Grey Hat SEO – What it is and what to look for

Grey Hat SEO

“There is no black and white, only shades of grey.”

Now, that’s an excellent quote to discuss the nature of good and evil in man. It becomes a bit more problematic when talking about what occurs on the internet.

White hat, grey hat and black hats are terms that have been around for a while. What they refer to is the general nature, intent or techniques used by hackers and other web users (fantasy fans might know these as Lawful Good, True Neutral, and Chaotic Evil). There is a sliding scale of squeaky-clean behaviour on one hand, and on the other, not so ethical behavior.

A grey hat example would be a hacker picking up on a security flaw in a company’s product. As they’re one of the good guys, they want to report this flaw to the company. They feel that this is in the best interest of the company, no matter how the information was discovered. The hacker quite logically feels that it’s better if the company is notified by one individual rather than finding out through more disastrous methods. A hacker could, after all, sell this information to an interested buyer, or could distribute the information freely on the internet. However, such a person might be held back from reporting as the company might ask questions as to how they find the flaw in the first place. If the hacker was breaking laws then they could be liable for prosecution.

As that story illustrates, grey hat behaviour involves less ethical techniques being used for the ‘greater good.’ While this may be true in the above story, the process becomes a little less clear in terms of SEO, or search engine optimization. SEO is the process of tailoring a website, in design, content and purpose, to maximize search engine visibility as well as page ranking. Obviously a site wants to be as visible as possible. While the exact specifics of what search engines look for is a secret, there are some clear-cut right approaches, or ones that are acceptable to search engines (reference).

So then why do people do it?

Well, it works – up to a point. As they’re cheating the system and not playing by the rules of the search engines, they actively seek to search out this type of thing. When they find out about it, they either adjust their crawling to account for it, or penalize/ban sites that employ such tactics.

Unless you’re a fan of spam, junk emails and genital-increasing supplements (you’d be amazed how many enlargement emails need to be sent to make 1 dollar), this sort of behaviour damages a user’s experience of the internet. This is why search engines ban those who don’t play by the rules. But don’t think they’re doing it for your good: more traffic means more revenue, so they want to keep people coming in. It’s in their best interests that web traffic is kept happy.

‘Accepted’ techniques essentially mean techniques that search engines approve sites to use. Search engines need to provide results that are of maximum benefit to users, so their searches are aimed at finding the most relevant, quality and up-to-date sites. Sites that are of no benefit to a user’s searches negatively impact on the experience of the user, and so there is a risk that the user won’t want to return to a search engine that doesn’t work. It’s quite frustrating to search for something – let’s say a doctor in a particular region – and have to search through pages of slush that reflect the term you’re looking for (‘doctor in XXX’) without providing any more information than that. Search engines know this doesn’t add value (source).

Grey hat tactics are called this as they straddle the boundary of acceptable and unacceptable, or between legitimate and spam. What it mainly depends on is the intent and execution.

Take paid linking for example. This is the practice of purchasing a link to another website. A legitimate reason for this is as paid advertising. A less legitimate one would be if the link was bought to increase page ranking.

White hat SEO is more about creating content that will cause visitors to want to come to the site. Grey and black can be more about tricking them to visit.

The problem with grey hat SEO is that it can appear to be either of these things, and as such, you have to be careful how you proceed. Grey hat SEO can sometimes be an effective and excellent way of improving a website, but you have to ensure that you’re getting across the right message.

What to look for  with grey hat SEO:

  • Duplicate  content is sometimes reported as stolen content – often content is taken from proven SEO sites to give a temporary boost in traffic to the donor site. Such gains are often temporary as they’re quite easy to spot. Of course, duplicate content can be and often is legitimate – quotes, syndication and as resources are all valid uses of content, but care must be taken to use them correctly and to post them to the right web addresses. In fact, good quoting and referencing actually helps build links and ties with other web users – a great way of building quality SEO.
  • Cloaking can be legitimate – sites that require logins for example – but the basic premise content set up for search crawlers that’s different to what the visitor sees. As such it can be false representation, and it’s a quick way to get penalized. Cloaking can be for legitimate reasons, and if you have to employ this on a website, you need to make it clear to search providers the reason why.
  • Keyword stuffing can be easy to spot. If a small paragraph is heavily laden with trademarks, links and keywords, chances are it’s only there for SEO purposes. While some examples are entertaining, often one can hear the ‘clunk’ as keywords are hammered into place. There is no problem in creating rich, informative descriptions of products, but if there’s more keywords than sentences, there might be a problem. Sites that are overly designed for SEO can quickly cause a visitor to become dissatisfied.
  • Hidden keywords are a little like cloaking. Text is displayed on the site but is in the same color as the background, rendering it invisible. While crawlers can spot color similarities in text and backgrounds, there are some ways around it, such as background pictures matching text colors and things like that. Be careful using this one, if you feel you need to: sites that employ this are usually very quickly reported as doing the wrong thing.

The classification of what constitutes grey and black hat SEO changes constantly as search engines update their crawlers. In other words, they remain flexible to what constitutes bad faith SEO and quality content. It’s important to remember that quality content and design are an investment for SEO and page visits. Grey hat SEO is sometimes required for various reasons, but it’s important that the site presents itself as doing it for the right reasons.