There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding the “hat” terms with respect to organic search. The purpose of this post is to give a high level overview of what’s involved with white hat seo and compare it to other tactics and strategies that are available.

Before diving in, we should clarify that white hat seo services are typically much more expensive than those that fall into the shades of grey, which is why prices for SEO may vary considerably between companies. Also, there are certainly strategies that fall outside of the strict white hat seo spectrum that work extremely well.

Some of the topics we cover in this post include:

  • The definitions of white hat SEO, grey hat SEO, and black hat SEO
  • The common analogy of white hat SEO vs. grey hat SEO
  • Website optimization practices that are purely white hat
  • White hat link building techniques and how they differ
  • Why white hat SEO is much more expensive than other methods
  • How your industry significantly impacts how well white hat SEO will work

What Is White Hat SEO?

White hat SEO is following SEO best practices as outlined by Google and other major search engines that do not violate their webmaster guidelines in order to optimize a website and promote content to increase rankings in search engines.

To avoid any confusion we’ll also define grey hat SEO and black hat SEO.

Black hat SEO is using illegal or unethical and deceptive tactics to “trick” search engines, their users, and other web masters to help promote a website and increase its rankings in the search engines.

Grey hat SEO is following white hat on-site optimization strategies but adding in a layer of controlled and manual promotion tactics that help speed up the natural promotion process to increase a website’s rankings in the search engines.

Chances are you won’t find a client-facing organic search firm practicing black hat seo. However, there are lots of shades of grey out there, and rightfully so as they work well and if the client risk tolerance matches the risk of the strategy then it could be a good fit.

The Bad White Hat SEO Analogy

If your quest for rankings is like a cross country drive then:

White hat seo is the conservative Dad who always obeys the speed limits and traffic signs and never speeds. He’ll eventually make it there, and he knows that, but he’s in no hurry and plays it by the book.

While on the other hand, grey hat seo is like the heavy-foot soccer Mom who doesn’t feel the need to listen to her kids fighting in the back seat for any longer than she has to. She doesn’t speed to the point where she’ll be fined for street racing, but she pushes the limits and often for extended periods of time, if not the entire trip.

While the heavy-footed soccer mom may get there quicker, she also has a degree of risk that is involved with speeding, for example, there may be police doing speed checks along the way. While in some cases she may not be speeding enough for the police to pull her over, in others she may be driving just a bit too fast.

The conservative Dad on the other hand knows he’s not going to be pulled over. He’s got a well-tuned car and a solid plan on getting across the country. While he won’t get there fast, he will be consistent and comfortable with his approach.

White Hat SEO Dos & Donts

Now that we have an understanding of what white hat seo is and how it differs from “other” methods, lets get into some specifics and what you can do to optimize your website while following best practices. We’ll focus on two distinct areas – offsite and onsite. I’ll break it out into the common dos and don’ts and explore things further from there.

White Hat On-Page SEO

These could just be called common sense SEO do’s and don’t as well. Some black hats may vary from this advice, but the grey hats certainly follow on-site best practices.

Don’t:

1. Stuff keywords in page titles and meta data.

Don’t get me wrong, get your keywords in naturally when and where you can, just don’t make it sound weird and unnatural and come off a little too strong.

2. Use the meta-keyword tag.

There’s no benefit to using the meta-keyword tag, and only a possible downfall with multiple search engines using it as spam signals and just letting your competition know the exact keywords you’re investing in.

3. Duplicate meta data or page copy.

Most of the time when I see duplicate content it’s a technical issue and a mistake. However, there are tactics that some SEOs use to simply duplicate content and find-and-replace a city or other keyword and swap out page titles. This is very common in the local SEO space.

4. Use deceptive tactics to hide page copy from the user that contains stuffed keywords.

There are ways to hide text. Use the same colour as the background, hiding it by moving it off the page with css, etc. and sometimes you might get away with it for a while but Google is pretty good at picking up on deceptive tactics like this and you won’t get away with this.

5. Create gateway pages that only exist to target specific keywords

This is something that I see over and over again on websites, including conservative big brands that claim they only do white-hat SEO. This is very common among bloggers trying to target long tail keywords in separate posts (although I find this is much less than it used to be now). It’s also quite common among local SEO strategies.

Take this example. A national mortgage company has offices in multiple cities – let’s say Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, Kitchener, Halifax, and Ottawa. They also offer multiple mortgage solutions as well – residential mortgage, commercial mortgage, refinancing, cash-back mortgage, and construction mortgages.

Instead of adopting a one page per location strategy that Google supports, they build out multiple pages for each city-service paid. In this case, 7 cities and 5 services, the would create 35 pages with content trying to target keywords like, Toronto construction mortgage, and Kitchener cash back mortgage. Every location would get five different service pages.

These are likely gateway pages that add no value to the user and only exist to rank for keywords and funnel visitors into other pages on the website. I’ll say it is possible to make these pages a valuable resource, but in most cases they aren’t. In most cases they are 200-300 words of fluff with an image.

Do:

1. Have well-optimized site structure including proper theming, siloing and internal links.

This is a big one that most people ignore. Make sure your website structure and theming is on point – it can mean big increases in rankings if done properly. Site structure is often flushed out during the keyword mapping phase.

