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I’ve been making a point in my journey as a writer for Econsultancy to investigate the many and varied terms in digital that I don’t understand.

As I am a relative newcomer to the digital marketing world, this is like a trial-by-fire. 

In my first few weeks, terms like CRM, CRO, iBeacons, retargeting and PPC all felt like an alien language. 

None more so than the phrases ‘black hat’ and ‘white hat’ in relation to search engine optimisation (SEO).

In this article I'll be investigating what is meant by each of these terms by asking: What are the basic principles of each 'hat'? What is considered best practice? and what should be avoided?

"Boy, have we got a vacation for you"

High noon

My basic assumption is that ‘white hat’ is all about being a goody-two-shoes and sticking to the rules. Abiding the law. Hiding under the table whenever trouble comes wandering into the saloon.

Whereas ‘black hat’ is all about being that trouble. A gun-slinging outlaw, working on the edge of society, disobeying the rules and generally being a bit dangerous and sexy. I assume you get a cooler costume too.

I guess the temptation to be that second guy is always strong. 

However being that second guy, the one with the really good boots and slightly darker theme music, means that you won’t be long for this world. It’s only a matter of time before you’re either rounded-up by the lawmen or snuffed out and put in the ground with nothing but a lonely horse to mourn your passing. 

By lawmen I of course mean Google, and Google can indeed be a merciless punisher of the transgressive.

westworld duel

Thanks to an artificial growth-hacking tactic, Rap Genius suffered a 10 day ban from Google last December. That may not sound like too much of a punishment, however the once popular and high ranking website suffered an 80% plummet in its traffic and four months later has yet to pull back its authority.

I just searched ‘Jay-Z lyrics’ on Google and Rap Genius is halfway down the first results page when last year it would have been at the top.

It's enough to scare anyone straight.

How to be good:

‘White hat’ isn’t just about avoiding punishment. It’s about best practice. It’s about making your website more visible and accessible for the user, in a fair and transparent way.

Most importantly ‘white hat’ is about optimising your website for a human audience, not to manipulate search results for ill-gotten gains. For example, coercing a searcher into visiting a site that they may think is valuable because it’s ranked at the top, but is actually a site full of artificial link-building, keyword stuffing and badly written content.

This activity creates general distrust in the internet and search engine results pages as a viable means of finding relevant information.

Here's how to be 'white hat':

paul newman white cowboy hat

Content

If you’re not producing good, relevant, entertaining, helpful content at a regular rate, then all of the other white or black hat practices won’t help you one little bit.

Google has an algorithm that’s complicated, ever-changing and impossible to second-guess. All you can guarantee is that no matter what Google and other search engines are looking for in terms of ‘site health’, the value of your content will always be the top priority.

Write for human readers not search engines. 

Internal links

Linking to content within your own site is a great indicator to search engines that your site has value.

Keep the links on a given page to a reasonable number though. Don’t overstuff the page with links, even if each and every one of them is an internal link to relevant content. Think about the page in terms of the reader.

If the first few paragraphs of an article contain links in every sentence a reader will either consciously or subconsciously assume this piece is a mere ‘link-building exercise’ and trust the content less. Search engines will make a similar assumption.

Two or three good quality internal links to relevant content, using accurate anchor text, spread throughout the article is the best practice here.

Natural link building

Google treats a link from another website to your site as a vote of confidence. Google will therefore rank you higher based on that vote. Therefore the more links the better. 

These links should be relevant though and of an organic quality. Not paid-for or gained through artificial, unrelated means. 

Google explicitly states that its algorithms can distinguish natural links from unnatural links. How much truck you have with this statement and whether Google runs an entirely infallible ship when it comes to deciding natural links to unnatural ones can be debated for the next… well, however long Google will remain the dominant presence in search. 

Navigation

Create a naturally flowing hierarchy. Make it easy for users to journey from general site information to more specific information. Provide breadcrumbs so users can easily navigate back and forth, and so users know where they are in the general layout of your website if they’ve arrived on page via other means.

Make sure you use text links to for navigation rather than animation or images. Search engine crawlers find text links easier to understand, as do users.

Titles and title tags

Search engines regard metadata and meta keywords as less important than they used to, thanks to years of black hat misuse, however the title of your page and its relevancy to the content will always be a highly important factor in SEO.

Choose a title that accurately reflects the topic of the page's content. Create a unique tag for each page on your site. 

Avoid using extremely lengthy titles and stuffing irrelevant keywords in your title tags.

Meta description

Write the description of a page as accurately as possible. Again don’t stuff it full of keywords. Keep it plain, brief and most of all readable. 

The meta description will most likely appear as the two or three sentence description used in search results under the page title. This is what searchers will read and their decision to click-through to your site will largely be determined by how relevant and readable this description us.

Write for people, not search engines. I may have said that before. Maybe even twice before.

Images

Use brief but descriptive file names for your images, rather than ‘image0057’. 

Always fill in the ‘Alt’ attribute. Search engines can’t see your images, but they can read the ‘Alt’ text. It’s important to describe your image as accurately as possible as this may not only improve your ranking in image search but also improve the accessibility for those using ‘image reader’ software.

westworld robot's circuitry

Anchor text

When you add a link to a piece of text, make sure the text is completely relevant to the link. Avoid phrases like ‘click here’.

Make sure your anchor text is just a short phrase rather than a lengthy sentence. Avoid excessively keyword-stuffed phrases written specifically to manipulate search engines. 

Comments

Prevent and remove spam from the comments sections of your site.

Ensure that ‘nofollow’ is implemented within your comments, so crawlers won’t assume that spam comments with links to erroneous or harmful websites are validated by your otherwise ethical site.

