White hat vs Black hat SEO: Is all link building for SEO bad according to Google?
Table of Contents
What does Google consider a link scheme?
What to do if you're involved in a link scheme
Does this mean Black-hat SEO is dead?
So is it time to retire our SEO hats or not?
Are there any true White-hat link building methods?
In the world of digital marketing, different "hats" are often worn to signify the approach taken in search engine optimization (SEO). But what do these terms actually mean? And why is there a controversy surrounding the "White-Hat" label?
Defining the Different "Hats" in SEO
- White-Hat SEO: This involves using legal and ethical techniques that adhere to Google's Webmaster Guidelines to improve search rankings.
- Black-Hat SEO: This involves using illegal and unethical techniques, such as automation and spamming, to manipulate search rankings.
- Grey-Hat SEO: This involves a mix of both White-Hat and Black-Hat techniques, often straddling the line of what is considered acceptable by Google.
Debunking the White-Hat Controversy
Recently, there has been criticism of digital marketers who identify as White-Hat, with claims that the label is only used by amateur SEOs with partial knowledge. The argument is that many supposed "White-Hat link building tactics" actually violate Google's Webmaster Guidelines when the intention is to manipulate rankings.
It is true that certain link-building tactics, such as bulk guest posting, can be considered Black-Hat if done with the intention to manipulate rankings. However, this does not mean that all link-building is bad, as the fashionable claim goes.
Choosing a Side: Is It a Moot Point?
While it may be tempting to throw up your hands and declare all link-building bad, this is not necessarily the case. The key is in the intention behind the tactic. As long as you are using legal and ethical means to improve your search rankings, you can confidently call yourself a White-Hat SEO.
First, let's quickly examine Google's own description of what it considers a "link scheme."
In the first section, Google is trying to broadly define what they consider a link scheme. They are telling us that the vast majority of traditional "link building" done by SEOs, or going out of one's way to build links with the intention of manipulating your site's ranking, "MAY" be identified as a link scheme and thus negatively impact our site's rankings in search results. Google uses the words "may" and "can be" to expresses the POSSIBILITY (not with certainty) that any links intended to manipulate a site's ranking may be (or in other words could be) considered part of a link scheme. Now, this is further evident in the bullet points because Google is showing us more detailed examples of what they consider link schemes. Notice how the second bullet point says "EXCESSIVE" link exchanges, this implies that occasional link exchanges may not be considered link schemes, and the 9th bullet, they're referring to "Low-Quality" directories only. If that were not the case, and any and all backlinking for SEO is a link scheme, then why are examples even needed? Instead, they could just say that any and all links intended to manipulate a site's ranking are considered a link scheme, but they clearly don't. While they don't list every little thing that they consider a link scheme, they give us specific examples of the more common ones.
One of my favorites and the one that's more relevant today than ever before is the 3rd bullet point. "Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links." Sorry, but that quote alone puts all the major so-called "100% White-hat outreach services" like Fat Joe, The HOTH, Rhino Rank, LinksThatRank, Authority Builders, SEOJet, Get Me Links, Loganix, Love to Link, NOBS, Searcharoo, etc. as well as the majority of freelance link sellers, all in the realm of serious link schemes. Over the years there's been a huge misunderstanding on what exactly qualifies as white hat SEO, and to me, this is the real problem. I don't know about you, but can't count how many articles I've seen over the last 5 years stating that SEO services such as blog commenting and forum spam were "white hat link building strategies." So buyer beware, and if you're unsure if your SEO agency or outreach service is involved in a link scheme I'd recommend you read my 5 link building red flags article and investigate for yourself.
Can we be sure that these guidelines still apply today?
If you didn't already notice, Google needs to update this piece because it still mentions "PageRank" which was eliminated by Google back way back in 2013. With that being said, as of writing this article, the link scheme guidelines were last updated by Google on 11-11-2020 meaning they're still relevant, but I digress, take much of this with a grain of salt as we later examine Google's more recent comments on this matter.
“I think it’s tricky because, on the one hand, it is sometimes useful to reach out to people and say like, “Hey, look at my website, it’s like you have a great website, I have a great website, take a look at my content, our content kind of aligns… maybe you’d be able to recommend my content if you like it as well.I mean there are different ways of framing that, there are lots of really kind of more spammy ways of doing it, like people just saying, well look I have this web page that matches five keywords on your other web page. Can you link to it?” Like, that’s not really that useful.”
