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Black Hat vs. White Hat vs. Gray Hat (Sorting Hat What?)

Posted by fusionbox on May 1, 2012, 6 p.m.

Picture a battle field. The players are all Harry Potter-like characters with Sorting Hats of different colors on their heads, with silly capes fluttering and wands pointing.


OMG Harry Potter is a Black Hat SEO!

This is the (imaginary) world of search engine optimization (SEO). Like many battles, there are good guys, bad guys, guys in-between, and guys who are really confused about where they do - and should – stand.

If you've ever met an SEOer and wondered whether they were "good" or "evil", this is the article for you.

First off, black/white/gray hat SEOs are an established "thing" – any other color hat you hear about is either made up, in another field, (example: Red Hat, a leader in the open source community) and/or hasn't caught on yet. So this particular battlefield we're on isn't as colorful as the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch on game day. However, we're hoping these comparisons put it in the right perspective.

A white hat SEO is someone who plays by the rules – the rules of search engines, that is. Google and Bing give us clear, and many times not-so-clear, guidelines about how we can play nice in their kingdom of search results. This does not give you overnight results; it gives you long-term results. It ensures that Google won't get mad at you and kick you out of the kingdom. Because yeah, Google does that.

Some of the spells that a white hat SEO would use could be:

  • Portus - Turns an ordinary object into a port key, that a witch or wizard can use to bring someone to a specific location just by touching it. The enchanted object will take on a familiar blue glow. Obviously, this is used for quality link building.
  • Scourgify and Reparo - Scourgify is a common cleaning spell and Reparo is used to fix broken objects. These spells would come in handy when working on a new site, or optimizing a site that has been neglected. Tasks that involve cleaning up sitemaps, robots files and redirects could be done with a flick of the wrist, and broken links would be repaired in a flash!

A black hat SEO is someone who is willing and able to break the rules of search engines in order to rank higher in organic results… to varying degrees of success. A black hat SEO can be a spammer, but they aren't always. If they're any good, they can get you unbelievable results, swiftly. If they aren't good, if they're lazy, if they let up too soon, or if Google is just too fast for them, your website will be the one to feel the repercussions. Your black hat optimizer has already been paid, and is out the door.

Some of the spells that a black hat SEO would use could be:

  • Geminio - A spell that duplicates an object. An unscrupulous SEO could use this spell instead of a scraper to steal your content and use it on a lower quality site and, in some cases, outrank the original.
  • Crucio - Subjects the target to insufferable pain and torture. I believe this spell is currently in use today. Whenever I see a shoddy microsite or useless content farm, I feel like this spell has been cast.
  • Avada Kedavra - The killing curse, and the worst of the three unforgivable curses. You'll see the use of this curse in black hat SEO today through the use of negative SEO. Negative SEO comes into play when your competitors use SEO to actively harm your website, instead of seeking to improve their own. After all, there is more than one way to get to the top of Google.

Gray hat SEO falls in varying degrees between the two. They like to tip-toe the line and see what they can get away with, without getting in *too* much trouble. Many tactics that exploit vulnerabilities in the Google ranking algorithm, but are not ethically wrong, fall into the gray hat category. However, these guys can still get you in trouble.

Some of the spells that a grey hat SEO would use could be:

  • Alohomora - This is a charm that unlocks doors. There are many secrets to Google's ranking algorithm and a lot of times it takes investigating the back entrance to find them.
  • Disillusionment Charm - Sometimes a SEO will want to hide an element from a user or a search engine robot in order to get a SEO benefit, without damaging user experience. This charm could be useful for PageRank sculpting or 3-way link strategies.

In case you're wondering, Fusionbox falls squarely in the "White Hat" box.

We're out there on the battlelines, fighting to rank your business's website against those that would rank sub-quality sites at any cost. Our clients are long-term businesses partners with goals that are too important to risk with Black Hat tricks. Black hat SEO isn't just against the rules, it's also extremely risky and in most cases unethical. The consequences – including search engine ranking penalties and de-indexation – are just too expensive to gamble with.

Hopefully we have shed some light on some cryptic terms and helped you to understand some of the nuances of the epic battle we fight. I believe we covered the important ones, but if there is something we left out, please let us know in the comments below this entry.

If you have questions about how we can help you develop a home-run Inbound Marketing strategy please contact our Denver search engine optimization specialists at Fusionbox.