If you’re interested in search engine optimization, you’ve probably heard the terms white hat SEO and black hat SEO.
What you may not be familiar with, however, is the term grey hat SEO.
So, what is grey hat SEO, exactly, and what are the risks of using it? Keep reading to learn all about how these SEO methods can help — and hinder — your site’s performance.
- Grey hat SEO is the middle ground between black- and white-hat SEO techniques (practices that comply with Google Search Essentials and those that violate it).
- Examples of grey-hat SEO include buying backlinks, using expired domains, article spinning, keyword stuffing via CSS, and more.
- If you use gray hat SEO, Google may penalize your site and tank your ratings. You could also get your site banned from indexing completely.
- Depending on your risk level, you may want to avoid grey hat SEO and instead focus on white-hat SEO methods that will help improve your search performance and increase traffic without the threat of penalties.
What Does Grey Hat SEO Mean?
Grey hat SEO is the middle ground between white-hat SEO techniques (practices that comply with Google Search Essentials, formerly known as Google Webmaster Guidelines) and black hat SEO (practices that violate Google Search Essentials).
To understand what grey hat SEO is all about, it helps to think of SEO methods as if they belong to a spectrum, with white hat sitting at one end and black hat at the other.
With that analogy in mind, digital marketing and SEO professionals have been using the term “gray hat SEO” since the early 2000s to describe SEO techniques that aren’t necessarily against Google’s guidelines (although they can be, depending on what you use) yet are considered somewhat risky.
Grey hat techniques are viewed as slightly less risky than black hat SEO techniques. Still, they’re not as safe and guaranteed as white-hat SEO techniques either.
Grey Hat vs. White Hat vs. Black Hat SEO
So what exactly are the differences between these SEO methods? Here’s a quick look at a few examples to help break it down for you.
Grey Hat SEO Examples
Grey hat SEO techniques sit somewhere in the middle between white hat and black hat SEO. Depending on the tactics you use, they may or may not violate search engine guidelines.
Some examples include:
- Link buying
- Keyword stuffing
- Article spinning
White Hat SEO Examples
White hat tactics are in compliance with the terms and conditions of Google, as well as most other search engines.
White hat SEO method examples include:
- Creating original content
- Guest blogging
- Legitimate link building
Black Hat SEO Examples
Black hat tactics, however, are the ones that Google and most other major search engines condemn and will penalize for.
- Creating duplicate content
- Using crawlers or software for link building
- Using doorway pages (multiple websites with slight variations in the URL or multiple sites created to rank for nearly identical search queries in search engines)
Should You Use Grey Hat SEO?
While many people use grey hat SEO, it’s a personal choice that isn’t without risk. Gray hat SEO walks a fine line between the two ends of the SEO spectrum. While it may not always be against Google’s guidelines, it can still be iffy and lead to a penalty down the road.
Weigh the benefits and risks of using gray hat SEO strategies before you decide to implement any of them on your website.
Gray hat SEO techniques can help you gain more traffic and rank higher in search engines, as well as increase your website’s credibility. On the other hand, after a few quick wins, your website could get penalized or banned from search engine results pages.
Having said that, we recommend using gray hat SEO techniques only as a last resort. If you’re stuck in a rut in terms of how your website is performing, and you’re willing to take the risk, you might consider these tactics to help boost your results.
What Are Some Examples of Grey Hat SEO?
Even if you’re not interested in using gray hat SEO strategies to improve your website’s search engine performance, it’s still important to learn about these practices so that you can avoid them.
What’s more, learning about the most common gray hat SEO practices will help you detect when your competitors or SEO contractors are using them.
Here are some of the most common gray hat SEO strategies:
1. Buying Backlinks
Acquiring backlinks is one of the cornerstones of search engine optimization. The more high-quality backlinks you can acquire, the higher you’ll rank in the search engine result pages and the more credible your site will be.
If you want to build backlinks, however, it takes a lot of time and effort. This is why some webmasters are tempted to take a shortcut by simply buying or trading backlinks.
There are quite a few scenarios that fall under the backlink-buying umbrella, such as trading links with another website owner, meaning you link to them, and they link to you.
Providing a service or trading a product in exchange for a link back to your site is also considered a grey-hat link-buying strategy. The same applies to buying link placements on already-indexed pages.
Buying links can be risky. One of two things is bound to happen if Google detects what it perceives as a paid link: the link will be discounted, or your website will be penalized.
2. Using Expired Domains
Another common grey hat search engine optimization strategy is buying expired domains that have a great deal of authority as a result of having a lot of high-quality backlinks.
There are a few ways to use unrenewed domains to your advantage as a grey-hat SEO practice. The first is to redirect all of the unrenewed domain’s link power or link juice to your current domain using a 301 redirect.
