Search engine optimizers typically label themselves as "white hat" or "black hat" to identify their basic philosophy, approach and methodology for SEO.

As with most things in life, SEO probably isn't as much "black" and "white" as a spectrum of gray. And, more importantly to marketers, the question isn't so much what's black and what's white but what impact can each approach have on your brand?

With that question in mind, let's explore several ways the opposite ends of the SEO spectrum can be defined in relation to each other, and how each of these practices can affect a Web site's resources and rankings in the search engines.

SEO Criteria White Hat Black Hat
Rules Play by the rules There are no rules
Text/technology Focus on text Heavily leverage technology
Strengths of Optimizer Marketing IT/Programming
Speed Take time/invest Get it done NOW

Rules/No Rules

One of the more popular ways to distinguish between the two is how they observe "the rules" set out by the search engines. White hats tend to see themselves as the "good guys," playing by the rules published by the search engines. Black hats take pride in their "there are no rules" approach to SEO—all's fair in love and war... and SEO.

Black hat optimizers say that as long as they're not doing anything literally illegal, just because the search engines don't like it doesn't mean they can't or shouldn't do it.

The question here becomes how to interpret the "rules." Black hat and white hat quickly blend to gray as soon as interpretation enters the discussion.

For example, white hat optimizers typically work to increase keyword relevance on a page by inserting the target keyword into the site's visible content. Purists would charge that that is not white hat, but rather sliding into the darker side of the spectrum because the optimizers worked to attract the search engineers. These purists say that any optimization is questionable because they reserve the white hat for "no" optimization.

Now let's move from this extreme example to a more common one: in-bound links and what hat you are wearing when you're trying to get them.

While the search engines indicate that links set up simply to drive rankings are verboten, white hat optimizers will request links from other sites by providing content that is relevant to their brand and the site that hosts that content. The content will contain links back to the optimizer's site. Because there is relevant context for the links, it's considered white hat.

Have you ever gone to a site and seen links at the bottom that seem to have little—or nothing—to do with the content on the page? It's probable that these are paid links—and paid links represent a gray area.

When links are purchased as pure advertising, that practice is considered legitimate; when links are purchased to increase rankings, the search engines consider that an abuse, and therefore a black hat practice.

What it means for your brand: The risk for your brand in going the black hat route is the potential for (or the risk of) having your site delisted by the search engines. With white hat practices, the risk for being delisted for disapproved behaviors doesn't exist.

Text vs. Technology

Another way of delineating between black hat and white hat optimization is from a text vs. technology perspective. White hat optimizers tend to focus more on visible content development, that is, content that humans can see. They populate sites with keyword-rich content and title tags and generate off-site content for placement on other sites with links back to their sites.

Black hat optimizers tend to leverage technology, often using hidden text, cloaking, redirects, and other technology-based solutions of which the search engines don't approve.

What it means for your brand: What this means for your brand is that if you don't already have roughly 250 words of text on each page you want to optimize, with each page capable of targeting a specific keyword/phrase, you will need new copy to be written and target keywords injected for keyword density to go the white hat route.

While some marketers welcome the opportunity to use more text to tell their story, others may resent having to add more copy to the site. They feel that the optimization copy impedes the graphical messaging of the site.

With a more technology focused optimization solution, the existing site can remain "as is" and the optimization can happen on the non-visible portion of the site or on another site created by the black hat optimization team.

Marketing Expertise/Programming Expertise

As a general rule, white hat optimizers tend to have backgrounds in marketing communications, and so they focus their attention on the copy/text aspects of the site and its link-building programs to generate results. This also means they are naturally attuned to the brand's messaging, image, and the balancing act between readability and search engine considerations.

Black hat optimizers certainly need to understand marketing, but because they tend to have IT and/or programming backgrounds, they home in on outmaneuvering competing sites using technology solutions.

What it means for your brand: With white hat optimizers, you are more likely to get a marketing savvy ally to aid you in communicating your brand's attributes on the Web. They will be more cognizant of the affects of any negative PR on your brand. This is not to say that black hat optimizers don't care about your brand and work on multiple levels to get good results while generating positive brand awareness.

On the flip site, black hat optimizers are more focused on programming techniques to save the day and don't typically factor the brand image/messaging into the optimization equation. With a black hat optimizer, you will get an ally for your site development/programming team, someone who speaks their language and help balance the search engines' technology needs with the technical specifications of the existing or planned site.

Invest, Take Time/Get Results Now

White hat optimization definitely takes time. It's typical for an optimization program to take three or four months to kick in when white hat strategies are employed. That's because it takes time for the search engines to find and index the newly optimized content.

Black hat, on the other hand, is faster moving, leveraging multiple sites, link farms, and other pre-established environments that draw the search engines to the site and get them to rank it for mission-critical keywords.

What it means for your brand: You are more apt to find black-hat work being employed in highly competitive categories, where it is more likely that site managers will feel pressured to go the black hat route. They will weigh their chances of getting caught and delisted against the upside gain and gamble that either they won't get caught or, if they do get caught, they can black hat their way into an alternate path to quick success.

If you don't like risk and can afford the investment in time it takes to develop content and get it indexed and ranked via white hat strategies, you will probably appreciate the long-term, no risk rewards of white hat optimization. If you need fast action in this white hat world, consider buying pay-per-click ads and using them until your SEO program's results became apparent.

On the other hand, if your competition is eating your breakfast, lunch and dinner and you need results NOW and pay-per-click isn't an option (or you're already using that and want SEO too), you may feel the rewards outweigh the penalization risks. So you may find black hat SEO the way to go.

The World Is Gray

As you can see from this overview of approaches and what they leverage, the SEO world is really much grayer hat than purely black or white hat. Aside from truly illegal activities, there's a lot of room for dancing in that middle ground. So from a brand manager's perspective, it comes down to this one-two punch:

1. What approach are you most comfortable with?

2. What is the worst thing that can happen?

Number one is a personal choice. Number two is easy: the worst thing that could happen is that your site could be de-listed—disappear from the search engines—poof, just like that.

That's the worst case. So what's a not-so-bad case?

In an already aggressive category, like financial services or hospitality, having competitors discover you are using black hat practices can only make them more aggressive and perhaps even hostile, risking reporting your site's "bad" behavior to the search engines in the hopes that theirs won't be investigated further. You may not consider that much of a risk for your brand, however, because "everybody's doing it." If the search engines are going to go after one site, they'll most likely go after several of the sites in the category. So if your site is dropped, although you will lose lots of potential business, your competitors will probably suffer similarly. It's a category loss, not yours alone to bear.

But what about in a not-so-aggressive category, say a particular consumer product that's not being sold through the manufacturers' site? Well, a sudden loss in visibility could be a real risk, enabling your competition to gain precious ground in the eyes of millions of consumers who use search engines to get tips, where-to-buys, and other information from your brand's site.

And so, it really comes down to a risk:reward equation and your basic personality as a marketer. If you view business as a game, you're more likely to want to play by the rules for the most part, run the risk of getting a foul called from time to time, but playing so that your team stays in the game. On the other hand, if you tend to view business as war, you're probably also a risk-taker who believes the ends justify the means, and you play to win at all costs.

In the end, it's not so much black hat or white hat but the risks with which you are most comfortable for your brand.

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Veronica "Niki" Fielding is a 20-year marketing industry veteran. Digital Brand Expressions (, which Niki launched in 2002, is her third consecutive new media services/interactive marketing venture.