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The Dark Side of White Hat: 7 White Hat Linkbuilding Tactics That Can Turn Gray or Black

We avoid anything remotely related to black hat SEO like the plague these days.

We steer clear of the shady individuals on Fiverr and Upwork who continue to work with those black hat methods.

We’re aiming for white hat only.

The clean, ethical, fair and just SEO practices that Google loves and users trust.

However, as with many things in life, there’s a gray area.

There are some tactics that aren’t explicitly black hat, but fall into questionable territory. Then there are white hat tactics that, when done improperly, end up being not-so-ethical.

So, certain methods will be considered black hat SEO in certain circumstances but will be considered white hat SEO in other situations.

It’s a weird place to be, but we’ll dissect common linkbuilding practices here to make sure that your white hat projects don’t turn black accidentally.

See when your white hat tactics might turn to the dark side.

1. Reciprocal Linkbuilding

The White Hat

Reciprocal linkbuilding would be considered white hat when two companies link to each other because their websites are related and there’s naturally some strong, mutually-beneficial value in linking to each other outside of SEO.

For example, many websites have “resource” pages. In these “resource” pages, it’s fairly common for similar websites to add links to related sites they think their audience will enjoy.

So, you can imagine that a homebrew website and a craft beer website may link to each other in their resources pages, as a craft beer enthusiast may want to learn how to brew beer, and a home brewer will want to find the best craft beer to drink.

Alternatively, they might link to each other in the process of producing their blog content, just as a matter of educating their own audiences with valuable outside resources.

The Black Hat

Reciprocal linking would be considered black hat when there’s no value to linking to each other’s website outside of SEO.

For example, if you run a manufacturing website and blast out to every website in the field of hairdressing a “link to me and I’ll link to you” offer, then this would add no value to your website. Or it might, at the beginning, when you start getting backlinks from nice websites.

Then, there’s a huge chance it will be seen for what it is: An attempt to manipulate the system with black hat linkbuilding tactics. From there, you can wait for your well-deserved penalty to hit.

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2. Sponsored Posts/Reviews

The White Hat

Paying for backlinks within sponsored blog posts or reviews might sound like black hat to you, since the word “paying” is in there. Paid = black hat, right?

Nope, not quite. This is white hat when you start by identifying relevant websites with tons of traffic and engaged audiences, where you believe your target audience is most likely to hang out.

For example, if you run an online toddler accessory store and you find a popular “Mommy and Daddy” blog that regularly publishes sponsored blog posts or reviews, then earning a backlink through a paid post on this site could be highly beneficial.

The reason being: It’s related to your niche, so you’ll likely get a lot of referral traffic.

Very few search engines will consider this an attempt to manipulate search rankings.

They’ll often give you a dofollow backlink, which will of course help SEO, but they may also give you a nofollow backlink. Nofollow backlinks don’t carry link juice or improve SEO directly, but they will still get you referral traffic, which can be valuable on its own. Either way, this remains white hat.

The Black Hat

Pulling out a massive budget, finding every website that offers sponsored posts and just mass emailing them asking for sponsored posts and backlinks—that’s getting you off to a really black hat start.

Posting paid posts everywhere, on any website regardless of relevance, is black hat all the way.

For example, if your online store selling commercial printers is paying for blog posts on food blogs and beauty blogs, this would make no sense and would appear spammy.

This becomes especially black hat when you don’t even bother going for sites with a high DA and simply just start picking websites at complete random—next level black hat when you’re paying for posts on poor-quality websites that link out to thousands of other spammy websites.

Also, don’t think about paying for links on their own, or for the addition of your backlink and company/product description to an existing blog post. This is all black hat, and doesn’t end well for anyone.

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If you’re paying for anything at all, it should be for high-quality, authentic, sponsored content on authoritative, relevant websites. And the fact that your content is sponsored should be obvious to readers, so nobody leaves feeling bamboozled by a hidden collaboration.

3. Content Churning

The White Hat

Producing content at an accelerated rate isn’t bad on its own. The key is that every piece of content you publish is well-written and relevant to your niche’s topics.

There would be absolutely nothing black hat about creating high-quality content at a fast pace, so long as the content is good. You could do this by hiring more content writers, getting guest posters or just plain working like a dog.

Regardless of the way in which you produce a massive quantity of content quickly, as long as you do it the honest way, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

The Black Hat

Churning out content that makes absolutely no sense, or features tons of your keywords at completely random intervals, is black hat SEO.

In this case, your content might hardly be readable, full of spelling and grammar errors, or it might just not make logical sense. Worse still, it might be “thin” and fluffy, lacking any real meat-and-potatoes type of substance that readers are looking for.

This kind of content is produced quickly with terrible writers (who accept low rates and produce poor content quickly) or by getting some software (why this software exists is beyond me) to churn out blog content featuring the keywords that you want to rank for. Either way, it’s black hat.

4. Keyword Stuffing

The White Hat

Creating good, quality content that people will want to link to, that also happens to be well-oriented to the keywords that you want to rank for? That’s completely white hat, my friends.

For example, let’s say you want to rank for “buy second hand cars,” so you write a blog post called “The Best Second Hand Cards to Buy in 2018.” Frequently throughout this article you’re going to mention the keyword “buy second hand cars,” because it would make sense within the content. It’s a natural and relevant phrase to include. Don’t worry about it.

You could then write another blog post that covers a slightly different topic and mention your keywords again. Mentioning your keywords frequently makes sense when you have content where the keywords would be relevant. They fit in naturally, so this is totally white hat.

