When techs talk about attitudes towards ethics on the Web, we often refer to the color of “hat” someone wears. The terms were originally used to talk about hackers; those who look for holes in security systems in order to exploit them are called black hat hackers, while people who sought the same holes for non-malicious reasons (i.e. to test something and let people know the limitations) are called white hat hackers. In terms of SEO (search engine optimization), white hat practices are typically those that focus on a human audience and follow the rules set forth by search engines, whereas black hat SEO focuses on aggressive strategies that game the system to increase search ranking.
Black Hat Practices
Black hat SEO is concerned with increasing rankings at all costs. There’s no concern for professional ethics or user experience, just rank. Black hat strategies are strongly frowned upon by the community, not only because they break the rules, but also because they inhibit the usability of a site. Many of these techniques will actually improve a site’s SEO, but only for the short term. Search engines eventually discover the exploits and penalize the site. Furthermore, ranking will not do much good if potential customers or users can barely use the site. Now that we’ve covered the reasons not to use black hat SEO (don’t do it!), here are a few techniques, so you can know what to look for:
1. Keyword stuffing is the practice of overloading a Web page with keywords. This works because search engines analyze the frequency of a keyword when deciding whether a site is relevant. Many black hat strategies are variations on keyword stuffing, also known as spamdexing.
2. Invisible text is much what it sounds like. Using this technique, the site might be written with white text on a white background, or it might use tags that are hidden unless you check the source code (within meta tags, etc). This works because the keywords are still visible to search engine spiders, even if they’re not visible to the end user.
3. Doorway pages are extra pages built into a site that aren’t meant for users at all. Their only purpose is to be filled with keywords and attract the attention of search engines.
White Hat practices
White hat SEO still focuses on improving a site’s ranking (it is still a form of search engine optimization, after all), but it does so ethically and with users in mind. White hat cultivates its rank organically through well-researched keywords, backlinking and link building, and writing content for humans, rather than for search engine crawlers.
1. Keyword research is the process of discovering which keywords are the most accurate keywords for your site. This is done through user testing and keyword analysis.
2. Backlinks, or inbound links, are hyperlinks that link to your Web page. Having a lot of outside sources link to your site increases your ranking because your site is actually more popular! People generally only link to sites that they endorse or find useful, so building your reputation and making friends with Web sites is important.
3. Link building is when two sites link back to each other. You can think of it as the quid pro quo relationship of the Web. Once again, for this white hat strategy to work, you must have a good reputation and a site that is useful in some way.
When you think about how you want to build your website or grow your brand, consider how you want to be found, your site’s usability, and your own personal views on spam. If search engines are to be useful to anyone, most people who promote Web pages need to deal honestly and ethically, lest the entirety of Google become a gigantic spam-based echo chamber. Think about the times when you were genuinely trying to find something and couldn’t because all of the top hits were just links to irrelevant junk. When you work on your own SEO, remember: don’t be that guy! Contribute to a better Web by using White Hat SEO practices, building relationships with other sites, and trying to offer the best user experience possible.
Angie Picardo is a staff writer for NerdWallet, a website dedicated to helping consumers alleviate debt with the best balance transfer cards.