Do this, and you’re unlikely to ever wake up to a sight like this in your analytics:
But before you go full white-hat, you may be wondering: can you compete with the black-hats without breaking the rules?
Yes, you can, at least in most industries. (But in some specific industries, you can’t.)
DISCLAIMER: “White-hat vs. black-hat” is an age-old debate and the best approach for you will almost always depend on your industry. If you’re an experienced black-hat SEO, don’t get mad at me for favoring white-hat over black-hat. Consider the context of Ahrefs Blog—we’re advising people who run businesses in legit industries. They can’t risk their livelihoods by using black-hat strategies.
In this article, I’ll introduce some effective alternatives to well-known black hat tactics. And explain why it’s beneficial to opt for these white-hat tactics over their black-hat counterparts.
But first, let’s define both black-hat and white-hat SEO (and take a look at the differences between the two).
White-Hat vs. Black-Hat SEO
At its core, all SEO has the same aim: to improve a website’s standing in the search engines.
But SEOs, for the most part, are divided into two distinct camps: white-hats and black-hats.
Here’s an overview of the differences between the two:
What is White-Hat SEO?
White-hat SEO refers to the usage of Google-approved website optimization strategies, techniques, and tactics. The focus here is on providing users with the best search engine results. I.e., you prioritize the user over anything else.
As a white-hat, you will generally:
- Play by Google’s rules (they’re pretty clear about these in their guidelines);
- Optimise for humans not search engines;
- Create quality content that people actively want to read and share;
- Create a website that stands out from others in your niche (for the right reasons!)
On the flipside, there is black-hat SEO. This is considered to be the ‘opposite’ of white-hat SEO.
What is Black-Hat SEO?
Black-hat SEO refers to the use of strategies, techniques, and tactics that do not necessarily follow Google’s guidelines—in fact, they’re sometimes even plain unethical. But they still give you the desired result (i.e., rankings).
Black-hat mentality focuses on finding and exploiting algorithmic loopholes.
Many of these loopholes don’t hurt anyone, except your competitors. But some of them are incredibly unethical, such as hacking into websites to inject backlinks. (More on this later.)
As a black-hat, you may:
- Break (or at least ‘bend’) Google’s guidelines;
- Focus on search engines over users;
- Attempt to deceive users with things like cloaking and doorway pages;
- Hack into peoples’ websites.
Here at Ahrefs, we don’t want to take the moral high ground and talk about the ethical implications of doing black-hat SEO. That would likely spark an unnecessary debate, which isn’t our intention.
But, we do consider black-hat SEO to be very risky.
That’s why we’ve never endorsed (and never will endorse) the use of any black-hat tactics on the Ahrefs blog. We advocate going the white-hat route, although a pinch of “grey-hat” probably won’t hurt.
So, the goal of this article is to show you why white-hat SEO tactics are often an objectively better choice than their black-hat counterparts. (Unless the industry you’re in dictates otherwise, of course.)
But first, you may be wondering, is the white-hat route right for you?
Is white-hat SEO ALWAYS the best choice?
It depends on your goals (and your niche).
If your goal is to build a long-term brand, then white-hat is the way to go.
But if you’re in a spammy niche like “payday loans,” white-hat probably isn’t going to cut it.
Black/grey-hat SEO dominates some niches (e.g., “payday loans”). And while we’re advocates of a white-hat approach, the truth is that there’s little/no chance of winning when playing “by the rules” in such industries.
Sure; you can start out with the best of intentions (i.e., white-hat) in these kinds of niches. But as soon as you start seeing success, competitors will likely drag you back into black-hat SEO territory.
But if you’re running a legit project in a legit industry (which we believe most of our readers are), you have an excellent chance of winning without using risky black-hat tactics.
For example, take Ahrefs:
There are tons of juicy keywords (e.g. “backlink checker”) that we could rank for and grow our MRR by millions of dollars.
And we could likely do that with just a few simple black-hat tactics.
But we can’t afford to put our entire business on the line by using such tactics. It just isn’t worth the risk.
So we choose only to use white-hat tactics (many of which we talk about below). And it works.
Here’s the organic traffic for our blog for this January vs. last January:
That’s almost 50% growth in one year.
And we didn’t use any black-hat strategies to achieve this.
