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Bend but Don’t Break – Exploring Grey Hat SEO

Probably the most contested conversation in the world of SEO is the debate between white hat and black hat SEO tactics. Generally speaking, white hat refers to those SEO technique that are widely accepted and supported by search engines. Such techniques include valid keyword optimization, the development of quality outbound links, content creation, and the proper structuring of metadata. Following these white hat guidelines should improve your website’s SERP ranking, while keeping you out of trouble with the search engines. Black hat, on other hand, is best described as spam. This includes techniques such as keyword stuffing, hidden content, and doorway pages. These are tactics are inherently deceptive, and if caught, will most likely incur a severe search engine penalty. As a result, you’ll have to work twice as hard to get back in the good books of Google (or Bing or Yahoo!), when you could have donned the white hat from the very start!

Here at Powered By Search, we focus strictly on white hat SEO, but the murky alternatives are definitely worth exploring just for curiosity’s sake from time to time.

So with this being said it seems obvious that you’re going to want to practice white hat techniques and not touch black hat with a 10-foot pole. But it’s not that simple (though many argue that it should be). There is actually a third grouping of SEO techniques that doesn’t fit neatly into the white hat or black hat categories. This area of ethical ambiguity is referred to as “grey hat SEO”.

Grey Hat


What is Grey Hat?

As its name suggests, grey hat SEO is considered to be a combination of white hat and black hat techniques. In other words, grey hat includes methods that are not altogether “illegal” by search engine standards, but at the same time are not entirely honest. While they may not be deceptive enough to get you banned, they are in some cases certainly risky enough to incur some sort of penalty. Let’s look at some of the opinions of grey hat SEO that have been voiced thus far:

Gray hat is a tactic that is merely a mixture of pure white, do only what Google (or whoever) tells us we can and then add a dash of strategies that bend the rules a little.Kristine Schachinger


Black Hat SEO refers to techniques that go against the search engines’ stated rules and guidelines. White hat SEO refers to techniques that are A-okay. Gray hat SEO methods are techniques that make you go, “Hmm. Should I be doing this?”Toby Russell


Gray Hat includes all areas where you feel you need to have some plausible deniability in place for your actions.John Andrews

While there is no singular accepted definition of grey hat SEO, there are a variety of SEO techniques that are generally considered to fall under this category. These are methods that bend the rules, but don’t explicitly break them. Let’s look at some of the more popular grey hat techniques:

Cloaking: Cloaking is the technique of feeding search engines alternate information than what is presented to your site visitors.  This is achieved by either tampering with the meta data or IP address of a website.  While this is typically a black-hat approach, in certain instances (such as membership websites) it veers more towards grey.

Buying Old Domains: Some SEO’s seek out and purchase old (but authoritative) domains in order to add backlinks to the website(s) that they want to improve rankings on. This gives your site link juice without the effort it would normally take to earn it.

Duplicate Content: Unless a site exists for the sole purpose of indexing original content from other websites, having duplicate content is generally looked down upon. Similarly, content scraping or article spinning are also dodgy approaches to content creation. These tactics make search engines think you have fresh content and are generally considered to be deceptive.

Buying Links: It’s an SEO best practice to earn your links organically, but one popular grey hat method is to pay for backlinks to your site. Links should only be given when there is value given to the reader. One exception comes in the form of purchasing links on a (non-spammy) directory related to your website. Search engines view this as a legitimate form of link buying.

Social Media Automation: There are a myriad of software programs that can quickly get you thousands of social media followers by sending out mass friend requests. While this is not a Google-banned tactic, it is evidently dishonest.

For those who practice grey hat SEO, the advantages of these above tactics outweigh any potential pitfalls. While they run the risk of incurring a search engine penalty, the reprimand will most likely be mild. Since the nature of grey hat tactics is that they are not explicitly “unethical”, the punishment is often kinder than the penalties for many black hat tactics. And for a temporary surge in site traffic, the risk of a minor penalty seems worth it.

