White-hat strategies vs. black-hat strategies

You’ll often hear SEOs talking about “white hat” and “black-hat” (or the questionable area in between, often dubbed “gray-hat”), particularly when it comes to link building techniques. This section will outline the differences and cover some of the pros and cons of each approach.

White-hat strategies

White-hat strategies are those that are very low-risk to carry out and usually fall well within the webmaster guidelines laid out by Google and Bing. Using white-hat techniques means that you stand very little chance of running into problems with the search engines when it comes to losing traffic because of a penalty.

A few examples of white-hat tactics are:

Creating your own unique, insightful, and quality content

Building a genuine, engaged community which interacts with your website and each other

Promoting your website to relevant people in a genuine, personal way by writing personalized messages

Pros include not having to worry about getting yourself into trouble with automated or manual spam penalties from the search engines. White-hat strategies usually work best for real users, too, and can help build long-term assets that are strong and unlikely to disappear overnight.

Cons include having to focus on the long-term goal rather than short-term gains. White-hat strategies can sometimes take some time to have a big effect on your traffic and revenue because they are less aggressive.

Black-hat strategies

<href=”#black_hat”>Originally coined as a term to describe computer hackers, black-hat has also been used to describe techniques that directly violate search engine guidelines. These techniques seek to exploit loopholes in the search engine algorithms and rank websites higher than they actually deserve to.

A few examples of black-hat tactics are:

Cloaking – showing different content to the search engines compared to what you show to users

Injecting hidden links into a website you do not own by exploiting a security flaw

Hidden text on a page that is only shown to the search engines, not users, typically full of keywords you want to rank for

These tactics don’t work in the long-term because the search engines are always looking to stop them from happening. This means that traffic and rankings can drop pretty much overnight if you’re caught using these tactics, so we strongly advise steering clear.

Why sustainable, white-hat strategies are so important

You are building a business online, and chances are that you want to compete online for many years to come. If you want to do this, then you need to carefully choose the tactics you’re willing to employ and make an assessment of how risky those tactics are. As with any business (offline included), there are tactics that carry a certain amount of risk with them. For example, an offline business may carry out some kind of PR stunt to try and build awareness of the brand. The inherent risk is that a stunt can misfire, negatively affecting the brand and deterring potential customers.

As a business, you need to weigh up the risks and benefits of any marketing activity.

This is why white-hat strategies are so important to a website: They pose the least amount of risk and are very unlikely to lead to you being hit with a penalty from Google. Also, just as importantly, white-hat strategies focus on adding true value to the Internet, your industry, and your customers’ experience. If you want to build a loyal customer base which not only buys from you but happily recommends you to friends, you need to focus on tactics that give the customer a great user experience. Providing them with genuine, useful content is one way to do this.

What works today may not work tomorrow, and where might that leave you? Many black-hats will replace their former ways with other shady techniques, and the cycle starts again. The problem is that this is not good for most businesses. Most businesses can’t afford to take risks with their websites, or constantly be looking over their shoulders, waiting for the day the search engines finally catch up with them.

If you contrast this with white-hat techniques, you know that you’re building for the long term, and while some efforts will yield better results than others, you won’t need to be looking over your shoulder or worrying every time you hear there has been a Google update.

You can read an excellent post by Rand on this topic along with lots of examples of white-hat tactics working very well.

A few words on buying links

Link building can be quite tough, particularly in the early days when you’re still trying to build your reputation, find the right people to connect with, and create great content. It is quite understandable that SEOs look for shortcuts to help make the process a little bit easier, and one of those shortcuts is often buying links.

Buying links are directly against one of Google’s webmaster guidelines:

“Buying or selling links that pass PageRank: This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links, or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link”

Google cares so much about this because buying links can change how search results appear for users. They want companies to perform well in search results because they deserve to, not because they have deep pockets and can buy links. Also, note that Google explicitly says “links that pass PageRank”. This is where the difference between buying links and buying advertising comes into play.

Buying advertising that links through to your website is fine and can be a great practice for building awareness of your business. However, Google does say that if you’re going to do this, then you should make sure that the advertisement doesn’t pass PageRank to your website. There are a few ways you can do this:

  • Adding the no follow attribute to the link
  • Making the link Javascript that Google can not follow
  • Going via a redirected page that is blocked in robots.txt

These techniques mean that the advertisements will not affect how much PageRank your website receives and, therefore, will not affect how you perform in organic search results.

