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November 23, 2011

There’s No Such Thing as “Gray Hat” SEO

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If you’ve been in the SEO field more than five minutes, you’ve likely become familiar with the informal “Black Hat”/”White Hat” classification system for SEO techniques. White Hat methods involve creating useful, original methodologies and content for humans, and then presenting that content so that search engines can find it and show it to whoever’s looking for it. Black Hat techniques involve deceiving users and search engines in order to achieve rankings without providing long-term value and potentially causing the client harm.

grey hat right side

Then there’s a third category of techniques that don’t fall easily into either the “white” or “black” category. They seem to exist at the borderline between the two, an ethical gray area, so they’re referred to as “Gray Hat.” The problem with Gray Hat techniques, however, is that they don’t exist.

This is not to say that there are no gray areas when it comes to SEO ethics. It’s ethics, after all. What I mean is that when applied to individual SEO techniques, the label “Gray Hat” is not only inaccurate, but also gives false legitimacy to those “borderline” techniques by situating them halfway between the extremes of black and white.

Of course, I have to define “Gray Hat” if I want to argue it doesn’t exist. But everyone seems to have a different idea of what exactly it is. I found several slightly overlapping definitions:

  • Techniques that are somewhat deceptive yet not specifically disallowed by search engines’ published guidelines – but may someday be.
  • Black Hat techniques used for legitimate, non-deceptive purposes, or techniques whose legitimacy depends entirely on the intent of the webmaster.
  • Techniques that search engines disapprove of, but won’t (or can’t) penalize your site for using.
  • In a 2008 newsletter article, The Case for White Hat SEO, Bruce Clay estimated that “about 80% of the people who are Gray Hats are just undereducated in the White Hat way of doing SEO.
  • John Andrews defines Gray Hat as “techniques which remain ill-defined by all that published material coming out of Google, and for which reasonable people … could disagree on how the tactics support or contrast with the ‘spirit’ of Google’s published guidelines.”

Part of the confusion, I think, results from the fact that we’re talking about both the letter and the spirit of search engines’ published guidelines, so there are two different questions we should ask about any particular SEO strategy:

  • Does it follow search engines’ published rules and guidelines?
  • Is it intended to deceive search engines and/or users?

We can use these questions to generate following matrix:

Does it follow search engines’ published rules and guidelines?

Yes

No

Is it intended to deceive search engines and/or users?

No

White Hat

“Undereducated” White Hat

Yes

Gray Hat

Black Hat

We can see that techniques termed “Gray Hat” are distinct from the “undereducated” White Hat tactics mentioned by Bruce – techniques that violate search engines’ published guidelines only because the webmaster didn’t know any better.

What about the rest of “Gray Hat”? Below are some techniques commonly referred to as Gray Hat, but if we look closely we find that there’s less gray area that we think.

Non-malicious cloaking: Say your site advertises a brand of alcohol, so you give visitors a popup that verifies they’re 21 before letting them in. But you want to allow Googlebot unfettered access, so you present the robot with a version of the page without the popup. This is sometimes a Black Hat technique used for a White Hat purpose: what’s important is the intention. There’s no intention to deceive anyone, so this is White Hat.

Buying an expired domain and 301 redirecting all the incoming “link juice” to your own site: The argument for classifying this as “Gray Hat” is that Google won’t penalize you if it catches you – it’ll just discount those redirected links. But even if you don’t risk a penalty, this technique is still deceptive and misrepresents your site’s popularity on the Web.

Article spinning: This involves replacing words or phrases of an article to make it seem like original content. This is considered Gray Hat because it’s harder to detect and takes more effort than simply publishing duplicate content everywhere. But it’s still a shortcut to rankings using deception.

The second two examples above are attempts to deceive search engines and achieve rankings while doing less work and creating nothing useful. Is this really a gray area? Aren’t those techniques just a weaker form of Black Hat?

I think so.

I believe the SEO community should ditch the “Gray Hat” label and call those techniques something along the lines of “weak” Black Hat, as opposed to the “strong” Black Hat of malicious cloaking, link farms, scraped content, etc.

