What Color is Your SEO? White hat v. black hat Search Engine Optimization

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SEO - Search engine optimization

 

 

How to tell the good guys from the bad guys on the Wild Wild Web and what to look for in a digital marketing agency claiming to help with SEO.

Years ago when I first heard someone discussing Black Hat versus White Hat SEO, I thought it was just a clever turn of phrase that particular speaker had decided to use. I had no idea these were the industry terms actually used to distinguish reputable practices used to enhance Search Engine Optimization (how easily and quickly search engines find and index a website) from the many fly-by-night agencies more interested in taking your money than delivering real results. In the years since, not only have I learned a lot more about search engines and optimizing websites to attract them, but I have developed an agency that strives daily to wear a white hat by delivering legitimate Search Engine Results Page (SERP) rankings gained through honest SEO practices. This blog addresses practices used by White Hat and Black Hat agencies or individuals to optimize your site for search engines (SEO) and improve your ranking when someone conducts a search (SERP).

The Cowboys

  • White Hats—agencies/individuals who follow search engine-friendly guidelines and put more focus on appealing to a human audience as opposed to just search engines; as a result, these sites tend to be more appealing and longer lasting.
  • Black Hats—agencies/individuals who use unethical techniques designed simply to attract and trick search engines into boosting page rankings; as a result, once the search engines figure out they’ve been duped, these website frequently must change URLs to continue operating or end up being shut down.

The Ammo

White Hat agencies follow the guidelines provided by Google to ‘feed’ their search engines quality data. High search rankings may be slower to arrive, but they usually are sustainable and enduring. These techniques include:

  • Quality Content—First and foremost, search engines love to read, and they especially feed on well-written, site-appropriate content. As with a well-stocked buffet loaded with a wide, appealing variety of food items, search engines will flock to a similar website before visiting a site with sparse, poorly written content. And they will keep coming back if you continue stocking the data buffet with new content, such as
  • Blog Posts—A blog (the common term for a ‘web log’) offers many benefits to a business or organization, such as establishing credibility and sharing information. Blogs also provide an excellent way to post new content to feed the search engines. Inviting others to write a guest blog provides
  • Backlinking and Link Building—When someone else writes a blog for your site, usually it is also posted on their site with a link back to yours. By the same token, when you are a guest blogger, your post will include your URL and, if you’re smart, links to other pages or articles on your site that will incite others to come visit. Sites build backlinks by mutually agreeing to include the other’s links on their site when it is appropriate.
  • Overall Site Optimization—Every white hat agency worth its spurs will also review every page, title, link, meta tag, alt text and minute detail of your website to ensure all function properly and reflect keywords and terms people will use when performing a search. Your site needs to appeal to visitors as well as search engines; a reputable agency knows how to tweak every item to offer maximum appeal to both.

Black Hat agencies use a variety of techniques that tend to be more subversive and unethical. It is not unusual for a site’s ranking to skyrocket when these practices are put into play. However, it is also just as common for the site to be indexed as spam and disappear from the rankings altogether. Black Hat techniques include:

  • Keyword Stuffing—Keywords are the words and phrases people will plug into a search when trying to find a product, service or location. White Hat SEO means including them in your high-quality content where it naturally makes sense, known as organic SEO. Black Hats will deluge your content with them, even when it makes the content horrible to read or nonsensical. They will also stuff them into your meta tags, which is a statement in the code that describes your page. As a result of this Black Hat practice, some search engines, including Google, have stopped using meta tags when indexing sites.
  • Hidden Text—Like meta tags, this is text written in code, which means it is visible to the search engines but not to the people visiting your site. By inserting hidden text utilizing key search terms (keywords) and phrases, unethical agencies lure the search engines to the page via what could be compared to false advertising. Eventually, most search engines will identify these pages as spam and stop returning, plummeting the site’s ranking if not closing it completely.
  • Paid Links—Many Black Hat agencies may suddenly improve a site’s rankings by purchasing links from other pages. Links can and will naturally occur within well-written, informative content, but rarely do they link to a product with an incentive to purchase. Natural links usually refer someone to even more information or an additional source. Paid links, however, are purchased by Black Hat agencies that ask other websites to sell them some real estate on which to post a link back to your site. In the early days, backlinks factored much higher into the SERP than they do now. This is another algorithm change Google made to reward best practices and penalize the bad guys.
  • Gateway Pages—Have you ever clicked on a link only to be taken to a page or website that has absolutely nothing to do with what you were just reading? You have entered ‘The Gateway Zone,’ also known as Doorway, Bridge, Jump and Portal pages. Usually this requires the use of Hidden Text or another term called Cloaking, wherein the content you see is different from what the SEs see.

There are many steps you can take to organically enhance your website’s SEO. Begin by reviewing your content to ensure it is well written and includes the words and phrases consumers use to find you when performing a search. Start writing a blog or hire a professional to do it for you to give the SEs new content that will keep them coming back. Begin offering insightful comments on other blogs that are appropriate to your industry or product and include a backlink to your website.

And if you decide to enlist the help of SEO professionals, be sure to ask direct questions about their tactics and carefully investigate the sites of their clients. Any reputable agency will first want to perform an SEO audit on your site and analyze traffic before immediately implementing tactics. If that’s not the case, jump on your trusty steed and ride like the wind. Or call us; we’re some of the good guys!

Caitlin Schlichting is the co-founder and CEO of Digital Fire, an online marketing company, and is also a teacher and trainer on the subjects of digital marketing.

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