Why it’s time to ditch black, white, and gray hats in SEO

Experienced SEO professionals are goal-oriented employees.

They work with their employers or clients to set clear expectations for traffic growth and the timeline for achieving those goals.

A successful SEO professional first assesses where the company stands in terms of domain authority and sales, then creates an action plan to select and improve key performance indicators.

It gets complicated in creating this action plan.

SEO professionals need to meet their employer’s goals and primarily improve their website’s Google PageRank to achieve this.

Since SEO professionals work under Google, many assume that they need to follow Google’s guidelines to be successful.

The industry-wide history of Google addiction has led SEO experts to categorize their ranking strategies based on how well they meet Google’s user expectations.

The terms “black hat”, “white hat” and “gray hat” have been used for years to legitimize and criticize various SEO tactics.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that this terminology does more harm than good to the SEO industry.


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This argument is not new – Dr. Pete Meyers, marketing scholar at Moz, wrote this critical article in 2013, questioning the usefulness of black and white hat terminology.

However, the use of these terms persists and SEO professionals need a new model for evaluating SEO strategies.

Color coded SEO

For years, professionals in the SEO industry have used color-coded terms to describe the ethics of ranking techniques.

Although the distinction between black, gray and white hats falls on a subjective spectrum, most SEO professionals recognize the basic definitions of these terms:

Black hat

This term refers to “unethical” SEO tactics that violate search engine (mainly Google) guidelines to manipulate ranking.

The strategies commonly associated with black hat SEO include:

  • Camouflage.
  • Keyword filling.
  • Paid links.
  • Connect farms.
  • Guest Posting Networks.
  • Automation of content.

Use of this tactic could result in a Google penalty.

Gray hat

So-called “gray hat” SEO tactics are neither black nor white or in other words wrong or right.


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Using this tactic could result in a Google penalty.

White hat

“Ethical” SEO tactics that follow Google’s guidelines and do not result in a penalty are called “white hat” strategies.

White hat practices include:

  • Optimize your website for cell phones.
  • Improve loading speed.
  • Keyword research.
  • Create useful content.

Problems with current SEO semantics

Rather than helping SEO professionals, the continued use of the black, gray, and white hat terminology hinders their growth and the development of the SEO industry as a whole.

And the problems with the color-coded labels go far beyond their subjectivity.

Language also creates the following dilemmas:

1. Current terminology relies too heavily on ethical principles

The words that are used to describe and discuss SEO tactics are important.

Their effects influence the decisions of SEO professionals and their customers or employers.

With black and white hat terminology, the implications are clear – under this model, an SEO strategy is either right or wrong.

But whose ethical standards do these terms reflect?

The definitions of black, gray and white hat SEO are based on Google’s guidelines and the actions that Google allows or penalizes.

Essentially, the terms spread the ethical values ​​that Google wants to convey to users.

But since when has Google been an authority on ethics and morals?

What’s stopping companies from setting their own SEO standards other than a Google penalty here and there?

2. The current terminology leads to unnecessary restrictions

While SEO professionals operate in a Google-centric system, they ultimately serve their business or customers, not Google.

However, the concept of black, gray and white hat search engine optimization is based on the rules of google rather than your company’s bottom line.

Too often SEO professionals make strategic decisions in order to adhere to the rules, even if the decision goes against the good of their company.

But SEO pros need to think outside the box that Google created.

Just because a strategy violates Google’s guidelines doesn’t mean it is useless in every situation.


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SEO beginners in particular fall victim to the black and white understanding of SEO strategy that is sustained by this terminology.

When they watch video tutorials and read articles by reputable SEO industry leaders using these terms, they are accepting the distinctions at face value.

In fact, the black and white dichotomy keeps them from investigating a tactic and realizing for themselves whether it is feasible, which limits their skills.

3. Current terminology encourages SEO professionals to ask the wrong questions

An SEO professional has one basic goal: to increase website traffic and sales in order to increase sales.

However, business goals and what an SEO professional must do to achieve them do not always align with Google’s ideology and guidelines.

Instead of asking if Google allows a particular strategy, SEO professionals should ask themselves if the tactic will help achieve their goals and if the risk is worth it.

This mindset would create a paradigm shift where profit and growth take precedence over compliance.


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That’s not to say that SEO pros should completely ignore Google’s guidelines – Google can impose costly penalties on websites they believe are trying to play the system – but SEO pros should consider the guidelines as a Google user’s guide treat, not as law.

Whenever an SEO professional develops a strategy like a link building campaign, they should review Google’s guidelines and then turn to a risk score matrix.

The assessment can help them determine if the campaign is worth their time and resources.

Additionally, if your strategy violates Google’s rules, it helps determine if the potential benefits outweigh the risk of a Google penalty.

4. Current terminology implies universality

The labeling of SEO strategies as black, gray or white hat implies a cross-industry uniformity.

This suggests that a black hat strategy for a skin care e-commerce website is also a black hat approach for cybersecurity software as a service company website.

In reality, different industries have different standards when it comes to SEO practices.


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For example, in the fashion industry, sending free merchandise to an influencer to post a review on their blog or social media is perfectly acceptable and has become the new norm.

However, paying for or offering free products for links is expressly prohibited by Google’s link scheme guidelines and is more of a gray area in other industries.

5. Current terminology does not take into account search engine transformations

The concept of black and white hat search engine optimization has been around for years – at this point it is difficult to determine when the terms were added to the industry dictionary.

The ranking algorithms of Google search, on the other hand, are constantly changing.

As a result, some SEO strategies have become outdated and new strategies continue to emerge to keep up with the algorithm changes and new technology.

When Google changes its ranking algorithms and changes its guidelines, it can make certain SEO tactics more or less effective or compliant.

For example, John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trend Analyst at Google, said in a Google Webmasters video that nofollow links don’t pass PageRank.


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Then, three months later, Müller said, “I think we’re already in the state where we’re essentially using nofollow as a signal. It’s not that we always completely ignore these links. “

If an SEO professional is using guest blogging as a link building tactic, should they add dofollow or nofollow links to their website?

Is sharing PageRank with nofollow links making blogging guests with dofollow links a black hat strategy?

These questions illustrate the rigidity of outdated terminology that ignores algorithmic changes.

The new evolution

The system that uses color-coded hats to symbolize SEO concepts has obvious flaws, but what’s the alternative?

SEO professionals still need a way to convey the risk and benefit of rank-increasing strategies.

Instead of using the current black and white distinctions to classify ranking methods, SEO professionals should use quantitative metrics to understand and evaluate the results of a tactic.

Instead of calling a strategy black or white hat SEO, be specific.


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Explain which key performance indicators the tactic will help the company and at what cost – both in terms of resources and the risk of punishment.

It is also useful for SEO professionals to explain the difference between growth hacking and slow growth strategies to their employers or clients.

For quick results and rapid traffic growth, SE professionals can use growth hacking techniques that provide immediate results but involve higher risks.

On the other hand, low risk SEO strategies like technical SEO and high quality content creation often take time to generate a return on investment.

Hats off to problem-solving SEO professionals

SEO professionals have complex tasks and often have to take significant risks.

In an industry that is constantly evolving, SEO professionals need to realize that sometimes their work doesn’t pay off – or worse, it leads to a decrease in traffic and sales.

With that weight on their shoulders, the best SEO professionals are the ones who look beyond the black and white terminology, learn from trial and error, and put their business’s needs first.


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