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The SEO sanity check part 2: gray hat techniques

By Kerry Butters | Business, Marketing, Social Media | May 16, 2013

In the last post, we took an in-depth look at Google’s Panda and Penguin updates and how they have impacted on search rankings for businesses. Whilst we established that using black hat SEO techniques is likely to result in a site becoming penalized, we didn’t look at what’s known as gray hat SEO.

Gray hat SEO is, as the name suggests, somewhere in the middle of black hat and white hat. This means that whilst the practices may be perceived by some as being OK, for the most part they still break search engine rules and may result in losing rankings, or worse.

However, it’s important to bear in mind that whilst gray hat techniques can be used for genuine reasons and considered to be a good practice, it’s the abuse of the techniques which has led to suspicion when it comes to using gray hat.

So what constitutes grey hat SEO? Well, there are a number of practices used, which we will look at in more detail below.

To begin with, whilst grey hat techniques can give a site a slight edge over those that utilize white hat only, there’s risk involved. Gray hat SEO breaks the rules and whilst it may not be obvious to Google, there remains a risk that competitor sites may recognize and report the use of it.

 

Getting down to the nitty gritty

Gray hat SEO techniques include:

  • Three-way link exchange: reciprocal links and link exchange have until recently been one of the most commonly used SEO practices for many years. However, this was until Google decided that they don’t like the use of such practices anymore. Changes to search algorithms have really devalued this practice and link building has become more of an art form than ever before.
  • Article spinning: this is when software is used to take original content and reword it, in order for it to look fresh and unique to Google. Whilst this is seen to be a way to avoid penalization for duplicate content, there remains a risk of copyright infringement if the content is taken from another site. It’s thought that if an article is spun well, it can still work as an SEO practice, even in the wake of Panda.
  • Buying old domains: some webmasters buy up old domains with authority and back links in order to link back to sites which they want to perform well in search.
  • Buying expired domains: this is when link spammers monitor DNS records so that they can buy up domains when they expire. The pages of the expired domains are then changed to link to other sites which the webmaster wants to perform.
  • Google Bombing: this is when a large amount of links are created in order to perform well in search and is also known as Googlewashing. The sheer number of links mean that the site often ranks high, especially when used alongside keywords, which may, or may not, be off-topic.
  • Manipulating content with CSS: for the more experienced user who can code effectively, this is when the code for a site uses CSS to make the content appear lower on a page than it actually is. The reasoning behind this is that Google crawls the content first, thus making the page seem more valuable. 
  • Creating a separate page for each keyword: this allows traffic for long tail keywords by creating a new page for each targeted keyword. This is time consuming, even using an article spinner, but said to be effective for some. This technique does require pages to be released slowly to avoid triggering spam filters.
  • Microsites: these are used to create different sites for each niche of one business. For example, say it’s a site for a gardener, this can be split down into say landscaping, tree felling and so on. Whilst this can be effective, it has been an extensively abused method and as such, care should be taken, especially for local businesses using the same phone numbers and addresses.

 

Why use gray hat techniques?

Fairly obviously, these are used in an attempt to beat the robots and allow a site to rank higher in the SERPs than it might otherwise. Whilst gray hat may be considered unethical by some, they remain widely used and of course it’s the ‘gray area’ as to the ‘morality’ of these methods that gives it its name.

Gray hat methods mean taking a risk. If a site wants to use them, then it should be considered that this may result in penalization if they are discovered by the search engines.

However, many SEO experts use these techniques as a way to boost client rankings. If done properly, and responsibly, gray hat methods can manipulate search engine rules without actually breaking them. 

If gray hat methods are used on a site, communication between the site owner, the webmaster and the SEO practitioner is vital to ensure that everyone understands and accepts the techniques.

Whilst many sites start out with the best of intentions, using white hat methods only, the temptation to revert to less pure practices usually comes about if a site isn’t performing well. It’s important for webmasters and SEO experts alike to consider the following:

  • Search engine rules change, sometimes quite often, and as such, it’s important that webmasters and SEO practitioners keep themselves bang up-to-date with the rules. This avoids accidentally slipping into gray or black hat methods because of changes to algorithms.
  • It’s vital that the site owner is kept informed of the SEO tools used on their website and their permission is given. Using certain techniques may not only have the site plummeting down the ranks, but it could impact on a business as a whole if their reputation becomes damaged.
  • Bear in mind that offering incentives to bloggers to review your products can also be construed as gray hat practice. This is because, strictly speaking, the blogger is being paid in one way or another to provide a link back to a site when reviewing a product. Paid-for links are most certainly frowned upon by the search engines.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that there is a reason that search engines change algorithms in order to pick up on certain practices that attempt to trick the system. We’ve all become frustrated when searching to find ourselves landing on a useless pages full of links. The fact that Google has altered its algorithms in an attempt to improve web content can surely only be a good thing.