I don’t think we’re the only ones going down the white-hat route, either. I’ve started to notice quite a few black-hat SEOs integrating more and more white-hat tactics into their SEO workflows.
Here’s why this may be happening (in my opinion):
- Black-hat SEO is more expensive than ever before: Google is much smarter than it used to be; blatantly spammy, low-cost tactics—e.g., keyword stuffing—are no longer effective. So as a black-hat, your only option is to turn to more expensive tactics, such as building a PBN. And when you take into account the costs of doing this correctly (i.e., buying many expired domains, dedicated hosting, private whois, etc.), black-hat SEO can get real expensive real quick.
- Black-hat SEO is VERY risky: Nobody wants a Google penalty. But if you go down the black-hat route, there’s a decent chance you’ll get one. It, therefore, seems the obvious (and only) choice to many, ourselves included.
- Black-hat SEO requires some level of “technical knowledge”: If you go down the black-hat route, you won’t get too far unless you have a profound and detailed understanding of how the web works and how you can exploit that knowledge to your advantage. Most of this knowledge is not shared publicly, which means that many people don’t see black-hat SEO as a viable option.
With that in mind, here are some simple white-hat tactics that, in our opinion, are viable alternatives to their black-hat counterparts.
1. Creating one BEAUTIFUL website vs. dozens of UGLY sites
Black-hats often launch dozens of websites in quick succession to see which take off (i.e., rank) and which flop.
They then focus their time/effort/resources only on the ones that show potential.
It’s pretty easy to automate/outsource this process, too.
- Teach VA to do keyword research;
- Hire a team of cheap writers to churn out articles;
- Launch multiple WordPress installs with one button;
- Upload all this content to your network of sites with another button.
But, because the focus is on churning out as many websites as possible, it usually results in ugly, untrustworthy-looking sites. Like this:
But still, there’s no denying that this is a smart strategy.
It allows you to launch multiple websites in a fraction of the time that it takes for most people to start just one. Your time and monetary investment, therefore, is minimal and each site will cost you next to nothing.
However, it takes a lot of time and effort to understand how to do this at scale. So unless you’re a die-hard black-SEO, I’d say that learning this isn’t worthwhile, especially when you consider that going the white-hat route has many benefits of its own.
For example, there’s no doubt that people prefer good looking websites with quality information.
If you want to launch as many websites as possible with the least amount of effort and investment, well, it’s unlikely that they’ll look particularly pretty.
That’s why 9 out of 10 auto-generated websites will flop, and only one of them will start showing signs of life.
In short, these “quick websites” will get overtaken by any sites that look even marginally better or feature higher quality information.
So, what’s the white-hat way?
Create ONE website, then spend time and effort perfecting the UI/UX.
Here are a few pointers:
- Focus on your brand: Colour. Typography. Style. All of these contribute towards a website/brand that people remember. And if people remember your website (for the right reasons), they’ll be likely to choose your site next time it appears in the SERPS—this boosts “engagement metrics.”
- Make sure it’s beautiful on mobile devices, too: A lot of themes are responsive out of the box; this means that auto-generated websites CAN be responsive and “work” on mobile devices. But, that doesn’t mean the UX is good. Take some time to refine the way your website looks, feels and works on mobile. 50%+ of your visitors will be glad you did.
- Use white space efficiently: Nobody likes a cluttered design. White space is crucial for breaking up the various elements of your site. It also helps to increase readability, promote interaction, and more.
And if you needed any further-convincing, consider this:
It’s unlikely that a high-quality website won’t eventually take off. (Unless it’s in a saturated niche, of course.) But in this particular case, we’re talking about “blue ocean strategy,” where you launch a brand new idea, rather than attacking an already saturated niche.
Black-hats may argue that their methodology aligns with that of the minimum viable product (MVP)… but I don’t believe this is entirely true.
Yes, MVPs aim to validate an idea or product in the least costly manner (and with the minimum amount of work possible), but black-hats take this to an extreme.
It, therefore, becomes difficult to accurately gauge interest and judge whether or not an idea has merit.
(This is why the original iPhone had the most accurate touchscreen in the world but no copy/paste option—it was sacrificed to allow the team to focus on more critical aspects of the product.)
