Getting your site to rank in search engines is important, whether you are trying to sell or product or just get information out to people. There are a variety of tactics for doing this, and they fall under what is known as SEO (search engine optimization.) SEO tactics are generally broken into two houses: White Hat SEO, and Black Hat SEO, and the occasional mention of Gray Hat SEO. I will go more in depth on these below.
SEO seems to be an oft misunderstood topic, even amongst people who do it professionally. It’s easy to see why. Google is constantly reconfiguring its algorithms, with sometimes confounding results. Marketing, as ever, is highly competitive, and businesses may sometimes resort to… unsavory practices in regards to SEO.
Though these shady tactics can get you to rank, I’m here to make the argument that they are a bad idea, and that honest, ethical SEO is the best long-term solution for your site. But first…
WHITE HAT vs BLACK HAT vs GRAY HAT?
White Hat SEO
White Hat SEO is what Google and other search engines want you to do. Creating genuinely engaging content, forging real relationships with your audience, and just generally being an upstanding internet citizen. Google’s algorithms are constantly changing to reward this type of SEO, while simultaneously sweeping bad sites under the rug.
The problem is White Hat SEO is hard work. Interacting with your client base takes time, and building symbiotic relationships with other people in the business can be challenging. There is no secret path to take to quickly achieve a high rank. Compelling content and genuine relationships are what the major search engines notice and reward. Some people just want to turn a quick buck, though, and when they do, they resort to…
Black Hat SEO
Black Hat SEO is the practice of intentionally abusing loopholes or weaknesses in search algorithms to quickly gain a high ranking for a particular search term or phrase. In the early days of search, the search engines used keyword density – how many times a search term appears on a page – as a metric for retrieving relevant results (nice alliteration, huh?) Webmasters quickly discovered this, and would jam pack their sites with whatever search term they were trying to rank for, whether it was relevant to what was actually on the site or not.
Naturally, this led to a bunch of spammy sites and made finding relevant search results difficult. The search engines compensated by placing less and less importance on keyword density. People using Black Hat SEO had to resort to other ways of scamming the system.
Gray Hat SEO
Gray Hat SEO isn’t a commonly used term, but generally refers to SEO practices that are a little ambiguous in nature. If you find yourself asking, “I wonder if this is okay…” then it probably isn’t. Your focus should always be on being an outstanding resource for your potential audience, not necessarily on how exactly you’re going to rank #1 on Google.
PLAYING THE LONG GAME
Unless you’re just trying to take the money and run – and if you’re reading this, you’re probably not – then you and/or your business are in it for the long haul. Google has made it pretty clear at this point: White Hat SEO is the only survivable strategy. Unfortunately, what this requires from webmasters is patience. Ranking on the first page is going to take a while for big keywords. You will occasionally be outranked by Black Hat Bastards, until Google switches up their algorithms to clean up the mess.
But that’s the lesson, really: You, your site, and your reputation as a purveyor of great content, will survive these algorithm changes, while the sites practicing their black magic will inevitably vanish without a trace when Google or Bing or whomever wises up, and the probability of them ever coming back is pretty slim. In the long run, the good guys do win.
Take a look at a few SEO practices to avoid if you’re trying to stay in Google’s Good Graces (I’m at it again!)
You may well be asking yourself at this point, “well then, what should I be doing to rank higher?” There are complicated answers, but there is also a simple one: make a site worth a high ranking. Search engines are looking for pages that people want to see. Pages that have useful, compelling, well-written, and otherwise engaging content. Your real focus should be to make your site attractive to people, not search engines. There is, of course, on-page and off-page SEO, but I’ll discuss that another time.
I think Scott True said it about as succinctly as I could ever put it: “SEO is not what gets your content to rank, your content is what gets your content to rank.” Make content that has worth, invest time in genuine relationships with the people engaging your content, and don’t stop! A high rank just isn’t going to happen overnight – except for really long-tail keywords – so invest the time. If you use ethical White Hat techniques, it’ll be hard to knock you out of that spot once you arrive.