 

Social media and gray/black hat

There’s a fine line between ‘good’ gray hat practices and bad and as such, it’s always going to be a risk using it. In this age of social, it’s also tempting to use such practices for gaining a following by ‘buying’ likes.

This should also be avoided, there are thousands of sites that claim to provide genuine likes for a few dollars, but this is rarely a good idea. Much of the time, the likes are not genuine, but gleaned from lapsed accounts that aren’t used anymore.

Whilst social is important to SEO these days, there are several risks associated with buying likes that should be considered. 

  • In order to gain the likes, a botnet may be used to propagate them, putting the target account and that of its followers at risk from malware infection.
  • Another method for gaining lots of likes is by using people from developing countries to sit there clicking ‘like’ or ‘follow’ for paltry amounts of cash – that is of course then between you and your conscience.
  • There is also the possibility of damaging a client’s reputation. If their followers suddenly jump from 500 to 5000, someone is going to notice and it’s to be hoped it isn’t either a client, a competitor or the social media site themselves. This could of course, result in an account being suspended.

When it comes to the crunch, whether gray hat methods are used is up to the individual. However, if they are going to be used it has to be hoped that the SEO practitioner is very skilled. Even then, there’s risk involved, so in order to be absolutely safe in the knowledge that a site won’t be penalized, it’s best to stick to white hat practices.

 

Have you ever used gray hat techniques? Are you confident that you know what is and is not considered white hat? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image/thumbnail, search image via Shutterstock.

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  • LeadGenix

    Good article explaining some of the grey hat techniques and the risk behind them. For the most part, I think, it is best practice to stick with white hat methods. As was stated in the article, Google’s guidelines can change at any time and having your grey hat moves turn into black hat moves is too large of a risk.

  • http://michaelgkeating.com/ Michael Keating

    Thanks for the article and I enjoy the read :) My question to you is this as follows:
    - Can you tell me that you have successfully ranked for a competitive keyword using strictly “white hat” practices?

    I know I haven’t. Curious for your thoughts…

    Cheers,
    Mike

  • http://michaelgkeating.com/ Michael Keating

    Okay let me try again seeing as my first comment didn’t get approved.

    - Has any reader of this article successfully ranked a website for a competitive keyword using “white hat” practices only?

    I’m curious for a fellow SEOs thoughts.

  • Sarah Bauer

    Hey Kerry,
    Great point about maintaining transparency with clients about the types of tactics used, and where they fall on the white/black grade scale. Nobody should be kept in the dark here, especially when such tactics have the potential to backfire and cause damage.

    Thanks!
    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

  • apprentice

    there is no risk of your site of being prohibited from search engines.

  • http://www.colorexpertsbd.com/ Jenifer Jeny

    I think it’s (Gray Hat) the best way of increase ranking. But white hat is best practicing. Mixing of black hat isn’t good for ranking. :)

  • Alex Mooney

    I’ve surely never ranked for a competitive keyword using Whitehat. Whitehat is sort of turning into “use google adwords” if you don’t want your site to get penalized.

  • Aimy Wilson

    Thank you very much for sharing this informative blog about grey hat. it is very useful us in future.I think white hat techniques is right choice for increase ranking.

  • Seth Nickerson

    Microsites are grey-hat? Granted they are not as popular as they used to be, but for a lot of companies/brands, they are still a viable approach, especially for products services that have a longer lifespan. I don’t like creating microsites for SEO purposes for products that live shorter than 6-9 months because the effort it takes to get them to rank is longer than the lifespan of the site.

    As far as a litmus test for white/hat/grey — if you can do it and not have to ask whether it could get you in trouble, then it is probably safe. In other words, if your efforts are genuine, you are on the white/light grey-ish track and should not have any issues.

    BTW, if you swing more the dark grey-ish/black end of things, sooner or later you will see it impact your rankings. For a lot of my clients, competitors are recently feeling a lot of ill effects for their past efforts — mainly link buying.

    Stay on the straight and narrow: build good content, build a real audience, and reward those followers who become evangelists. If you’ve got a solid reputation and a quality product or service, the rest will take care of itself!