But First: What’s a Hat?
In SEO, a hat isn’t fashion related: it’s code for a specific marketing tactic which either adheres to the search engine’s policies or goes against the terms and conditions. Each hat is assigned a color, which implies how well it follows proper SEO marketing principles.
White Hat refers to pure tactics for building an audience on an SERP (Search Engine Results Page). White Hat tactics are implemented to promote the quality of the website, and therefore do not attempt to overstep boundaries by manipulating or deceiving the user. White Hat tactics make navigating to the site easy so that the user has a pleasant experience and will therefore be more receptive to what the site has to offer.
Black Hat is the complete opposite. Black Hat tactics disregard what’s standard and instead build attention by appearing at the top of a SERP. While White Hat tactics are characterized by easy navigation, descriptions related to the website, and appropriate use of keywords, Black Hat search results can be identified by overuse of key words, hidden text or links, redirects to pages containing viruses and malware, deceptive ads, and pages or domains with identical content.
Once you’ve clicked they’re easy to identify, but Black Hat users will often appear legitimate and then deceive the user by bringing them to a site unrelated to the link they clicked. These tactics are considered unethical and are against each search engine’s policies. Despite some companies taking the risk and implementing Black Hat (Overstock, BMW and JCPenney are all guilty), it’s likely your website will be reported and can bring penalties.
Gray Hat falls somewhere in between White and Black. Gray Hat tactics technically adhere to a search engine’s policies but also slightly bend guidelines to stick out on an SERP. A common example is writing a large amount of content that isn’t completely relevant to the site, but is still focused on the site’s mission and purpose. This way, the site’s ranking on a search result page increases without stretching the content too far out of the site’s scope.
Gray Hat specialists achieve the balance between White and Black by either thinking White Hat and not overstepping boundaries, or implementing Black Hat with restraint: however you see it. Although not completely unethical, these tactics are still risky.
So, Which Should I Use?
If you’re still learning the science behind SEO, it’s always best to adhere closely to a search engine’s policies before attempting to circumnavigate their system. White Hat is safe, reliable and risk-free. You won’t have to worry about attracting negative attention from search engines. Black Hat is risky, easy noticeable, and alienating to users. When implemented skillfully, Gray Hat tactics can bend the rules and appear naturally, but if you’re inexperienced it’s best to stay under the radar than risk losing site traffic. If you’re still not sure which strategy is best for your site, always contact a marketing company to help you make conscientious and informed choices that will best benefit your site.