The Black Hat

Creating low-quality content that simply mentions the keywords over and over again, hundreds of times, would be the black hat version of this.

For example, you write several blog posts on your website for “buy second hand cars” but the vast majority of them don’t have anything to do with second hand cars. You write an article about community projects happening in your local town, but for some reason you think it would be a good idea to shove “buy second hand cars, good deal, good price buy now buy today,” with a link to your second hand cars page. Not good.

That’s just the keyword you want to rank for, so you start stuffing the keywords anywhere you feel you can get it in, even if it doesn’t sound right within the content of the post or sentence.

If it doesn’t make sense, don’t do it.

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5. Skyscraper Technique

The White Hat

You may already be familiar with the skyscraper technique. You’d be surprised how many people get this technique wrong, and end up doing something black hat.

So, the white hat way. You start by looking at articles on a given topic. You take the absolute best one you can find and decide to completely blow it out of the water in terms of content. You write a blog post with similar content (covering similar topics) but then go into way greater depth and write at greater length. By the end, you’ve covered completely different topics—you’ve perhaps even mentioned the other site’s article—yet all the writing is original and your own.

This is considered to be a perfectly acceptable form of white hat SEO.

There would be no suspicion that this article has committed plagiarism because it’s a totally different article, and a better one at that.

After writing this article, you’ll probably then send an outreach email to everyone who has linked to the previous article asking if they’d consider linking to your website in their next blog post. You’re still in the clear. All white hat.

How does this go bad?

The Black Hat

Too many people get too close to the other published content that’s out there already. They might even copy the structure or some of the content.

Then there’s that nasty practice known as content spinning, when content is copy-and-pasted with slight tweaks and adjustments, changed words and slight restructuring, to try to evade plagiarism detectors.

This is plagiarism, but plenty of unethical SEOs think they’re able to get away with it.

Plagiarism isn’t only against Google’s guidelines, it’s also against the law. Don’t ever attempt to do this technique poorly and allow spun content on your site.

6. Internal Linking

The White Hat

There’s nothing wrong with having internal links in your content. You know this. Of course, you’ve got to be doing this in a way that offers a better, more user friendly experience.

Internal linking should only be done where relevant, connecting related content.

For example, if you run a mobile phone e-commerce site, you could write a post titled “The best phones to buy 2018.” Then, when “buy mobile iPhone X,” inevitably appears in the first paragraph you can link to your product page. You can also link to other relevant blog posts on your site. Easy enough!

You should also make sure the anchor text is natural and well written, and you should avoid putting internal links in single words to avoid having this linking look spammy.

The Black Hat

When internal linking is done poorly, it’s very similar to keyword stuffing, only you’re trying to manipulate link juice by linking to pages on your website that have nothing to do with each other.

This is done especially with blog posts that happen to have a massive amount of backlinks (external links to other sites).

The process is fairly simple you find one blog post and then link using an anchor text that you want said page to rank. For example, linking to a webpage where you sell phones using the anchor text “buy mobile phones” on a blog post that’s completely irrelevant to mobile phones, such as “how fast ducks can swim.” Or even worse, if you embed that internal link in text that’s totally unrelated.

There was clearly no need for the link to be there, but you did it because you wanted to improve your on-page SEO (albeit very lazily).

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7. Link Bait

The White Hat

Oh, the phrase “link bait” just conjures all kinds of bad feelings. It sounds like you’re planning to deceive your audience with an exciting title but thin, advertisement-laden content to follow.

There’s a white hat way to do this.

Writing pieces that are a bit off topic—or on topic, but more fluffy, “viral” or entertaining than your usual content—is white hat, so long as you have some kind of way of getting the topic to link back to your website’s niche.

For example, let’s say your website is all about buying cars online. You could write a blog post featuring the funniest cat and dog car accessories, or some cute pictures of dogs in cars. Highly shareable, can have a humorous “link bait” type of title, and is fluffier content than a potential car buyer might be out looking for—but it’s still relevant, so it’s white hat.

The Black Hat

Writing excessively about topics that have nothing to do with your website, I would argue (though many may dispute) is black hat.

For example, if you run a second hand car dealership, you could decide to create a piece of content that’s about the cutest cats and dogs of all time. Now, this piece of content is clearly irrelevant to the type of website that you are, but people love cute pets so they link to your post anyway.

Hm, okay.

Whilst this isn’t strictly against any guidelines, realistically it’s black hat because you’ve done this purely to get links from completely irrelevant websites.

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You’re fishing for shares, so to speak. This linking and engagement isn’t going to boost your SEO in the way you hope it might. If you do this often enough, you’ll end up with tons of irrelevant content on your pages.

Search engines pick up on this, and they won’t be sure what your site’s niche actually is—they’ll just end up crawling through a mess of unrelated link bait with no unifying factor (except for the fact that it’s all link bait).

This is the point at which search engines will deem this practice black hat—or, at the very least, poor quality—and decide to penalize you.

 

So, as you can see, it’s all too easy to turn a white hat practice into something gray or black hat, if it’s done lazily or deceptively.

I’d recommend you keep a white hat on your head.

Stay ethical.

Stay straight edge.

Play the long game, produce high-quality content, never steal, copy or plagiarize in any way, and do your best to earnestly reach your audience with valuable content.

With time, your site will get the recognition you deserve.


Rob Bailey runs an SEO agency called SEO Article Heroes based in Cardiff, UK. He frequently writes about SEO on his website’s blog page and is always keen to offer tips and clarifications regarding SEO.

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