State of SEO 2016: Is Black Hat SEO Really Dead?
The white hat vs. black hat SEO debate rages on. And many remain confused. Blogger Gareth Simpson, an SEO Consultant based in Bristol, UK, offered this post to help you get your head around the issue.
The way that SEO marketing has been going over the last few years seems to proudly proclaim the death of all black hat methods, nailing the coffin lid shut unceremoniously in blog post after blog post.
White hat SEO and white hat link-building are now being touted as the only way to do SEO in 2016. But if search engines officially want completely unmanipulated search results, where do you draw the line with white hat link-building? Isn’t some white hat SEO really taking a leaf out of the black hat book? It’s time to cut through the hype and be honest about the state of SEO.
Origins of the white hat/black hat divide
During the history of trade & commerce, there’s always been people willing to take risks and use ‘creative’ tactics to sell products or services. In that way, black hat SEO is no different to many other forms of marketing and selling.
After Google had made backlinks a ranking factor, differentiating itself from all other search engines at the time, SEO really took off. Black hat tactics flooded the internet, from keyword stuffing to blog comment spam and content cloaking. For many years, these tactics were widely used across the entire SEO community. It wasn’t until a few years ago that Google made a lot of people in SEO clear up their act, after it had finally developed algorithms to sift through SERPS better.
Google hit out with its succession of updates targeting low quality SEO: Panda in 2011, Penguin in 2012 and Hummingbird in 2013. This post recaps some of the updates’ effects on SEO.
Many sites, link farms and blog networks were hit with massive penalties, some never recovering. This scared people into clearing up their SEO act; many SEOs renounced their black hat ways- saying goodbye to spam and tactics like hiding text from users ‘for good’. Many felt that black hat SEO would never recover.
But now, years later, black hat SEO seems to be still very much around, despite proclamations to the contrary. So if black hat SEO is not dead, what is happening to it instead? Where is SEO, both white hat and black hat, going in 2016?
What separates black hat and white hat SEO?
- A black hat SEO would aim to profit from a search algorithm loophole once he/she found one. For a black hat, it’s all about testing the search engines.
- Black hat SEOs still widely use old hat techniques that were current in SEO before the watershed changes from Google. Key black hat techniques from back then that are still used today are spun content and outright buying links (read up on link-buying in 2016 from this Charles Floate experiment).
- White hat SEO is a less aggressive form of search engine marketing, overlapping with web development and marketing in general.
- White hat SEO centres on good on-site SEO and optimization, as well as creating content-rich sites.
SEOs and search engines
Black hat SEO techniques, if discovered, attract search engine penalties. Though some of these effects are reversible, it is black hats’ reputation for taking down sites and manipulating the user experience that makes them unpopular. Thanks to new tools like the link disavowing in Google Search Console, it’s possible to exercise a certain amount of damage control if a site gets ‘discovered’. But black hat SEO on a large scale won’t make a webmaster, or their site, popular.
In contrast, a white hat SEO would try to avoid penalties by always following search engine guidelines and best practice. But even with that, there are different levels of automation, outsourcing and link prospecting with which white hat SEOs are comfortable with. After all, officially Google disapproves of any link obtained for ranking reasons. White hat or not, getting a link in the interest of ranking is not officially sanctioned.
Why go white hat?
Going for a completely white hat SEO tactic has its benefits: rankings won’t drop during the next update. White hat SEO is the norm in digital agencies who have a team working on SEO, often including a digital copywriter for content creation.
White hat SEO pros:
- Less likely to suffer from penalties so rankings can span long periods of time.
- Ability to be open and honest about techniques used in all circles, mixed and otherwise.
- White hat SEO has many points in common with other useful disciplines like digital PR, content marketing and digital marketing, so there’s scope for diversification.
White hat SEO is a good idea if you are working for big clients who are likely to be severely injured by upcoming search engine penalties. It’s also good for clients who want to have an integrated search and digital marketing strategy, or for clients who have moral scruples about black hat techniques.
White hat SEO cons:
- White hat is getting more expensive, because it relies on content creation and writers can cost a lot of money if site-owners’ can’t create their own content.
- Time consuming, because it relies on content creation which isn’t always fast.
- Unreliable in the results it yields, due to the difficulties of content outreach if going down the guest blogging avenue.
White hat SEO techniques that deal with on-site content and SEO techniques are easy enough to follow and are generally accepted as best practice. A real white hat SEO shows his/her worth during content creation, outreach and white hat link prospecting. These all take time to master if using them to effectively boost rankings.
Why go black hat?
Black hat SEO has bad press, but a thriving black hat SEO community proves that black hat techniques are still paying off. Today, most black hat SEO is aimed at manipulating search engines, rather than misleading users. This going after algorithms rather than users, is probably the key to black hat’s enduring success.
Black hat pros:
- More control over link building due to self-sufficiency.
- Cheaper links and potentially better ROI.
- Opportunity for SEO development.
- More money to be made from riskier tactics if willing to take the plunge.
Black hat cons:
- Penalty risk means few sites will be able to sustain rankings over a long period of time.
- Not always the best choice for a brand or business
- Constant need to innovate in face of new algorithm updates, so techniques are less stable and industry more volatile.
- Moral scruples of clients and SEOs might be stretched, depending on how black hat you go.
So is black hat SEO dead in 2016?
In a word, no. Yes, some tactics aren’t that effective anymore, and there’s a slightly underground element to black hat SEO, but it’s not completely dead and buried yet.
A vibrant black hat community still exists and there are plenty of resources out there, proving its methods are still popular in some circles. Because of the associated penalty risks, black hat SEO is not often seen on big brand sites anymore, but it doesn’t mean black hat doesn’t exist elsewhere. Black hat methods are also more current and effective in countries where Google and other search engines have not developed their search algorithms as much.
State of SEO: SEO Futurology
As search algorithms develop across the globe, black hat SEO methods will become harder and harder to sustain. What we might see is a decrease of ‘black hat only’ SEO, and an increase of blended gray hat SEO techniques and methods.
However, there will always be people willing to push the boundaries of search engine guidelines to make money and promote products and services. The cat-and-mouse game between SEOs and search engine will continue for a while yet.
Despite what people may want to believe, black hat SEO isn’t done with search engines just yet. It also isn’t as easy drawing boundaries between different types of SEO as it may first seem. SEO in 2016 is still an exciting place to be, with plenty of new innovations waiting just around the corner.
What SEO community changes do you think we will be seeing in 2017?
About the author
Gareth Simpson is a SEO Consultant based in Bristol, UK. Prior to going freelance, Gareth worked for a digital agency, managing their clients’ digital marketing campaigns. You can learn more about him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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