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Gray Hat SEO: Is it Real and Should You Do It?

Since the advent of SEO, like any human-created system, many have found it challenging to play by the ethical rules. Thus, “black hat” and “white hat” SEO were born. Black hat refers to shady practices where businesses buy links and engage in bot-scamming techniques, and white hat are all those standardized practices that develop increased rankings the old-fashioned way: by earning it.

It’s a natural progression, then, that the ever-present desire to bend the rules as far as they can go without breaking would manifest a new SEO term, “gray hat.” Many argue it’s the best search engine game in town, while others say it doesn’t even exist – there is no gray.

What exactly is gray hat SEO, and should your business consider pushing these boundaries? That all depends on your risk tolerance, adherence to structure, and willingness to walk the line between integrity and unethical practices. Read on to see where you land in the mix.

Gray Hat SEO: A Definition

Consider gray hat practices akin to a newly developed street drug – there’s a period of time where those in the know can use it before it’s deemed illegal. To some, these tactics are legitimate – crafty ways to play within the system, and come out on top.

In truth, gray hat is just a nicer way to say you’re attempting to cheat the process, without looking like it. To illustrate this point, let’s examine the most common gray hat practices.

Gray Hat in Action – Popular Tactics

Domain Purchases: Some businesses do a grab-and-buy on old yet authoritative URLs that can then add backlinks to the sites they own, thereby boosting rankings. While this may seem like an out of pocket expense, it can cost far less than the time and effort it normally takes to build your link juice.

Social Media Buys: Looking to increase your social media numbers overnight? There are services that automate this process, but proceed with caution: Twitter, at least, isn’t allowing these inflations any longer, and other platforms may soon follow suit.

Content Manipulation: Many now use software that scans the web for content on a particular topic, then “spins” it by rewording sections, thereby avoiding a duplicate content ding. Copyright infringement is still a possibility since normally no original content is added, but it can whiz past Panda’s watchful eye.

Cloaking: Famous in black hat circles, cloaking is an attempt to tell search engines one thing, and users another. By manipulating meta-data and IP addresses, you can convince search engines to crawl you when they otherwise would not, based on your content. Some argue this is a legitimate “gray area” for communities and membership sites.

Keyword Page Strategies: Another middle of the road tampering that involves creating landing pages for each keyword or keyword phrase. This can be time consuming, but certainly effective; as long as releases are staggered over time, so as to avoid spam filters.

Google-Bombing: A technique involving the formation of a big dose of links, generated solely for rankings. When combined with keyword bombing, this can inflate rankings in short order.

CSS Content Deception: Those with the coding chops can fool search engine bots into thinking a site’s content appears farther down the page than it actually does. The benefit? Google crawls content first, and if it’s perceived to be significantly down the page, the site can read as having increased value.

Microsites: Similar to keyword pages, some businesses create a different mini-website for each category they cover. As an example, a business selling pet supplies may create separate sites for cats, dogs, exotics, birds, etc. This is easy for search engines to sniff out, however; especially if you’re using the same contact information for each site.

Should You Consider Bending the Rules?

The argument for following standardized practices is always this: the bad guys seem to finish first. But is that really the case? And are there any exceptions?

Yes, it’s true that those that engage in questionable SEO tactics often seem to hit the top of the rankings. Monitor these results long term, however, and you’re likely to see cracks in the armor. Google, Bing, and Yahoo have an incredibly vested interested in catching deceptions as fast as they can, and years of algorithm shifts have shown they’re definitely paying attention. If you want your business to have staying power, it’s advisable that you not make the big dogs angry, or you may have to start from square one.

That said, some industries are themselves deviant and renegades, and in order to compete, you may feel like you have no choice.

In the SEOChat forums, one user, named Cygnus, puts it this way:

“I’m a white hat for some sites and a grey/black for others…trying to be a white hat in an uber-competitive industry doesn’t make sense with the current SEO environment. I can’t imagine someone trying to take on the phrase “viagra” with a pure white-hat approach…they probably wouldn’t crack the top 30.”

The Myth of White and Gray

In actuality, “gray hat SEO” is only a matter of perception. One person’s gray is another person’s pitch black. It’s really only a category created to make those breaking the rules feel better about their strategies.

That said, anyone attempting to only follow white hat SEO practices has an almost impossible task. Because Google defines black hat as any attempt to manipulate rankings, you’d be hard pressed to find a site that hasn’t crossed the line. We bribe sites to link to us by offering link juice in return. We study keyword density for content and do our best to make search engine bots take notice. The list goes on and on.

Because the world knows that SEO is a critical component to online success, it’s natural that folks do all they can to get their business on top. The game, therefore, becomes one of risk tolerance and ethics. Only you, the business owner, can decide where in the spectrum of black, gray, and white you choose to land. No matter how you choose, there are repercussions – and you have to be comfortable with potential outcomes before moving forward with your strategies.

There is no guarantee that white or black hat, or any shade thereof, will help you win the race.

Where do you land in the spectrum of SEO? Do you think gray hat SEO is a legitimate classification of strategies?

Digital producer, game designer, Internet marketer and staff writer for SiteProNews, one of the Web’s foremost webmaster and tech news blogs, Tina Courtney-Brown has been shaping online businesses since 1996.  She’s produced and marketed innovative content for major players like Disney, as well as boutique startups galore, with fortes including social media, SEO, massively multiplayer games, social networks and project management. Tina is also a certified Reiki practitioner, herbalist, nonprofit director and true cooking diva.  Learn more at her personal website, or find her on Facebook and Google+.

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