White Hat vs. Black Hat SEO: How to Spot a Good SEO & Avoid Hiring a Bad One

Patrick Coyne
Patrick Coyne Director of Organic & Local Search

White Hat or Black Hat SEO? Which side are YOU on?

Ok, maybe it’s not all that serious. While “white hats” and “black hats” sound like cold war spies in a pulpy dime store novel, they’re actually just general terms for:

1) Search Engine Optimization (SEO) professionals who work within the Search Engine’s guidelines in order to improve a website’s performance, and 2) others who utilize disreputable SEO methods to manipulate Search Engine Rankings.

One is interested in a long-term, sustainable and scalable strategy that will yield SEO success for years to come. The other is looking for short-term Ranking gains that in time will almost certainly be discovered and penalized by the Google gods.

The real trouble for a website owner or digital marketing department is knowing how to recognize a White Hat vs. a Black Hat SEO, and knowing what you’re truly getting when you hire an SEO agency. And unfortunately, they don’t literally wear different colored hats to make telling them apart easy.

We’ll teach you how to spot a Black Hat versus a White Hat when hiring an SEO professional, and give you a cut and dry definition for both. After this article, you’ll be prepared to hire the right vendor and avoid throwing away your money – or severely damaging your website via poor SEO choices.

What is a White Hat SEO?

White Hat SEO experts devise and implement strategies and tactics that both adhere to the policies of Search Engines like Google and focus on delivering the best possible website experience for the target audience.

This is one of those times where being a goody two-shoes who plays by the rules is a very good thing. That’s because alternative can result in a website being penalized and having its rankings manually lowered by search engines. At Arc Intermedia, we only employ White Hat SEO strategies.

What is a Black Hat SEO?

Black Hat SEO use tactics that violate Search Engine guidelines (these are the guidelines Search Engines provide to let us know what is the right way to improve your online visibility) to increase website Rankings and Traffic. While these tactics may work in the short term, Search Engines are usually quick to weed out and penalize websites that implement these tactics. In short, Black Hats are spammers.

What’s the Difference Between a White Hat & a Black Hat?

Beyond the tactics being employed, the big difference between a White a Black Hat SEO is this: White Hats are actual marketers. The goal of a White Hat isn’t to strictly climb the Rankings and send a glut of Traffic to a website (although if done right, this will eventually happen). Instead, the goal is to understand the needs of a client’s target audience and devise tactics that will best satisfy those needs.

This also explains the long-term value in White Hat over Black Hat SEO tactics. For example, a Black Hat SEO may create low-quality content and use keyword stuffing (repeatedly using the same keyword on a page in an effort to rank for that keyword). This page may rise in the Rankings (albeit briefly), but when

real human beings clicks on the URL, they will likely not find what they’re looking for and will almost definitely bounce from the site. A White Hat SEO, on the other hand, will conduct keyword research and write content that naturally includes relevant keywords while speaking to a human audience, with the intent of keeping a visitor on the site and preferably moving toward a conversion.

Finally, Black Hats are looking to earn a quick return on their investment, while White Hats are thinking about the big picture. SEO should be a long-term investment that builds upon previous efforts, not a smash and grab.

You don’t need to have Google’s quality guidelines committed to memory in order to spot the difference between a White Hat and a Black Hat. Just understand that if an SEO strategy or tactic feels spammy or lacking in substance, it is likely a Black Hat tactic and should be avoided.

White Hat SEO Tactics:

These are some of the typical tactics employed by a White Hat SEO professional:

  • Keyword Research and Analysis: While using Exact Match Keywords throughout your content isn’t as important as it once was (Search Engine algorithms can now understand the semantic meaning of your words), conducting Keyword Research is still an important White Hat tool. Keyword Research can help you understand how your audience is searching, discover synonyms for your keywords, and understand the Search intent of keywords.
  • Competitor Content Analysis: While creating quality content is, and always will be, an important White Hat tactic, we’re going to focus on a more specific content creation tactic. A good SEO will analyze the content of a client’s competitors (particularly that content which is ranking for your target keywords) and devise a content strategy that can provide a more useful version of what they’re offering.
  • Mobile Optimization: There’s a really good chance that the majority of Traffic to your website is from mobile devices. But is your website prioritizing the mobile experience? This is a great example of a White Hat SEO tactic because it balances what users want to see and the type of websites Search Engines tend to favor (Google is increasingly giving preference to mobile-friendly websites).
  • Earning Links: A White Hat SEO earns backlinks through great content, offline relationships, and outreach. Linkbuilding should be done in a way that is natural and should never be bought (more on that in a bit).

Black Hat SEO Tactics:

  • Keyword Stuffing: Sure, Search Engines are getting smarter all the time, but Keyword Stuffing can still be effective in the short-term. If you’re seeing a web page that uses the same keyword over and over again to the point that the writing seems unnatural, this is Keyword Stuffing.
  • Cloaking: Any time you’re intentionally trying to hide something from the user, it’s probably a Black Hat tactic. Cloaking refers to presenting the Search Engines with a set of content that is drastically different than what the user sees.
  • Link Farms: Link Farms are web pages that exist only to link to another page. Often times these pages are totally unrelated to the content of the pages to which they link, but as with all things Black Hat, the focus is on quantity and not quality.
  • Buying Links: If you’re purchasing backlinks from a website, you’re in direct violation of Google’s webmaster quality guidelines. While there are some gray areas where this can get confusing, it’s best to avoid paying for links at all costs.
  • Redirecting Keyword-Rich Domains to Your Site: Some Black Hat spammers will snatch up dozens (or even hundreds) of domain names featuring their target keywords and then redirect these domain names to their main website. The idea being that it will enable them to easily rank for every keyword featured in those new domains. Something like this is a clear manipulation of the Search results and Search Engines are generally smart enough to recognize this spammy tactic.

How to Avoid Hiring a Black Hat SEO

Ok, so you know what a Black Hat is and that you certainly don’t ever want to hire one. But when it comes to bringing an SEO in to help out your website, how do you know that person is the real deal? We know Black Hats have no issue with lying to Google, so what’s to stop them from lying to you, taking your money, and potentially tanking your website with their shady dealings? Here’s a few red flags to look for when hiring:

  • Lack of Transparency: If they treat their SEO strategy as a big secret and don’t let you know what they’re up to, they may have something to hide. Remember, this is your website; you should be made fully aware of how they’re altering it.
  • No Track Record: Remember how we talked about White Hats making a long-term investment? Well this also means that they’ve likely been doing SEO for a few years and have a number of case studies and clients they can point to in order to demonstrate their past SEO success.
  • They Guarantee Rankings: Rankings for what? A particular keyword? Well, which one? How can they guarantee that without first devising a strategy? Don’t be fooled by the promise of “we’ll get you on the first page!” Good SEOs don’t guarantee rankings because there are frankly too many variables. White Hat SEO professionals concentrate on driving qualified Organic Traffic leads.

As with anything in life, SEO takes a great deal of hard work to find success. If an SEO professional is promising you the world, there’s a good chance their strategy is not on the up-and-up. Buyer beware!