The Hats are a concept taking from hacking culture. White hats are the “good guys” who hack to find vulnerabilities and help companies patch them. They’re also known as security contractors, since “hiring a hacker” has negative connotations. DEFCON, the convention for hackers every year, is full of white and gray hat hackers. It’s also full of black hats, not that they’ll often admit to being black hats. Black hat hackers are the criminals, the ones who hack to sell personal information, who hack to make money, and who generally break and corrupt systems for fun, personal gain, or power. Gray hats, of course, are a middle of the road; still morally questionable, but not completely illegal.
In the world of marketing and SEO, the concepts still apply. It’s just that black hats aren’t necessarily doing anything illegal. In fact, most of them will vehemently explain that nothing they do is illegal at all. They’re right, too; the “law” they break is the policies of Google, not any actual punishable law.
Often, the difference between a white hat strategy and a black hat one is a matter of implementation. There’s not a lot of difference between two people writing factual articles and one person writing one while the other spins it. There’s not much difference between building links through blogger outreach and building links through private blog networks. Black hats simply tend to automate more and work less, with the drawbacks that entails.
There are two main problems I see with black hat marketing. The first is a lower level of engagement/quality/value. When you’re spinning content, the original content has just as much value, and is likely published first and on a better site. Spun content, then, comes in second place all the time. The same goes for most black hat strategies; they come in second place. They work, but they aren’t the best. You can see this in particular with social black hatting, or robotic automation; spam is prevalent and ignored, and automated posting tends to get lower engagement rates than organic posting.
The second problem is the sine wave cycle. Picture a sine wave, going up and down in a pattern. That’s what the traffic and profits of a black hat marketer tend to look like. The reason is because, at the end of the day, black hats still rely on Google, because Google has 64% of the search market share. No other single entity online has that much power and influence.
Google, of course, frowns on black hat strategies. That’s literally what makes them black hat and not white. They actively seek out and punish sites using black hat strategies, which leads to an ever-increasing arms race between black hat marketers and the big G.
From a marketer’s perspective, working with black hat strategies is a peak and valley experience. Black hat strategies – most of them, anyway – work, and they tend to work quickly and for a low amount of effort. However, in compensation, they tend to cost money and they only work for a limited time. You get a brief skyrocket in your visibility, then Google notices and shuts you down. This is the valley; a time of no profits due to your removal from the search rankings. You then recover, either by starting another site or by removing one strategy and implementing another. You get another boost, another few months of profits, and are slapped down again. To Google it’s like playing a game of whack-a-mole with millions of possible moles.
White hat strategies, by comparison, tend to be slower but much more consistent with growth. If you’re firmly on the site of white hat, you’re not going to be slapped back down repeatedly, so your growth is able to compound month after month. You just can’t shoot up in visibility quite as quickly, because you’re taking the long route.
To put it another way, imagine that you’re working towards a mountain peak. A white hat marketer might take a longer, gentler slope to the top, which takes a week of climbing. A black hat starts three mountains away and has to climb each one, then descend into the valley below, over and over. To compensate, he has a truck, but it keeps breaking down. He’s using tools, albeit not the best tools, but he’s also taking a harder route.
Anyways, to move away from that analogy, let’s talk about guest blogging. Guest blogging has been a strategy for SEO for years, as a combination of one part link building and one part content marketing. It can help build a brand, it can build links to your site, and it can build a reputation as an author and a content creator.
Black hats and white hats both use guest blogging, but the way they go about it is completely different. Let’s take a look at both and how they compare, shall we?
Black hats target thousands of domains.
They are the definition of untargeted mass mailing. In fact, if you own a website with any significant following, I can guarantee you that not only have you had a few of these show up in your inbox, you’ve probably had a bunch go sailing through to spam without ever seeing them. “Hey, I run site X and would like to post on your blog, all I ask is a link in return, please get back to me.” Sound familiar? Yeah, don’t do it; you never want a link to a site like that on your blog.
White hats pick and choose potent domains to reach.
By contrast, white hats are targeted with their outreach efforts. They know to be realistic, to work their way up in the industry, going from mid-tier blogs to upper crust blogs, eventually working their way as contributors on big name sites like the Huffington Post. They tailor everything, up to the greeting and closing of their query message, to the specific people they’re contacting.
Black hats demand a followed link in their published posts.
The black hat marketer wants one thing and one thing only; a followed link. Followed links give them the link juice they need to boost their visibility, however transitory that visibility is. If you nofollow the link, you’ll get irate messages from them, and god help you if you publish their guest post with the links stripped. Even if it’s your guest blogging policy to do so, they assume they’re exempt because they contacted you directly rather than through whatever means you prefer.
White hats don’t care about followed links and are satisfied with mentions.
Google is increasingly putting value on implied links or brand mentions, while minimizing the value of actual links. They can’t entirely get rid of links, they’re too critical to the value system of the internet at this point, but they can certainly work to make link exploits less impactful.
Black hats submit the same guest post to hundreds of sites.
