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Grey Hat SEO: The Line Between White Hat and Black Hat

Michael Rolfe

by Michael Rolfe on 26th March 2012

SEO SphereWhere is the line between white hat and grey hat? Can grey hat get you in trouble? If so with who?  Why are some paid links allowed, and some not? And if they’re not illegal, what’s to stop their use?  The grey area that exists in search engine marketing is very much open to debate, which is exactly what I’m going to do here.

Wikipedia Definitions:

“An SEO technique is considered white hat if it conforms to the search engines’ guidelines and involves no deception… Black hat SEO attempts to improve rankings in ways that are disapproved of by the search engines, or involve deception.”

To be at the top of Google for some finance or healthcare terms has the potential to deliver a millionaire’s lifestyle. So many people start off by reading what Google is looking for, and then delivering it. They then quickly realise that it’s going to take a lot of work… so what’s a budding millionaire to do?

Well, looking at the on page and off page factors that search engines rate – content, structure and back-links in particular, the average mind will quickly jump to the conclusion that they should scrape content and drop links using automated scripts – and then become millionaires.

In the ‘old days’ of the 90′s, one could ‘fool’ a search engine by adding the keyword you wanted to rank for into the meta keywords tag multiple times, repeating keywords in hidden text on a page and spamming forums and blogs with back-links.

In 2012, search engine have evolved considerably, but so have the tools to outwit them and the prizes to be had.  For most however, the real issue is not whether to go black hat or not (some see it as unethical, others simply don’t want to risk a penalty) the real issue is needing to beat your competition in the SERPs, in a way that will not get you penalised in the search engines – and your competitors appear to be engaged in some questionable behaviour!  How does one compete?

Paid links are usually where people look first.  Google likes links, and there’s someone selling one million of them on Ebay for $10.  Of course, buying links is against Google’s guidelines and if they find out, they are likely to penalise your site for such behaviour.  But Google doesn’t mind if you pay for directory listings – in fact, they boost your site in the SERPs quite often.  Ah, I’m beginning to see grey…

Duplicated and scraped content on your site is another shade  of grey.  Google of course does not want to deliver a SERP of 10 different domains – all with the same content – understandable.  But then if you search for a news headline you will see often the same content syndicated from Associated Press or Reuters, and displayed on CNN, Fox, BBC, etc.  And then you can spin content…

Spinning content means rewriting content to make it unique, with the hope of getting more traffic from it as a result.  This could be seen as deceptive but by the same token if it is unique, then what’s the problem?  Many people read something and then rewrite it, if only subconsciously.  The need to succeed is often strong enough for many to push the envelope in to the grey, especially if competitors have and are receiving the benefits.

The black hat strategy is simple – do what it takes to find and exploit loopholes in the algorithm to rank, and if you get caught, just start again with a fresh domain.  The white hat strategy is similarly simple.  I posit that the grey hat strategy should be simple as well – to only take appropriate risks.

Koozai are a white hat agency by design, and are award winning for the results they deliver, so I know that it can be done.  But the fog of grey laps at the feet of the white hat, so I thought I would mention my opinion on it in case you find yourself in this likely dilemma.  If you rely on your site, it has a brand or you don’t do much online, then you may find it easier to play it safe.  If you can afford to take a chance, enjoy experimenting and have your finger on the pulse then by all means, ‘surf the grey’.

Image Source

Hand Holding A 3D SEO Sphere via BigStock

Michael Rolfe

Michael Rolfe

Michael has been earning a living online and winning awards for it since 2005. Projects include launching an affiliate network, database driven comparison websites, and Wordpress education seminars as well as devising and implementing the online marketing strategy for a listed blue-chip organisation.

3 Comments

  • Alec Sharratt

    Alec 30th March 2012

    Great post Michael, grey hat is becoming ever more the majority to my mind… When you consider that Google themselves advise people not to try and work to their algorithm but just produce good content… it would seem that any attempt to work with the algorithm is at least grey hat. Just a thought

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  • Danny 26th July 2012

    Good post. Content spinning is almost dead… as the stakes of the game get higher, it forces publishers to actually be creative. Grey/black hat just accelerates the process, which is good for customers in the long run.

    Reply to this comment

  • Brenda Knight 7th August 2014

    Grey is surely the color of the fine grid dividing white and black hat SEO practices. It’s absolutely a tempting zone to step one foot on so long as we can guarantee we won’t cross the line, after all, who doesn’t want a possible “”gain””? But a long-established name could lose its credibility overnight when hit by a minor algorithm upgrade. It might be a risk worth taking if you can accurately come up with a cost/benefit analysis which leans toward the pluses.

    Here’s a shameless plug about the topic: http://goo.gl/mZzv5L

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