That said, the matrix above may now look like this:

Does it follow the search engines’ published rules and guidelines?

Yes

No

Is it intended to deceive search engines and/or users?

No

White Hat

“Undereducated” White Hat

Yes

“Weak” Black Hat

“Strong” Black Hat

Of course, gray areas still exist. And reasonable people can still disagree about which techniques are White Hat and which more closely resemble “weak” Black Hat. But because the term “Gray Hat” is inaccurate, misleading and ultimately unnecessary, we should stop referring to it as a category of SEO techniques.

What are your thoughts on the topic of Gray Hat? I welcome your thoughts in the comments field below.

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30 responses to “There’s No Such Thing as “Gray Hat” SEO”

  1. Yuri Moreno writes:

    Great article!

    I agree with the conception of Gray Hat present on this article and I kind like the chance of Gray Hat to “Weak” Black Hat, because that’s what really is, a tentative to deceive search engines.
    Beside the fact of follow the search engines published rules and guidelines Gray Hat is a variation of Black Hat but more “acceptable”.

  2. Bob Meinke writes:

    Thanks, Yuri! The “Gray Hat” label has been bugging me for awhile, and I’m glad you agree.

  3. Jeff Carpenter writes:

    So you’re saying there’s a “gray area” for techniques, but no “gray hat”? The items that fall into that “gray area” that “still exist” are “gray hat”.

  4. Bob Meinke writes:

    Jeff,

    I’m saying that ethically dubious techniques not yet explicitly banned by search engines shouldn’t be referred to as “Gray Hat,” because that label gives those techniques false legitimacy.

    It’s a purely semantic distinction, but I think it’s an important one.

  5. Geraldine Tiu writes:

    This is the first time that I’ve encountered the “gray hat” category of SEO. And I have to agree with you Jeff because for me, there are just two things “right and wrong.” So if someone did SEO that go against white hat SEO, whether it is “weak” or “strong” black hat technique, that is still wrong. But I guess, just to avoid the ambiguity of SEO categories, there should be a definite set of rules that will clearly define what is really a white hat SEO or a black hat SEO.

  6. webeouminc writes:

    seo is the best technique and i prefer white hat seo method.

  7. Get Traffic writes:

    A lot of website owners go crazy over building traffic for their websites. They try every other technique they can find to get more traffic to their website. Traffic building can be a very tricky thing. You might build the wrong web traffic and then all your efforts can go to waste. By wrong traffic I am referring to the spam and bots that are usually delineated as web traffic but are actually not. The wrong traffic can give you a wrong estimation of the actual traffic to your website and thus it can turn into a financial or monetary disaster.

  8. Steve writes:

    I’ve got to ask, out of curiosity then, what if…

    You have some content on a page which is doing kind of okay for rankings, but could do a little better for a few other similar long-tail keywords if there were some occurrences of those keywords in the content.

    Now, there is no need for the other keywords in terms of user value as everything is covered by the existing content, and getting those couple of other longtails in means going a little, tiny bit overboard on a couple of keywords that appear in all the different longtail phrases in order to get one exact match for each.

    So, you end up keyword stuffing but not much, no-one but another SEO would probably even notice.

    You didn’t “need” that content for the users but adding it in means you’ll rank for those long-tails you didn’t rank for before. You could argue that creating new content would be better but again, there is no need for that new content… the existing content is perfect in terms of quantity and quality, it just doesn’t happen to have any exact matches of those phrases in.

    Would you not consider that Grey Hat?

  9. Jim writes:

    Hi Bob –

    I actually think that we should discard the black and white terminology all together. We are not, after all, talking morality or the actual breaking of laws.

    What we are discussing are methods of getting premier positions in search engine results pages for our or our clients’ pages. Calling techniques black or white hat over simplifies the issues. I prefer to think about what possibilities are open to me depending on my available resources and make a risk / reward judgement in terms of what techniques I employ in each particular case. (I am of course only talking off page optimization here, I think there really is only one way to optimize target landing pages which is with solid unique content that reads well and engages the visitor that is interested in that page’s subject).

