SEO 101: Explaining the Different Types of SEO ‘Hats’

Every day, Google processes more than 2 trillion searches annually. Search engines terms of service dictate how websites can be ranked without risking negative ramifications.

Because of this, there are three types of SEO, or search engine optimization, in which you can engage.

Understanding the difference between these two can seem daunting at first. To help you out, we’ve created this SEO 101 guide on the different hats of SEO.

Keep reading to learn what they are and the tactics they include.

SEO 101: Different Hats

Ranking well in organic search is the holy grail of SEO.

You can always pay for rankings with PPC, or pay-per-click, campaigns. However, more than half of all website visits come from organic results.

This has made the fight for organic rankings competitive. And, as users navigate toward heavier mobile use, this competition has grown even steeper.

The stakes have never been higher where SEO is concerned. How you implement your SEO determines which hat you wear: black, white, or grey.

Black Hat SEO

Black hat SEO involves implementing tactics which go against the terms of use put forth by a particular search engine. These can vary from search engine to search engine, but as Google is the most powerful of them all, many SEOs refer to their terms of service for determining whether a tactic is black hat.

Any type of cloaking or use of doorway pages to trick search engines into finding different content than human searchers find is considered black hat. Sneaky redirects and hidden links or text fall under this umbrella as well.

Participating in spammy linking behavior is also black hat.

This includes joining guest posting networks and link farms or networks. It also includes purchasing links.

Where your content is concerned, if you have duplicate content or it’s automated, that’s a sign of black hat SEO. Spinning articles or stuffing them full of keywords is likewise black hat.

If your website seeks to perform malicious acts like phishing or spreading viruses, Trojans, or other malware, you’re wearing a black hat.

The consequences for engaging in black hat SEO can be severe and damaging. Your site might be penalized, or worse–banned–from ranking in SERPs, or search engine results pages.

White Hat SEO

If black hat is all about going against the terms of service, then white hat, it stands to reason, is about going with the terms of service. Known also as white hat marketing, these practices can keep penalties and bans at bay.

Conducting keyword research is a white hat activity.

You can use Google Suggest to research long tail keywords. You can also use keyword research tools to see which keywords your competitors are using.

What you do with those keywords can define white hat practices. For example, if you strategically place them in your title tag, headers/headings, introduction and conclusion of content, then you’re wearing a white hat.

You can also use them in descriptive URLs. Using keywords this way, along with implementing internal links and providing image alt tags, are examples of white hat on-page SEO.

While we’re talking about what’s on your web page, let’s discuss white hat content creation. You can use content to rank higher in SERPs if it pleases users:

  • Get right to the point of your discussion in your introduction
  • Use headings and subheadings
  • Write in short paragraphs
  • Get in-depth with long-form content

Does it take longer to produce white hat content? Yes, but usually those things that are worth doing are worth doing right.

White hat link building involves strategic guest posting within your niche, producing content like what we just discussed, and alerting webmasters to broken links and offering your own as a substitute. The latter is known as broken link building.

Finally, donning a white hat when working on technical SEO is all about pleasing the end-user. You’ll want smart, flat architecture for your site.

In other words, it should have a logical flow and all content should be reachable within three to four clicks.

You’ll want to speed your site up as much as possible. You’ll want a responsive design to please mobile users.

As you can see, putting on the white hat in SEO means trying to provide a stellar user experience. If you focus on this, you’ll be more likely to avoid penalties.

Grey Hat SEO

What about the tactics that are neither white hat nor black hat? Well, we’ve a hat for those too–and it’s grey.

The problem with terms of service is they’re not always crystal clear. Grey hat tactics are difficult to identify because the exist only in the negative space, the unclear between-the-lines spaces.

What we can tell you about them is they’re not explicitly forbidden by terms of service. They can change frequently and quickly when terms of service are updated, so these practices can become either black hat or white hat.

Any practice that falls into the grey hat category can be riskier than a white hat practice, but might not result in a ban or penalty.

Final Thoughts

Using these hats to label SEO tactics stems from Westerns.

If you watch an old Western movie, you can always identify the bad guy by the black hat he wears. The good guy often wears a white hat.

When it comes to SEO, you may feel that the risks of black or grey hat tactics are worth the reward. These tactics tend to provide a more immediate reward.

Often, sites that are not seeking long-term rankings in SERPs will look to these tactics. They’re like get rich quick schemes, though, and carry much risk.

If you want to build your site’s rankings and you’re willing to be patient in exchange for not being penalized or banned, and the reward of long-term SEO success, then the white hat approach is right for you.

We hope this SEO 101 guide is helpful in guiding you toward choosing the right hat for you.

If you have additional questions about SEO, we invite you to drop us a line. We’d love to help your website’s rankings improve.