White hat vs Black hat SEO: Is all link building for SEO bad according to Google?
If you've never heard this terminology before then let me quickly explain why digital marketers sometimes claim to have different colored hats! "White-Hat SEO" is essentially search engine optimization that comes risk-free because it doesn't break Google's Webmaster Guidelines, in contrast, "Black-Hat SEO" is exactly what the Webmaster Guidelines are trying to address. To simplify, traditional Black-hat techniques involve a lot of automation and spam, while White-hat techniques involve a more manual or passive approach. Even "Grey-Hats SEO" is a thing where they claim to utilize a combination that walks a fine line between playing by the rules and breaking Google's Webmaster Guidelines.
But isn't it all just Black Hat in the end?
Recently there's been something of an uproar against digital marketers who identifying as White-hat. They say that labeling yourself as a "White hat" is something that only amateur SEO's with partial knowledge do. This argument stems from the belief that many supposed "white-hat link building tactics" such as bulk guest posting are not actually white hat at all when the intention behind them is to manipulate search ranking which is against Google's Webmaster Guidelines, which is true, but the fashionable thing right now is to take this a step further and state that according to Google "ALL LINK BUILDING FOR SEO IS BAD" because of the intention to manipulate one's search ranking. Furthermore, the claim goes as far as to say, that if all link building is bad, then choosing a side is a moot point altogether, but I'd say be careful to jump to conclusions. Honestly, I feel a little silly having to argue either side of this, but I feel like I need to explain why these assumptions are untrue, and hopefully reassure the community that one can remain confident in calling themselves a "White-Hat SEO" if they wish.
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, SEOJet, etc. all in the realm of 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 you mentioned 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!
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. The problem with these Black-hat techniques is that while they often work temporarily, due to Google's crackdown on guest posting, most businesses can't afford the investment required to continue fighting the ranking fluctuations as backlinks become devalued.
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!