If you’ve been in the online sphere and the world of entrepreneurship for any length of time the odds are you’ve come across people discussing black and white hat SEO. As is so often the case with binary views of the world, black is ‘bad’ and white is ‘good’, black is to be avoided, white is to be extolled. 

Leaving aside for a moment the problematic racist undertones of this terminology (apologies, I didn’t make it up!), if you have a website and you’re doing any kind of SEO work on it, or hiring someone else to do it for you, it’s super important that you understand what black and white hat SEO strategies are, to understand the difference, and recognise potentially damaging techniques before they get anywhere near your website.

If your goal is to get your website ranking you want to avoid the techniques of black hat SEO like Hermione avoiding casting and unforgivable curse. But what exactly do we mean by ‘black hat’ SEO? Or white hat for that matter?

Hermione Vs Voldemort And The Sorting Hat Of SEO

All this talk of hats got me thinking about the eternal dichotomy of black vs white, good vs evil, and the multitude of narratives we have revolving around the forces of light battling the legions of darkness. That is, of course, what led to positive and negative SEO techniques being dubbed ‘white hat’ or ‘black hat’; the notion that some were a positive force for good that would benefit your website, and others were a potent dark force that would drag your site down into the proverbial muck.

Hats are often brought into these stories. Anyone familiar with the TV series Scandal will know Olivia Pope famously wore nothing but white for several seasons and had a literal, very large white hat to represent her ‘goodness’. Most stories following the narrative of the hero’s journey include a light/dark, good/bad dichotomy. Star Wars has the dark side of the force, and Harry Potter has dark wizards.

Hermione Vs Voldemort: All You Need To Know About Black And White Hat SEO

Harry Potter also has a hat that sorts people into houses, with Gryffindor being hailed as the heroic force for good, while Slytherin is the slippery house of evil. 

When pondering SEO tactics it genuinely helps to consider them as houses in a grand school of wizardry. For one thing, they already have their own colours (black, white, even grey). For another, it makes a very dull subject considerably more interesting. 

But what, exactly, are we talking about here?

The Difference Between White Hat SEO And Black Hat SEO

The fine art of Search Engine Optimisation involves a vast array of activities that can be completed to help boost your website’s rankings in search engine results pages (SERPs). In a nutshell, the difference between so-called ‘white hat’ and ‘black hat’ activities is that the former will actually help you improve your rankings, while the latter will result in you being penalised and your rankings dropping.

White hat stuff = good SEO, black hat stuff = bad SEO.

That being said, we’re viewing this subject through the lens of Hogwarts and the notion of the sorting hat, which tells us things aren’t quite that simple. After all, Harry himself was almost placed in Slytherin before he asked to be in Gryffindor. 

As with all areas of life there is a middle ground occupied by shades (or hats) of grey. These are practices that can be viewed as neutral; they neither help nor hinder your efforts. Or they can be viewed as borderline bad, or potentially bad, but not quite bad yet.

Harry sitting beneath the sorting hat with the potential to become either a heroic Gryffindor or an evil Slytherin. On one side of him stands Hermione Granger, the very epitome of a good with. On the other, Voldemort, the darkest wizard who ever lived, died, turned into weird growth on the back of someone’s head, ate some unicorns, and built himself a new body from the bones of his father and the severed limb of a loyal servant.

One looks at a scene like that and has to wonder: how the hell did these people end up in this predicament?

The Difference Between White Hat SEO And Black Hat SEO

The Evolution Of SEO Techniques

To answer that question, we need to go back a few years to the infancy of the internet. In the early days when there was very little content online, ranking on SERPs was, in all honesty, incredibly easy.

A lot of the time you were the only one who had published a piece of content on a particular topic. If there were a handful of other pieces you all fitted comfortably on the first page of the SERPs and good naturedly jostled back and forth for the top spots. As more people came to use the internet and publish content, the SERPs started getting a little more crowded.

SEO – the fine art of optimising your content to ensure it was seen FIRST – was born. But it was as sophisticated as the Google algorithms of the day (that is to say, completely unsophisticated). All you had to do to rank your content was include your keywords.

If there was other content that also included your keywords, all you had to do was include it more times than they did, and you were golden.

As the algorithms of Google and other search engines progressed, SEO was forced to evolve. Where once it was enough to stuff a keyword in as many times as humanly possible, suddenly other factors came into play, like how many other websites linked to yours.

The more variables the algorithms added to judge which content was best, the more SEO developed new tactics to game the system.

Algorithm Updates

All this evolution was achieved by the search engines regularly coming out with updates. There have been many Google updates over the years, some minor, some major. The major ones have proven to be the bane of most marketers’ existence, as they represented an end to a period of what they were doing working.