2. Have well-optimized meta data across all pages that are relevant to the page copy and topic.

Get a keyword variation in if possible but also make sure everything reads well and natural.

3. Have well-optimized page copy that is relevant to the topic of the page.

Make sure the copy of the page is relevant to the title and relevant to the keywords that you think the page is about. This starts with good keyword research and mapping and knowing specifically what each page is about.

4. Prioritize the best and most relevant content near the top of the page to increase the user experience.

Put the priority on the copy and content that is most relevant and that you want the user to see.

5. Optimize your website for page speed to increase the user experience.

This is an easy win that just should always be done. Spend some time increasing the page speed of your website. While it’s not a major ranking factor, it is an increasingly important one and is also a big influence on conversation rates.

6. Ensure your website is secure by forcing https and SSL across the entire website.

Another no-brainer. Get an SSL cert for $12 and get your website running properly on https. While it’s not a huge ranking factor it has been quoted as being a “tie breaker.” That’s a cheap boost that doesn’t take much time or money.

If you’re doing SEO for wordpress websites there are a number of plugins that implement this properly.

7. Identify and fix any technical issues including but not limited to issues found in your robots file, sitemap, site structure, canocal URLs, and duplicate or near-duplicate content due to CMS issues.

You’ll uncover these in an in depth seo audit and will be able to figure out what needs to be fixed.

8. Have proper schema markup for your location and business data.

Each location page and/or your contact page should have proper markup, as should any mention of your addresses on your website.

White Hat Link Building

This is where white and grey hat differs the most. This is because Google’s accepted practices with respective to link building are very strict.

Don’t:

1. Manually create or build links.

The first thing that comes to mind here is a private blog network – which is a very common practices these days (and rightfully so they work like gang busters) – and article marketing. While many of the manual link building processes can be pretty safe in terms of not getting penalized, there is always a bit of risk baked in.

2. Use guest posting as a link building and SEO strategy.

This is a great strategy for referral traffic and brand awareness but shouldn’t be used as an SEO strategy according to Matt Cutts, former head of web spam at Google.

3. Pay for links, including sponsored posts and paid link placements as a link building strategy.

This is worse than manually creating them and comes with a higher penalty and more risk. Don’t pay for link placements, it’s outright against the webmaster guidelines. On that note, don’t sell links either, your site could be penalized as a seller as well.

Spam – specifically forum profiles, blog comments, ping and track backs and more.

These may still used in the grey hat methods but only in tiered link strategies. While there is nothing wrong with some forum profiles and blog comments if they are real profiles and done by yourself on relevant websites, there is risk at scale.

Do:

1. Ask kindly or beg for links.

This one is more of a joke than anything but asking for links can work. Who you ask, how you ask and what you have to offer all influence how well this will go.

2. Network online and create real relationships.

This includes strategies like blog commenting (which can be a beneficial white-hat link building strategy when done properly) and staying in touch via social media. Essentially you’re building relationships that you can leverage when you really need to down the road.

3. Create valuable resources that encourage people to share and promote your website for you.

This is the only thing that Google will tell you to do in order to build links. Create valuable content and hope that content gets shared and linked to. We can run with this a little and give it just nudge in the right direction.

4. Create valuable resources and ask people to share them.

Creating a valuable resource is only half the battle. If no one ever sees it, it won’t get linked to. Leverage that content by sharing via social media, or offering it to people to share (great if they are PDF give-aways or infographics).

White Hat SEO Strategies

I just realized I rambled on for a near 2000 words while not actually providing any strategies for promotion that fit within the walls of white hat seo. We are working on a very detailed link building post that will outline some of our approaches and strategies that we execute for clients – including white hat and grey hat, but I will mention a few here:

1. Podcasting (with interviews)

Podcasting in general is a great medium for creating valuable content. On its own it adds an additional layer of distribution for your content but if you mix in some interviews it’s an amazing source of backlinks. This is the strategy we used to rank for terms like how to lose weight and other very competitive health and fitness keywords for a business that we’ve since sold.

2. Infographics and Guides

Combining these with niche markets and you can leverage relationships or make new connections to share this great content which will often result in links back to your website.

3. Lead generation websites

Another great strategy for backlinks that is beyond the scope of this post. Creating related industry lead gen websites will help build your brand awareness and authority and almost always results in high quality back links.

White Hat SEO Is Expensive & Industry-Specific

You can get a monthly SEO service in the $500-$700 range per month that will get you some great results. However, if you’re looking for a pure white hat seo strategy that incorporates both on-site and link-building tactics things are going to be more expensive. The main reason for this is:

You’ll always need to create some sort of content. White hat seo starts with creating valuable content – whether that’s a blog, infographic, podcast, video, resource, or entire new website. This is at the core of any white hat link building strategy.

Also, how social your industry is will impact the types of things that can be done. Insurance isn’t as social as home decor, as an example, so there will be different solutions and strategies depending on your industry.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this post on White Hat SEO. If you have any questions about white hat strategies use the comments below and we’ll be happy to discuss.