This article discusses the “ethical” and “unethical” approaches to Search Engine Optimisation, as well as the impact of Search Engine algorithms today and into the future.
5 minutes required reading time
By Luke Sharkey – Growth Marketing Manager
If we accept the binary mentality so aptly portrayed by Mad Magazine’s Spy vs Spy, we should talk about an online good and evil.
Say you’re currently looking for a stronger organic online presence, you may be looking at Search Engine Optimisation as a solution.
Many a Digital Agency incorporates SEO into their marketing strategy because it is an effective and alternatively affordable method to engage customer bases.
When compared to pay per click and Programmatic advertising, SEO can be significantly cheaper. This price point, however, has also allowed for an influx of approaches to the practice.
The result of which has sparked ethics, debates and guidelines around Search Engines and the white hat/black hat binary that is good and bad SEO practice.
A matter of black and white?
Put simply black hat is bad practice. And while there can be differing views of what bad is, people can agree on topics such as Keyword stuffing, content cloaking and poor content for SEO sake.
The term Black hat was born out of the western film genre, in which the moustache twirling villain would often wear a black hat to distinguish himself as exactly that -a villain. Thus, the term white hat simply means the opposite -as for the context of SEO-, good SEO practice.
But is it as simple as that?
Well, no. There is the Grey hat of SEO Practice, as well, which is determined as ethically insalubrious but not yet prohibited by search engines. But where some people call it poor practice, others find a little issue.
Let’s look at a few examples of white hat vs black hat approaches, and let you decide which you’d prefer to come across as a user.
Keyword Stuffing vs Keyword/Content Optimisation
Keyword stuffing is both obvious and disadvantageous as search engines today have advanced with algorithms that identify stuffed web pages with relative ease. Keyword stuffing is the over-utilisation of a keyword or keyword string.
Say for example the keyword string is “buy typewriters in Melbourne”. The below is a perfect example of black hat SEO practice.
Are you looking to buy typewriters in Melbourne? The best place to buy typewriters in Melbourne is Type Co. We are not only the best, we are also the cheapest place to buy typewriters in Melbourne. Buy typewriters in Melbourne today.
While this example seems like an exaggeration, unfortunately, it is not uncommon. Often high in word count, low in substance, and designed to get a higher organic ranking on search engines.
Let’s take another example this time with a more difficult keyword string and look at white hat SEO practice. “buy cheap typewriters in Melbourne”.
Looking to buy a typewriter in Melbourne that is cheap in price but not in quality. We sell authentic feeling vintage styled typewriters from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. With affordable mechanical and electromechanical options available, come to our store in the heart of Melbourne or buy online today.
You’ll notice the second example never actually uses the keyword string in its entirety. But rather breaks the Keyword.
While some SEO technicians will frown upon such a practice, that assessment of Keyword optimisation is not solely that of SEO. When optimising content to include keywords it is important to keep in mind what is contextually relevant. By that, we mean the user interacting with the site.
While the user may be typing “cheap typewriters” into google, they don’t want to feel like the typewriter itself is of poor quality. So, the assessment is made to address that issue, while still ranking for the keyword string. See also how the content also uses the term “affordable” as a semantic variation, this linguistic diversity helps the web page rank for more than just one keyword.
Content cloaking vs Clever content
Content cloaking is the purposeful presentation of content to the search engine that is different from that the user sees. Usually, this is done from a server-side script, which delivers both the search engine spider and the user different versions of the content.
Another method is cloaking through website design. As a crude example, imagine white text on a white background, with an image of text over the top. The search engine reads the image as just that, an image, and the white text appears as invisible.
Where the spider reads keyword stuffed content, the user is reading a keyword light web page. Now while in practice this doesn’t necessarily sound bad, imagine if this were a blind date.
You are told that they are young, handsome or beautiful, charming and witty when really, they are a seventy-year-old man with a walking frame that smells bad. The person who set you up believes that they are great, and it’s not until the date that you realise you have been deceived. Catfishing aside, content cloaking is deceitful.
Now there are variants of this argument, and alternative practices such as Accordion content, which is considered by some to be a grey hat issue. But as a rule, it is best to avoid content cloaking where possible.
Instead, utilise clever content that is competitive and utilises keywords that are most relevant. This is so important as it will not be ranked down by search engines for content cloaking, and -by being honest- will not lead to misaligned expectations from the user.
Poor versus Quality Content
Converting prospects into customers. Informing your audience. Selling your product. No matter what your goals, if your content doesn’t both identify your target audience and engage them, it isn’t worth writing.
In our previous article ‘Great content for business’, we discuss that great content comes out of well thought out strategy. In terms of SEO, keywords are a large part of content optimisation. Even if keyword stuffing can raise your rankings on Google, imagine the user reading it.
What’s the point in ranking in the top 10 of google if no one will buy once they get to your website?
The significance of great content cannot be understated, especially in an oversaturated marketplace. The balance of context and Keywords need to be struck and the format must lead towards conversions in one form or another. Whether it is developing awareness or making the sale.
[Also read our guide of Everything you need to know about Conversion Rate Optimisation]
Remaining competitive is a white hat game
The biggest problem with black hat SEO is not that it is aggressive, deceitful and unethical.
The biggest problem with being a black hat operator is that it is unsustainable.
As the online landscape grows and develops; as we become more digitally literate within that space, both technology and users refine algorithms and techniques to ensure a higher quality of content.
Black hat and even grey hat techniques must become more ingenious and devious to accommodate. Whereas while the landscape for white hat changes too, the alterations are far less severe. Rather than scrapping or altering entire sites to beat search engine algorithms, white hat SEO needs only streamline to accommodate these changes (assuming it is set up correctly in the first place).
So what do you think? Is black hat bad? Is white hat good? Is there a middle ground?
While there is always going to be nuanced, at Adaptify, we believe that white hat practice is the only approach. Because it is the only practice that remains unaffected by time.