Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO: The Ethical Battleground


The digital marketing world can feel like every man for himself. With half of all marketers believing that SEO is the most effective online marketing strategy, competition for search engine “real estate” has never been so fierce.

Such stiff competition has led many marketers to succumb to pressure to increase ranks at any cost. In response, some use shady tactics to help their business get ahead. This phenomenon gave rise to the categorisation of methods according to ethics, known as White Hat SEO and Black Hat SEO. Here, we’ll discuss what separates White Hat from Black Hat SEO tactics.


White Hat SEO: Playing by the Rules

White Hat SEO is your way into Google’s “good books”. Essentially, it means you do search engine optimisation according to Google’s guidelines, with a long-term plan to make your site the best it can possibly be. Operating according to White Hat principles pretty much gives you immunity to Google algorithm updates, helping you avoid penalties that affect your ranking.

Providing the Ideal User Experience (UX)

The cornerstone of White Hat SEO is giving site visitors the best possible experience on your website. Google has always steered site owners towards focusing on designing for UX, the only difference is that now their algorithms are better able to separate the good from the bad.

From load speeds, to easy navigation and intuitive interfaces – UX is a great decider of rankings. Seeing as it’s top-priority in Google’s own software, it makes sense that UX would come first on our White Hat SEO strategy list.

High-Quality Content

We’ve often discussed the importance of content in our blogs. It’s become common knowledge that good content is looked upon favourably by everybody. But what’s considered high-quality content? Original content that engages readers, answers the questions that led them to your page, and delivers real value are common markers of quality content.

Readers and search engines alike are adept at spotting poor-quality content. Try taking a look through your visitors’ eyes. If you wouldn’t read the content on your site, that’s a good sign your strategy needs revisiting.


Mobile is more important than ever. Optimising your site for browsing on-the-go has become a leading priority for site owners, in light of mobile-first indexing becoming the new protocol. Mobile-friendly is now the bare minimum, considering 2015 marked the year local mobile searches overtook desktop.

You’d think these strategies would be an obvious choice for anyone wanting to boost their rankings, right? While it’s definitely the safer choice, the allure of the potential for short-term results is too strong for some.


Black Hat SEO: Going Rogue

Black Hat SEO tactics use shortcuts and attempted hacks to manipulate search engines. In hopes of higher rankings and more traffic, some site owners cater their SEO techniques to these bots rather than real people. It’s usually executed in hopes of short-term gains rather than playing the long game, as seen in White Hat strategies.

Google is highly aware of these Black Hat techniques, and its algorithms have evolved to spot them. Offenders get penalised, so if any of these strategies sound familiar, watch out!

Keyword Stuffing

The practice of placing keywords where they don’t belong is one of the most prevalent Black Hat techniques. If keywords a site is trying to rank for are unnaturally shoved in throughout content and meta tags, that’s keyword stuffing. What does it look like? Google provides a pretty good example:

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Keyword stuffing isn’t always that obvious. Some Black Hat aficionados obscure keywords with white text, or hide them altogether with CSS coding. Either way, Google’s algorithms can pick it up and push you off the results page.


Cloaking masks the true nature of a page. This can take the form of baiting visitors with keywords, then redirecting to another site, or showing HTML to search engines and Flash images to users.

Basically, you’re showing one thing to search engines and another thing to visitors. It sounds like a bad magic trick, but it’s a common Black Hat tactic.

Duplicate Content

Stealing other people’s content is a pretty unethical strategy. This could look like directly copy/pasting content from another site, or making slight modifications in an attempt to make it appear original. While it’s good to cite references and get your theories from credible sources, completely lifting content is a strict no-no.

It can be tempting to take the game into your own hands. Just remember that Black Hat SEO strategies might pay off quicker, but the positive effects won’t last. A good rule of thumb is to follow the search engines’ lead. They focus on serving users to the best of their ability, so in principle, you should too.

If you’d like to read more about some of Google’s most well-known algorithms, have a read of our previous blog on 4 Google Penalties You Need To Watch Out For. There, you’ll learn about the algorithms that enforce penalties on websites that try to bend the rules.