Google's Senior Webmaster John Muellar in a 2019 webmaster hangout
I might have been involved in a link scheme, should I be worried?
In the wake of negative SEO, we've seen Google preference devaluing bad links with regular algorithmic updates over issuing widespread manual penalties. The worst-case scenario goes a little something like this: a website has thousands of their Black-hat links devalued one day, and subsequently, their rankings start to tank. The webmaster then reacts by purchasing a bunch of new "update-safe backlinks" on more authoritative domains, which works initially, but later Google catches on and issues a manual penalty that takes years to recover from. Look, losing your rankings is a terrible feeling no matter how it happens, but I'd much rather lose money on useless backlinks than lose sales because my website will no longer rank due to a manual penalty. Remember, Google doesn't have to necessarily be the one to detect a link scheme to issue a penalty, anyone (including your competitors) can report spam, paid links, or malware to Google's webspam team, there's even an official app for that! With that being said, I'd recommend you take the following steps to remove any known toxic links:
Steps to handle toxic links
● Remove the link or reach out to the webmaster to have them remove it
● If you have control of the link tag, like in certain paid directories, then no-follow tag it (more on that later)
● If none of the above are possible, then use Google's disavow tool.
Is Black-hat SEO dead?
As previously examined, White-hat SEO is still possible if one follows Google's guidelines, but with Google's changes in the wake of negative SEO, is Black-hat SEO still possible? Yeah, I'd label all massive guest-posting services with keyword-rich anchor text links as Black-hat SEO techniques that still work, so no, it's technically not dead. The problem with these Black-hat techniques is that while they often work temporarily, due to Google's crackdown on guest posting, most small businesses can't afford the investment required to continue fighting the ranking fluctuations as Black-hat backlinks become devalued. The overwhelming problem with the search marketing field today is that there are far too many freelancers marching around as "SEO's" with no professional training whatsoever, and it's this cheap way out that's enticing small businesses into the link buying game.
What are some of the biggest myths about "bad links?"
In an interview by Jayson Demers on Search Engine Journal, an ex-member of Google's webspam team, Andre Weyher, stated the following that I felt had good insightful value to this argument.
"SEO is an unprotected title and anyone can call him or herself one. The result of this is that there are almost as many opinions as there are SEOs. Some of the biggest misconceptions that I have seen out there include; “directories are altogether bad” or “anything that is below a certain PR is considered spammy by Google”, I see a lot of people panicking and cutting off the head to cure the headache due to lack of knowledge. The most dangerous one of all I would consider to be the opinion that if an automated link building scheme is expensive, it must be good. Google has made it very clear that it wants links to be a sign of a real reason to link, an AUTHENTIC vote of confidence if you will. Anything that is paid for, is not considered quality by Google and participating in it puts your site at risk!"
So, is it time to retire our SEO hats or not?
No matter what industry you're in there's always going to be those who play by the rules and those who take risky shortcuts, that's just the way the world works. As far as SEO is concerned link schemes are just part of the argument, there are a number of different SEO strategies that involve both on-page and technical aspects, both of which can be manipulated in ways that Google may consider unfair. To oversimplify, either one's playing by the rules or they're not, so either they're White-hat or not, it doesn't need to be complicated.
Now, playing by the rules in the case of link building doesn't mean one should stop making meaningful relationships that may turn into guest posting opportunities or brand mentions, it just means we should stop trying to manipulate the system. I mean, entire industries exist to massively manipulate the part of Google's ranking algorithm that is backlinking, so we shouldn't be surprised that these guidelines exist. Furthermore, just because a large number of guest-posting services and freelance link builders wrongly identify as White-hat doesn't mean that the status shouldn't exist or isn't possible. Look, as SEO is starting to become less link-focused moving forward, I totally understand why this puts so many people and their businesses up in arms. But to answer the original question, if you're playing by the rules (and you know if your not), then go ahead and proudly call yourself "White-hat" if you want to. Remember, misery loves company, money talks, and people love to hear good news about their bad habits, or in this case, bad news about your good habits!
Now that I've got my White-hat, are there any link building techniques that you'd recommend?
Here are a couple of quick white-hat link building methods that you might want to try.
● Are your local citations Google compliant?
