50 Shades of Grey Hat: The Spectrum of Hats in SEO

Grey Hat Spectrum
The Grey Hat Spectrum


Many people believe that all search engine optimisers are either black hat or white hat. However, is this entirely true? What if most search engine optimisers are somewhere in-between black hat and white hat while not necessarily being in the middle (grey hat)?

If you’re a member of an Internet marketing forum or you do research on SEO, you’ve probably heard a similar statement to the one I made above such as, “white hat and black hat SEO do not exist; it’s all grey hat”. I know I’ve heard it many times before. In fact, I heard this statement again recently while I was reading an article titled, “(Almost) All Link Building is Gray Hat” on a website called ClickMinded. While that article was focusing specifically on link building, it does make a good point about all search engines optimisers possibly being grey hat.

“Iconoclastic”, you’re probably thinking. After all, a good search engine optimiser follows the Google Webmaster Guidelines entirely without ever looking into black hat methods, right? Before we delve deeper into this topic, allow me to define white hat and black hat SEO in a similar fashion as I did in my article titled, “White Hat SEO or Black Hat SEO? Which One Is Better?”, for those of you who need a clear definition.

White Hat SEO

White Hat SEO Advantages

This is an optimisation strategy where the optimiser follows the Google Webmaster Guidelines to help their website rank. They are essentially optimising their website for visitors, not for search engines.

Black Hat SEO

Black Hat SEO DisadvantagesThis strategy involves using deception and trickery, which is against the Google Webmaster Guidelines, in order to rank a website by tricking Google into believing that your black hat SEO website contains quality content. They optimise their website for search engines, not visitors.

Now, back to the main topic of most search engine optimisers being grey hat. Instead of thinking of most search engine optimisers in extremes such as “black hat” or “white hat”, here’s another idea: think of search engine optimisers as just different shades of grey. What do I mean by this? Well, take a look at the visual spectrum I created below:

50 Shades of Grey Hat

Grey Hat Spectrum
Grey Hat Spectrum

It’s not “50 shades of grey hat”, although you get the point. There are different shades of SEO and very few people truly fit into either extreme; most search engine optimisers are between 10% grey hat and 90% grey hat, with the 2 extremes being the rarest.

Pure White Hat

This would be someone who completely avoids anything black hat and strictly follows the Google Webmaster Guidelines. A pure white hat optimiser will only optimise entirely for the audience and not for search engines while at the same time avoiding any and all link building that could affect their rankings in the search engine results pages (SERPs) as these are considered link schemes.

1-29% Grey Hat

These grey hat optimisers will focus only on white hat SEO (following the Google Webmaster Guidelines) tactics on their website, although they will dabble in black hat SEO using disposable websites just enough to gain an understanding of their competitors and how to identify and correct a website that has been penalised for black hat SEO tactics.

30-49% Grey Hat

These grey hat optimisers will focus mostly on white hat SEO, although they may employ “low-risk” black hat techniques into their methods to give themselves a slight advantages.

50% Grey Hat (True Grey Hat)

A true grey hat optimiser will focus on both black hat SEO and white hat SEO equally. While they will follow the Google Webmaster Guidelines enough to optimise their tags and keyword density, they will also employ numerous black hat SEO techniques to provide themselves with a little extra boost.

51-79% Grey Hat

These grey hat optimisers focus more on black hat SEO than white hat SEO for their websites, although they still make sure to loosely follow the Google Webmaster Guidelines to at least seem somewhat legitimate.

80-99% Grey Hat

Grey hat optimisers in this range are the contrast to the grey hat optimisers in the 1-19% range. They focus almost entirely on black hat SEO while only dabbling in white hat SEO enough to understand their competitors.

Pure Black Hat

A pure black hat optimiser does not care about the Google Webmaster Guidelines, all they care about is how they can outrank their competitors using the latest black hat methods (such as Churn and Burn SEO). They do not care at all for white hat SEO and only focus on black hat SEO.

Which Grey Hat Is Better?

In my opinion, the best search engine optimisers are more likely to be in the 1-29% grey hat range (I would still refer to them as “white hat”). The reason for this is simple: a good search engine optimiser will have a good understanding of black hat SEO to clean up penalised websites and to understand what their competitors may be up to while also using white hat SEO to correctly optimise a website. A pure white hat search engine optimiser would avoid black hat entirely and would typically not have a good understanding of how to correct a website that has been penalised for common and uncommon black hat SEO tactics.

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Alistair Kavalt