Gray Hat SEO in Google’s Wild West: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of SEO

The land of online search results used to be a wild, unsettled territory with few rules or laws to govern behaviors. Unscrupulous companies and individuals used a myriad of dubious and downright malicious tactics to dominate, leaving upstanding businesses at an unfair disadvantage. Then Google and other search engines settled the land with rules, policies, terms of service agreements, and algorithms to clean things up and level the playing field.

The landscape is a lot more orderly these days, but there will always be shady characters looking to take advantage of weaknesses and loopholes. Enter: gray hat SEO tactics.

But what exactly is gray hat SEO, and in this white hat-black hat world, is gray hat a bad guy or a good guy?

Before we dive into those murky waters, let’s take a look at the two more widely known camps of SEO tactics — white hat and black hat — to make sure we’re all on the same SERP.

The Good: White Hat SEO

White hat SEO only uses optimization strategies and tactics that are approved by search engine rules and policies. The goal is for content and web design to be geared towards humans, not just search engines, and their overall user experience. Search engines want to find and present users with relevant, high-quality results and avoid sites that are low-quality, spammy, or possibly infected with viruses and malware. Some examples of white hat SEO include:

  • Quality Content – This one should be a no-brainer. Quality content is well-written, valuable content, and it’s the #1 way to rank well in the eyes of both Google and your end users.
  • Keyword Research and Implementation – Finding relevant keywords to target and then effectively using them throughout your site helps search engines find your quality content.
  • Quality Inbound Links – Having links back to your site from other sites is a great indication that your site is high-quality and can be trusted — if the links are from sites that are high-quality themselves and are relevant to your business.

If you play by the rules and only use white hat tactics, you have nothing to worry about. Your site will be viewed favorably by search engines, you will rank well, and your users will have a positive experience. It’s a win-win-win.

The Bad: Black Hat SEO

Black hat SEO is comprised of all the strategies and tactics that search engines have deemed unfair, misleading, or unethical. These tactics focus solely on search engines, not users, to get better rankings, and the sites that employ them are usually spammy and low-quality. Some examples of black hat SEO include:

  • Cloaking – Cloaking presents different content to the search engine and the human user. The engine will be shown highly optimized content that seems relevant, but the content the user sees may be quite the opposite.
  • Keyword Stuffing – This involves the excessive use of keywords (stuffing) on a web page, again to seem relevant to search engines. Content stuffed with keywords doesn’t read naturally, creating a bad experience for the end user.
  • Buying Links or Link Farming – The concept of buying links is straightforward enough — you purchase links back to your site from places such as fake online directories, for example. Link farming is when a group of websites all link to one another to drive up each other’s overall authority. These two methods of link building create links that are spammy and irrelevant.

Some companies (or unethical SEOs) might think these tactics are worth using because they work if they aren’t discovered by search engines. The keyword there is if. Search engines are wise to these tactics and know how to spot them — that’s how they got labeled black hat to begin with. If a site is found using any of these tactics it will be penalized, causing it to plummet in rankings or even be removed from the search index all together (and I think we all know that if you don’t exist on Google, you don’t exist). Don’t do it; it’s not worth it.

Black hat SEO is not to be confused with Negative SEO (or competitive leveling, as it’s sometimes called).

The Ugly: Negative SEO

Negative SEO is essentially the opposite of SEO. SEO aims to optimize content to increase its visibility in search results; negative SEO aims to decrease a page or website’s visibility by pushing it lower in the results. Why would anyone ever want to do such a thing?

  1. To lower a competitor’s site in the results
  2. To bury bad press about an individual or business
  3. To target a website for personal or political reasons

Negative SEO tactics range from unethical — such as click fraud, where you click on competitors’ PPC ads to use up their budget — to illegal (intentionally infecting a competitor’s site). It should go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: don’t touch these tactics with a ten-foot pole.

So, white hat is “good,” black hat is “bad,” and negative is downright ugly — that much we’re clear on. But what about that mysterious gray hat?

50 Shades of Gray: Gray Hat SEO

Gray hat SEO tactics fall between white and black, but that much you probably guessed. To be more specific, gray hat SEO strategies and tactics are those that are not white hat, and therefore may be dubious or ethically questionable, but are technically legal because they have not been labeled black hat. Yet. Some examples of gray hat tactics are:

  • Spun Content – This is a form of plagiarism that entails copying content from another website (or a few different sites) and changing up the wording just enough to keep it from being detected.
  • Fake Reviews – Paying people, such as bloggers, to write reviews. A related example would be asking friends, family, or staff to pose as customers to write reviews.
  • Inorganic Link Building – There are some very sneaky ways to get more inbound links to your site. For example, you could buy expired domains that are relevant to your business or industry, create some content on them (preferably that looks and sounds similar to what the original site had), and then link back to your site.
  • Superfluous Site Changes – This is making frequent changes to your website, especially slight ones like changing a font or rewriting a paragraph. Google places higher value on fresh or recently updated content, so tweaking things often can give your site a bump. Periodically updating your site and adding new content is a white hat tactic, but it becomes gray hat if the changes are purely aimed at getting a search engine boost and add no value to your site’s user experience.

It’s important to keep in mind that Google is always on the lookout for unfair or unethical SEO tactics and developing new algorithms to target and penalize them. Because of this, Hannah Scherrer, Senior SEO Manager at Rocket55, prefers to err on the side of caution, saying, “In general, I say avoid gray hat SEO at all costs, especially since Google is changing all the time and the things that are questionable today might be against the rules tomorrow.”

VP of Search Marketing Reed Langton-Yanowitz is also leery of gray hat SEO but sees possible applications: “It kind of depends on the specific tactics, but in general I think gray hat tactics are not worth it in the long run if you are looking for sustained results. In the long run, most gray hat tactics become black hat and can result in your site incurring a costly penalty.

If you are just looking for a quick boost in SEO for a couple of weeks for a temporary, time-sensitive campaign it might be warranted to try some gray hat tactics. But for most businesses it has more potential risk than benefit.”

If you want to wander off into the uncharted territory of gray hat SEO, the main takeaways to bear in mind are:

  1. Know the risks – today’s gray hat is tomorrow’s black hat.
  2. Weigh the pros and cons – is the risk worth the benefit?
  3. Don’t try this at home – only professionals should even attempt these risky tactics.
  4. When in doubt, don’t – no tactic is worth getting outlawed by Google.

There you have it, folks. The good, the bad, the ugly, and of course, the confoundingly ambiguous of SEO tactics. If you need help navigating the wild west of Google SERPs, give us a call at Rocket55.