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Modern and Organic Search Engine Optimization: Black Hat, Grey Hat, and White Hat Digital Marketing
By: McBee|Gibraltar
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Search Engine Optimization (SEO), put simply, is the process of raising the visibility of a website in a search engine's results. Targeted, effective optimization of a website’s keywords and terminology allows you to tap into the five billion Google, Yahoo, or Bing searches that occur each day. In other words, it helps the consumer reach your desired destination — such as your company or campaign website.

The approaches to optimizing a website to increase search traffic are most commonly referred to as “hatting.” Each of the various “hats” has its own particular function, usually accompanied by some degree of controversy.

  • The Black Hat method utilizes any and every disposable means to try to force higher search engine rankings, even if (or perhaps, especially if) the website’s on-page content is not of interest to the visiting traffic. These methods are usually successful in the short term - but when they are found out, search engines such as Google quickly adjust their algorithms to de-rank the website in search engine results.
  • The Grey Hat method uses techniques that may not be immediately frowned upon, but upon advances in research and technology could become considered a “no-go” Black Hat method. A Grey Hat may also use a mix of minimal Black Hat techniques mixed with an otherwise organic, sustainable campaign.
  • The White Hat method is the process of using simple, organic methods of optimization that allow a website to rank naturally, such as creating unique content and writing clean code. A website will usually not drop in the rankings due search engine algorithm changes with White Hat methods, and it ensures that the content on the page matches the content that the audience is seeking.

A "backlink" is an external website that links back to your website. Search engines naturally assume that the more external links you have, the higher quality of content and relevance that you have to your specific audience. However, Black Hat methods can use this assumption to generate artificial search engine rankings.

On July 18th, 2013, Google updated their “link schemes” guidelines to advise webmasters that they're on the lookout for Black Hat strategies such as sending out press releases with optimized anchor text, otherwise known as embedded links that direct back to your own website.

Google's getting better, faster, and more adept at detecting Black Hat strategies and guarding search engine results against them. We expect large shifts in rankings as the results from Google’s new guidelines are put into action.

SEO has become nearly synonymous with content development; original content is the key to unlock a long-term, effective campaign. However, there are some foundational elements that must be established prior to launching a full-steam content marketing campaign:

  • Clean Page Code and Design: Run regular analysis and testing of your website to ensure that you do not have unnecessary code, long load times or images that aren't optimized for the web.
  • Website Management: Ensure that your website has up-to-date links throughout and that if you're linking to external sources that you check regularly that they are still live.
  • Linking: Because websites with high-quality external links from credible sources are given high rankings on search engines, seek opportunities for increased external links through partnerships, media hits or organizational memberships.

Our suggestion is simple: enough with the hats. Although it may require the largest budget, the most management, and the most upkeep, it is the only effective way to guarantee that you won't wake up one morning to find out that your website has been completely removed from search engine rankings. 

This blog was adapted from an original piece on the McBee Strategic website. Ashtan Moore and Jess Stone are digital media specialists at McBee Strategic. Connect with them on Twitter: @ashtanmoore and @jstonemv.

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About the Author
McBee|Gibraltar is the strategic communications solution on the McBee Strategic Consulting platform, based in Washington, D.C.. Forged in 2013 between McBee and Gibraltar Associates, McBee|Gibraltar provides communications counsel and services to global corporations, smaller public and private companies, investment and professional service firms and high-profile individuals. www.McBeeStrategic.com
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