Grey Hat SEO: Why (and Why Not) to Straddle the Line When it Comes to Content and Links

What does grey hat mean and what are the risks?
Published on 
April 24, 2024
Updated on 
April 24, 2024

Grey hat SEO is–you guessed it–SEO that lies somewhere between black hat and white hat SEO. 

If you take anything away from the following article, make it this: grey hat SEO is riskier than white hat SEO but safer than black hat SEO (i.e., there is some risk involved). 

That’s why it’s important to know what you’re doing when building links or creating content using grey hat tactics. 

While they can work, the key is understanding what Google will and won’t penalize a website for. 

Ok, so what, exactly, is grey hat SEO?

If white hat SEO techniques are those that fall in line with what Google expects in order to show a domain on the search engine results page, and black hat techniques are those designed to game the system without doing any of the hard work, then grey hat SEO involves tactics that come with some risk but can still generate positive results. 

Grey hat SEO is definitely riskier than purely white hat SEO tactics and if not done with appropriate knowledge and caution, could lead to manual action penalties by Google.

It might be a manual action penalty for churning out a high amount of low-effort filler content not designed to provide your visitors and readers with any real value

Or it might be because you have engaged in too much black hat link building.

Because of the risks involved, grey hat SEO is often used by people with purely profit motives (and no real intention of generating anything new and useful) or those who are desperate for quick SEO results. 

That said, a lot of SEOs still employ some grey hat SEO techniques while accepting that there is always the risk that Google considers what you are doing egregious enough to warrant a manual penalty. 

How do grey hat SEO techniques differ from white hat?

Of course, the simple answer, which we have already alluded to, is that white hat SEO is what Google wants to see, and grey hat SEO is what Google might let you get away with. 

Link builders and other SEOs that are engaged purely in white hat SEO will comply with Google’s search engine guidelines to the letter. 

Those willing to bend the rules to get better results (or faster results) will do what is widely referred to as gray hat SEO. 

Key differences between white hat SEO and gray hat SEO

There are differences between black hat and grey hat SEO at both the link building and content levels of search engine optimization. 

White hat vs grey hat SEO content 

Content is the foundation of any good SEO strategy. Good content attracts readers, satisfies the search engines, and, most likely, will get your site and articles shared. 

The white hat approach to content

If you are planning on doing things by the book (i.e., white hat), your objective with your website’s content is going to be to create useful, informative, original pieces that visitors will love.

You will spend time doing research, finding or creating the right pieces of multimedia to make for a more dynamic and enjoyable user experience, and you will make use of keywords in ways that don’t detract from a user’s experience. 

The grey hat SEO approach to content

Grey hat methods when it comes to website content include doing things like keyword stuffing–inserting a page’s target keyword into the content so many times that it becomes virtually unreadable, all in an effort to trick search engines. 

It might also include lazily spinning already existing content. Spinning is where you take a piece of content that already exists and rewrite it.

The idea is to rewrite it thoroughly enough that Google will not flag and penalize it for being duplicate content while avoiding having to do any of the research or thoughtful creation that went into the original content. 

Grey hat content writing could also include the use of one of the new chat GPT AI tools to quickly write generic, synthesized, inaccurate articles en masse.

While Google is not completely against using AI, provided content creators are open about its use, using AI to create a large number of low quality articles could get you penalized if it is determined that your website is full of spammy, unreadable nonsense. 

White hat vs grey hat SEO link building

While there is a wide range of ranking factors, link building, along with content, are the two fundamental components of search engine optimization. 

You need backlinks from trustworthy, reputable, relevant websites in order to move up the search engine rankings. 

That is what we, at dofollow, provide our clients, landing user-centric links in some of web’s biggest blogs, magazines, and news publications

And, as with content, there are white and grey hat SEO tactics when it comes to building links. 

The white hat SEO approach to link building

Because link building is such a crucial part of search engine optimization and increasing organic traffic, and because it is such an involved process, a lot of people want to take shortcuts. 

The white hat approach to building links takes time (and often money). If you want to build serious links at scale, you need to invest in content, SEO analytics software like Ahrefs, and be willing to learn through trial and error. 

White hat link building means building links to relevant, trustworthy websites and acquiring them naturally over time because of superior content and careful brand management. 

Gray hat link building tactics

Gray hat SEO tactics when it comes to link building might involve doing things like buying backlinks or sneaking links to your website into forum posts and blog comment sections. 

Google is expressly against buying links to try and manipulate page rank. 

Buy enough links, and Google catches on…you might find yourself on the receiving end of the aforementioned manual action penalty. 

Grey hat link builders would understand that Google does not like these kinds of tactics, but would factor in the frequency and the overall health of the existing backlink profile before deciding to run the risk. 

They might consider that a niche edit (the insertion of a link into an existing piece of content for a fee) on a relevant, high-authority site, in light of the fact that a website’s backlink profile is still dominated by natural, user-centric links, is worth the risk and won’t bother Google. 

Of course, these are risky judgements to make and need to be informed by experience and up-to-date knowledge of search engine philosophy and technology. 

