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Understanding Gray Hat SEO: The Search Techniques That Could Go Wrong

The world doesn’t work in binaries – and neither does SEO.

SEO – digital marketers’ shorthand for “search engine optimization” – refers to the art and science behind getting your brand to the top of search engine results pages (also known as SERPs). In many ways, putting a solid SEO strategy into practice is the single most important thing you can do to get your next customers to find your site, and keep your existing audience coming back for more.

With that being said, it’s important to realize that there are many different types of SEO strategies out there – and not all of them are going to bring you the results you may be hoping for.

As a rule, we generally break SEO tactics into two categories. On the one hand, you have white hat SEO tactics; these are the surefire methods that will allow you to rank highly on search engines while also playing fair with Google, and other businesses in your industry.

On the flip side, there’s black hat SEO; these are the tactics which Google and other search engines consider to be cheating. Employing a black hat SEO strategy can damage your brand’s reputation, and may actually backfire on you, resulting in your SERP rankings falling – with your organic traffic and conversion rates plummeting, too.

So, if you’re reading this and considering implementing an SEO strategy, you’re probably thinking: “Got it. Just use white hat SEO and I’ll be good.”

And, while that’s true, it’s not always quite that simple in practice. That’s why we feel it’s important to understand that there’s a third way that SEO can sometimes go, often despite your business’s best intentions: The way of the gray hat.

What Is Gray Hat SEO?

In a nutshell, gray hat SEO can be thought of as the techniques that are not quite white hat, but not quite black. They are the techniques that exist in a sort-of moral, and functional, gray area, for a variety of reasons.

To begin understanding gray hat SEO, it’s important to recognize that black hat tactics SEO are still around for a reason. They’re definitely high risk, but it’s hard to deny that they can also be high reward, generating bigger results in a shorter period of time than more ethical SEO strategies. Of course, white hat SEO is more sustainable, and will always net bigger gains; it just often requires more patience and flexibility in order to pay off. (More on this later.)

Gray hat SEO tactics might exist at a crossroads between these two poles, as marketers use tactics that are not necessarily forbidden by search engines, but which are not quite approved, either. For this reason, a lot of cutting edge techniques – or novel innovations in the search marketing field – may often exist as gray hat for a while, before they’re either brought into the conventional toolkit, or major search engines begin to move away from them.

With that in mind, it’s also important to realize that Google’s algorithms and rules are changing all the time – which means that a tactic considered to be a “best practice” one year could be a black hat blemish by the next. That’s just the way the game goes!

So, with that being said, the most useful definition may be think of gray hat SEO as those SEO tactics which currently work, but which Google and its competitors may be moving to ban or restrict in the future. We’ve seen tons of examples of this shift occurring throughout SEO history.

Guest Blogging

For instance, guest blogging used to be seen as a surefire way to build backlinks (a vital “off-page” part of any comprehensive SEO strategy). The thinking behind this strategy went like this:

“Since Google likes it when other domains link back to my domain, I’ll reach out to as many websites as possible offering to provide them with free content for their site. That way, I’m getting my voice out there, and I can create a legitimate link back to my own site for Google to find and follow.”

Makes sense, right? And, on the surface, there’s nothing nefarious there – just good business, a win-win for you and for the other site in question.

In some ways, then, this is a prime example of a gray hat tactic! Because, you see, for years, guest blogging was the primary way that some SEO shops generated links and attempted to build their site’s credibility, and Google let it happen unimpeded… until they changed their minds.

Today, Google considers guest blogging to be a negligible strategy at best, with minimal benefits to offer to your brand. At worst? Crawlers may begin to associate your links with spam, and punish your site correspondingly.   

Keyword stuffing

Want an example that goes even further back than guest blogging? How about keyword stuffing! This is the practice of loading up your content with as many keywords as possible, to get it to appear in more searches.

In the early days of search engines, keyword stuffing basically used to be the name of the game in SEO. It was a default, and even cornerstone strategy, used by digital marketers hoping to have a website get placed highly on SERPs.

After a while, though, search engine gatekeepers began to realize that denser keyword lists did not necessarily equate to better content (and, in fact, the opposite was often true). So today, keyword stuffing is considered to be one of the most offensive black hat techniques, and obvious displays of it will almost certainly result in your site suffering a significant ranking penalty.

When It Comes to SEO, How Much Does Intention Matter?

How much of determining whether a tactic is gray hat, black hat, or white hat comes down to understanding the letter and the spirit of the marketer’s intent? Opinions vary on this.

For instance, one marketing pro argues that “there’s no such thing as gray hat SEO,” just “weak” black hat and “strong” black hat. In other words? There’s good and there’s bad, and then there’s gradations of badness, which ultimately come down to intent.

Before we get bogged down in a freshman ethics lecture, let’s address a more practical question which may be on your mind at this point: Is it possible to use a black hat SEO technique in a white hat way?

The answer? Possibly!

