In the world or SEO, there are two sides: white hat and black hat.
And when it comes to marketing, you want to fall firmly on the white hat side.
Here’s a full rundown on what white hat SEO actually is, and how to make sure you stay on the good side of SEO.
Modern-day SEO is a tale of two hats. There’s white hat SEO and black hat SEO.
Unsurprisingly, white hat SEO is used by the “good guys” while black hat SEO is a favorite of the “bad guys.”
The concept is a little geeky, but hey, it is what it is… 🙂
Whit hat practitioners follow the rules established by the search engines. Although they’re definitely making a conscious effort to rank their sites, they’re not doing so deceptively.
On the other hand, black hat practitioners are attempting to manipulate the search engines to achieve a high rank. They’ll break every rule and employ every dirty trick they can scheme up if it will help them get to the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs).
White hat people play fair. Black hat people follow only one rule: don’t get caught.
Unfortunately (for them), black hatters often do get caught. When that happens, their sites get penalized and disappear from the SERPs completely.
That’s why it’s a good idea to play by the rules.
If you want to achieve a high rank for your site, and keep that rank, then your best bet is to follow white hat SEO practices.
Here’s the definitive guide to “good guy” or white hat SEO.
This blog will start out by discussing the history of white hat SEO, then quality guidelines and end with basic best practices for white hat SEO.
A Very Brief History of White Hat SEO
SEO really started because hackers found out they could make changes to a site, or build links, to get a site ranked and then make money.
An industry grew from there.
Google became the biggest search engine in the world, crushing Yahoo, and businesses who were ranked saw major returns.
Years later, it has turned into a mainstream marketing channel. Google has fought spammers who try to breach their quality guidelines since the search engine was launched. Black hat SEO professionals game the system and win for a period of time before they are caught.
White hat SEO practitioners are those who play by the rules, are honest and do not link the risk associated with black hat SEO.
Google makes updates all the time to deal with spammers.
Quality Guidelines and White Hat SEO
Let’s talk about what you can’t do.
First, avoid using automatically generated content
That’s content generated by a computer instead of a human.
Black hatters love to use “spun” content. They basically take a great article from somewhere on the web, copy it, and paste the text into a software that will “rewrite” it.
They do that to avoid charges of plagiarism and, more importantly to them, so that Google doesn’t detect duplicate content.
They also do it to save time. In just a matter of seconds, black hat SEOs can “spin” a 2,000-word article into their very own creation.
Unfortunately, the spun content is a nightmare from a reading comprehension standpoint. None of the article rewriters available at this time can produce quality writing.
Of course, black hat folks aren’t looking to produce quality content. They’re just looking to rank.
Although it’s tempting to think of spun content as a time-saver, it’s safe to say that Google is eventually going to flag articles with numerous grammatical errors as spam. Simply put: sites with spun content won’t rank.
Instead of going the spun-content route, invest either your time or money into producing quality content for your site. You’ll find that search engines love quality content and that it’s likely to help you rank.
Black hat SEO professionals will do the following:
- Create 5 versions of each paragraph
- Create 5 different paragraph blocks
- Spin the content
- Use the content for website pages or use the content for articles around the web
- Use the articles to build backlinks
We don’t do this, and you shouldn’t either.
Also, avoid link schemes
There are link schemes that can get you in trouble. There is an entire industry built on the different forms of link building.
If you come across some kind of a link farm that exists solely to provide backlinks, then you can be sure that Google will come across that link farm as well and punish it accordingly. Here is what Google says:
Keep in mind that a brand as well-known as JC Penney got in trouble for using link farms. If it can happen to JC Penney, it can happen to you.
A kissing cousin to a link farm is a private blog network (PBN). That’s a network of blogs, established by some brilliant SEO, that exists solely for the purpose of providing backlinks to people who pay the owner.
PBNs seem to help people boost rank for now. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that Google eventually cracks down on attempts to manipulate the search engines.
Avoid creating pages with little or no original content
As we’ve seen, Google doesn’t like duplicate content. If you just copy and paste a whole article from somebody else’s blog onto your own site, you’re not only unethical, you’re also going to get penalized so that your site doesn’t rank at all.
One of the best ways to help rank your site is to produce original long-form content, or content that’s at least 1,500 words in length. Just be sure that it’s packed with valuable information. You shouldn’t create a long-form article that’s repetitive or offers nothing of value just to reach a certain word count.
You should avoid cloaking as well. That’s when you hide something to a user but still expect the search bot to find it.
For example, you can use simple CSS to hide an entire paragraph. But Google’s search bot might interpret it as part of the actual content.
Some black hat SEOs use cloaking to try to rank a page for a particular keyword without putting that keyword in the content that the user sees. It’s a clever but risky trick.
Avoid using sneaky redirects
Redirects become sneaky when black hatters redirect a page to another page when a user accesses the site, but doesn’t redirect the page when a search bot accesses the site.
A sneaky redirect is a blatant attempt to manipulate search engines. Sites that use them are probably going to get discovered and penalized.