● Guest posting with true connections
● No-spam unlinked brand mentions
1.) Certain local citations and niche directories
The best place to start would be with a link building method in which you're in complete control, and where you can easily make a difference in a short amount of time, that is exactly what you'll experience with building out your local citations. While it's true that the days of the traditional online web-directory are long and over, local and niche directories can still be an excellent resource for small businesses looking to increase their visibility in 2021. There are a number of reasons for this, from Google's Local Pack and Europe's find results carousel, to cashing in on traffic from hyper-relevant niche communities. The thing is though, there are A LOT of directories out there, and it can be intimidating. In a desperate attempt to find an easier way out, new businesses and digital marketers can be easily dragged down a rabbit hole of seemingly irreversible backlinking spam as a result of directories alone! So what is one supposed to do to avoid common local citation mistakes? How does a business decide what directory submissions will have a real impact on their business? Should they just submit their business to any and all local directories regardless of quality?
Hint: Google's given us guidelines on this too, but in order to understand when and how local citations can become a black-hat technique, we need to examine this link-building method further.
What exactly are local citations?
Being one of the most important ranking factors for local search, local citations are essential whenever you want to rank near the top of online search results for local queries like "SEO Service in Durham" But what are citations, or local citations to be exact? Well, citations put plainly are mentions or references of a source of information. Local citations, in the terms of search engine optimization, are local references to a website made online through other third-party websites like Yellow Pages or "YP" that act in a sense just like old-school phonebooks, but for websites. Normally, local citations usually include at a minimum your business name, address, and phone number (or "NAP"), but preferably also include your operating hours, website URL, logo, and social media profiles. These local citations will essentially tell both users and sometimes search engines where your business is located and how to contact you. So as you can imagine, in a crowded online marketplace, without the right citations, it can become very difficult to compete in local search.While niche directory sites can vary from country to country or even city to city, the more common websites that display local citations are:
● Google My Business
● Apple Maps
● Yellow Pages
● Angie's List
Some of the less common spam-free web directories that are still relevant in 2021 are:
● Best of the Web
● Chamber of Commerce
For an comprehensive list of directories and other link opportunities, I'd recommend you check out the growing free database at Listings of where you can sort directories based on quality criteria out of the box.
Note: some of these web directories offer upgrade packages that include "do-follow" backlinks. Upgraded packages like these are considered link schemes because they involve buying links or "exchanging money for links" which is in violation of Google's webmaster guidelines and can lead to ranking penalties.
If you happen to have purchased any of these upgrade packages in the past, it would behoove you to change them to no-follow or remove the listing, if that's not possible, then go ahead and disavow that backlink.
According to a study by Whitespark, the combination of getting listed in Google My Business and creating other relevant local citations can account for up to 40% of your local ranking success alone, while on-page optimizations and total linking domains remain just as important as they've always been. Estimated at around 16% of your local ranking success, online reviews are also becoming more of an important local ranking factor year-by-year. However, as you can see in the example below, if you square away your local citations and on-page SEO you may be able to outrank your competition without any online reviews, so let that be a testament to the power of proper local citation building! Another benefit of being listed on local directories is that when Googling for local businesses, you may sometimes notice directories ranking high in the organic (non-paid) section of the search engine results pages (or "SERPs") right next to your competitors. This means you can not only obtain search visibility by ranking higher in the SERPs, but also by ranking high in directories that are ranking for the same local search queries.
How do I find quality local directories?
Before making any decisions about which local directories are best for your business, from a time to results standpoint, it's a good idea to make sure you're looking at quality sources. While some online directories are little more than thinly-veiled spam sites, there are plenty of honest, well-run local citation sources that are worth pursuing, but how do we know which ones are truly worth our time?
While it might seem like a no-brainer to consider the incoming search traffic of a prospect, the funny thing is that often times 90% of the traffic going to directory sites is from digital marketing agencies and NOT your target customers. If it was 1995 then surely some of these directory sites would still be relevant to the searcher, but the fact is that only a small number of influential niche directories still exist in 2021. Instead of traffic, due to the potential local SEO boost, we're more concerned if Google is crawling these local citation sites regularly. There are a few ways we can find directories that provide local citations, with the first method below being the preferred method due to the fact that we're ensuring high-ranking relevancy.
