No doubt about it, Marketers wear a lot of hats. But in the SEO world, the color of the hat matters more than the number. What does “white hat” SEO mean? What’s considered a “black hat” tactic? Most importantly, what kinds of link building strategies will help you generate sustainable organic growth?
We tackle these questions and more. Let’s start by sorting out these colors.
What Is White Hat Link Building?
White hat link building (also known as backlinking) is a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) technique performed by creating links between websites of similar topics, making it easier for users to navigate the Web and for search engines to crawl and understand the content. Another way to view white hat link building is as “good” link building. Essentially white hat link building is the practice that uses accepted rules and regulations of companies like Google, as well as the accepted rules by the industry at large. No questionable tactics. When you break it down to the basics, white hat link building relies on quality content, links, and partnerships.
White hat link building typically uses high-quality content that includes links to target URLs, then delivers it to authoritative websites to be published. Instead of sending consumers to just any website for the sake of a link, white hat link building prioritizes content that actually serves the reader and offers value. This white hat SEO link building process is also known as guest posting.
As Google and other search engines crawl the internet, they use links to quickly draw connections between content themes and to understand the hierarchy of authority between websites. If highly authoritative websites link to another website, it sends a signal to Google to also consider that website to be authoritative. This authority is sometimes referred to by SEOs as link juice.
SEO and link building isn’t something most brands can do completely on their own—to build authority on your website, it’s important to collaborate with other industry experts and websites in order to feature content or links on their platform. Some other useful white hat link building strategies include asking for product reviews, unlinked brand mentions, requesting to be in “Best Of” roundups, video content, and podcast content. Most white hat link building techniques focus on utilizing partnerships to help reach new audiences and tell the algorithm you’re an authority in your space. If you’re looking for more help on link building, check out our guide here!
What Is Black Hat Link Building?
Black hat link building is the practice of generating links in ethically questionable ways, or in ways that contradict Google Search Central’s guidelines. As the name would suggest, it is the exact opposite of white hat link building. Examples of black hat link building strategies include:
Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
A PBN is a network of websites that has been created or acquired by marketers and used to pass link authority between the sites. PBNs are also sometimes called “Link Farms.” Because the marketers own all of the websites in the network, PBNs can be used to generate large quantities of links quickly. The use of PBN links is extremely risky because these networks are often abused to generate unnatural link growth and Google has invested immense resources into technology to detect and penalize websites using them.
PBN links are often attractive to SEOs because they can be acquired more easily and by expending fewer resources than white hat links. However, they will do more harm than good! Not only are PBNs not ethical, but they also puts your entire SEO strategy at risk if Google catches on. You can seriously harm your organic rankings if you use spam links, both because Google won’t favor you nor will users since the user experience suffers, too.
Spamming Blog Comments
A simple, but unquestionably black hat link building strategy is to create blog comments that contain links to target URLs. For a time, these types of links boosted rankings and black hat SEOs could essentially print link money. However, Google has gone to great lengths to minimize the impact of these links. In addition, these links are a surefire way to have your website penalized. Plus, most CMS and blog providers automatically make all links in comments “Nofollow” prohibiting potential penalization.
White Hat vs. Grey Hat vs. Black Hat
Sometimes the lines blur between ethical and unehtical SEO practices, let’s do a side-by-side comparison of white hat, grey hat, and black hat link building methods. White hat, grey hat, and black hat are terms used to describe different approaches to SEO and online marketing practices. These terms represent the ethical spectrum of SEO techniques, with white hat being the most ethical and black hat being the least ethical.
White Hat: Ethical Practices
As mentioned, white hat SEO refers to ethical and legitimate techniques that adhere to search engine guidelines. These practices prioritize the user experience and long-term sustainability of a website. Some examples of white hat link building include:
Creating high-quality content
- Optimizing website structure
- Earning backlinks naturally through quality content
- Following best practices recommended by search engines
White hat SEO is the recommended approach as it builds a solid foundation for a website’s online presence and avoids potential penalties from search engines.
Grey Hat: Hybrid
Grey hat SEO tactics fall somewhere in between white hat and black hat techniques. They are not fully ethical but also not blatantly unethical. Common grey hat examples that ride the ethical line include:
- Purchasing backlinks from sources that may not clearly violate guidelines
- Using keyword stuffing sparingly
- Manipulating the search engine algorithm like review spamming or gating
Grey hat techniques can sometimes provide short-term gains but carry the risk of penalties from search engines if they cross the line into black hat territory. It’s always important to try your best to stick to white hat link building and be very cautious of grey hat practices—they really aren’t recommended and won’t help you in the long run.
Black Hat: Unethical Practices
Black hat SEO involves unethical and manipulative tactics aimed at gaming search engine algorithms to achieve quick and often unsustainable results. Black hat link building can look like:
- Keyword stuffing
- Cloaking (presenting different content to search engines and users)
- hidden text or links
- Buying or spamming backlinks
Again, these techniques are high-risk and often result in more trouble than they are worth! Websites employing black hat techniques may experience temporary ranking boosts but are highly susceptible to search engine penalties, which can result in the removal of the website from search engine results altogether.
Why Is White Hat Link Building Important?