    So for off page optimization (i.e. all forms of link building) if a client has a large SEO budget and can afford to take a low risk path, I will take a low risk approach that involves lots of unique content and natural link acquisition, along with strategic link purchases.

    What about a client that can’t afford that level of expenditure? As the search engines become more important (when was the last time you cracked the yellow pages?) are the mom and pop businesses not entitled to search engine visibility? For these clients being able to use automated tools is essential to allow them to get their pages onto the SERPs (typically with geo modifiers) so that their potential clients can find their pages. Until their pages start ranking, they risk nothing in terms of SERP visibility so higher risk strategies can be employed. Why should we apply a negative moral judgement to an approach that conveys a positive benefit to the client?

    Just my opinion that we should characterize the various link building techniques as high, medium and low risk approaches and get awary from all hat colors.

    Cheers,

    Jim

  10. Barakarjohn Barakarjohn writes:

    Bob,
    You had provided a very nice infornmation .I do know about black and white hat.But about “grey hat”, i had got to know about this first time.Thaxs for sharing this information

  11. Sav Szymura writes:

    Article spinning is actually quite easy to detect.

  12. Richard Glaser writes:

    A person can make the argument that most strategies are blackhat if this is the case. What about sending an email to a site owner suggesting an additional resource? If your only goal is to [manipulate] increase rankings over time then this should also be a black hat technique.

    I can argue the same with infographs, widgets, and viral content that are used strictly for link building. My intent is to rank higher because that is the traffic that converts all day long. I never create them so that I can brag about how many diggs, likes, or tweets it got.

    After all these examples “are attempts to deceive search engines and achieve rankings while doing less work”…

    :-)

  13. Mesriani writes:

    Being weak as a Black Hat SEO and being uneducated as White Hat SEO doesn’t necessarily mean that Gray Hat exists. This is the primary point of this article.

    In my 6 months as an SEO, this is my first time to read about Gray Hat and I think you made a strong point here. Glad you mention about this!
    You’re article is not bias as you also mentioned others insights about SEO.

    I’m going to look for other articles about gray hat, but for now, I agree with your assertion.

  14. Jane | Problogging Action Plan writes:

    I believe that article spinning shouldn’t be classified as gray hat but as black hat. But I not sure whether the technique of buying an expired domain and 301 redirecting should be included in the weak black hat.

  15. Bob Meinke writes:

    Steve,

    Thanks for responding, even though you’re forcing me to think before I’ve finished my second cup of coffee.

    I think I’d just consider that White Hat optimization for long-tail keywords. After all, when doing on-page SEO we sometimes insert content that the user doesn’t strictly “need” (e.g., using the name of a company or a specific service when you could just use a pronoun).

    And in my (albeit limited) experience, keyword densities tend to be relative and vary depending on the subject.

  16. SteveOllington writes:

    Haha fair enough… I just wanted to be a little awkward anyway to be honest :D

    No I suppose I kind of consider some of the things I do not to be whiter than white due to little things not going quite as planned, and so needing small “additions” which would probably be considered as atleast bending the rules :)

  17. Bob Meinke writes:

    Jim,

    Thanks for responding!

    I agree that the “hat color” method of classifying SEO strategies oversimplifies the issue to a certain extent. But I still think it’s useful, especially for newcomers to the field, to understand that there are “good” and “bad” ways to optimize a site. In that context, I believe that calling certain techniques “Gray Hat” makes people think those techniques are perfectly OK to use.

    But yeah, for an advanced SEO the categories lose some of their utility.

  18. Steve Ollington writes:

    Hehe you’re right, it’s sort of self-justification to an extent, and the problem is that when you start doing that it might become difficult to know where to draw the line… I think I’ve probably moved the goalposts myself a few times, telling myself “it’s okay, it’s not quite blackhat!”… a dangerous path maybe.