Another approach is to find archives of the expired domain’s old content and republish it. This basically revives the domain to the state it was in before it expired.
Archives of expired domains can be found with the aid of websites like Wayback Machine, Stillio, and Archive.fo.
3. Keyword Stuffing
There are many ways to stuff keywords into your content, and Google is on to most of them. Some ways fall under the black-hat techniques category, such as increasing keyword density via hidden text off-screen, whereas others fall under the gray-hat SEO category.
One of the most common gray-hat keyword-stuffing strategies is using CSS to position the keyword-stuffed content off-screen so users can’t see it.
Another strategy is locating the keyword-stuffed piece of text behind an image or setting its font size to 0. Either way, the user won’t be able to see the text, but it will still be crawled by search engines.
Obviously, these are shady strategies that, once detected, can lead to a penalty or a ban. If you’re aiming for long-term success with your website, you should steer clear of keyword stuffing.
Instead of opting for such methods, aim to create comprehensive, in-depth content that covers as many relevant subtopics as possible.
4. Using PBNs
Private blog networks (PBNs) are websites that you create and control for one main purpose, and that’s to link out to your primary website, so it ranks higher.
Using a private blog network to manipulate your main site’s rankings is considered a link scheme and is, in fact, a black hat SEO strategy that can result in your website getting removed from Google’s index.
The only scenario in which this strategy passes as a grey-hat SEO strategy is if you’re able to cover your tracks so well that Google is unable to detect that you own the PBNs you’re using to link back to your main site.
5. Spinning Content
Another gray hat SEO strategy is the use of spun or auto-generated content, where you feed a text-spinning tool some content and it rephrases it, sentence by sentence, to avoid plagiarism.
The thing is that spun content is never as good as actual human writing. Even with the emergence of AI writing tools, you can still differentiate AI-written content from human writing in most cases. If Google detects auto-generated content, your site may be penalized.
This gray hat SEO strategy can help you provide a consistent stream of content and get some initial wins, but it’s not a very reliable approach for long-term success.
What Are the Risks of Grey Hat SEO?
Please bear in mind that these are potential risks, meaning they might or might not happen. You’re basically rolling the dice if you choose to implement these strategies.
If you run an online business that heavily relies on organic traffic, you should note that one of the most common risks of using grey hat SEO strategies is getting banned from major search engines.
If Google or any other prominent search engine detects you’re implementing questionable strategies, you can get banned from the search engine’s index completely. This, in turn, will hinder you from garnering organic traffic from search engines.
Another risk of using grey hat SEO techniques is incurring penalties, such as lower ranking and a drop in traffic. Not to mention that the overall image and reputation of your brand can be damaged.
Can You Use Grey Hat SEO Tactics Safely?
It’s possible to stay safe while using grey hat SEO techniques if you know where to draw the line. After all, as we mentioned earlier, grey hat SEO walks a very fine line between white hat and black.
So, how do you draw the line?
First, you must know what to avoid (i.e., black hat SEO tactics). If a tactic is in direct violation of Google’s guidelines, you need to avoid it.
This includes the use of:
- Invisible text
- Doorway pages
- Duplicate content
- Page swapping
Secondly, you want to stay up to date on the latest SEO updates. Tactics that are considered grey today can become black-hat SEO tactics tomorrow. So, keep up with the latest trends.
Lastly, make white-hat techniques the primary part of your strategy. Nothing beats creating high-quality content and spending time and effort on acquiring credible backlinks. Make grey-hat tactics your last resort.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Grey Hat SEO Illegal?
No, grey hat SEO tactics aren’t illegal, but they aren’t the most ethical either. You run the risk of your website getting penalized or banned by using strategies like private blog networks, AI content, and keyword stuffing.
Is Grey Hat SEO Safe?
No, grey-hat SEO techniques aren’t entirely safe. Yes, they’re safer than black-hat techniques, but they’re not as safe as white hat SEO. That’s why we recommend using grey hat SEO only as a last resort.
Why Is It Called Grey Hat SEO?
It’s called grey hat SEO because it falls in the grey area between white-hat and black-hat SEO strategies. Gray hat SEO teeters the line between violating search engine guidelines and compliance, depending on which tactics you use.
Decide Your Risk Level
Now that you know what grey hat SEO is and that it may or may not violate Google’s guidelines, you can decide if it’s right for you.
Though grey hat SEO isn’t illegal, it can still be risky, depending on which tactics you use and how far you go with them. If detected, it can lead to your site getting banned or penalized. On that account, we don’t recommend using grey hat SEO unless you’re willing to take the risk.
With 11 years of experience in the marketing industry, Will Colbath is an expert in SEO content creation and campaign development. His extensive knowledge and skill have helped businesses achieve their goals with increased online traffic and search engine rankings. Outside of work, Will enjoys playing golf and participating in amateur tournaments throughout Southern California.