Let's get the important ones out of the way first using my preferred method! Start by simply Googling “your industry in location” and see if any citation sites are ranking in the top 50 results (relevancy tends to drop off after 5rd SERP) and have a Moz spam score of <10. From an SEO perspective, if the directory site is relevant to the search query then it's relevant enough to be listed on. To accomplish this you'll need a couple of free tools:
● The gInfinity Chrome extension along with a little Ctrl+f action
Want more? Conduct a Google search using advanced search operators such as these to find hyper-relevant local directories in your niche:
site:.edu keyword + "directories
For example, if we search intitle:top+Healthcare+Digital+Marketing+Agencies we see the following:
Unless all your competitors are listed on UpCity, we'll be skipping them here because they have a reciprocal link program that could be seen as an "excessive link exchange" scheme by Google. Instead, if like us, you're a digital marketing agency with extensive experience in the healthcare niche, then DesignRush's list of the top 30 healthcare digital marketing agencies looks like the best most legit option here for local citation building.
Alternatively, you can find a pre-vetted list of niche directories here, but realize that there are a number of lists just like this one available online if you simply search for them.
Note: You can also use advanced search operators to find incomplete or outdated/incorrect NAP citations that may be hurting your local SEO.
Incomplete example: “Business name” + “partial address” -”correct phone number”
Incorrect example: “Business name” + “partial address” +”old/incorrect phone number”
Directories by location
Locating directories for local citations by country and city can be a little more challenging. By far the best way to accomplish this is to Google and combine lists that you find online. To get you started you can find a full list of the most popular or important citation sources in and outside the United States here. You'll want to build out your local citations list on a spreadsheet so that you can easily keep track of your citations and remove duplicates when you combine lists.
At SEO SEMPER we've been building up our directory list for years, and in doing so, we have 10's of thousands of manually verified quality spam-free local citation sites in various counties and niches that we're certain Google crawls regularly and sees as niche-relevant. We use our internal citations list to better serve our monthly SEO clients on an ongoing basis as we're constantly updating and reworking the list for quality reasons.
How to properly vet directories
As mentioned above, the Mozbar is a great tool for checking quality, and while you can also use it to check for things such as domain authority, I find it counterproductive to cherry-pick higher authority domains for local SEO purposes. Over the years I've used a combination of the following quality metrics to ensure I'm complying with Google's webmaster guidelines for link building:
● Spam Score <10 (if desperate you can push this to <30)
● Domain Authority >10
● Must Enable SSL
● Must Pass Malwarebytes
● Must Editorial Value
● Must Pass Your Smell Test
● Exact Category Match
● Must Ask For NAP
● Must Not Ask For Reciprocal Link
● Must Have Free Tier (Don't Pay)
● If You've Already Paid Request No-follow
Note: It's highly unlikely that submitting to any and all of the sites on your internet lists will actually do your business harm, at the same time, however, many of them will be unlikely to help either. So, at the end of the day, the choice is yours on how much time you want to spend on this, but I'd note that Google has given us a clear warning about "low-quality directory or bookmark site links" for a reason, so I'd recommend you do your quality checks. Plus, this will save you money in the long run if you're subletting the task of completing your companies local citations by the hour.
The easy way - How to both find and vet directories at the same time!
Listings of, the self-proclaimed directory of directories allows you to search for and filter directories by niche, location, domain authority, and more importantly, spam score! Each directory listing is verified every year so it's a perfect way to save time building out your own citations.
What local citations aren't and next steps
Years ago after Google's Penguin algorithm update, low-quality directories and obvious anchor text manipulation were devalued and even penalized by the algorithm. So directories are not to be considered a quick backlink building method that you do to build a false sense of authority in 2021, nor are they a one-and-done operation either. You're going to want to go back and update your listings, post updates, and often times respond to customer inquiries. I recommend that if you do have someone else handle your citations, be sure to have them either, use a company email address, or set up email forwarding so you don't miss out on leads from these sites. This way you'll also have easy access to updating your listings if any of your business information changes without being locked into anything. Also, be wary of freelance citation services, you wouldn't believe the horror stories we've come across. Most of these individuals, despite claiming they are "manual" are using automatic directory submission software that will result in incorrect categorization and worse. If all this sounds overwhelming and you don't have someone internally who can help you complete your local citations, then consider our monthly SEO service as a trusted solution for your local citation management.
Ok, that was a lot, sorry. I really felt like local citation building was being abused and that most self-proclaimed SEO's were not doing them in a way that was Google compliant or White-hat, so I hope that helped, please let me know down in the comments if you have any questions. This leads us to our next wrongly abused White-hat link building method, "guest posting."
