BrightLocal.

There’s a lot of things BrightLocal does, we use it in-house, it’s one of our favorite tools. We mainly use it for the rank tracking for your website. You can monitor your keyword progress, tracking the ranks, fluctuations, things like that over time for specific keywords that you enter in. We also love their local search grid tool for your Google My Business or a business profile listing. And what that’s going to do is show you over your metro area, whatever you select for the size of the grid, seven by seven points, nine by nine. Basically you define a certain area and it’s going to tell you if you were standing on those spots, how does your GMB rank for the specified keywords? So that’s great as well.

We also use it for citation building, citation management for all your properties and mentions out there, whether it be Yelp, Facebook, local city pages, BBB, things like that. It’s a great tool to help build and manage your citations to make sure your name, address, phone number is consistent and all those other things to really get your digital footprint identified by Google. They also have reputation management where you can aggregate all the reviews that you’re getting across all these different portals. See how many reviews you’re getting, what your score is, things like that, and also some other tools. Check it out, they’ve got a free 14 day trial.

If you go through localseotactics.com/brightlocal, or again, go to the link off of our resources page, you’re going to be able to take advantage of that 14 day trial. It is an affiliate link. We’ll get a few bucks if you do that, doesn’t increase the price for you at all, just makes the tide rise for everybody. So if you’re interested in any of those applications, like I said, they’ve got a whole suite of tools that’s going to help you out, whether you’re in an agency or if you’re doing SEO for yourself. I should mention if you are an agency or trying to start an agency, they also have some great white label options so you can leverage their tools and their products for your clients to showcase the analytics, the data, and give a real professional spin on your reporting, which is something we use as well. So check it out, localseotactics.com/brightlocal, and take advantage of their 14 day trial.

That being said, when you start talking about, what is black hat? So tongue in cheek, again, I’m saying like all SEO is black hat, that’s just kind of a thing. But when we really talk about what does that mean though, if we really designate it, black hat is like just more hardcore manipulation. Things like setting up PBNs or a private blog networks, private link networks, this is something that we don’t employ. We probably should, we might be able to have better results, but we have just stayed away from this territory, but you can set up tier of linking.

You can have tier one links, tier two links, tier three links. And you basically have these network of websites that link to each other and picture it as a big funnel. Maybe you’ve got a hundred websites at the top linking down to let’s say, 20 websites, and then those 20 websites are linking down to five websites, and those five websites all linked down to your website. So you might only get, let’s just say one back link out of that, but there’s a whole network of websites that are funneling down towards you and that manipulates the Google algorithm for the power of back links and things like that. That’s explicitly against Google’s guidelines and that’s something that someday when they really figured these things out and penalize or demote websites that are doing some of these more extreme tactics, if people are relying that as really their main tactic, there’s going to be a little bit of reckoning, let’s just say.

Again, there’s people out there doing it more power tier. We’re not against anything black hat to be clear. There are camps within the industry of like you got to do a white hat otherwise you’re just a horrible person. Hey, all’s fair and love in business and as optimizers and marketers, we’re all trying to gain that edge. So you got to do what you got to do and I don’t think we should ever shame anybody for doing these things. So when I’m saying that, not so much for the show here and for the audience, but as when we say at Intrix, we don’t go into that black hat territory for a lot of things. That doesn’t mean you’re evil for doing it, it just means that we have found we’re a little bit better future proof by not doing those things, because it’s always a cat and mouse game.

Google’s looking for people manipulating, trying to change the algorithm to put less weight to those manipulations and we just want to play the game to where we’re never going to get zapped right by being too aggressive. So link building, link farms, PBNs, that’s one example of a very black hat technique. You can also have a lot of deceptive stuff, manipulating traffic signals, clicks, traffic to your website. There’s a lot of things people will do to just infalsify the traffic, bring in more traffic to your website than it’s actually existing and that sends signals to Google that your website is very popular, getting a lot of clickthroughs, things like that. And that can manipulate things, but again that can possibly be short-lived.

You started talking about your Google business profile, getting fake reviews. You could do a search right now online for buying reviews and there’s plenty of people happy to take your money to just load up reviews on your GBP and getting reviews on your Google business profile is an extremely important thing to do and it’s a very big ranking factor.

So that works in a sense of you get more reviews that’s better, again, that’s of course explicitly against their guidelines because these are not people that have patronized your business. You’re literally paying for those reviews and whether that’s on Amazon or Google or Yelp, whatever, those are things that you can do, not just on your GBP but on other digital profiles that help bolster your entity, your brand and things like that, ultimately leading to better SEO for your website too. So really when you started talking about what is black hat? Wherever it’s something that’s maybe seems more dishonest, more manipulative, more secretive.