    By the way, do you know there’s a popup to login to the site which keeps continuously popping up when on here…

  19. Bob Meinke writes:

    Richard,

    Thanks for responding!

    Isn’t the only goal for any kind of SEO to increase rankings? I think the question is, are you also enriching the Internet in some way? In the first example, if the site you suggest to a webmaster actually increases the usefulness of the webmaster’s site, then you’re also helping out that site’s users. Infographics, widgets and other “link magnets” gain links, diggs, tweets etc. because they’re useful for users. It’s a win-win.

  20. Bob Meinke writes:

    Steve,

    I think the whole White/Black Hat thing gets complicated because the industry as a whole tends to move the goalposts.

    I haven’t seen the popup, but I’ll let someone know. Thanks again for the thoughtful comments.

  21. Nick Stamoulis writes:

    While there are some tactics that may be somewhere in between the two, the majority can be classified as white hat or black hat- right or wrong. If it is somewhere in between I’d never recommend it. Even if it won’t result in a penalty now that doesn’t mean that it won’t someday very soon.

  22. Mikhail Tuknov writes:

    Gray hat SEO is SEO techniques that take more risks than white hat SEO techniques.

  23. web design writes:

    Ignorance does not excuse you from the law and in Google’s law even black hat/grey hat techniques with a good intention is still seen as black hat. Even grey hat will eventually turn into black hat when the time comes. Grey hat if there is such a thing is a stepping stone to the dark/black hat side.

  24. Simon Word writes:

    Grey Hat SEO . Good one. I heard the term Blue Hat SEO before… and basically its the guys pushing the envelope and seeing how far they can go before Google shuts them down.

  25. Jim writes:

    @web design,

    Dude, since when do Google rules equate to morality, lawfullness or fluffy white kittens?

    This is exactly why I think the white / gray / black chapeau terminology should be deprecated and we should use relative risk levels when talking about off page optimization techniques.

    Conveying morality on a set of business rules gives them too much significance, which is probably a source of unending gratification to the Googster.

    regards,

    Jim

  26. Steve Ollington writes:

    @Web Design,

    Yes I’m sorry but I’m in total agreement with Jim. Talking about the Google Guidelines in relevance to “The Law” is ludicrous!

    I think the Google guidelines are a good thing to have, and to work by but they are in no way equivalent to the law.

    Aside from that, Grey Hat is NOT a stepping stone to Black Hat at all. Many people like me started off as Black Hat and are now White Hat, but find that every so often there’s a few rules which we bend due to the benefits… not anything ethically dubious, but just something that isn’t targeted 100% at end users and is still targeted at least some small part at the search engines.

    To assume that Grey Hat is a stepping stone to Black hat is nuts… it’s not drug abuse or crime!

  27. Mark @ SEO Packages writes:

    I’m not sure that injecting morality and ethics into the white hat-black hat equation is a good idea. Many people don’t see it with those glasses. These are just business rules, nothing more. The fact the goal posts are moved all the time by the regulator (Google) no less makes it a dubious proposition that morality and ethics have anything to do with it. Fact is most people simply won’t venture into so-called black hat areas not because they see it as wrong or unethical but because of the risks involved.

  28. George b writes:

    Gray Hat Seo is a combination of everything from Black, White, Blue seo.

  29. Eimantas S writes:

    I agree with the conception of Gray Hat present on this article and I kind like the chance of Gray Hat to “Weak” Black HatGray Hat Seo is a combination of everything from Black, White, Blue seo.
    Totally agree with you .

  30. duncan writes:

    Jim you speak sense, Why cant we just get rid of the whole hat colour crap and use the Jedi model :) your either Jedi or Sith and everything else in between is just there to be destroyed. JK

    Jims point about clients budget makes perfect sense and the on page being rock solid built on unique well written content also couldnt agree more. Like anything in life if people can cheat and get away with it they will. Ben Johnson comes to mind.

    If everyone was running the same methods then we would have really interesting serps changing daily.

    May the force be with you all.



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