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Why It’s Time to Retire Black, White & Gray Hats in SEO

Experienced SEO professionals are goal-oriented workers.

They work with their employers or clients to set clear expectations for traffic growth and the timeline for meeting those goals.

A successful SEO pro first evaluates where the company stands in terms of domain authority and sales, then creates an action plan for selecting and improving key performance indicators.

Creating this action plan is where it gets complicated.

SEO professionals have to meet their employer’s objectives and primarily need to improve their site’s Google PageRank to do so.

Because SEO pros work within Google’s framework, many assume they have to follow Google’s guidelines to succeed.

The industry’s history of Google dependency has led SEO professionals to categorize their ranking strategies based on their compliance with Google’s user expectations.

The terms “black hat,” “white hat,” and “gray hat” have been used for years to legitimize and criticize different SEO tactics.

It’s become increasingly clear that this terminology does more harm than good for the SEO industry.

This argument isn’t new – Dr. Pete Meyers, a marketing scientist at Moz, penned this critical article in 2013, questioning the usefulness of black and white hat terminology.

However, the use of these terms persists, and SEO professionals need a new model for assessing SEO strategies.

Color-Coded SEO

For years, professionals working in the SEO industry have used color-coded terminology to describe the ethicality of ranking techniques.

Although black, gray, and white hat distinctions lay on a subjective spectrum, most SEO pros recognize the basic definitions of these terms:

Black Hat

This term refers to “unethical” SEO tactics that violate search engine (mainly Google) guidelines with the intention to manipulate ranking.

Strategies commonly associated with black hat SEO include:

Employing these tactics may result in a Google penalty.

Gray Hat

So-called “gray hat” SEO tactics are neither black nor white or, in other words, wrong nor right.

Employing these tactics may result in a Google penalty.

White Hat

“Ethical” SEO tactics that adhere to Google’s guidelines and will not result in a penalty are called “white hat” strategies.

White hat practices include:

Issues with Current SEO Semantics

Rather than helping SEO professionals, the continued use of black, gray, and white hat terminology hinders their growth and the evolution of the SEO industry at large.

And the problems with the color-coded designations reach far beyond their subjectivity.

The language also creates the following dilemmas:

1. Current Terminology Relies Too Heavily on Ethical Principles

The words used to describe and discuss SEO tactics matter.

Their implications influence the decisions made by SEO pros and their clients or employers.

With black and white hat terminology, the implications are clear – under this model, an SEO strategy is either right or wrong.

But whose ethical standards do these terms reflect?

The definitions of black, gray, and white hat SEO derive from Google’s guidelines and what actions Google permits or penalizes.

Essentially, the terms spread the ethical values that Google wants users to embrace.

But since when is Google an authority in ethics and morals?

Aside from a Google penalty here and there, what keeps companies from determining their own SEO standards?

2. Current Terminology Creates Unnecessary Limitations

While SEO professionals operate within a Google-centric system, they ultimately serve their company or clients, not Google.

However, the concept of black, gray, and white hat SEO revolves around Google’s rules, not your business’ bottom line.

Too often, SEO pros make strategy decisions to adhere to the rulebook, even if the decision goes against their company’s best interest.

But SEO pros need to think outside of the box Google has created.

Just because a strategy goes against Google’s guidelines doesn’t mean it’s unusable in every situation.

Beginner SEO professionals, in particular, fall prey to the black and white understanding of SEO strategy perpetuated by this terminology.

When they see video tutorials and read articles from reputable SEO industry leaders using these terms, they accept the distinctions at face value.

In effect, the black and white dichotomy discourages them from investigating a tactic and discerning for themselves if it’s viable, limiting their capabilities.

3. Current Terminology Encourages SEO Pros to Ask the Wrong Questions

An SEO professional has one underlying goal: driving website traffic and sales to increase revenue.

However, company goals and what an SEO pro needs to do to achieve them doesn’t always align with Google’s ideology and guidelines.

Instead of asking if Google allows a particular strategy, SEO professionals should question if the tactic will help accomplish their objectives and if it’s worth the risk.

This line of thinking would create a paradigm shift that prioritizes profit and growth rather than compliance.

That’s not to say SEO pros should ignore Google’s guidelines entirely – Google can enact costly penalties on websites they think are trying to game the system – but SEO professionals should treat the guidelines as a Google user manual, not the law.

When an SEO pro devises a strategy, such as a link building campaign, they should review Google’s guidelines and then turn to a risk assessment matrix.

The assessment will help them determine if the campaign is worth their time and resources.

Furthermore, it will help decide if the potential benefits outweigh the risk of a Google penalty if their strategy bends Google’s rules.

4. Current Terminology Implies Universality

Labeling SEO strategies as black, gray, or white hat implies uniformity across all industries.

It suggests that what’s considered a black hat strategy for a skincare ecommerce site is also black hat for a cybersecurity software as a service company’s website.

In reality, different industries have different standards when it comes to SEO practices.

For example, sending an influencer free merchandise to post a review on their blog or social media channels is perfectly acceptable in the fashion industry and has become the new norm.

However, paying or offering free products for links is explicitly banned by Google’s link scheme guidelines and more of a gray area in other industries.

5. Current Terminology Doesn’t Account for Search Engine Transformations

The concept of black and white hat SEO has existed for years – at this point, it’s difficult to determine when the terms entered the industry lexicon.

The Google Search ranking algorithms, on the other hand, continuously change.

As a result, some SEO strategies have become obsolete, and new strategies continue to emerge to keep pace with the algorithm changes and new technology.

When Google modifies its ranking algorithms and changes its guidelines, it can make specific SEO tactics more or less effective or compliant.

For example, Google’s senior webmaster trends analyst, John Mueller, said in a Google Webmasters video that nofollow links do not pass PageRank.

Then, three months later, Mueller said, “I think we’re already in that state where essentially we’re using nofollow as a signal. It’s not the case that we completely always ignore those links.”

So, if an SEO pro uses guest blogging as a link building tactic, should they include dofollow or nofollow links to their site?

Does the passing of PageRank through nofollow links now make guest blogging with dofollow links a black hat strategy?

These questions illustrate the rigidity of outdated terminology that doesn’t account for algorithmic change.

The New Evolution

The system using color-coded hats to symbolize SEO concepts has evident flaws, but what’s the alternative?

SEO professionals still need a way to convey the level of risks and rewards associated with rank-boosting strategies.

Rather than using the current black and white distinctions to classify ranking methods, SEO pros should use quantitative metrics to understand and assess a tactic’s results.

Instead of labeling a strategy as black or white hat SEO, be specific.

Explain which key performance indicators the tactic will help the company achieve and at what cost – both in terms of resources and risk of penalization.

It’s also useful for SEO professionals to explain the difference between growth hacking and slow-growth strategies to their employers or clients.

For fast results and quick traffic gains, SE pros can use growth hacking techniques that produce immediate results but carry higher risks.

On the other hand, low-risk SEO strategies, like technical SEO and quality content creation, often take time to show a return on investment.

Hats off to Problem-Solving SEO Pros

SEO professionals have complex responsibilities and often have to take on significant risks.

In an industry that constantly evolves, SEO pros have to recognize that sometimes, their work doesn’t pay off – or worse, it leads to drops in traffic and revenue.

With this weight on their shoulders, the best SEO professionals are the ones who see past the black and white terminology, learn from trial and error, and put the needs of their company first.

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