Friday, November 25, 2011

There’s No Such Thing as “Gray Hat” SEO



If you’ve been in the SEO field more than five minutes, you’ve likely become familiar with the informal “Black Hat”/”White Hat” classification system for SEO techniques. White Hat methods involve creating useful, original methodologies and content for humans, and then presenting that content so that search engines can find it and show it to whoever’s looking for it. Black Hat techniques involve deceiving users and search engines in order to achieve rankings without providing long-term value and potentially causing the client harm.
grey hat right side
Then there’s a third category of techniques that don’t fall easily into either the “white” or “black” category. They seem to exist at the borderline between the two, an ethical gray area, so they’re referred to as “Gray Hat.” The problem with Gray Hat techniques, however, is that they don’t exist.
This is not to say that there are no gray areas when it comes to SEO ethics. It’s ethics, after all. What I mean is that when applied to individual SEO techniques, the label “Gray Hat” is not only inaccurate, but also gives false legitimacy to those “borderline” techniques by situating them halfway between the extremes of black and white.
Of course, I have to define “Gray Hat” if I want to argue it doesn’t exist. But everyone seems to have a different idea of what exactly it is. I found several slightly overlapping definitions:
  • Techniques that are somewhat deceptive yet not specifically disallowed by search engines’ published guidelines – but may someday be.
  • Black Hat techniques used for legitimate, non-deceptive purposes, or techniques whose legitimacy depends entirely on the intent of the webmaster.
  • Techniques that search engines disapprove of, but won’t (or can’t) penalize your site for using.
  • In a 2008 newsletter article, The Case for White Hat SEO, Bruce Clay estimated that “about 80% of the people who are Gray Hats are just undereducated in the White Hat way of doing SEO.
  • John Andrews defines Gray Hat as “techniques which remain ill-defined by all that published material coming out of Google, and for which reasonable people … could disagree on how the tactics support or contrast with the ‘spirit’ of Google’s published guidelines.”
Part of the confusion, I think, results from the fact that we’re talking about both the letter and the spirit of search engines’ published guidelines, so there are two different questions we should ask about any particular SEO strategy:
  • Does it follow search engines’ published rules and guidelines?
  • Is it intended to deceive search engines and/or users?
We can use these questions to generate following matrix:
Does it follow search engines’ published rules and guidelines?
Yes
No
Is it intended to deceive search engines and/or users?
No
White Hat
“Undereducated” White Hat
Yes
Gray Hat
Black Hat
We can see that techniques termed “Gray Hat” are distinct from the “undereducated” White Hat tactics mentioned by Bruce – techniques that violate search engines’ published guidelines only because the webmaster didn’t know any better.
What about the rest of “Gray Hat”? Below are some techniques commonly referred to as Gray Hat, but if we look closely we find that there’s less gray area that we think.
Non-malicious cloaking: Say your site advertises a brand of alcohol, so you give visitors a popup that verifies they’re 21 before letting them in. But you want to allow Googlebot unfettered access, so you present the robot with a version of the page without the popup. This is sometimes a Black Hat technique used for a White Hat purpose: what’s important is the intention. There’s no intention to deceive anyone, so this is White Hat.
Buying an expired domain and 301 redirecting all the incoming “link juice” to your own site:The argument for classifying this as “Gray Hat” is that Google won’t penalize you if it catches you – it’ll just discount those redirected links. But even if you don’t risk a penalty, this technique is still deceptive and misrepresents your site’s popularity on the Web.
Article spinning: This involves replacing words or phrases of an article to make it seem like original content. This is considered Gray Hat because it’s harder to detect and takes more effort than simply publishing duplicate content everywhere. But it’s still a shortcut to rankings using deception.
The second two examples above are attempts to deceive search engines and achieve rankings while doing less work and creating nothing useful. Is this really a gray area? Aren’t those techniques just a weaker form of Black Hat?
I think so.
I believe the SEO community should ditch the “Gray Hat” label and call those techniques something along the lines of “weak” Black Hat, as opposed to the “strong” Black Hat of malicious cloaking, link farms, scraped content, etc.
That said, the matrix above may now look like this:
Does it follow the search engines’ published rules and guidelines?
Yes
No
Is it intended to deceive search engines and/or users?
No
White Hat
“Undereducated” White Hat
Yes
“Weak” Black Hat
“Strong” Black Hat
Of course, gray areas still exist. And reasonable people can still disagree about which techniques are White Hat and which more closely resemble “weak” Black Hat. But because the term “Gray Hat” is inaccurate, misleading and ultimately unnecessary, we should stop referring to it as a category of SEO techniques.

6 comments:

  1. Nice info! I've been searching for a good philadelphia seo firm for a while now, but I can't really tell whether they practice ethical seo or use black hat techniques. Thanks a million for explaining all these terms. It helps a lot!

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  2. I agree with Rita. This explains a lot! I've just started working with search engine optimization for my business, and there are so many different tools that it's really hard to know which ones are acceptable and which ones are illegal. So Thank you for clarifying! It's greatly appreciated!

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  3. I'm on the same page as AlexJovic. This is great information! I've spoken to a couple different seo consulting services, and they mentioned this greay hat seo term every now and then, but I didn't really understand what it meant until now. Thanks for explaining!

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  4. To find the best seo companies, you need to do research. A top SEO firm loves an educated customer, while fly-by-night SEO firms are all about customers who are unfamiliar with how it works.

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  5. You really give the right information that I am looking for.
    I found this blog post through Google and I love your contents here.
    Thanks for sharing such informative articles and I will make sure visit some other blog post on your websites to read more.
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  6. There is black and white but I do not believe in grey. It seems like there is SEOs that know tricks and tips but do not push to balance junk on the web. We reviewed some network cabling services videos online and used everything we had to market it and it didn't seem like grey or anything.

    It's about who wants to be first?

    Andy

    ReplyDelete