Here’s the bottom line:
You can either launch ten ugly websites and see what sticks (black-hat).
Or you can take an idea and press it to the wall until it sticks (white-hat).
But here’s the truth: there’s no way you can launch dozens of websites with the white-hat approach—at least not in a short space of time.
So, in all honesty, I think the ideal strategy lies in the middle ground.
I don’t recommend that you go full black-hat and launch dozens of low-quality websites in quick succession. But I also don’t recommend that you put all your eggs in one basket.
So if you have a couple of good ideas that you’d like to try out, you can launch multiple sites. But make sure to put enough time/effort into each one.
Remember, the less work you put into a website, the less chance it has of it succeeding.
It’s also worth noting that generally, black-hat websites are pretty faceless. They can rarely become something big.
But because the white-hat mentality places a lot of focus branding from day one, there’s a much higher chance of a white-hat site taking off and becoming huge.
And lastly, the emergence of competition is less of an issue with white-hat SEO.
Black-hats are often worried about people finding their websites and replicating them. After all, it’s not too hard to do this once you discover their “money” keywords.
But with the white-hat mentality, there’s no need to fear your website becoming popular.
The more you invest in white-hat SEO, the higher you raise the bar—this increases the barrier to entry and discourages competition.
2. Creating unique and VALUABLE content vs. stealing, or creating LOW-QUALITY content
Stealing content from other sites and publishing it as your own is somewhat unethical.
Plus, Google doesn’t like duplicate content, as it isn’t useful for users.
This is what Panda was made to target.
Black-hat content-stealing methods include:
- Republishing existing posts (without attribution): Although republishing posts with attribution is perfectly fine, taking them from other sites without attribution and re-posting is not;
- Rewritten/spun content: This might work to a degree for low-competition keywords, but it’s hardly offering any unique value. Chances are your rewritten content won’t read as well as the original and visitors won’t trust it.
But stealing content isn’t the only lousy black-hat idea; using cheap writers—like, $5/1K-words-level cheap—is a questionable tactic, too. These writers can barely write without grammatical errors.
What’s more, these writers also have no idea how to craft engaging content that hooks in readers, or sells your products/services, or creates raving fans.
All they care about is cramming “relevant” stuff—often regurgitated from the current top-ranking results for a given keyword—into a “unique” piece of content.
(And if you’re paying by the word, it’ll probably be full of “fluff,” too.)
This brings us back to “launch ten sites and see what sticks” mentality.
Honestly, from my experience, this is pretty good for this price point.
More often than not, you’ll receive entirely unreadable content, the editing of which usually takes longer than writing the content yourself!
While such content “does the job” in some niches, chances are visitors won’t stick around for long if they don’t trust your site. And they probably won’t return, either.
But let’s be honest, black-hats often don’t care, as a lot of the time, they will merely re-sell this traffic elsewhere. If they want the traffic to convert, they will probably rewrite it once it ranks.
But here’s the thing: poor quality content leads to poor “engagement signals” such as a high bounce rate, low dwell time, low time on page and lower CTR when people see your “brand” in the SERPs. All of this has a knock on effect, making it more difficult to rank in the first place.
Here’s how to do things the white-hat way:
Write/create something unique and original. (Or at least put a unique spin on things.)
That means no spun content. No copying. And no “rewriting” other search results.
Not only is that what searchers want, but it’s also what Google wants.
Then, once you’ve done that, you can make your piece shine by applying these copywriting/formatting tricks:
- Add a captivating headline—Write a headline that will get your content noticed, but don’t clickbait. Google wants you to write descriptive page titles. It makes their job easier;
- Consider readability & structure—Make your content easy to read by using subheadings, bullet points, and short paragraphs. No one likes staring at a wall of text;
- Don’t be a slave to keywords—If you are focused on your topic, you’ll be including keywords anyway. Keep keywords in mind, but don’t sacrifice readability for them;
- Add a compelling meta description—While not a direct ranking factor, this is one of the first things a user sees, so make sure it entices their click in the SERPs.
But how do you create something “unique” and “original”?
The best we can do is offer an example of what we did to create our list of free SEO tools.
If you google “SEO tools” or “free SEO tools,” most of the content falls into two camps:
- BIG list of all the SEO tools the author could find, with no real thought as to whether they deserve inclusion or not;
- Biased lists that are written and compiled by a single author;
We didn’t want to publish another piece of content like this.
