Estimated Read Time: 8 Minutes

Four Main Types

There are four main types of SEO or search engine optimization, all aimed at helping you earn greater visibility in search results:

  • White Hat;
  • Black Hat;
  • Grey Hat; and
  • Negative SEO.

The main differences have to do with how closely SEO tactics align with Google guidelines and then long it takes before you begin to see results (time), how much it costs, how risky it is, and ultimately, the value the tactics deliver to the client.

Google guidelines (Google Webmaster Guidelines) spell out what Google considers good (white hat) and bad (black hat) SEO. They are meant to help you understand what can help and hurt your rankings. While they are not laws with legal consequences, they should be taken seriously and SEOs should let clients know if they plan to violate Google Guidelines.

Black hat SEO will get you where you want to go faster. It is usually less costly because you are taking shortcuts to the top by going against published Google Webmaster Guidelines. In fact, many black hat SEO tactics are specifically spelled out in the guidelines as things you should NOT do. As such, they carry the risk that your website and/or content will rank lower, be banned from search results, or demoted the next time Google updates its ranking algorithm. That is no small concern. Google updates its ranking algorithm roughly 500-600 times a year.

Black hat SEO returns value quickly, but there is a risk the value cannot and will not be sustained.

White hat SEO techniques, on the other hand, adhere to Google Webmaster Guidelines but usually take longer and cost more to carry out. White hat SEO carries far less risk and tends to deliver lasting and compounding value over time. You’ll find most of the respected SEO and content marketing companies like Moz, Search Engine Journal, Search Engine Watch, Search Engine Land, Search Engine Roundtable, the SEM Post, Stone Temple, GSQI, and Philadelphia-area Seer Interactive and SEMRush all use and recommend white hat SEO tools and techniques.

Grey hat SEO falls somewhere in the middle as these tactics are not specifically called out in Google’s Guidelines. You should be cautious about taking this path as it is not safe to assume that just because a specific technique isn’t labeled or mentioned as being deceptive and one that will get you into trouble, that it will not interfere negatively with your rankings. In fact, Google says:

Webmasters who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes they can exploit.

A summary of each of the different types of SEO, including examples, is provided below.

White, Black and Grey Hat SEO Summary

White HatWhite hat SEO practices strictly adhere to search engine guidelines. As such, they are less likely to be negatively impacted by search engine algorithm updates that occur 500-600 times a year. Results take longer because you do not employ cheats and shortcuts.Examples of white hat SEO include writing relevant, useful content that helps your search audience do what they need to do. It includes promoting your content on social media so it earns exposure and links, and soliciting the use of data aggregators to acquire local business citations.
Black Hat SEOBlack hat SEO employs practices that do NOT adhere to search engine guidelines and therefore carries the risk that your website and/or content will be demoted or banned from search results. Future algorithm updates have the potential to negate or destroy any short-term advantage you may have gained by employing black hat practices but you tend to rise faster because you are less constrained by the “rules”.Examples of black hat SEO include keyword stuffing or hiding, plagiarism, paid backlinks, cloaking (where different content is shown to human and search engine visitors), thin content (less than 300 words per page or post), and private blog networks (where a set of sites under the control of the SEO service provider is used to acquire backlinks). For a more extensive list see 44 Black Hat SEO Techniques That Will Tank Your Site from Cognitive SEO.
Grey Hat SEOGrey hat SEO falls somewhere in the middle. These practices are not specifically called out in the guidelines but should still be considered risky.Examples include clickbait (content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page and not deliver value), spun (slightly altered) content, prolific link exchanges, and paying for reviews.
Negative SEONegative SEO is the practice of implementing black or grey hat SEO techniques on someone else’s website with the intent of causing harm. Harming your competitors makes room for you to move up in search results.These practices often focus on building unnatural or undesirable links to a competitor’s website, stealing their content, posting negative reviews, or hacking the site and modifying its content.

A Visual Comparison of the Different Types of SEO

The image below serves as a quick visual comparison of the different types of SEO (white, black and grey hat).

Types of SEO | B-SeenOnTop

On-Page and Off-Page SEO

You might also hear the terms “on-page SEO” and “off-page SEO” in your travels. These refer to the subject of your optimization efforts and can employ any of the above white, grey and/or black hat SEO techniques.

On-page SEO focuses on your website and content. Its aim is to ensure search engines and searchers can easily find, use, and understand your content. On-page SEO primarily helps Google and visitors decide whether your content is relevant and potentially helpful. Examples include title tags, meta tags, meta descriptions, headings, paragraphs, images, URLs, and internal as well as outgoing links.

Off-page SEO centers on external ranking signals like backlinks and online (unlinked) mentions of your business and/or website. Assuming your content is relevant to a search query, off-page SEO mostly helps Google decide where to position it in search results. Examples include an incoming hyperlink from an external website or an unlinked mention of your company or website on social media, a website forum, a question and answer site, an online directory, or any other external website,

So What Is With The Hats Anyway?

Back to the hats…. According to Wikipedia, in the 1920s and 1940s, western films made in the United States featured characters wearing white hats (often worn by heroes) and black hats (by villains). It was meant to symbolize the contrast in good versus evil.

What are the Different Types of SEO | John Wayne Poster | B-SeenOnTop

By Republic Pictures [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the same with SEO. The white hat designation implies “good” SEO service providers and tactics. Black hat SEO suggests the exact opposite. In real life, there is a lot more grey, but that is how the labels originated.

If you are shopping for SEO services, listen when providers are explaining their services to you. If you hear mention of the example black and grey hat tactics above, you’d be wise to continue your search.

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