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What You Need To Know About The Black, White, and Gray Sides Of SEO

There are over two million posts that are published every day on WordPress alone!

This means that in the three or four seconds that it took you to read that first sentence, over 100 posts were published online. And if we count all the other non-WordPress users, that number becomes even higher. With statistics like that, how on earth are you expected to stand out?

In this post, I am going to attempt to answer that question and provide actionable advice on how you can create a unique and successful blog that attracts more of your ideal audience.

The fact is, while you may spend hours thinking up ideas, writing posts, and editing your work, it’s the time that you spend on optimization that is the most important. That’s why millions upon millions of marketers Google ‘SEO’ each and every month – 2.2 million searches per day, to be exact.

That just shows you how vital it is to show up on the front page of the search engines. It can actually be the determining factor as to whether your business succeeds or not.

However, although many marketers know that SEO is about optimizing for the search engines, they aren’t too sure exactly what it is that needs to be optimized (the writing? or the links? or maybe the design?) – and in what way.

That’s precisely what we’re going to address in this post.

SEO Defined, And Simplified

Let’s start with the definition of SEO.

According to good old Wikipedia:

Search Engine Optimization is the process of impacting the visibility of a web page or website in the unpaid results of a search engine.”

Simply put, SEO is all about optimizing your content so that search engines want to show it at the top of the results page when people search for a particular keyword.

To break it down even further, the process of SEO involves you, the searcher, and the search engine.

Say you have a post about how to repair your own gutters, and you want the search engines (well, Google mostly) to show that content as the top result to whoever searches for the keyword phrase ‘gutter repair’.

SEO is that specific brand of magic that you’ll work on that piece of content to make Google more likely to include it among the top results when someone types something like ‘gutter repair DIY’.

How Search Works

In the previous post, we talked a little about how search is changing, but let’s take a deeper look at how search actually works…

Now, there’s two types of SEO – the good and the bad. We call them ‘White Hat’ SEO and ‘Black Hat’ SEO. If you’re in this game to win it in the long run, then you’ll definitely want to focus on the right type of SEO, which is white hat SEO.

But for those fly-by-night marketers who only want to make a quick buck, and don’t care about the long-term consequences of their actions, then black hat SEO seems the easier and quicker way to get results.

I’ll simply assume that if you’re here on this blog, reading this post, then just like me, you are also in the entrepreneurial game for the long haul, and not just to grab a few grand as quickly as you can.

Those people who try to work SEO as if it’s a get-rich-quick scheme almost always end up on the black hat side of SEO, where their content is optimized for search engines only and not at all for actual humans who have to consume it.

And seeing as there are tons of ways to bend (or break) the rules when it comes to ranking your site high, these are prime means for those black hat SEOs to cash in on a few thousand dollars really fast.

However, this approach ultimately leads to web pages that are crappy and spammy, and those types of sites often get banned really fast.

That results in severe punishment for the responsible marketers and it ruins their chances of building a sustainable business in the future.

So, while you may be able to make a few thousand dollars this way, you’ll have to be on a continuous lookout for new search engine updates and constantly come up with ways of dodging the rules.

On the other hand…

White hat SEO helps you build an online business that is sustainable because when you do SEO that way, you’re focused on your actual human audience.

You’ll do your best to give them high-quality, useful content and make it accessible to your readers by playing according to Google’s rules. Needless to say, I only advocate the white hat kind of SEO.

But things in life aren’t always black or white…

And the same is true when it comes to SEO. You may decide to choose the white hat side of things, but it’s not always going to be that easy.

There has been a debate raging on for some time now on white hat vs black hat SEO, and there’s something right in the middle of it that we need to address:

‘Gray Hat’ SEO

As its name implies, this type of SEO isn’t quite as innocent as the white, but also not as conspicuously manipulative as black hat practices typically are.

It’s a little bit of both. It means that while you may not be trying to intentionally trick anyone or game the system, you are still doing your best to get a distinct advantage.

Google’s search algorithm is pretty well-guarded, and they don’t make public all of the factors that determine your ranking (of which there are over 200!) But their standards aren’t always as clear-cut as they would have you believe.