How does grey hat SEO differ from black hat tactics?

The major difference between grey hat SEO and black hat SEO is that black hat tactics are clearly unethical, whereas grey hat SEO techniques straddle the line. 

They are “grey” because they are in that ethically grey area. 

However, because they rarely, if ever, have user experience in mind, and because search engines like Google are committed to user experience (at least in principle), they are still risky from a technical perspective and can end up hurting your reputation, website and business, so they should mostly be avoided–especially by inexperienced SEOs. 

Crossing the line into black hat SEO

Black hat SEO techniques are those that are clearly unethical and have only search engine manipulation in mind. 

Black hat SEO typically involves misdirection and dishonesty, such as creating doorway pages–pages that exist solely to stuff with keywords in order to rank for those keywords.

It can even involve hacking (in order to insert links into pages on other people’s websites), and sabotaging other websites using what are known as negative SEO attacks in order to hurt their rankings and boost one’s own. 

If Google has occasional and case-specific tolerance for grey hat SEO tactics, it has zero tolerance for black hat SEO.

Get caught using black hat tactics to try and game the search engine, and you could find that Google skips penalizing your ranking and traffic and goes straight to deindexing your site. 

This could put your site (and business) out of commission for months while you try and resolve the issues and communicate with Google. 

An important thing to keep in mind when thinking about grey versus black hat techniques is that penalties are entirely at Google’s discretion. 

They might decide to harshly penalize you for what you thought were grey hat tactics. 

Your best bet is to use white hat techniques as much as you can (ideally, without exception). 

Protecting your site while using grey hat SEO 

It’s easy to get sanctimonious about SEO tactics and pretend like things are black and white and that the good guys use white hat SEO tactics and the bad guys use black ones. 

Talk to any good SEO–we’re talking about ones that are committed to growing a site’s traffic while providing something of value to users–and it is going to be nearly unanimous that almost everyone uses some gray hat techniques from time to time. 

The key is knowing how and when to use them so that you avoid Google’s wrath. 

Knowing what constitutes grey hat SEO

The most important thing when thinking about or, critically, using grey hat SEO is knowing what Google considers gray hat. 

To know this, you really need to be on top of what the major search engine publications (including from Google’s own mouth) are saying about the best practices. 

This means reading things like: 

Being mindful of your backlink profile

In addition to knowing what Google will and won’t crack down on, it’s also important to know what your overall backlink profile looks like at all times. 

Your backlink profile is the sum total of all your links.

It’s both a page and domain-level concept, and it includes your total number of links as well as your link diversity. 

Ultimately, what any website wants is a natural backlink profile–one that has both a high volume of links and a variety of different link types pointing to a variety of pages. 

This means incorporating guest posts, niche edits, editorial links, broken link building links and others into your link building practices. 

What Google is looking to see when evaluating your link profile is that your links indicate quality. Quantity is not as important as how you built your links and where they come from. 

What this means is that, sometimes, grey hat SEO–especially in the link building realm–is necessary. 

Grey hat and content

When it comes to content, grey hat SEO is more tricky. 

This is because, by and large, in order to build a solid backlink profile that is going to result in rankings and organic traffic improvements, you need high quality content. 

Keyword stuffing and sloppy, low effort AI-generated content is not going to cut it if you want to attract backlinks–either naturally or through prospecting and outreach. 

Content is something you can’t really skimp on using grey hat tactics if you want search engines to think you’re a worthwhile website and business. 

Grey hat SEO is a fact of life

A lot of grey hat SEO tactics run contrary to Google’s guidelines, but the fact of the matter is: if your website is reliant on search engine optimization as a means of generation leads, you are likely going to have to mix some gray hat SEO into the white hat. 

This doesn't mean you need to buy links from link farms or create a private blog network in order to rank. 

But you do need to understand that SEO is hard work, and most for-profit websites, of course, want to turn a profit, which means maximizing your ROI wherever feasible. 

You need to be aware of search engine rules, how Google’s algorithm continues to change and, importantly, understand what it is you want to achieve with your online presence when deciding on how you will approach SEO. 

If you are interested in finding out more about how experienced, knowledgeable link builders can help you boost your rankings and organic search traffic, get in touch with Dofollow team today and let’s discuss how our proven, Google-friendly link building tactics can help you drive traffic and increase conversions. 

Why Trust Us On SEO

Eric Carrell & Sebastian Schaffer have been working in SEO for over a decade, building their own projects - understanding and testing SEO strategy, along with building hundreds of white hat links per month for our projects. They take their learnings and experience and apply them to the strategy that drives our link building strategy for our clients.

Eric & Seb have always believed in quality over quantity, doing things the right way so we future proof our client’s websites against future Google updates and the evolving industry of search.

While Seb handles the company strategy around culture, processes and structure, Eric is constantly working to improve our service offering, customer experience, and following the industry in parallel with Google’s Quality Guidelines so that we are always one step ahead of our competition and aligned with what Google wants to see for your site to rank higher.

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