So we went down the crowdsourcing route: we asked the SEO community to tell us their favorite SEO tools.
We then refined and compiled the suggestions.
The result: a trustworthy list of SEO tools crowdsourced from the people that use them.
And when a piece of content is unique and valuable, you have something that genuinely deserves links.
All you have to do is tell the right people about it.
Here’s the bottom line:
You can quickly fill your website by stealing, copying or producing low-end content.
But although this content may rank, it doesn’t give your website any “strong foundation.”
What do I mean by that?
Well, it comes back to the fact that black-hats are generally afraid of anyone “outing” their niche and finding their “money” keywords.
If someone was to find their “money” keywords—and noticed that they’re ranking with easily-replicable black-hat techniques—that person could easily just replicate their cheap content and start competing with them.
And because the quality of content doesn’t really matter in this particular situation, they may even outrank them. This is why you should focus on crafting unique, high-quality content.
Such content will be much easier to build links to (as people will actually want to reference and link to it). It will also naturally acquire desirable “behavioral signals,” as it’s genuinely useful and interesting. This makes it difficult to outrank with cheap content and links from PBNs.
3. Link Building vs. Link Buying
Links are super-important—at least if you want to rank for topics with real search volume.
In fact, they’re so important that you will rarely ever see a top ranking page for any worthwhile keywords (i.e., those with decent search volume) that has zero backlinks.
Don’t believe me?
Nine times out of ten, the top 10 ranking pages will all have a decent number of backlinks.
But building links is far from the most straightforward SEO task; that’s why many people turn to buying links.
But let’s be clear: buying links is a black-hat tactic, there are no two ways about it.
Here’s what Google has to say on the matter:
“Buying or selling links that pass PageRank can dilute the quality of search results. Participating in link schemes violates the Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.”
So what’s the white-hat alternative? Build links; don’t buy them.
Here are a few ways to do this:
- Guest posting;
- Broken link building;
- “Linkbait + outreach”;
- Blog commenting (note: these links can be useful, but be aware that they’re usually nofollowed)
Then go to Pages -> Best by Links. Add a filter (to remove non-working web pages). And then sort the list by # of referring domains (RDs).
From this list, it’s easy to discern topic ideas that are likely to attract a lot of links. It’s also useful for uncovering what types (e.g., infographic, blog post, etc.) of content most resonate with people in your niche.
You can then use this information to inform your content creation strategy.
BUT…if you want to go a step further, filter this list to show only 404 errors.
You now have a list of potential broken link building opportunities 🙂
But even the most white-hat link building methods can become black-hat—it just depends how far you scale them.
For example, if you post ten guest articles in a day, something sketchy is going on. But if you post 2-3 per week, well, you should be okay.
Here are a few other things to avoid if you want to keep things white-hat:
- Shoehorning weird links into guest posts (e.g., unnaturally placed homepage links, product pages that don’t make sense, etc.);
- Leaving bizarre blog comments with things like “best SEO London” as the name;
- PBN links (more on these later);
Here’s the bottom line:
There’s no denying that buying links works; you hand over cash, and you get a link.
But unless you’re in a “shady” niche—or one where it’s tough to acquire backlinks in general, for whatever reason—building links is a better option.
Here are three reasons why:
- Buying links is risky—If Google somehow finds out that you’re buying links, well, expect a penalty.
- Buying links is expensive—We found that the average cost of buying a backlink is $350+. But building links is effectively free; you just create something of value on your website, promote it, and the links will come “naturally.”
- Bought links aren’t always the best quality—Think about it; if a site is selling you a link, chances are they’re selling links to others, too. And if they’re doing this, you could end up with a link from a site that links to some pretty questionable stuff. There are a lot of scammers in the link-selling space.
So what are the benefits of white-hat naturally-acquired links?
Here are just a few:
- Lack of risk—Naturally-acquired links don’t risk your Google rankings or business reputation.
- They’re a natural byproduct (of other useful marketing activities)—White-hat links usually come as a result of some other marketing activity such as PR, product launches, content promotion, etc. But with paid links, you only get a link. Nothing else.