Oftentimes, they say stuff that is downright contradictory.

For instance, Google once said that they are not a fan of building links through guest blogging, but they also acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons to guest post, such as:
  • Growing your brand
  • Building awareness
  • Generating high-quality traffic to your site
  • Becoming a household name in your industry
  • And many others

(These are also the very reasons why I recommend guest blogging).

The point here is that the rules of SEO are often ill-defined, and they change all the time. That’s what makes SEO so challenging for most marketers.

And besides, a lot of what we think are ‘rules’ are simply just predictions that SEOs make after analyzing correlating data trends. And that’s precisely why there is so much room to sneak in gray hat SEO.

A lot of classic techniques for building links such as getting backlinks from educational sites can go either way.

There are some who will argue that it still works while others will insist that it’s dead.

It all comes down to how you do it.

Successful SEOs are all about link building tactics that are scalable. After all, all marketing tactics have to be scalable in order to generate a healthy ROI, right?

Well, sure, but here is the issue with that concept:

Almost all ‘scalable’ link building tactics are borderline black hat, but of course, this all depends on how you do them. There are many examples online about how some of the biggest sites around have built their links in ways that are less than savory, including The New York Times.

Some of their link building techniques go against the rules set by Google.

However, when considering black, white, and gray hat SEO, it’s important to keep in mind that there are some industries where it’s easier to build links than others.

For example, industries like technology, nutrition, and personal development have thousands of blogs that talk about their topics daily, but do you know that supplement companies aren’t even allowed to use MailChimp’s email marketing service?

So how do they reach out to customers, make connections, and build relationships to increase their revenue?

How do they build links?

The gambling industry also faces the same link building challenges. What are the odds of a journalist linking to your website in a positive way if you run a gambling site? Probably slim to none!

This means that people in these less savory industries sometimes have to take their chances when it comes to building high-quality links.

Yet another problem has to do with the fact that search engines are still nowhere near as good at ranking content as they should be.

Sure, RankBrain is a great algorithm evolution that helped dramatically, but we’re still facing a lot of issues in that area, and that’s why even some big brands are openly doing gray or even black hat tactics such as creating their own private blog network – an approach that Google has repeatedly warned people against using.

Here Are A Few Examples:
  • You may have more links to a certain page than the competition
  • You may also have a higher domain authority than your competitors
  • You could even have better on-page markup than your rivals…

But, you could still rank at the bottom!

The possible explanation?

While Google admits that they consider those three indicators to be among the most important, and even though all successful SEOs agree, it’s not exactly what happens in real life.

There are still ways to manipulate or game the system, up to a certain degree. It isn’t as bad as it once was, but that problem is still there.

Some of the SEO predictions for the coming year are focused on increasing click-through rates in the SERPs (search engine results pages) in order to increase traffic to your site.

Such ‘engagement hacks’ are going to become the new gray hat tactics.

Another example includes boosting your Facebook engagement to increase your organic reach, and so on.

The Bottom Line

So, basically, I am not stating that gray hat is either good or bad. I’m going to leave that for you to decide for yourself.

I am simply highlighting something that is rarely discussed online.

Just remember that most of your competitors will do everything it takes to get to the top, and that is going to displace you and push you further down in rankings.

SEO is like that game kids play called ‘King of the Hill’, where as soon as you get to the top, someone else is coming to try and knock you down into obscurity.

This means that you have to decide on which path you’re going to take, as well as what degree of risk you are comfortable with.

I’m not advocating black hat SEO, but as I said, there is a whole lot of gray to explore, and depending on the industry that you’re in, you may not have many other options when it comes to SEO and building links.

Here are some examples of gray hat SEO tactics that some marketers use to speed up the process of getting to that coveted top spot in the search results.

1. Add Length to Your Old Content

Longer content always works better than short content in terms of attracting organic traffic.

If you’re in a competitive niche, make your content at least 2,000 words or more.

