The Three Hats of SEO: White, Black, and Gray
Search engine optimization, or SEO for short, is defined as a methodology of strategies and tactics used to increase website visitors through high rankings within search engine results pages. With the ever-increasing importance of internet marketing to business today, SEO experts are in high demand to ensure that companies are getting the best return on their digital investments possible. Just as in other industries, the range of agencies willing to perform SEO for clients contains good guys, bad guys, and those who ride the fence. The type of agency you hire can have dramatic effects on your site rankings, your return on investment (ROI), and your standing with Google and the other engines.
The differences between the hats worn by agencies can be described in simple terms; what are they willing to do? It is an oversimplification to say all white hat agencies are good and all black hats are bad. The techniques they employ to get results differ greatly, but both do get results. In fact, some of the practices used by black hat agencies can have real value to white hats as well.
When the industry is looked at as a whole, there are some interesting lessons to be learned from the way black hats do business. They are much more willing to test new ideas that push the envelope. This is where real innovation comes from, and most white hats, while excellent numbers people, are so set in their Google best practices that they are afraid to even test the waters every now and then to look for quirks that could pay dividends for a client. This is a form of intellectual laziness, and should be avoided at all costs. Putting your faith in something is fine, but testing for real results is even better.
Black hat SEOs have realized something many white hats miss out on; it is fine to spend money to make it. You definitely do not want to pay for inclusion in networks or automated link-building tools, and buying sites for private blog networks is just as ludicrous. You will be caught, and the punishment could easily destroy your client base and revenue streams. So, stick to the best practices for long-term results, but never turn a blind eye to possibility. That is the quickest way to become irrelevant in this business.
Black hat SEOs can give those of us who wear white or gray a few clues as to where increased results can be found. There is nothing wrong with hiring talented people to contribute to your site. This is an excellent way to increase traffic and quality score by increasing site value and trustworthiness. You can buy blogs and redirect them to your site, or even hire the blogger to do work just for your page. Businesses have long used acquisitions to improve their placement in their industry, and this is just as relevant to SEO. Advertisements can also be a valuable method of increasing visibility, and purchasing tools can vastly increase the gathering and understanding of your data. So, take a tip from the “bad” guys, and spend some money to further your reach.
SEO experts know that a long-term strategy for success is crucial. But, any strategy that exists, unchanged and ignored, is not worth the time it took to formulate. Everything changes and your strategy should too. You never know exactly where the results you need will be found, so you need a strategy that allows for searching them out in different ways. As a white hat, you can rest assured knowing that you will never wake up to find all of your sites crushed because of a Google Penalty, but you may also miss out on spectacular results because of an unwillingness to test the boundaries of accepted behavior.
Remember that Google and the other engines have set guidelines for best practices. They list the tactics that are accepted, and even give an overview of those that are not. Google believes white hats should create organic, high quality content using good, descriptive tags. Black hats are described as those who purchase links, duplicate content, stuff keywords, use link farms, and use hidden, unrelated text.
The long and short of it is that white hats (and gray hats to some extent) provide relevant information to visitors while obeying the rules established by each engine. Black hats sacrifice safety and stability for quick results using tactics that will eventually bring down severe consequences upon both the agency and the client. Gray hats fall somewhere in-between, and, because of their willingness to walk a fine line, they tend to last longer as viable SEO agencies. Yet, just as with black hats, they will more than likely get caught up in a Google Update and penalized for their love of “gray areas”.
The takeaway from this look at the hats agencies wear is the rewards and penalties each hat brings with it. A white hat agency may think they are untouchable and making all the right moves while they miss out on millions in revenue. A black hat agency may make a killing on the front-end but they will eventually lose it all to penalties and client backlash. So, wear any hat you choose, but remember there are repercussions for any choice. Make sure your choice is one you can live with; personally and professionally.