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A Primer on SEO Techniques: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

SEO is complicated. You can go all-in and try to game the search algorithms for fast outcomes, or you can aim for grey areas that skirt around the boundaries of best practices’ ethics. The alternative approach is to spend a lot of time optimizing your content and wait patiently for results. In this article, we’ll break down the concepts of white, grey, and black hat SEO. We’ll discuss the individual SEO techniques for each category and what makes them good or bad ideas. Let’s get to it!

The Good: White Hat SEO

“White hat” SEO encompasses all the practices that won’t get you in trouble with search engines. Google outlines basic SEO recommendations and guidelines in its Webmaster Guidelines:

The Google Webmaster Guidelines.

In general terms, white hat SEO is a long-term effort. You create content that focuses on specific keywords, optimize it, and improve on what your competitors are doing. White hat SEO is not a get-rich-quick strategy. It is most definitely a stay-in-the-game strategy that pays dividends when done correctly.

Here’s an overview of typical white hat SEO techniques:

Keyword research. This involves using SEO tools to determine which terms users are looking for. You can use this information to shape your content strategy.
Content creation and optimization. If you want users to find you via search engines, you need to create posts and pages with the right keywords. That means creating, publishing, and optimizing the content on your website.
Organic link building. Getting links to your website can take a long time since other sites typically won’t link to sources that aren’t well-known. Once other websites start linking to yours, search engines will understand that you’re publishing high-quality content.
User experience improvements. These days, search engines also check if your site offers a good user experience (that’s where Core Web Vitals come in). If your website provides a poor experience, that will impact its rankings.
SEO audits. If your website returns errors such as HTTP codes, missing meta information, or lack of headers, your site might not rank well. Auditing your website for SEO errors means that your hard work has a higher chance of paying off.

White hat SEO typically doesn’t lead to fast results. However, following best practices ensures that search engines don’t penalize your website:

Moreover, your site is much less vulnerable to search engine algorithm updates. That’s because often, these updates focus on patching exploits and other workarounds that black or grey hat SEO practitioners use. In some cases, these algorithm updates can help you if your competitors are relying on the shadier methods of gaining ground in the SERPs.

Learn more about white hat SEO: We have a complete guide on white hat SEO techniques to ensure that your efforts are above board.

The Bad: Black Hat SEO

“Black hat” SEO refers to ranking techniques that outright go against the rules. One obvious example is copying content from other websites and passing it off as your own. As you might expect, search engines don’t look kindly on black hat techniques.

Although SEO isn’t an exact science, we know what you can and can’t do to improve your site’s position. Here are some of the most egregious examples of black hat SEO techniques that you should avoid:

Keyword stuffing. Filling a page or post with keywords doesn’t work. If search engines see that you’re overusing keywords, they’ll assume that you’re trying to game the algorithm.
Duplicate content. Copying content goes against SEO best practices. Furthermore, search engines can detect it pretty easily, affecting your site’s rankings.
Link schemes and paying for links. Paying for links is a clear example of trying to game search engine algorithms. The same applies to any “schemes” such as link trading or adding backlinks from a network of sites that you own.
Deceptive redirects. There are many valid reasons to implement redirects, such as HTTP errors. However, if you use redirects to funnel traffic to another website you own, that can get you in trouble with search engines.

The big problem with black hat SEO is that it goes against guidelines and deceives visitors. With black hat techniques, you focus on getting positive SEO results fast. However, these outcomes come at the expense of publishing engaging content and providing a positive user experience. (And that is very important to search engines.)

Search engines don’t want to highlight websites that don’t provide good value to their users. If Google or other search engines suspect you’re trying to break the rules to improve your rankings, they can issue penalties. Those penalties can involve downgraded rankings or delisting your website entirely. It can be hard (sometimes impossible) to regain the trust lost when that happens. Both from search engines and your users.

Learn more about black hat SEO: You can read our complete guide on black hat SEO techniques to learn exactly what not to do with your website.

The Ugly: Grey Hat SEO

The concepts of white and black hat SEO are relatively easy to understand. However, grey hat SEO is a bit more tricky. “Grey” SEO techniques don’t outright break search engine rules, but they certainly skirt them.

Typically, grey hat SEO focuses on techniques that exploit loopholes in guidelines. One great example involves “spun” content. It means taking existing articles and re-wording them so that you don’t end up with an exact duplicate.

Duplicating content is a black hat technique. However, “spinning” falls into a grey area. That’s just one example, though.