Again, the controversy of how beneficial the practice of nofollow really is can be debated until your throat is sore or until Twitter has exceeded its capacity, however it’s what Google says is best practice and this section is all about playing by the rules.

Which leads us neatly to...

westworld robot

How to be bad:

Here are the practices that Google explicitly states will earn you a penalty or ban from its results pages, as of writing this article today (2 April 2014).

Automatically generated content

Imagine paragraphs of random text generated by a piece of software, that make no sense to the reader but may contain particular keywords that artificially help rank a page higher in a results page. Don’t do that.

Link schemes

Nothing good has ever been described as a ‘scheme’. Practices to avoid are:  

  • Buying and selling links.
  • Excessive link exchanges – “hey buddy, I’ll link to you if you link to me.”
  • Using automated programmes to create links to your site.
  • Large scale guest-blogging as a link-building tactic. This is a topical and fairly touchy subject at the moment. Our editor-in-chief Graham Charlton explains the situation fully in his post Matt Cutts declares the death of guest blogging for SEO.

Cloaking and sneaky redirects

These are the practices of presenting different content to a user from what they were expecting when they discovered the result via a search engine.

Technology can be used to redirect a user to a different page or mask the HTML content served to a search engine with images or Flash animation.

westworld yul brynner and woman

Hidden text and links

Much like cloaking, hiding text or links in your content to manipulate search rankings is highly deceptive. 

Black hat practices include:

  • Using white text on a white background.
  • Locating text behind an image.
  • Using CSS to position text off-screen.
  • Setting the font size to zero.
  • Hiding a link by only linking one small character. For example, a hyphen in the middle of a paragraph.

Doorway pages

These are fake pages that are content heavy and optimised with the tastiest keywords that are written purely for search engines and are therefore meaningless. The user never sees them because they will be redirected elsewhere.

Scraping

If you take articles from our site and republish them without permission you will get burnt, hombre. 

yul brynner westworld

Keyword stuffing

As much as I love One Direction, overloading a webpage with words, such as One Direction, that your site is trying to rank for makes for a horrible user experience that One Direction would definitely frown upon.

Create content that’s informative, helpful or entertaining that uses keywords appropriately and in context.

In conclusion…

We have a simple mantra around the Econsultancy office: make the internet a better place

If you remember this at all times when practicing SEO and always keep the user’s experience central to your optimisation, then you have nothing to worry about.

And good sir, I will tip my ha… No, I couldn’t do it.

For 400 more pages of SEO guidance, download our most recent Search Engine Optimisation Best Practice Guide.

Further reading for beginners

During my first year at Econsultancy I’ve been making a point of writing beginner’s guides to any new terms or phrases I find particularly baffling, or that I might suspect other people may find baffling too. 

The following related articles should help clear up a few things… 

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 3 April, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

686 more posts from this author

Comments (11)

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Stacy

I just hat to say, I really like that one direction your article took at the end... I'm sorry, I couldn't help myself. Thanks for a great piece though - we sometimes forget that when one joins the "digital marketing world" it's easy to forget how to speak English. This kind of article makes explaining what you do for a living, to non-digital marketers (without them glazing over) that bit easier!

about 2 years ago

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David Tapp

This is a nice intro to some good best practice advice for SEOs. Though I would be very careful when saying "Therefore the more links the better." It is actually much better to get one high authority link then 100 low authority links. Not all link were born equal.

Other than that it is also worth mentioning that you need to make sure your site is search engine spider friendly. Something that can be an issue with today's ever popular ways of inserting dynamic content into pages for users. If Google cannot spider your content it will not help your site rank.

Cheers
Dave

about 2 years ago

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Scott @ Kawntent

I guess the reason why SEOs are tempted to be that "bad guy" is probably because it's way much easier to get around the internet or shall I say they want "easy money" while white hat SEOs are those hard working people trying to make a living. Black hats take shortcuts, while white hats stay on the right track. Kinda reminds me of the turtle and the rabbit race story! You have great work here Christopher! Keep it up!

about 2 years ago

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Chris at Write House

Unfortunately you can have the best intentions and still be burned by a dodgy SEO 'consultant'. The temptation to save money means black hat tactics will probably always be with us...

about 2 years ago

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Rajesh Magar

That was nice and cool. But it will be even more poisonous if you could I've make place for some "Grey Hat" techniques too.

about 2 years ago

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Vivien Lee, E-Commerce Manager at KL SOGO

Turtle and the Rabbit race story????

The race track change and both of them need to help each others to complete the race.

A river before the finish line makes the story change.

Collaboration is very important. We need White and Black Hat to get better results.

about 2 years ago

Joe Hawkes

Joe Hawkes, Senior Digital Marketing Executive at Charles Russell Speechlys

I was skeptical of this article at first due to your self-confessed inexperience, but it was great! An entertaining and comprehensive overview of a fundamental aspect of DM.

about 2 years ago

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Lou

Thanks for this, an interesting read and some useful reminders of best SEO practice!

about 2 years ago

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vinay kumar

Thanks for sharing nice news with us !

about 2 years ago

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James

An excellent article that really helps explain a lot.
We have been outsourcing SEO options for the past few years, and the first SEO company we employed promoted keyword stuffing on our site. This article helps explain the black and the white, but if the professional SEO companies aren't sure which path to follow it makes it more clear that in-house education is perhaps the best way to go.

almost 2 years ago

Damian Donnelly

Damian Donnelly, Marketing Professional at ad_man Creative Marketing Insight & Strategy

A well-written and informative article - hats off of you for sharing :)

over 1 year ago

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