In general, buying links is a risky business, and for most companies is not worth the risk. The short-term gains often outweigh the long-term benefits, and if you’re building a legitimate business that plans on using organic Google results as a means to get customers, then buying links can put that at risk.

You can read about the Moz stance on paid links here, which goes into a lot of detail on the reasons behind not recommending it as a practice.

Penalties and black-hat SEO

If you’re found to be in violation of webmaster guidelines, it is likely that you’ll be given a penalty by the search engines. Depending on the seriousness of the violation, the penalty can last from a few weeks to several months or until the problem is completely fixed. There have been some very public examples of large companies being penalized by Google for violating their guidelines.

JC Penney, a very large US retailer was heavily penalized back in February 2011 for buying large amounts of links targeting a range of specific keywords. It was several months before they started to see a recovery and they were forced to spend time trying to take lots of the links down.

Another example closely followed a few weeks later when Overstock was penalized for the practice of giving universities discounts on products in exchange for links. Again, it was several months before they started to see a recovery.

A famous example in the UK was the penalty applied to florist Interflora in February 2013 which was severe but only lasted eleven days. Google didn’t directly comment on this but it was widely believed to be link related.

All of these examples made headlines because the companies in question were very large and well-known. In reality, Google hands out penalties for this kind of behavior all the time, but most cases don’t receive the headlines that our example companies did.

Google hand out several types of penalties which we will briefly discuss here:

Manual penalties

In this case, a member of the web spam team has manually applied a penalty to your website after finding something that was in violation of their guidelines. This can be anything from buying links to sneaky redirects or cloaking. To remove this penalty, you need to file a reconsideration request with Google that includes several things:

  • What you’ve done to fix the problem that you’ve been penalized for
  • How you plan to never engage in this kind of practice again
  • Clear evidence for both of these

Then Google will manually decide whether or not to lift the penalty. They can sometimes come back and tell you that you haven’t done enough and you need to keep working to fix the problem. A common example of this is if you’ve been penalized for low-quality link building and you haven’t removed enough of the low-quality links yet.

In order to see if you’ve been given a manual penalty, you can check the manual penalties section of Google Webmaster Tools.

Algorithmic penalties

In this case, Google has automatically found a problem with your website and applied a penalty because of it. This is usually some kind of on-site problem, such as hidden text or cloaking, and you need to fix the problem before you will see the penalty lifted. With this type of penalty, sometimes just fixing the problem can lead to the penalty being lifted next time that Google crawl and index your pages. Sometimes, though, you may also need to file a reconsideration request with Google so that they can manually see if you’ve fixed the problem.

Why simply “trading links” isn’t a good strategy

In years gone by, trading links with other websites was a good way of getting links. It also became known as “link exchanges” or “reciprocal links” as a tactic. However, like a lot of link building tactics, it was often abused and pushed to the extreme. Instead of trading links with other relevant, good quality websites, many SEOs would just trade links with anyone they could. Therefore, the link was no longer being given because of the quality of the website, but more because the webmaster would get a link in return.

This led to some websites having pages that were set up specifically for trading links. These pages would have URLs similar to www.example.com/links.html. Such a page would consist of a huge list of links to websites that were often unrelated to the website itself and were not always great quality.

Because of this, Google seeks to devalue links that are only given because a link is being given in return. They can even penalize for excessive link exchanges and have a section in their webmaster guidelines for it:

“Excessive link exchanging (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”)”

When it comes to link building, Google wants to see links that you’ve earned. They want to see links that you deserve because you have something of good quality to offer – not because you’re happy to take part in link exchanges.

Having said that, Google has no problem at all with websites linking to each other for legitimate reasons. It is a natural occurrence on the web if a news story on the BBC cites an article on CNN, then a few weeks later CNN cite a story on the BBC. This is technically a reciprocal link, but do you think Google penalize for it? No, because there are genuine reasons for these websites to link to each other and they are doing it in a natural way that is good for users.

Contrast this with a page that has thousands of links on it, all going to unrelated websites with no relevance at all and you can see the difference in what Google does and doesn’t like.

Credits: MozBlog

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