Here are other popular grey hat techniques:

Buying expired domains. This practice involves buying expired domains (with high authority) to revive old content, use them for linking to another website, or using a 301 redirect to pass along link juice to a different domain.
Trading links. Link exchanges might not involve money, but they fall under link scheming. Google and other engines value links because they’re votes of confidence between sites, but paying for them without disclosing they’ve been purchased is seen as a bad thing. Link trading can be hard to prove, making it fall under a grey area.
Paying for positive reviews. Search engines give testimonials a lot of weight for local SEO. Paying for reviews might help boost your local rankings. Still, fake ratings are easy to spot for both search engines and readers.
Using multiple social media accounts. You can create and use lots of different social media accounts to link back to your website, giving search engines positive signals (especially Bing which takes that into account for ranking) — however, this practice skirts SEO guidelines because these links should be gained organically through engagement.

Although grey hat SEO doesn’t technically break any rules, it involves gaming search engines. Since you’re gaining rankings artificially, that can mean you’re not providing enough value to your readers.

Ideally, your entire focus should be on white hat SEO. However, if you can find a smart way to boost your site’s rankings without breaking the rules or deceiving users, you’re free to decide whether to use it or not.

You should also consider that grey hat tactics can be classified as black hat at the whim of any search engine. That means that if you’re using any of these, you could get penalized for it in the future, even if you’re not breaking any rules right now.

Learn more about grey hat SEO: You can read our complete guide on grey hat SEO techniques to find out more about the area between black and white methods.

Frequently Asked Questions About SEO Techniques

It takes a lot of research to determine acceptable SEO methods. If you still have any questions about SEO techniques, this section will answer them.

Who Determines What Is White Hat vs. Black Hat SEO?

If you keep up with SEO news and guides, you should have a pretty good idea of the best practices. Search engines also regularly publish guidelines that tell website owners how to optimize their websites and what not to do.

The Google Webmaster Guidelines document is a fantastic example. If you read the guidelines, you’ll know precisely which practices Google (and most other search engines) frown upon.

Can White Hat SEO Techniques Become Black Hat?

There’s a clear divide between white and black hat SEO techniques. Black hat SEO involves breaking search rules or gaming algorithms to improve your rankings.

In some cases, search algorithms updates can discourage some types of optimization. One example is the 2011 “Panda” update to Google. After Panda, the search engine started penalizing duplicate content and keyword stuffing more often. However, both practices were already considered black hat.

Should I Ever Use Black Hat SEO Techniques Anyway?

There’s no scenario where we can recommend using black hat SEO techniques. This type of SEO strategy clearly goes against search engine guidelines. That means that your website can be penalized or delisted depending on the severity of the case.

The case for using grey hat techniques is, well, a lot more grey. Depending on the method, it might border on breaking the rules. Overall, we recommend sticking with white hat SEO as much as you can be positive they won’t ever be penalized.

What Happens If I Get Caught Using Black Hat/Grey Hat Techniques?

Black hat SEO gets its name because its techniques violate search engine guidelines. Search engines will often punish websites that use black hat techniques with downgraded rankings. Your website may also get delisted depending on the severity of the case.

Usually, you don’t have to worry about penalties with grey hat SEO techniques. At least when you implement them. As we said above, that can change (and has in the past), causing you to lose rankings, domain authority, and positions in SERPs.

However, imagine you find yourself using methods that can actively deceive visitors. In that case, you’re well in the black hat area and will likely be penalized accordingly.

How Do I Know if I’m Using Black Hat/Grey Hat Techniques on My Site?

Generally speaking, you’re in the black hat SEO category if you’re paying for links or duplicating content.

Still, it may be hard to determine if you’re accidentally using keyword stuffing in your content. In our experience, as long as you write articles that sound natural and help visitors, proper keyword usage shouldn’t be a concern.

Using WordPress, you can rely on SEO plugins to highlight your keyword usage. Yoast SEO, for example, will point out if you’re under or overusing keywords:

Keyword density report in Yoast

Knowing if you’re using grey hat SEO techniques can be a bit more tricky. Identifying these techniques requires a comprehensive understanding of white and black hat SEO. Therefore, we recommend reading up on both topics with our helpful WordPress SEO guides.


There are many ways to improve your website’s search engine rankings. However, most SEO efforts don’t pay off immediately. You start seeing positive results over time. If you keep up with SEO developments, your website will begin to see a steady traffic flow.

White hat SEO focuses on best practices to get the best possible results. You gamble your website’s rankings for faster gains with black hat SEO. Grey hat techniques, on the other hand, often toe the line with breaking the rules. If you ask us, white hat SEO is definitely the way to go.

Do you have any questions about SEO techniques? Let’s talk about them in the comments section below!

Featured image via Ellagrin /

The post A Primer on SEO Techniques: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly appeared first on Elegant Themes Blog.

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