2. Use PBN (Private Blogging Network)

Many marketers think that this is black hat SEO, but if you create original content for topics that are relevant, then this falls into the area of gray hat SEO.

3. Use the Right Keyword Density

Stuffing your content full of keywords isn’t the way to go. Your content should be readable and not sound stiff because of too many keywords, otherwise, this will hurt your rankings.

4. Use Web 2.0 Submissions For Linkbuilding

Web 2.0 is all about dynamic content that you can regularly update to improve its quality and relevance.

Examples include Quora, Wikipedia, Reddit, Yahoo! Answers, and other similar sites.

Gray hat SEO techniques can help you rank higher on the search engines, but it isn’t always a good idea to use them because there’s a really fine line between gray and black SEO.

For most marketers, the rewards are too small (and fleeting) to justify the risk of getting penalized by Google.

Feel free to post your comment below.  An email address is required but it will not be shared with anyone, put on any list, or used for any kind of marketing, just to alert you if there are any replies. Thanks and happy hunting!


Updated: Originally published December 1st 2018

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Kevin

    Hi Steven, I just wanted to say a big thank you for a nice concise overview of the black, white and grey sides of SEO. I’m new to blogging and although I’m writing about my passion it is a very competitive niche and as such despite having written over 40k words in 2 months I still don’t rank anywhere with Google. It was really interesting reading about the different terms, that actually I had never heard of before. I was particularly interested to see that you say the average post length should be over 2000 words as my post average is around 1500. I’m still unsure about keyword density but trying to write naturally rather than forcing words and phrases. This was a really interesting read and will read it again later to absorb all of the info. Any other particular tips you could offer to a new blogger? Thanks once again. Kevin

    1. Steven

      It’s good you aren’t focusing too much on keywords. Always write naturally and avoid stuffing keywords. An article length of 1500 words is fine, somewhere between 1500 and 2500 words is ideal. If your articles are too long, you risk losing your audience before they finish the article.

      Thanks for the comment Kevin!

  2. Nuttanee

    I learned a lot from you. Thank you for clarifying the process. Now I don’t have to think in my head over and over again on how come it takes forever for me to index my content when I have just started my website back in August. Will favorite your page. Good read

    1. Steven

      I am glad you got some good information from the article.

      Thanks for the comment Nuttanee!

  3. David Guffey

    SEO is a broad subject that has many facets and is the only way to get your website ranked. The using of Wikipeida as a source, that you can not use as a source in most colleges. That is something I would look into, remember where the Clinton emails come from there. The content give me a lot to think about on how to write my content towards the gray side of using SEO for my content. The post was a little longer than I I wanted to read, but it has a lot of good information. This my opinion and that it as that, all and all a good article with a lot of things I need to think about. 

    1. Steven

      Good to know you learned some useful information from the article.

      Thanks for the comment David!

  4. Grace

    Thank you for introducing us to the different types of SEO. I am especially drawn to the part about grey hat SEO.

    I agree with you too that while grey hat SEO may help to increase your traffic, but it may not be a good long term strategy . As Google is constantly changing their algorithm, some of the grey area may turn black one day. 

    Just wondering, why have you considered lengthening old post as grey hat strategy? Is there any particular reason?

    1. Steven

      Lengthening older posts isn’t really white hat, and it’s certainly not black hat. I guess it doesn’t really fit anywhere perfectly so I stuffed it into the grey category.

      Thanks for the comment Grace!

  5. Michel

    I have heard of Black and White hat SEO, but never Grey Hat SEO, so you really taught me something new tonight.

    I was never aware that link building fell under grey SEO, but I know that link building to a certain extent does work. I like to sometimes write to the web owners to ask for a link. Sometimes this works and sometimes my letter gets ignored, but if you can get a natural link on a high ranking site, you have a foot in the door already.

    I just know never to buy links, as often you will buy spammy links that will decrease your sites ranking. 

    Other than that, I think that keyword research is the most important step in SEO, as without a good keyword to go after, your post will just get lost in the internet jungle.

    1. Steven

      I am glad you learned new stuff from the article.

      Thanks for the comment Michel!

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