Link building as an SEO strategy isn’t going anywhere any time soon. While the rise of social indicators such as social bookmarking and social sharing is increasingly important, getting links to your site is still one of the most valuable ranking strategies today and for the foreseeable future.
“Is that software white hat?” “Isn’t that kind of link building black hat?” Some of the most common questions I hear asked about various SEO strategies and products are about the color “hat” they wear. Generally speaking, white hat SEO strategies are thought to be safe for websites to take advantage of, and well thought of by Google. Black hat SEO, on the other hand, could potentially get your site wiped off the search engine map if the Big G realizes you’re doing it.
First off, realize that there are plenty of disagreements on what constitutes white hat vs. black hat SEO. I believe I fall squarely in the mainstream, but you’ll definitely find people who take issue with my characterizations. I’ve seen certain folks call what I think are perfectly legitimate techniques as black hat, and (far more common) I’ve seen people call techniques “ok,” even though they seem pretty darn black to me.
When I’m trying to decide which color of hat a link building technique is, I like to ask myself two questions:
- Does this method of building links contribute anything of worth to people searching for information online?
- Does this method of building links detrimental to people searching for information online?
Generally speaking, if I can answer yes to the first question and no to the second, it’s probably a white hat technique. If both answers flip, it’s probably a black hat technique. With that in mind, here’s my take on White Hat vs. Black Hat vs. Gray Hat link building.
White Hat Link Building
If your hat is white, you’re only using the most conservative link building techniques that no one at the search engines could ever take issue with. White hat link building shouldn’t put you at risk of a Google Slap (at least not due to your link building techniques). These types of links are due to value that you are bringing to readers, both on your own domain and others.
White hat link building can be very time consuming. Guest blogging, posting web 2.0 articles on sites like Hubpages, article marketing on sites like Ezine Articles, are all white hat techniques, assuming you are writing original content for those sites. Another simple way to get white hat links is blog commenting. Although these aren’t usually the most powerful links, they can also generate traffic to your sites. However, please do everyone a favor and use your real name, not some spammy name like “Tampa Bay beachfront hotels.” These links are valuable enough to taint the image of your site that way.
No doubt about it, the best way (but also one of the toughest ways) to build white hat links is still to create link bait and then promote it via social media and by letting fellow bloggers and site owners now about it. Create resources, write clever or funny stuff, write reviews of products or services and the let the appropriate site owners know about it. If your stuff is good, people will link to it. The folks at Google will tell you this is all you need to do. I can’t go that far, but earned links are typically superior to built links.
Black Hat Link Building
In stark contrast to white hat link building, black hat link building is the stuff that Google has either outright banned, or made it clear that they won’t reward. While very few if any black hat techniques are illegal, they do carry great risk. Site owners and SEO’s that engage in black hat link building often see their sites rocket up the rankings in a blaze of glory, only to see their blaze snuffed about when Google figures out what they’re up to and bans the site from their results.
While there are probably some black hat SEO’s out there that are so clever that they never get caught, they are not the norm. I’m certainly not one of them, and it’s not a risk I’d take. If you’re a small business owner, I’d strongly advise you to steer clear of these techniques.
The most obvious black hat technique is buying links. Google absolutely hates people buying links. It’s an open secret that there’s a big market for paid links, and it’s not hard to find people willing to sell them to you. Buying links definitely can work, until you get caught. Just ask JC Penney. About a year ago they got caught buying links from the online equivalent of a slum lord in some of the scuzziest neighborhoods you’ll find online. They were banned for several months while the links were taken down. If you’re a small business, you won’t get the bad publicity of JC Penney if you get caught, but you also may find it a lot harder to get reinstated into the search results.
Paid links don’t add anything to the online experience of users. They tend to not fit the context of the site that’s selling them very well, and they wouldn’t be there if not for the dollars that exchanged hands. Essentially, they are advertisements pretending to be endorsements. If you ever come across a site selling links, it’ll probably be pretty obvious as they usually stick out like a sore thumb.
In addition to paid links the other biggest black hat technique is automated link spamming software. If you have a blog that allows comments, you know what a problem comment spam is. Most of these comments, generated by software, are generic comments, praising the author’s fine article, and providing a link back to a completely unrelated site. They also allow the software user to control the anchor text of the link by filling in the name with a product name rather than an actual name.
There are other variations on this trick besides just comments. Some people will use software that generates profile links on thousands of forum sites. In all cases, these kinds of links do nothing to further the conversation of website readers or owners (for whom they generate a lot of headaches).
Generating thousands of links like this may provide a short term boost for your site, but the long term impact is iffy at best. Google is constantly updating their algorithm to adjust for these kinds of strategies. Your site could go down in flames overnight if you rely on these kinds of techniques. It’s also a pretty crappy to do to other site owners. They are trying to make an honest dollar online as well and don’t need you abusing their site to get ahead.
Shades of Gray
Gray hat link building is probably the toughest to define. While some people want to paint everything in life as black or white, I think a big chunk of popular link building strategies fall somewhere into the gray hat spectrum. Some are pretty light shades of gray, but some are quite dark.
Once you start to introduce automation into link building, for the most part, I think you have placed a gray hat on your head. I’ve already talk about about automation in a black hat context. Automation doesn’t always mean black hat, or even gray hat. For example, I think OnlyWire, which is designed to distribute your content across several dozen social media networks, to accounts that you personally registered, would be considered white hat by almost any standard.
However, there are other pieces of software (some of which I’ve experimented with), that claim to be white hat that have to be considered at least somewhat gray. I would include article submission and “spinning” software in the gray hat arena. This type of software submits hundreds, or even thousands, of slightly different articles to article directories around the web, directories similar to Ezine Articles. I think this is a fairly light shade of gray, but it’s not a technique I would suggest you become to reliant on.
Another technique that wears a gray hat is the blog network. These networks allow you to purchase space on them in order to create blog posts about topics of your choice, and then include a link back to your site. This doesn’t technically violate Google’s prohibition on paid links, and if you maintain a diverse link profile, it shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s another technique I wouldn’t overuse.
What about you? What color of link building hat to you wear? What sorts of link building techniques have you used?
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