White, grey, and black hat SEO – What does it mean?

Getting your search engine optimisation (SEO) right is going to get you on the front page of search engines. You can achieve this the right way, with white hat SEO, or the wrong way, with black hat SEO. Here are things to consider about the two, very different methods.

Lily Ray explains black hat and white hat SEO tactics

Lily Ray is a member of the SISTRIX Data Journalism Team

When people can find your site through a relevant search term, you’re going to get more clicks on your page that you can potentially convert to sales. The stakes can be high, so it’s little wonder that people try to trick the system with black hat SEO techniques.

Here, we’re going to look at:

  • Techniques that are considered black hat SEO
  • The techniques used in white hat SEO
  • Whether grey hat SEO can hurt your website
  • Consequences of using different SEO techniques

What are black hat SEO techniques?

The term “black hat” means doing something for morally bad reasons. How do we define morally bad? It’s a subjective term – what’s morally repugnant to me might be perfectly reasonable to you.

Google is pretty clear about what black hat SEO techniques are, although they don’t call it that. The rule of thumb is useful to bear in mind whenever you’re considering doing something new or different to boost your SERPs position.

If you were to talk to your main competitor, would you be happy to tell them all of your SEO techniques? “No” probably means you’re not playing fair with your optimisation tactics.

We’re going to list a few things that Google specifically says to not do. This is so you know what not to do. It’s a really bad idea to try any of these things to boost your website; black hat SEO techniques can, and mostly do go wrong in the long-term.

Black hat SEO techniques to avoid

  • Don’t use automatically generated content that doesn’t make sense to a reader but is full of popular search terms.
  • Do not work with link schemes, including paying or trading for back links, creating pages solely for the purpose of adding a link, or putting link requirements in your terms of service.
  • Never stuff keywords into a text at the detriment of an article or page that would be useful to a person.
  • Don’t plagiarise or spin content, meaning copying wholesale blogs or changing a few words from the original just so you have test with keywords.
  • Don’t hide text or links in your copy, such as writing a list of keywords in white text so users can’t see them but search engines can, or not highlighting links in your text.
  • Instigate phishing attacks, host viruses, or include trojan horses on your site.

There’s a full list of black hat SEO tools and techniques to avoid from Google. It’s worth knowing these so you can be sure you won’t do something detrimental to your page.

What is white hat SEO?

It’s all well and good knowing what not to do, you need to know what is seen as white hat SEO so you can legitimately get your pages to rank highly. To get in the top ten, or on the front page, of Google your website needs to be functional and useful for those who find it.

White hat SEO techniques

What does it mean to make a website functional and useful? There are lots of elements that the Googlebot – the algorithm that indexes websites – looks for on a page.

White hat SEO techniques you can use

  • Titles and tagging allow your page to be understood. By adding different titles to all your pages plus different meta descriptions and tagging your headers as H1, H2, etc. make your page easy to index.
  • Structured data mark-up makes your search result look better, with a price and review score for example. You can also add opening hours that can be included in your 3-pack entry.
  • Organise your site using the correct paths and file names so your URLs are easy to follow, and use https protocol wherever possible. Breadcrumb lists and simple navigation will also be appreciated by the Googlebot.
  • Have great content that’s relevant to your site’s subject. White hat SEO doesn’t stop you from using keywords, but use them naturally to direct your content rather than use a keyword every other sentence. Google uses artificial intelligence to understand the topic of a page so keep text on point.
  • Linking externally and internally at the right point, for example link back to the source of a statistic or to another one of your pages that goes into more details on a topic.
  • Use alt attributes for images so there is a description to help them be indexed and make your images standard formats like jpg or png.
  • Optimise for mobile devices – Google gives a lot of credence to sites that don’t have faults on mobile, so make sure text is readable, images resize, and fonts will work across devices.

What is grey hat SEO?

This one is much harder to pin down. Some SEO experts say that grey hat SEO is a mix of white and black hat techniques. Others will say that grey hat means something that is not specifically against Google’s guidelines but also isn’t endorsed by them.

Remember the morality check that Google urges when considering grey hat techniques. Would you be happy to explain what you’ve done to your competitor or even someone at Google?

You need to know what grey hat SEO techniques are out there so that you can choose whether to go down that route. Some examples include:

  • Buying expired domains of competitors or ones with lots of backlinks and redirecting to your page.
  • Cloaking by presenting the Googlebot with a different version of your site than what a normal visitor would see.
  • Private blog networks (PBNs) require you to create multiple single-page websites to create a web of backlinks, or pay someone to do it.

If these, or other grey hat techniques become proscribed by Google in the future, you may have a lot of work ahead to dismantle what you did in the past.

How does Google deter websites from using black hat SEO?

Along with the Googlebot, there are humans who work to review sites and their SEO. If your website is found to be violating the Google webmaster guidelines, some or all of your site could be removed from the SERPs.

This is known as a “manual action”. The Google user won’t know why your page is no longer number one, or even on the front page any more. You can find this out though, through a notification on Google Search Console.

Manual reviews resulting from black hat SEO techniques can be fixed. Your Google Search Console will give you a description of the problem. Fix whatever has been identified on every page that it affects, and then you can ask Google to review the page or pages again.


When it comes to SEO, Google and other search engines expect webmasters to play fair. This gives the user the best experience possible – and that’s what counts.

Black hat SEO techniques are ones that have been specifically prohibited by Google. Conversely, white hat SEO are the ways to run your site that Google recommends. Grey hat lies somewhere in the middle and it’s up to you whether you can rest-easy whilst using them.

If you go against the rules laid out by Google it’s possible that your site is going to get penalised with lower rankings – the exact opposite of what you want. Directing your efforts into white hat SEO will be less hassle and more productive in the long-run.