It’s also worth noting that when you’re buying links, you have to work hard to ensure that your link profile “looks natural,” which involves diversifying anchor texts, buying links from a variety of sources, etc.
But with earnt, white-hat links, you get a perfectly natural backlink profile by definition.
You’ll also have to monitor your rented links and make sure that they’re still live each month.
Link sellers will often try to scam you by secretly removing links and hoping you never notice.
(Seriously, this is a BIG problem.)
I don’t know about you, but I think all of this is very boring and a huge hassle.
4. ENTICING links via “link-worthy” content vs. FORCING people to link to you by hacking their websites
Link injection is where someone maliciously inserts code into your site (via hacking) and makes it seem like your website links to downright bad sites.
These links are injected into the code of a site without the site owner even knowing. Very shady.
And what’s more, it’s illegal.
Hacking a website (or plugin) and inserting a JS script that links to shady sites could get you arrested for breaking the Computer Misuse Act 1990.
It happens a lot, too, as this report from Search Engine Land shows.
It’s shady. It hurts innocent people. And many black-hats even stay clear of this tactic.
So what’s the white-hat alternative?
Simple; create something useful and valuable that people will voluntarily embed on their sites (along with a link).
Infographics likely spring to mind here, but don’t limit yourself to this format.
You can also create embeddable interactive tools, calculators, and even maps (map-o-graphics?)
Here’s a simple map that picked up links from 162 referring domains:
Here’s the bottom line:
Hacking websites and inserting links is just plain nasty. Not to mention unethical and illegal.
And even if you’re utterly devoid of morals, it still isn’t a good or sustainable link building tactic because there’s no longevity to it—people usually clean up their hacked sites in a matter of days or weeks.
We, therefore, are strictly against this tactic.
Instead, go the white-hat route:
Focus on crafting valuable embeddable media (e.g., infographics, tools, etc.) that people will WANT to link to.
Do this and you’ll not only attract backlinks but also build your brand.
Take a look at the notoriously spammy ‘payday loans’ niche.
Big players are now starting to move away from the limited lifespan of black-hat SEO and towards more white-hat content marketing tactics.
Here’s an infographic created by QuickQuid in 2017:
It currently has 85+ links from nearly 70 referring domains.
And some of these links aren’t half-bad either!
Yep, that’s a payday loans website with a link from Entrepreneur.com!
How did they get this link? They created a useful/interesting infographic that was then picked up and embedded by Entrepreneur.com.
If this is the route the payday loan guys are taking, it’s almost certainly the best route for you, too!
5. Microsites vs. PBNs
A Private Blog Network (PBN) is nothing more than a network of sites that you own. You then link from each of these sites to a “money” website that you want to rank.
It’s 100% black-hat. And Google doesn’t take kindly to it.
Building PBNs is also generally very expensive and time-consuming.
And unless you really know what you’re doing and know how not to leave a trail of breadcrumbs, building a PBN is not going to be a long-term tactic.
That’s not to say PBNs don’t work. It is possible to get good results from them, but they come with an inherent risk. And if you’re running a legit company, it isn’t worth it.
So what is the white-hat alternative?
A microsite is an individual web page (or collection of pages) that exists as a separate entity on its own domain or subdomain.
Microsites can be used for specific campaigns or to target particular buyers. Some can be used as a platform to tell a story.
Check out this microsite: The Future of Car Sharing, a collaboration between Collaborative Fund and Hyperakt. It highlights changing behavior in commuting.
And here’s another super-awesome microsite that, in all honesty, we wish we’d thought of first!
It’s called The Higher Lower Game.
(I highly recommend giving this one a go; it’s super-fun!)
The takeaway here is that a microsite doesn’t have to be elaborate. Something hands-on and engaging like this is memorable enough.
Oh, and it also attracted a lot of links:
But why not publish this under your primary domain and enjoy all that delicious link juice?
Well, a lot of the time, when an idea is “framed” as separate standalone “project,” it will generate a lot more attention.
More attention = more links.
Plus, a lot of bloggers are wary about linking to anything that looks even remotely commercial.
For them, a microsite is a much more natural “sell” than a piece of content on your main website.
Here’s the bottom line:
PBNs are most popular in “shady” industries, where it’s hard to get a link or everyone else is buying links.