2.) Guest posting on partner sites
The next best link building technique I'd recommend is to write a tutorial piece on another companies service that you currently utilize, then start a conversation with them about the piece, but do not ask for a guest posting opportunity, instead, wait and see if they offer you one. If you do get offered a guest posting opportunity, please keep in mind that since you are providing the content you are required by Google to no-follow any links pointing back to your own site. Either way, hopefully, you'll score a mention of some kind from the partner company in regard to your original piece with this method, and if that mention is in the form of a do-follow backlink then that's perfectly acceptable as long as you didn't pay for it in any way including the exchange of services.
3.) Unlinked brand mentions
Another good link building technique I like to use is "unlinked brand mentions." They don't work for all businesses, especially startups, but for those who've been at the game for some time they are a priceless easy win for obtaining backlinks and positive PR.
Why aren't they considered Black-hat?
First, you're not writing the content as it's already been done and indexed by Google. Most importantly, because the relationship already exists with brand mentions, you're not necessarily spamming the internet, and the benefits could be mutual as the relevance of the backlink will not be questioned.
“On the one hand, it is sometimes useful to reach out to people and say like, “Hey, look at my website, it’s like you have a great website, I have a great website, take a look at my content, our content kind of aligns… maybe you’d be able to recommend my content if you like it as well.I mean there are different ways of framing that, there are lots of really kind of more spammy ways of doing it, like, I have this web page that matches five keywords on your other web page. Can you link to it?” Like, that’s not really that useful.A good link… so I mean the traditional good link is someone who comes across your website and thinks it’s a fantastic website and recommends it to other people with a link.”
Google's Senior Webmaster John Muellar in a 2019 webmaster hangout
Why are unlinked brand mentions considered a quick-win link building strategy?
Since the bloggers your targeting will have already mentioned your brand, it's going to take far less effort on the side of the webmaster to include a hyperlink as they will not need to alter the text, and you won't need to sell them on keyword-rich anchor text.
Things to consider to keep brand mentions White-hat
I can't stress this enough, when it comes to any type of link building outreach, be sure to use your own email address. If you're using a third party to accomplish this, then be sure to give them access to your company email address for the outreach, and if they refuse to do so then do business elsewhere. Read our article on the 5 link building red flags to learn more about what to look out for and avoid when it comes to outsourcing your link building. If you are offered to convert a brand mention into a backlink for an "editorial fee," you're going to need to decline that offer and move on.
White-hat link building didn't work for me, what now?
Sometimes building backlinks is a lost cause, especially from a time to results standpoint, that's a reality that all new websites experience. Link building is one of those things that you're going to need to give time (no, A LOT OF TIME), but luckily it's not necessarily success-defining, you've got options. Chances are you've already built some great quality local citations for your home page, and you've promoted at least one successful traffic generating blog post right? If you haven't, then you better start ASAP! Once you've accomplished this basic first step, you can utilize strategic internal linking from pages with external backlinks to your internal pages without backlinks to help them rank. Additionally, you can try providing more value to the reader on those pages and promote them to a relevant audience for the chance for passive backlinks and social shares.
Pro tip: you can experience easy hands-free automatic tier link building by promoting the quality pages that have linked to you! There are also a number of top-secret on-page techniques that one can utilize to promote passive link building. If you're interested in having that type of work done on your website don't hesitate to contact us.
"So basically on the one hand that involves some amount of self-promotion from your side like you have to get some people to come and visit your website somehow so that they can recognize that this is actually a good website. And there are lots of ways that you can do that. And then that also involves one of those people or some of those people going well, this is a really fantastic website and I have another website that I can link, from where I can link to your website. So it’s not the case that every visitor coming to your website will say it’s a fantastic website and I also have a website and let me link to your website from my website, but some of these people they can.”
Google's Senior Webmaster John Muellar in a 2019 webmaster hangout
Final thoughts on the Black-hat SEO vs White-hat argument
By now it should be clear that building backlinks is not only possible within Google's guidelines, but both easy and essential. It's my hope that we no longer justify buying backlinks on the basis that white hat link building is impossible because Google has said that all link building is black hat. Hopefully, you've either learned at least one new link building technique you can use for your business or how you can change your current link building strategy to be Google-compliant moving forward.