If you care about backlinks, then you care about growing your organic traffic. Google’s algorithm reportedly takes hundreds of ranking factors into account when ranking the websites on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). These ranking factors are usually organized into three main categories:
- Technical – the nuts and bolts of your website and user experience. Some technical factors include Google’s “Core Web Vitals”, site speed, mobile experience, site architecture, crawlability, sitemaps, and much more. At its core, Google will favor websites that care about the user’s experience.
- Onpage – the content of your website. Google Search is the most sophisticated customer service agent in the world and it pulls its answers from the words marketers put on their websites. The goal of an SEO or content marketer is to create content that best answers users’ questions in a natural and thorough way.
- Offpage – the way other websites interact with yours—hint, it’s all about backlinks. From the beginning, Google’s algorithm has gauged the authority of a website by analyzing its link profile, or the combination of links pointing towards it. If authoritative websites point towards your website, Google transfers that authority (sometimes nicknamed Link Juice) and your website gets a boost.
While Google has rolled out multiple algorithm updates specifically adjusting its analysis of backlinks (especially the famous Penguin update), the value and importance of backlinks are as paramount as ever.
Backlinks are pointed to individual URLs and when those pages’ content is centered around specific keywords, the potential for ranking that keyword up increases significantly. But it goes well beyond increasing individual keywords and pages. As links are acquired, a website’s domain is strengthened thus easing the load for all future keyword acquisitions. Every new backlink acquired is like a step forward for every other keyword you’re targeting.
Now, we’d be remiss if we didn’t explain the negative consequences you avoid when pursuing white hat backlinks. We’ve mentioned them a few times already: Google penalties. If Google discovers black hat SEO strategies, it will blacklist entire websites making it impossible for them to be found through their search engines. It’s very rare that Google informs a website that they’ve been penalized or why exactly they were penalized, and it can take years to repair the damage. SEO takes a significant investment of both time and money, so it makes sense that some marketers look for shortcuts—but the potential gain is never worth the risk.
What Makes a Link White Hat?
Avoiding black hat and other spammy tactics automatically makes a link white hat. The effectiveness of a backlink doesn’t just come down to whether it was acquired “ethically” or not. The very best backlinks are created from websites that have both authority and relevance.
Backlink authority is often measured using one of two scores: Domain Rating (DR) and Domain Authority (DA). They essentially measure the same thing (both scored from 1-100) but are provided by different SEO software like Ahrefs, Moz, and SEMrush. The higher the DR/DA, the more potent a backlink will be.
In addition to the authority of a domain, topical relevance is crucial. If you’re growing a cosmetics eCommerce website, it won’t make sense to generate a backlink from a software website—and Google’s sophisticated algorithm can quickly perceive these nuances.
White Hat Link Building Tactics
White hat linking doesn’t have to be complicated—you mainly just need to be intentional about how you go about linking. There are strategies you can employ that are both effective and above-board, so consider the following tactics that are all fair game.
- Guest posting – We already covered this strategy above because it’s the most common and most effective method. It comes down to writing high-quality content articles and then giving those articles away to websites that value that content. It’s mutually beneficial because high-quality content creation can be expensive for website owners and backlinks are essential for organic growth.
- Longform Content – White hat backlinks can also be generated by creating highly engaging content that naturally draws attention from other websites. This content usually takes the form of reports, infographics, digital interactives, and long-form guides. However, these types of content usually require significant promotion through advertising, social media, and email in order to gain the attention needed to garner backlinks.
- Broken Link Building – Websites are constantly changing. Pages get deleted, entire websites get redirected, and old content rarely gets updated. When these shifts happen, backlinks get broken. So imagine for a second that a competing website undergoes major shifts. Many of the links that were pointing to that website may now be pointing to dead (404) pages. You can now reach out to those websites letting them know about the “dead” links and request that they point to your website instead. Tools like Ahrefs and SEMrush can help you discover these opportunities.
- Link Mentions – Especially effective for mature brands, it’s common for websites to mention other brands without linking to them. While brand mentions can be detected by Google to boost your authority, mentions aren’t nearly as strong as backlinks. Sometimes, turning mentions into links is as simple as contacting the webmasters and requesting they link to your website. They’re already mentioning the brand and they’re likely to agree to a backlink.
- Collaborate with Influencers — Partner with influencers or experts in your field to create content, such as interviews, round-up posts, or joint projects. They may naturally link to your content when sharing it with their followers, or may even be willing to participate in a paid sponsorship.
- Create Infographics and Visual Content — Even though copy is what we often think of first when it comes to links, you can link infographics and pictures, too. Infographics and visual content tend to be highly shareable; they typically create visually appealing, informative graphics that others will want to use on their websites, with proper attribution.
Remember that the key to successful white hat link building is to prioritize quality over quantity, focus on relevance and user value, and always follow ethical practices. Avoid any tactics that involve buying links or engaging in manipulative practices, as these can lead to penalties from search engines.
Keep It White Hat
There are plenty of white hat link building strategies that boost your organic opportunity without the risk of penalization. The saying goes high-risk, high-reward. But in SEO, generating loads of black hat links often can’t come with any really substantial, long-term rewards. So don’t waste your precious time and money and other resources on sneaky, short-term strategies. More than ever, the requirements of Google’s algorithm and the requirements of the end-user are aligning. Do what’s best for the end-user and you’re sure to also be rewarded by Google. At BASE, we take pride in offering SEO products that won’t just help you this month or this year, but products that will benefit businesses for years to come. Click here to learn more.