And people can search black hat forum, just do a Google search for black hat forum, you might see a lot old stuff on there. You’re not going to have a hard time finding black hat tactics if you do some searching for it.

Just be aware of what the current direction for the algorithm updates, what Google’s looking for is, how some of the algorithm updates that maybe weakened some of those tactics. You don’t want to be trying something that worked two years ago that Google’s figured out and you’re going to be wasting your time and maybe even penalizing your website for doing it. So that’s on the evil side, the black hat side.

Again on the white hat side, read through the quality rater guidelines. If you really want to find out what Google’s really looking for in their eyes for what’s a good website, what’s an authoritative website, what’s a very relevant website, check that out too, and then make your own decision on what kind of tactics are you going to use for your business. And most people are going to fall again into this gray hat area where you’re doing a little bit of this because everybody else is and it’s working. And until Google kind of clamps down on that with the future algorithm updates, you got to play that game to win. So there’s not a hard fast list on what’s black hat, what’s gray hat, what’s white hat, I’m just trying to paint really that it’s a spectrum here.

And so depending on your niche, how competitive it is depending on the market you’re in, how competitive it is, and how old your brand is, how big your digital footprint is, you may not have to do any black category hat tactics. Or if you’re brand new and you’re launching and you really got to get into the space, you might have to do a lot of black hat stuff if you want to be a little bit more risky. So yeah, and I hope that paints a good picture for everybody.

Sue Ginsburg: Is one of the reasons that Google takes down a business’ GBP or even the website that they suspect some kind of black hat or against their rules play?

Jesse Dolan: Yeah. So there’s kind of two ways, I guess you’d be very blatant that Google’s telling you that you’ve done some kind of violation of their guidelines. For your Google business profile, they can suspend it and you’ll get a notice. It’ll be erased off maps. You can get it reinstated, you just have to fix whatever you violated. Again, maybe you manipulated the name of your business, maybe you were putting in some kind of copyright, Apple computers or something, some trademark terms, whatever it is you have to figure it out, you have to fix it, apply for reinstatement. They’ll look at it and say, “Okay, you’re not doing anything against the rules anymore, you’re back in. In the same way on your website, if you’re using Google search console, they will have warnings, notices, errors, they’ll alert you of things that they find wrong in some of those areas.

For your website too and same thing. If you have pages that get taken down or just a general error or warning on your website, a penalty, they will make that clear and you have to address that, go through the process to communicate that to Google and take care of that. It should be pretty clear for most of the extreme violations what’s going on.

If people are wondering too, maybe you’re out there as a marketer, a business owner and you’ve hired somebody doing your SEO and you don’t know of, how aggressive are they on the black hat side? What kind of tactics are they doing? I’ll just give everybody a plug, check out a tool like ours, go to localseotactics.com, do the free website SEO audit. And you’re going to get a report that’s going to tell you some of these common things, like how many back links do you have? What kind of manipulation is happening? Most SEO audit tools are going to give good and bad grades in certain areas. Some of these things will be shown as negative scores as red lights, if you will, things that you need to fix on these kinds of audits.

So if you’re unsure what’s happening, I definitely throw your website into one of these tools and get some kind of analysis, show you your weak points or where you’re breaking the rules. Yeah, I guess in general, Sue, wrapping it up and summarizing is, there is no like, “Here’s the 13 laws to follow and if you’re breaking one or more, you’re black hat or whatever,” it’s muddy waters. There’s a lot more gray than there is black and white hat. As a spectrum it gets really muddy in the middle there and you just have to make those choices for your own business, what you have to do to get ranked and get found. We would just always, again, as a firm and as advice, caution people. It’s a long game for brands. I guess if your business doesn’t fit what I’m saying, then this doesn’t apply to you, but if you’re a business, you’re trying to be around for years, understand that is a marathon, not a sprint. And don’t sacrifice your long term success with trying to do some shortcuts here. Definitely something that you got to play the long game for.

Sue Ginsburg: Well, I also think you mentioned this, that if your website or your GBP is suspended by Google, that that is not a happy day. It’s not something that you just make a phone call and somebody comes to fix it in your backup, that could be days, hours, weeks. Hopefully not that long before it gets back on business.

Jesse Dolan: If it was something fairly minor and you can know what it is right away, which they’re usually not going to tell you what guideline you broke, they’re just like, “Here’s the list of things, crosscheck it and fix it.” you could be back up and running in a couple days, maybe inside of a week, if you’re pretty responsive and if Google’s responsive. But we’ve had some where it’s six months, nine months later, it can really-

Sue Ginsburg: Painful.