They don’t care about copied content penalties, they just want the syndication because it pulls in dozens of links for the effort of creating one post. They also won’t tell you that they’re submitting the post to other sites. If you’re lucky, they’ll respect “original content only” in your terms of service, but that’s pretty unlikely.
White hats carefully create posts for the audience of the site they target.
Again, the comparison is one made between spending a minimum amount of time for the work and spending the time necessary to hone the craft. White hat guest bloggers take the time to learn the audience, the voice, the tone, and the editorial rules of the site they’re posting on.
Black hats don’t care too much about the quality of their content.
All they care about is that the content at least looks human-readable at first glance. Minor grammatical errors slip right by, half the time because the marketer is ESL and doesn’t realize they’re errors. Spintax inconsistencies are even worse, but at that point the marketer doesn’t care, they just want the lowest effort possible for each post.
White hats put a lot of time into making great content.
Again as a contrast, white hat marketers put love and care into their posts. If anything, the content they submit as guest posts is higher quality and better overall than the content they post on their own sites. It should never be worse
Black hats offer payment in exchange for links in posts.
Google doesn’t like paying for guest posts, and that makes the exchange of money for a followed link verboten. Sites that pay for posts they accept tend to be stricter with their links, and well they should be. The problem is, those sites aren’t going to be accepting black hat posts.
White hats avoid trying to bribe site owners.
Because that’s what it is, that black hat monetary offer; a bribe, a payment for a link. White hats know this isn’t in their strategy, and anyways, they prefer cheap or free organic growth hacks over paying money for transient value. Wouldn’t you, if you were offered a cheap strategy for growth that didn’t violate any terms or rules?
Black hats submit their posts to dozens of article directories.
Article directories were a big strategy about ten years ago, but with Panda’s initial rollout they died back almost entirely. Black hats, however, tend to stick in the past and try to force old strategies to work in new paradigms. Sometimes they manage to eke out a little value from a directory, but it’s not common, and it’s not always going to stay valuable.
White hats know that article directories rarely pass valuable link juice.
One of two things happens with an article directory; either all of the links on the site are automatically nofollowed, or Google implements a filter that makes all of those links valueless or, potentially, even detrimental. Directories don’t pass positive value in 99% of cases, so they aren’t worth the time for a white hat marketer.
Black hats spin content for “unique” guest posts.
Spinning content is a fast way to make something look unique, but here’s the thing; Google is perfectly aware of how spinning works. You may have noticed recently that when you run a search, you’ll see results that don’t actually include the specific terms you had in your query. That’s one of Google’s ways to provide more value, but it has the side effect of making spun content read identically to the search engine, meaning it’s easier to spot spun content and devalue it.
White hats avoid spinning content altogether.
Spinning content is the last recourse of people who spent too much for a spinning program and have no idea how to write for the web. Spinning content produces nothing of value, and only serves to clog the internet with redundant content on sites that never see the light of day. White hats know the path to true value is providing something unique, be it data points, analysis, or opinions.
Black hats automate their guest post submission.
Again, it’s all about spending as little effort as possible. They don’t care if they send an email to 1,000 people and only 1 picks it up; they spent 5 minutes crafting the email to send. They think they’re ahead of the game because a white hat spends hours on the same task.
White hats carefully construct queries.
White hat marketers know there’s more to guest posting than just a simple query, a simple post, and a link. Every email is a paper trail for a future contact, and it can be very detrimental to be spamming it out.
Black hats don’t care about editors or other site writers.
To a black hat, a site and a guest post is just a means to an end, a disposable tool they can abuse as long as possible but don’t care about if it falls through. This is why so many black hats end up guest posting solely on other black hat sites. The good sites won’t have them.
White hats strive to forge good relationships with site staff.
White hats value networking, connections, and high quality sites over volume. Quality over quantity is generally their mantra. The days of a thin site with 1,000 low quality posts are over, and they’ve taken the lesson to heart.
Black hats fill their content with keywords, to the detriment of the content.
This crops up a lot when they buy posts from cheap content mills; black hats have this idea that keywords are insanely important and that there’s a magic number for keyword density that gets them where they need to be.
White hats know that semantic search allows them to write organically.
A combination of Panda and Google’s semantic search have combined to allow the search engine plenty of leeway to recognize the topic of your content, even without the exact keywords present. This allows complete freedom to cover a topic with language you command, without having to bend to fit in keywords.
Black hats start over when their site is hammered by Google.
The peaks are high but the valleys are low, and it’s often far more effort to recover from a penalty than it is to simply move the entire site to a new domain. Black hats leave a path of charred domains behind them, persisting in their eternal struggle for mediocrity.
White hats are rarely penalized, and can recover if they are.
By contrast, sites that play nice with Google are rewarded for it, with a higher degree of trust. This trust both makes them less likely to be penalized, and makes it easier for them to recover from penalties. Not to mention making those penalties lighter.
As you can see, the white hat method is generally the way to go. Sure, black hat techniques work, sort of, for a short time anyway. White hats compound and build, and it’s a much more viable long-term strategy.