Another “thou shalt not” for good SEO is to avoid the use of hidden anchor text.
If you’re familiar with links on an HTML page, they basically consist of the link itself plus the so-called “anchor text.” That text is the part that a user clicks to visit the link.
Some SEOs intentionally hide that text to the user. But even though the user can’t see it, the search bots can still see it because they’re parsing code rather than looking at output.
As a result, the search bot will see a link that users can’t see and pass rank accordingly. It’s another cute ploy that you should avoid if you want to play by the rules.
Avoid the use of doorway pages
A doorway page is a page that’s designed specifically to funnel traffic to another page. The problem is that if you create multiple doorway pages, and rank each one of them, then Google will produce search results that include many listings that all essentially go to the same website.
For example, if you’re a plumber in your area, you might create one site that includes your city name plus the word “plumber.” You could also create another site that includes the name of a nearby city plus the word “plumber.” If both of those sites eventually take visitors to your main site, then they’re doorway pages.
Another quality guideline that I touched on previously is to avoid the practice of keyword stuffing. If you try to rank a page by just using a particular keyword as much as possible, you’re going to be sorely disappointed when you learn that the search engine algorithms don’t respond well to overuse of a particular word or phrase.
And this should go without saying, but if you really want your site to rank well, don’t put malicious code on any of your pages. That includes code that installs malware, trojans, spyware, ads, or viruses on a visitor’s personal system.
You should also avoid the use of malicious pop-ups. Some pop-ups actually force users to “like” a Facebook page no matter which button they press. That kind of trick might get you a few likes, but it will cost you a lot in good will once you get discovered.
Finally, make sure that you remove user-generated spam on your site
Unfortunately, some black hatters might take advantage of your comments section to promote their own products. They’ll use an automation tool that adds a comment like “My mom earned $89,000 last year working from home” to one of your posts and follow it up with a link to their site.
If you see that kind of junk, get rid of it immediately.
Pro-tip: You’ll likely find that if you switch to Facebook comments, user-generated spam will drop significantly. There is also Disqus, which is a social media site that promotes building readership.
Examples of White Hat SEO
Now that I’ve covered the principles of white hat SEO, let’s get a little more down-to-earth and look at some examples of how you can optimize your site without getting penalized.
Do Some Guest Blogging – One of the best ways to build backlinks is by guest-blogging. Reach out to other bloggers and ask if you can blog on their sites. You’ll find that a lot of them are receptive because they need content. Write for great sites, and don’t do it for the links – do it for the credibility… It will all come back around.
Practice Content Marketing – Your website should also include a blog that gives you opportunities for content marketing. Use that blog to produce long-form content that’s relevant to people in your target market. Then, when they search for keywords included in your content, they’re likely to find your site.
Perform Competitor Analysis – There’s a lot to competitor analysis that goes beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that you basically want to find out what’s working for your competitor so you can go and do likewise. You might find that your competitor is ranking for a particular search term that you hadn’t even thought about. Use a tool like Majestic, SpyFu or SEMRush to find out what your competitors are up to. Even though spying on your competitors sounds sneaky, there’s nothing black hat about it.
There is so much more. If you do not know the basics, read our SEO starter guide.
Now, let’s talk about the things that white hat SEO professionals focus on.
Make It Easy for the Search Engines to Find Your Pages
Before you can even rank a site, you have to make sure that various search engines can find it.
That’s not good enough by itself, though.
The next thing you’ll want to do is build backlinks from other sites. These are URL links that point back to pages on your site (hence the name “backlinks”).
Backlinks are important because they build the “street cred” of a particular site. As a general rule of thumb, the more backlinks pointing to a particular site, the more likely it is that search engines will consider that site an “authority” in its space.
That’s especially true if the backlinks are on sites that are already authority sites themselves.
For example, if your site has a backlink from “Joe’s Blog,” that’s not worth a whole lot because not too many readers know Joe or read his blog. On the other hand, if you’ve got a backlink on Huffington Post, that’s worth a lot because Huffington Post is a very popular site.
Keep in mind, though, that you can quickly get into black hat territory by building backlinks. If you buy software that enables you to spam links to foreign sites, comment sections, forums, and directories, you’re stepping out of SEO boundaries. Your site might be penalized.
Instead, build backlinks the old-fashioned way. Earn them.
Once you’ve made it easy for the search engines to find your site, it’s important to make it easy for them to traverse your site. You’ll do that with a sitemap.
If your site is running with a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, there are a few great plugins you can use that will set up a sitemap (or you can just use Yoast). You won’t have to do any coding at all.
On the other hand, if your site is running straight HTML or PHP, you’ll have to build a sitemap on your own.
Once your sitemap is complete, you’re still not done. You need to let the search engines know that your sitemap exists.
For Google, submit your sitemap in the Search Console.
The next thing you want to do is make sure that your server supports the If-Modified-Since HTTP header (I didn’t make this up, it comes from Google). That’s a piece of code that tells a search engine bot if there’s been any update since the last time it crawled your page. Talk to your development team about that.