Jesse Dolan: Drag on. It’s not like they’re vested in helping you out by any means. This is all completely free and it’s, if it got suspended, that’s on you to figure it out and fix it.

Sue Ginsburg: Interesting.

Jesse Dolan: Like I said, not a good day if it happens.

Sue Ginsburg: That’s right. And just to clarify something that you said, Google quality rater, it’s R-A-T-E-R, not R-A-I-D-E-R, right?

Jesse Dolan: Yes, which might be a whole nother blog series to go after the quality rater. I can see a good angle there. Yeah, quality rater guidelines. Do a Google search for that, maybe we’ll pull it and bring it in the show notes. But it’s a good read again for that white hat side according to Google.

Sue Ginsburg: Great. Anything else, Jesse?

Jesse Dolan: I don’t think so. I think that’s pretty good spectrum painting there.

Sue Ginsburg: That sounds great, okay. To our listeners, if you remember one thing and one thing only remember this, there is no industrywide rule book for SEO, especially since every search engine has its own algorithms. Would you say tread at your own risk, Jesse?

Jesse Dolan: Yeah, that might be a little-

Sue Ginsburg: Ominous, doesn’t have to be that ominous.

Jesse Dolan: Ominous, yeah. But just do it the right way. If you feel like something you’re doing is manipulative or you shouldn’t be doing it, then question it or run it past some folks like us.

Sue Ginsburg: I like that.

Jesse Dolan: But also don’t be afraid, if you look and if you’re doing some searches online and all the competitors in your local area are doing this thing, Google will show you what they want to see. And if they want to see something that’s a little manipulative, if everybody’s doing it, that may skew you into needing to do it. I guess it’s more gray than it is black and white. Everybody just needs to carry that with them, you just got to figure out for you and your business, which edges you want to skew towards.

Sue Ginsburg: I like that. And that sounds fair and ethical and on the up and up, and you’re not intentionally harming anyone or anything. So I like that.

Jesse Dolan: Yeah.

Sue Ginsburg: Okay, back to quote of the day and how it applies. Thank you, louis C.K., “Pushing the envelopes’ sort of implies that you’re inside the envelope with everyone else and you’re trying to find the edges on the outside.” Well, I think after listening to you, absolutely us and everybody else trying to find the edges on the SEO envelope.

Jesse Dolan: Yep. I should mention too. There are a lot of good resources out there. I don’t have any off the top of my head for acronyms or whatever, but there’s a lot of agencies out there, firms that do SEO testing. If you’re reading some of these things on black hat forum, old articles, whatever, seek out people who’ve tested these things, try to find results or test it yourself. Don’t just blindly throw these tactics out there just as a warning. Google is changing its algorithm at breakneck speed nowadays compared to what it was a couple years ago and you don’t want to waste your time, energy, or money throwing tactics at you website that may or may not work. There’s plenty of people testing these things now where you can rely on it, order your own testing yourself.

Sue Ginsburg: That’s great recommendation, I like that. I like that. All right, Jesse, well, you talked about us getting gray hats, can you suggest anything that any of our listeners can do to maybe be eligible for one of those gray hats?

Jesse Dolan: Yeah, we don’t have any in stock yet to be clear, but somewhere down the road, hopefully we’ll plug in hats instead of t-shirts. But to your points right now, at least if you want to get a t-shirt, if you have a question, again, expanding on any of the topics here today, totally different angle. If you’ve been sitting on it for a while, problem you’re having that you can’t get over the hump on, whatever it is, we’d love to hear the question, talk about it on the show and help everybody out. This definitely is more of a community thing than just Sue or Jesse or Bob or our guests being talking heads. We’re trying to help everybody, we’re all on this together.

So if you got a question, we’d love to hear it. Go to localseotactics.com, scroll onto the bottom, click the button to submit a question. You can type the question in and relay it to us. Or you can call on phone number that’s there. Leave a voicemail, we’ll play that on the show. If you do call in with a voicemail, we’ll also send you that t-shirt in the future, hopefully. It’s a hat or you can have the option, we’ll see how that goes and use it on the show and help us all out. Awesome.

Sue Ginsburg: Awesome.

Jesse Dolan: Anything else to add, Sue?

Sue Ginsburg: I think that’s about it and I’m pretty sure everybody learned something new from everything that you shared today.

Jesse Dolan: Yeah, definitely a good conversation. All right. Well, that wraps it up for this one, we’ll catch everybody on the next episode. Take care.

Sue Ginsburg: Yeah.

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