The traditional binary distinction between “white hat” (completely legal/approved by Google) and “black hat” (against Google’s guidelines; possibly against the law) SEO is being increasingly muddied by the emergence of “Grey Hat SEO,” a sprawling, heterogeneous, and rapidly evolving body of “below the radar” optimization methods. To get a better grasp of some of the Grey Hat tactics that are growing in popularity today — and to get a better idea of the tradeoffs often made between risk and reward — I reached out to some SEO experts for comment.
- Content Spinning
Several SEO experts mentioned automated article spinning as a Grey Hat tactic with admirable staying power (despite the fact that search engines expressly prohibit content generated through purely automated means). “There are two principal risks here,” observed WikiJob’s James Rice, “first, how do you know where the search engines draw the line? Answer: you don’t. Second, you’re also inviting legal participation if you basically copy someone else’s article, make small changes, and present it as your own work. That’s plagiarism.”
- Guest Blogging
Of the seventeen SEO experts I contacted, about a third of them mentioned guest blogging as the riskiest, most popular Grey Hat tactic in active use today. This finding notable in its own right, given that Google’s very public penalization of MyBlogGuest — a popular guest blog network — in 2014. What appears to be keeping this tactic alive and well is that it remains relatively safe if done “on the down low.” As Saatchi & Saatchi’s Anthony De Guzman notes, guest blogging “can be either a White Hat or Black Hat tactic, depending on how it’s done. For example, guest blogging on a limited basis, on an authoritative site, with generic anchor text is definitely walking the low-risk profile,” whereas running a network of guest bloggers trading highly-targeted anchor links will put a target on your back.
- Faux Online Buyers Guides
Creating fake, but real-looking, ostensibly “independent” buying guides that are basically clones of an e-commerce vendor’s product catalog is a tactic that a number of enterprising Grey Hat optimizers are using, according to Oscar Oliva, of MWI. Over time, he notes, “those guides will outrank your product on broad keywords, making it possible to eventually (and covertly) pass link value to the original product category or product via a canonical rel or 301 redirect.” Oliva notes that this tactic — while undeniably shady — is also devilishly clever, given peoples’ demonstrated penchant for giving hard links to supposedly “neutral” product guides.
- Duplicate Content
While Google has gotten very good at identifying and suppressing duplicate content, duplicate content — under certain conditions – can play a legitimate role in the information ecosystem, according to Alexander Ruggie, of 911Restoration: “If a company legitimately has services to offer in multiple locations having multiple websites, then providing the same information is a solid tactic. That being said, there is a huge difference between (providing) the same information and an exact word for word copy of that information (on multiple sites). That is bad.”
- Fake Sponsorships
Another fiendishly clever, disruptively innovative Grey Hat gambit was noticed by Inseev Interactive’s Brett Bastello: “One risky Grey Hat link building technique is purchasing links, or more specifically, becoming an event/organizational sponsor for the sole purpose of building back links. Sponsorship opportunities were around long before SEO and link building and therefore occur naturally. Given this, sponsorships cannot be targeted by the search engines in the same sense that say, directory submissions can be.”
Evaluating Grey Hat Risks and Rewards
Because of the lack of any fine line distinguishing these new optimization methods from “black hat” tactics, Grey Hat SEO practitioners necessarily expose themselves to an unknown quantum of risk. The SEO experts I interviewed via e-mail all agreed that SEOs need to honestly communicate the risks presented to clients when Grey Hat tactics are used. After all, tactics that Google, et al, deem “grey hat” today could be outlawed tomorrow, causing severe, perhaps unrecoverable damage to the client. Because the “Grey Hat” classification encompasses such an enormously wide variety of tactics, it’s prudent to lay out the risks and rewards in a direct manner and document any decisions made one way or the other.