Finally, you’ll want to make absolutely certain that you’re using the robots.txt file properly.
If you’re unfamiliar with robots.txt, it’s the little file sitting on your website’s file directory that “tells” the search engine bots how to behave when they encounter your site.
For some reason, that file might be telling the bots not to crawl your site. That is extremely deadly from an SEO perspective because it means your site probably won’t be listed anywhere in the SERPs. It is actually the number one mistake websites make – they block their entire site!
Familiarize yourself with how robots.txt works and talk to your development team to make sure that the file is telling search engine bots to crawl your site.
Help Search Engines Understand Your Pages
Search engines are very, very intelligent these days. That’s another reason why black hat SEO is a bad idea – the engines are smart enough to sniff out clues when people break the rules.
But the intelligence of search engines goes well beyond running down bad guys. Bots can also determine what type of content is on your site.
If you’re not investing time and/or money in producing quality content for your site, you’re going to struggle with rank.
Also, you need to make proper use of keywords throughout your site. Obviously, you’ll want to use keywords that you think people in your target market will plug into search engines.
Do some keyword research to determine which search terms work best for your market, then sprinkle them throughout your pages.
It’s important, though, that you use keywords in a way that looks natural. If you think that you can achieve a high rank by stuffing keywords all over the place, think again. Search engines got wise to that trick years ago.
Also: don’t forget to use alt attributes in your images. Learn about image SEO here.
Keep in mind that your image might land a spot in Google or Bing Image search results if it’s optimized properly. That could bring even more traffic to your site.
Also, make sure that you put the keyword in the title tag. After all, that’s how search engines determine the overall subject of the content. If there’s a “most important” place for your keyword, it’s probably in the title.
Another important step is to configure your CMS so that search bots can easily crawl your site.
For example, some sites might use URL parameters to track the path of visitors throughout the site. That’s helpful for determining which parts of your site are most popular, but parameters can make it difficult for bots to traverse the site. If bots can’t find certain pages because of URL requirements, then you’re certainly going to have trouble ranking them.
Also, be certain that your most important content is visible by default. Although search bots can find content that’s hidden behind tabs and other navigational elements, Google recommends that you keep all your best content front and center.
Keep in mind that infinite scrollers might also make things challenging for the search bots.
If you’re not familiar with an infinite scroller, it’s a feature that loads more content as the user scrolls down. You can see an example of one on BuzzFeed.
The problem with infinite scrollers is that the search bots don’t “scroll.” They follow links.
Help Visitors Use Your Pages
The usability of your site will determine, to some extent, how well it ranks. That’s why Google recommends that you create a user-friendly site.
For starters, relay important information on your site with text instead of images. As we’ve seen, Google doesn’t “crawl” the content of the image file itself to make a determination about what’s in it, so it’s best to put important information in text.
If you have to put important info in an image, just be sure to use the aforementioned alt tag to describe what’s in the image.
Another very important part of on-site SEO is to be certain that all of your links work. If you have links peppered about on your site, use a tool like Screaming Frog to be certain that none of those links are broken.
Also, make sure that your site loads quickly. It’s been known for a while that load time is a ranking factor, and it’s probably going to become even more important going forward. If you want to give your site a fighting shot at reaching the top of the SERPs, it has to load in lightning-fast time.
As a rule of thumb, any page load time over two seconds is an abomination. Do a search for just about anything on Amazon right now and you’ll see how seriously that company takes site speed.
If you’re unsure about your site’s load time, there’s an app for that. Just head over to the Google PageSpeed Insights and enter the URL for your website. Google will give you a numerical grade that corresponds to the quality of your site speed and also provide you with actionable advice about how to fix problems.
In other words, your site should be easy to use whether a visitor accesses it from a desktop computer, a laptop computer, a smartphone, a tablet, or a phablet.
Keep in mind that mobile-friendliness is a ranking factor as well.
Finally, use the HTTPS protocol instead of HTTP.
If you’re not familiar with HTTPS, it’s the secure version of HTTP. It provides encryption between you and your visitors and makes life more difficult for digital eavesdroppers.
You can also boost rank with HTTPS. Google uses the secure protocol as a “very lightweight signal.”
Resources for White Hat SEO
- Google Webmaster Guidelines
- This is the ultimate resource for what you can and cannot do.
- Wikipedia White Hat SEO
- Learn about facts and figures on white hat SEO from Wikipedia
- Moz.com White Hat SEO Case Study
- Rand Rishkin talks about white hat SEO on the Moz blog
- ahrefs Link Building
- White hat SEO link building techniques
- Hubspot Link Building
- White hat SEO link building from Hubspot (101)
Wrapping It Up: White Hat SEO For Now
If you want to achieve a high rank with your website and keep that rank, it’s best to follow the rules.
Practice good white hat SEO so that Google never has a reason to penalize you. It might take you a while to rank well in the SERPs, but once you achieve that coveted top spot, you’ll be glad you did the right thing. If you want to learn white hat SEO practices, watch my video training series here or subscribe to my weekly newsletter.