In such industries, you’d be at a disadvantage by NOT owning a PBN.
Many people are also likely attracted to PBNs because it gives them full control. If they need to change a link—or even the anchor text of a link—it can be done in seconds.
The issue is that continually growing a PBN—and maintaining it—is a very costly endeavor.
But microsites are costly, too. So why is this a better solution?
Well, although microsites can take significantly more investment up front, they usually pay for themselves in the long-term.
They can even turn into substantial full-time projects.
And unlike PBNs, microsites will often continue to attract links naturally over time—this is what happens when you create something of real value.
So, any links from your microsite will get increasingly powerful as time goes on.
Plus, when done well, microsites get real traffic from your target audience, which can often convert into actual clients/customers. PBNs will likely never result in this.
6. Outreach vs. Spam
Sorry to break it to you, but a lot of “outreach” is nothing more than spam in reality.
Here’s a typical process for black-hat spam:
- Scrape a bunch of sites (often tens of thousands);
- Blast the same template out to all of them with no personalization;
- Sit back and wait for people to get annoyed;
- Spam them again.
People don’t like spam, and neither does Google. That’s why they warn that you should “avoid Spamming link requests out to all sites related to your topic area” in their SEO starter guide.
If you’ve ever used email, chances are you have encountered a spam email like this:
I’m going to go out on a limb and say you didn’t reply.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t respond to the email, don’t send it.
Instead, you want to craft outreach emails the white hat way:
- Highly-targeted—Don’t email thousands of irrelevant people and sites. Instead, target people who are likely to have an audience that will benefit from your offering;
- Customise and personalise—Don’t just add F_NAME to a template. Personalize each outreach email for each recipient;
- Build relationships—Don’t just email someone from out of the blue and ask for a link. Spend the time to engage with them and build a relationship. Ongoing relationships can have many benefits: networking, partnerships, etc.
Google understands that you want to promote your website. That’s why they encourage you to push new content to those interested in the subject. Just don’t spam them.
Here’s the bottom line:
Building links using spammy outreach tactics is relatively easy—it’s just a numbers game.
If you email 1000 people, you might get one link, but you will probably annoy 999 people in the process. This is not the strategy to use for building authority in your niche.
On the other hand, relationship-building through personalized outreach requires much more effort, but the benefits are more significant and longer lasting: relationships, affiliates, business partners, new opportunities, etc.
No matter what industry you’re in, there will only ever be a limited number of relevant websites from which you will want to acquire links. It’s true that new sites get launched all the time, but there’s still only a finite amount of them.
So don’t burn through prospects.
If you annoy 99/100 people in your industry by sending them spammy emails, you’re going to burn your bridges. Then, next time you launch a piece of content, you will struggle to have anyone at all to reach out to at all.
What to do when white hat SEO “fails” (hint: don’t give up!)
You can never really “fail” when it comes to white hat SEO, it just takes a degree of effort, time and a willingness to play the long game.
How much time? It depends on the keyword(s) you’re targeting and the level of competition.
Some keywords/topics are much more competitive than others.
In the overview, you will see the KD score for that keyword.
KD score is ranked on a scale from 0-100—the higher the score, the more competitive that keyword is.
You will also see the estimated number of referring domains you’ll need to rank in the top 10 for your chosen keyword.
Again, this is useful for understanding how much time, effort and investment may be needed to rank.
For super-competitive terms, you may even need to rewrite/refresh content 1-2 times before it finally starts to rank. This is something we often do at Ahrefs.
Once again, this ties into the white-hat mentality; we’re trying to create content that deserves to rank. And part of this process involves making sure that the content never goes out-of-date or becomes stale.
White-hat SEO is all about having the right mindset: put users first, create genuinely useful content, and don’t spam people.
You’re not just out for yourself or want to make a quick buck. You need to care and view things in a long-term timeframe.
Sure black-hats may be able to get results in the short term, but a white-hat operation is essential for long-term success.
Here at Ahrefs, we cannot risk using black-hat tactics. As a legitimate business, there’s just too much on the table to put at risk. Anyone who wants to compete with us will also have to use white-hat SEO methods.
Remember, white-hat SEO is a marathon, not a sprint.
It’s a long-term plan that pays off in the end. 🙂