Notice how I stressed the word “temporary”. Just like with black hat SEO, grey hat will result in short-term gains. The lasting traffic is the kind that comes organically and over time.

Yay or Nay?

It seems that there are as many people who disapprove of grey hat as there are those who endorse it, and there are smartly executed arguments on both sides of the issue. As with many SEO techniques, it is often those who abuse certain tactics that give them a bad name, and perhaps the same can be said of grey hat. On the other hand, is grey not just another shade of black?

Arguments in Support of Grey Hat:

Grey Hat BadAs with many things, factors such as intent and execution play a large role in determining the maliciousness or validity of an action. For many who employ grey hat tactics, the motive that drives them is often an honest one. It is easy to become frustrated when you are not seeing the return on all of your hard work, especially when you’ve stuck to the straight and narrow. Moreover, how can you expect to beat out your competitors when hardly any of them are playing by the white hat rules? Sometimes you need the extra little push to give your website a fighting chance. While grey hat will help you get the rankings, it will ultimately be the quality of your site that keeps you there anyway.


Arguments Against Grey Hat:

Grey Hat BadWhile there are definite benefits of grey hat SEO, are the worth the risk? Probably the biggest argument against grey hat is that it is unethical. Arguments have even been made that there is in fact no such thing as grey hat SEO, and that everything that isn’t white hat is automatically black hat. Another prominent argument points to the fact that karma might eventually hit those who have been practicing grey hat, effectively nullifying all of their prior work. The risk of search engine penalties is definitely real when it comes to bending the rules, and those who practice anything but white hat will have to be extra cautious. Simply put, white hat SEO techniques are in place to deliver results, but the effort has to be made in order for it to work.

It seems fitting that the verdict on whether or not grey hat is good or bad is also in an ethical “grey area”. It is definitely a subject of wide debate, so much so that some practitioners have even argued for the elimination of such categorizations altogether. What do you think? Is grey hat an effective tool to level the playing field? Is it a cop-out for hard work? Or is the whole debate just tired and overdone? Feel free to share your opinions below!

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Marketer's Guide To SEO

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About the Author

Marketing and PR Assistant at Powered by Search, specializing in social media, media relations, and content marketing. For more posts by Myia visit myiakelly.com.
  • Thomas Smith

    Quite an interesting article if I do say so myself! However, there is one point I would question and that is the “Buying links” you gave in the examples of grey hat SEO above. Considering Google are actively fighting to destroy link networks (the majority of which are paid networks) wouldn’t that automatically fall under Black Hat? I know, it’s a bit controversial considering the fact you mentioned related links in directories, but surely anything outside a directory would be Black Hat?

    • Myia Kelly

      Thanks for your comment, Thomas! You bring up a good point. I’ve found the issue of buying links in discussions of both grey hat and black hat SEO, and decided to include it in my post to draw attention to it. It’s definitely a “dark hat” tactic and the exact shade seems to depend on the individual judging the act, as well as the type of paid link. Typically, however, I would agree that link buying errs on the side of black hat SEO.

      • Thomas Smith

        I notice how you said both grey hat and black hat, with no mention of white hat at all… With that in mind I definitely think it’s too risky to attempt buying links. Also, considering the main “individual” judging the act of buying links is good ‘ol Google, I’m going to stay away from any sort of links that need to be bought, directories or otherwise, and I would personally urge others to do the same. Thanks for your reply though, yet again highlighting a couple of key points between the authentic and illicit activities that link building can entail.

  • http://is.gd/WDrhTK John Maletin

    Theoritically, only a natural backlink is whitehat which means only links that are added by a webmaster who had no influence from the linking webmaster are whitehat. Any other form would fall under “blackhat” – forum signatures, blog comments, etc.

  • http://websurgenow.com/joes-blog/lets-see-whats-s0-special-about-a-search-engine-optimization-consultant/ search engine optimization Roc

    Very good looking post thanks………

  • http://www.pualingo.com/ VinceLin

    lol cloaking would be black, not grey hat