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White hat SEO vs. black hat SEO—what’s the difference? Both will get you results, but one can carry penalties from search engines that can really set you back in terms of rank and traffic—despite their instant gratification-style results. And while SEO is continually changing and methods are evolving to keep up with new algorithms (like Google’s latest rumored release, Fred), knowing the difference between these two approaches to SEO can keep you from falling into a trap and seeing your SEO efforts quickly backfire.


To optimize the search experience for intended users—that’s humans doing the searching, not the machines searching on their behalves—search engines have to constantly update and upgrade their algorithms so they’re always providing the most relevant, legitimate, and trustworthy results. Black hat SEOs and increasingly bot programmers are adept at finding workarounds, which means the cycle of change is near-constant. The one constant is that going about your SEO in the right ways—”white hat SEO,” or ethical SEO techniques—while they require more time and effort, will always pay off in the long run.

White hat SEO techniques are all designed to garnering organic search traffic with high-quality content, and can include a number of tactics such as:

  • Securing quality inbound linksBacklinks should be on relevant sites and act like a “vote” for your site.
  • Creating original, long-form quality content. Add in associated social and email campaigns to spread awareness and book visibility and traffic to content.
  • Use of keywords and keyword analysis
  • Great site organization. You want to make it as easy for search engine bots to crawl your website as possible, so a clear site architecture is important. Also, search engines prioritize information (e.g., headers and titles) so ensuring the most important keywords are in the header tags is important.

Also, Google provides a guide to acceptable SEO techniques you can reference here and Bing provides a set of guidelines, as well.

Want to improve your rank, the right way? Hire an SEO expert to:

  • Create a content strategy. Whether it’s a blog, contributing content to syndication sites, a social campaign, or all of the above, a great SEO can come up with a multi-pronged content strategy that’s perfect for you.
  • Research the best keywords for you. Going after keywords that are relevant but have little to no search volume won’t move the needle on your content, nor will only going after high volume keywords that are already heavily used by competitors. The key is locating those keywords that people are searching, but that don’t have a lot of volume yet—a sweet spot for your content. The Google Keyword Planner is a good tool to find keyword ideas.
  • Create descriptive, keyword-rich meta tags. An SEO can go into your site’s markup and ensure that your meta tags—titles and descriptions—reflect your content.
  • Improve navigation, information architecture, and titles. This can be both within your site’s markup and things like metadata and page titles. They may also add descriptions and alt text to images and markup.

These techniques all take time and effort, but they’re worth it—even older content can continue to increase in rank and drive traffic, penalty-free.


Black hat SEO is largely characterized by ploys to appeal to the machines in search, not the people doing the searching. In a way, it’s “cheating the system” to get quick turnaround results. But, if you’re found using these techniques, your site can be penalized—and in some cases, de-indexed altogether.

These sort of techniques are typically used on sites with a quick-return business model, like retail sites or subscription sites. Black hat SEO techniques can include:

  • Using spam, duplicate content or “scraped” content
  • Automation, but not all automation—specifically content automation of little to no value to users, or automated link building using software to build thousands of low-quality backlinks in very little time.
  • Trying to take down a competitor with a negative campaign or wrongfully reporting them for spam or black hat techniques
  • Gateway pages that grab users with keywords, then redirect to another (potentially unrelated) site.
  • Using hacked sites to place your content and links on, unbeknownst to the actual site owner