Marketers had it all figured out. SEO was a cinch, and many were making a fortune getting website to the top of the SERPs without much effort at all. Then a major update would happen and, literally overnight, they would find what had previously ensured their sites ranked well was suddenly being penalised. If they continued to use that tactics, their site would be penalised and their rankings would fall. 

One of the better known examples of this is 2012’s Penguin Update, which targeted marketers who were buying huge numbers of links and using those to ensure their company’s place in the SERPs. Overnight, top ranking sites that had been earning fortunes (both for themselves and their marketeers) plummeted.

Since then link building activities of that nature have come to be known as ‘black hat SEO’, along with other activities that go against what the Google gods have decreed to be good practice.

The tricky part is that there have now been so many algorithm updates, and the algorithms have become so sophisticated, it can be difficult to know if certain things count as black or white hat behaviour. 

What are the penalties for black hat SEO?

What Are The Penalties For Black Hat SEO?

SEO is a long game. I say this repeatedly. There are no quick fixes, no fast dashes to the top of the SERPS. You put in the work and you consistently create high-quality content and you will get there eventually. The problem is, not everyone wants to wait that long. Some businesses simply don’t understand the word ‘wait’. They’re paying for a service and expect immediate results, from the point they start paying. This puts a lot of pressure on SEO agencies and marketeers to deliver fast, tangible results.

Likewise, many small businesses and entrepreneurs who are pouring all their resources into a startup need to see traffic coming their way fast. It’s a simple matter of survival, from their perspective; if their SEO doesn’t start delivering new customers quickly they won’t be around long enough to reap the rewards of this ‘long term strategy’.

The truth is that, as impatient and desperate as you may be to see your website climb those SERPs, the penalties for employing black hat tactics to get there mean it’s simply not worth it. Black hat SEO penalties will kick in if Google detects a site has been using less than savoury techniques. It will result in their rankings dropping, meaning all that work you did to rank not only didn’t work, it actually worked against you.

And that’s a best case scenario. The worst case scenario is Google bans you, meaning it doesn’t matter what you do in future your site won’t be visible on SERPs at all.


Forget ranking page one. As far as the Google gods are concerned, you no longer exist.

Black Hat And White Hat SEO Techniques

So, what exactly counts as black hat or white hat SEO techniques? And how are we to tell one from the other? 

Hermione Vs Voldemort: All You Need To Know About Black And White Hat SEO

The Hermione Method

As a general rule of thumb, white hat strategies are those that:

  1. Follow the guidelines laid out by Google and other search engines.
  2. Have an audience-centric focus.
  3. Rely on long-term strategies that will ensure a health site for many years to come. 

White hat strategies include:

Quality Content

Creating high-quality content that delivers tangible value to your audience. The focus of your content strategy is quality over quantity. Rather than churning out a high volume of poorly written posts that fail to convey anything of substance, you may post less frequently, but when you do it’s top-notch stuff.

Keyword Research

You haven’t taken a single keyword and stuffed it in as many times as humanly possible. Instead, you’ve thoroughly researched the keywords relevant to your topic. You’ve taken the time to choose one that you want to focus on, and compiled a list of related terms (Latent Semantic Indexing, or LSI terms), and have naturally incorporated them into your content where relevant.

Good Web Design

You’ve taken the time to consider SEO as you designed your website and have developed a site that doesn’t just look good, but functions in a way that Google and the other search engines like. It’s easily navigable, user-friendly, and presents content in a way that’s as easy to absorb as possible.

Multimedia Content

Speaking of which, you also offer your content in multiple formats. Where you have written a blog post you also provide a video or audio recording of the post, and vice versa. You make use of images and infographics in your content, animation in your graphics, and ensure your website is accessible to all, regardless of any sight or hearing impediments. 

The Need For Speed

You spend time ensuring your website is as fast as the Flash when it loads. Pages appear instantly, content is visible as soon as you click on it, and you’re not forcing your audience to wait around while everything takes its sweet time to load.

Hermione Vs Voldemort: All You Need To Know About Black And White Hat SEO

Voldemort And The Dark Arts In SEO

Black hat strategies oppose the white hat ones in that they:

  • Violate the guidelines set out by search engines.
  • Rely on manipulation to get to the top of the SERPs.
  • Offer ‘quick wins’ at the expense of long term success.

Black hat strategies include:

Keyword Stuffing

Taking one keyword and stuffing it into your copy and onto your page as many times as humanly possible. That means repeating it in EVERY header. Adding it to EVERY sentence (whether it’s relevant or not) sometimes more than once. 