There are examples of this occurring in practice which walk right up to the line between black hat and white hat, and which could play out either way in terms of your SEO results.

For instance, “cloaking” a domain is often considered to be a black hat technique; when doing this, you essentially redirect a website visitor (and Google’s search ranking bots) to a second site, without them seeing a difference in URL. In some cases, you may be penalized for cloaking, but there are also applicable circumstances where it might be necessary, in a non-malicious way.

Similarly, there are digital tactics that are questionable, but far from illegal, and which may ultimately affect your SEO results for better or for worse. One common example: How would you rate buying social followers on Twitter or Instagram? Black hat or white hat? Certainly, many people out there have bought social followers without any malicious intent; but, in so doing, they amplified their reach in a way that could improve their SEO. For that reason, it’s probably more of a gray hat area. It’s hard to classify, except on a case-by-case basis, and we can’t really know how well it works for SEO in the current digital ecosystem without more definitive data.

Finally, it’s important to remember that there are some companies who end up in gray hat territory completely by mistake. Oftentimes, these brands are attempting to use white hat techniques, but falling short. As marketer Bruce Clay once put it:

“…about 80% of the people who are Gray Hats are just undereducated in the White Hat way of doing SEO.”

That’s what needs to change – and that’s where Geek Chicago can help!

What Does It Take to Succeed at White Hat SEO?

So, consider this article a long walk to a short answer: Ultimately, here at Geek Chicago, we know that white hat SEO is the way to go for meaningful, lasting SEO results… And we want to help your business get there!

With that being said, it’s vital for your brand to understand how white hat SEO works in order to succeed on search engines today, and that means understanding the difference between what works and what doesn’t, or what’s ethical and what isn’t.

We’re fond of saying that everything we need to know about SEO, we learned in kindergarten – because, in the end, SEO success is all the about fundamentals. Here are some we always put in practice, to great effect:

  • High quality, readable content
    The more readers like what you have to offer, the more time they’ll spend with your content, and the more likely they’ll be to click through to other parts of your site – all of which send very positive signals to Google!
  • Web development and on-page SEO techniques
    Your website is your digital home. Is it primed to help search crawlers find, index, and rank your landing pages? Is it speedy and functional on mobile and desktop devices?
  • A multi-faceted approach to digital marketing
    Google results don’t exist in a vacuum, and, as we’ve pointed out already, backlinks matter. For that reason, it’s important to implement social media, email, and reputation management strategies, all of which can create leads and conversions while also bolstering your SEO success!
  • Analysis and patience
    Your SEO campaign can only benefit from regular readings of analytics and keyword ranking data. It’s also important to remember that a campaign that will weather changes to Google and other search engines will be a campaign defined by its operator’s willingness to experiment, conduct A/B tests, invest in the long-term picture, and keep up with trends and news in the industry.

Sound complicated or time-consuming? That’s where Geek Chicago would love to help out! Our team of digital marketing aficionados knows just what it takes to set up and operate SEO campaigns for businesses of all shapes and sizes, and we’ve helped brands from all around the country attain stellar SEO results.

Whether you’re looking to increase your brand reach, generate more traffic, or win more conversions, our team knows how to help you get the results you want. Don’t hesitate to drop us a line with any questions, or to get the conversation started ASAP!

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Jason Finn

Founder & Chief Geek

Jason has nearly 20 years of consulting experience, predominantly in the technology space. Most recently he was the COO and Director of Technology for Rich Casto & Company, a national training and consulting organization in the real estate industry.
As a consultant for IBM, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, and Envision Consulting Group (now IMS Health), Jason has served clients of all sizes, including Big Pharma, Fortune 500, and Global 1000 companies:

  • Allstate Insurance Company
  • AOL (America Online)
  • Astellas Pharmaceuticals
  • Eli Lilly and Company
  • Ford Motor Credit
  • Wockhardt USA (formerly Morton Grove Pharmaceuticals)
  • Norwich Union
  • PNC Bank
  • Reynolds and Reynolds

Sarunas Budrikas

Creative Director

Sarunas is a web design and development expert with hundreds of successful projects in his portfolio. He is passionate about delivering extraordinary user experiences for every client and consistently goes above and beyond everyone’s expectations. As an SEO expert and strategist, he can optimize your website, or app, to get the most out of it, day in and day out. Sarunas holds a degree in Electrical Engineering from Kaunas Technology University, in Lithuania. Sarunas now lives in Chicago, and calls it home.

Alexandra Olsavsky

Client Experience Specialist

Alex specializes in content generation and social media promotion for Geek | Chicago clients, helping to solidify their presence in the online community. This includes blog writing, graphic design, co-ordination and design of weekly newsletters, and active engagement on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn. Outside of Geek, Alex is a classically-trained soprano who professionally performs around the city of Chicago (most recently with the Chicago Baroque Band, and with the Rolling Stones for their "50 and Counting" tour).