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What does Gray Hat SEO mean in SEO?

The type of search engine optimization you do falls into one of three categories:

  • White Hat - SEO that won't get you penalized or banned from the SERPs of search engines
  • Gray Hat - SEO that might get you penalized or banned from the SERPs of search engines
  • Black Hat - SEO that is highly likely to get you penalized or banned from the SERPs of search engines

However how people use the term 'Gray Hat' varies and different people see it differently. For example:

  1. "I know if the search engines found out I was doing this (e.g. buying links from a Private Blog Network) I would get banned but I'm being really careful" (Yes a lot of people think they are smarter than search engines and then act all surprised when it goes pear shaped).
  2. "No search engines have specifically said this isn't allowed so until they do I'll carry on doing it" - again free and fast thinking here. Google actually states "It's not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn't included [in their terms] Google approves of it"
  3. "I know I'm bending the rules but I have to because everyone does and my moral compass tells me its not wrong"


I have a lot of time for those in camp 3 and in fact I'm one of them. Consider this. Google says it will ban or penalize your website if it catches you carrying out paid actions to manipulate your position in the SERPs. Now lets say one of my clients is a lawn mower distributor and he sends free lawn mowers to popular review websites. They are highly likely to include a link to his website in their review.

OK, Humm and Haa a bit. Say things like "As long as he doesn't specifically ask for a link its alright" but the truth is he is carrying out an action that is likely to improve his rankings. The issue here is that quite literally everyone does it. They always have. 30 years ago he might have sent his lawn mower freebies to magazines, today its websites.

Now you might not have lawn mowers to send but even offering content falls under this rule. Again everyone does it and everyone has always done it. Back in the day lawyers wrote columns in newspapers with the implied message "I know what I'm talking about hire me". They still do it today and it also ends up on the newspapers website with a link back to them or their website - manipulation.

Google isn't that clear on these things. They say "you shouldn't buy links" as in pay $500 for 10,000 links which is fair enough but ultimately both of the above are purchased either by free product or free content. So in both cases the links have been bought.

Google says "OK if you do that just make sure the link is marked no-follow" and you say "not on your nelly, those links are gold".

Generally speaking though there have been no signs that Google has been, or intends to, go after the webmasters I've described. But as its still contravenes their terms its not White Hat, its not so bad as to be Black Hat, therefore it must be Grey Hat.

So here is my self justification. Search engines want their users to have a great experience. If your lawnmower is so good that a carefully edited and moderated review site wants to talk about it then your website ranking higher will result in a positive user experience. End of.

The one area to be careful of is Gray Hat techniques that are only Gray Hat because search engines haven't figured out how to spot them. As of 2019 the biggest of these would be getting links from Private Blog Networks. They will rumble these eventually and then buying links from Private Blog Networks will be officially black hat and the sites that did this will suffer.

So practice Gray Hat like this. Ask yourself "will what I am doing result in a better user experience for the users of Search Engines" because of search engine users are happy, search engines companies like Google are to.

I'm Tim Hill, a Search Engine Optimization and Online Marketing specialist. I created this site to help others understand that SEO is not a mysterious black art!.

If your a newbie try the Getting Started in SEO page, otherwise feel free to dig around and learn more.

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