Hidden Content

Back in the day, SEOs would even disguise the keyword by pasting it hundreds of times into the background of a page, but making the text the same colour as the background so it wasn’t visible! Hidden content of this nature, or any content that is added to a page in such a way that the audience isn’t supposed to see it, but it ‘games’ the system to get a boost on SERPs is a big no-no.

Bad Paid Links

Purchasing high volumes of links from sites that are not legitimate websites, but have been set up purely to provide backlinks in exchange for money. Backlinks can be a helpful element of your SEO strategy, but this is NOT the way to do it! A quality backlink comes from a legitimate website that has a purpose of its own, and links to your site because it is relevant to the subject of its own content. 

Cloaking And Clickbait

Appropriately enough for a discussion of dark wizardry, one black hat tactic is having a title that is appealing and encourages people to click through to your site, matched with an article on an entirely different topic. For example, celebrity gossip fills your headline with the article people land on is trying to get them to bet in an online casino and has nothing to do with Brad and Angelina. This is known as ‘cloaking’ your content, or ‘clickbait’.

Crappy Redirects

There are several ways to use redirects on your website (sending traffic that lands on one page to another). Some are genuine, for example a page no longer exists, so you’re redirected to the new version of it, or a different page on the same subject. Other redirects are a bit sneaky. Everything redirects to the homepage, regardless of the subject. You get stuck in an endless loop of redirects that has no end. 

Pushing High Volume, Low-Quality Content

Blogging is super powerful, but churning out crap content at a high volume is no longer the way to demonstrate your website’s authority. Short pieces of content that were only a couple of hundred words long used to do the trick. Packing your blog with these mini posts on a daily basis or even more frequently used to get Google’s attention. You were seen as a site that was well updated on all the current news in your industry. These days Google would rather see you producing high quality content that delivers genuine value, than a few lines of crap text that give your audience absolutely nothing of worth.

Is Link-Building Black Hat SEO?

You’ll notice that bad links appear on this list, and you’ll find them on most lists of black hat SEO strategies. The obvious question then is, are link building activities ‘dark SEO’. The short answer is no. The longer answer is not as long as you’re building genuine links with other sites of good authority. 

Having other websites link to your content is a very positive thing, provided they are seen by the Google gods as authoritative sites. They must be sites with a purpose beyond simply providing backlinks. For example, another blog that mentions your product or service might link to you as an example, or another business in your industry might link to you as a source. You can also obtain backlinks from informative sites, including directories that allow businesses in particular niches to register their details so that people looking for someone with their expertise can find them.

The lure of the dark side black hat SEO

The Lure Of The Dark Side

As you embark on your SEO journey you may be tempted by the dark side. It has some appealing promises, not least of which a faster way to reach the top of the SERPs and gain all that traffic that’s going to make you money.

Between the shining white best practices of white hat and black hat SEO lurks grey hat SEO. This murky area is very easy to slip into without meaning to. You’re optimising a post using Yoast SEO and the damn traffic light stubbornly refuses to go green unless you do a list of things.

You do the list.

The light goes green.

What you don’t realise is that Yoast SEO was originally designed in the days of keyword stuffing and hasn’t been properly updated to align with current best practices. Without realising it, your post (which was probably perfectly well optimised while it was stuck on orange) is now guilty of keyword stuffing because you’ve added it as many times as you were told.

That green light is very appealing.

The need to turn it green is overpowering, and even after you know that sometimes making the suggested changes will harm you, not help you, there’s an urge to just do it.

Resist that urge. It will hurt you in the long run!

Hermione Vs Voldemort: All You Need To Know About Black And White Hat SEO

Why Harry Wound Up In Gryffindor

Harry Potter would have been a very different film indeed if he’d begun his school year by whispering “Not Gryffindor, not Gryffindor!” instead of “Not Slytherin, not Slytherin!”. The sorting hat saw in him the potential to excel in either house, yet Harry’s own choice saw him placed in the ‘heroic’ house and pitted against the forces of darkness.

What, we wonder, would have become of the wizarding world had Harry instead befriended Draco Malfoy and teamed up with Voldemort? One shudders to think (although arguably it would make for an interesting read). The crux of the issue when it comes to black and white hat SEO is personal choice. If you want to game the system and believe you can get away with it, you’re welcome to try. It won’t end well for you, but you have free will, so you can certainly do it.

If, on the other hand, you want to build a site that will succeed in the long term and has the capacity to rank highly on SERPs for all the keywords you need to gain shedloads of business and make tons of moolah, stick to the white hat strategies.

This is one instance when you should, most definitely, walk towards the light.

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