White Hat Vs. Black Hat SEO: Getting (And Staying) on Google’s Good Side
There’s no limit to the lessons old Western movies can teach us. Turn on a Sergio Leone or Anthony Mann film, and you’ll likely see the dichotomy of good and bad represented by the actor’s headwear: the protagonist’s white hat and the antagonist’s black one.
Case in point: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Clint Eastwood sports a white hat while Lee Van Cleef dons a black hat. This movie, like hundreds before it, builds upon the traditional belief that white is “good” and black is “bad.”
In Western cultures, white is the symbol of purity and innocence, or “light”.
Black, on the other hand, is traditionally seen as the symbol of fear, evil, and darkness, and has thus taken on negative meanings.
Cowboys and outlaws no longer roam the plains, but they’ve been replaced by new actors: white hat and black hat marketers.
If you can make an educated guess, you can figure out which is allowable and safe and which is deceptive and risky.
Keep reading to learn all about white hat SEO vs black hat.
We’ll give you some pointers for following the rules and getting on Google’s good side, and show you what to avoid so you won’t be penalized for black hat techniques.
What is white hat SEO?
“White hat SEO” refers to Google-approved search engine optimization techniques. An SEO practice will be considered white hat as long as it stays within Google’s terms of service and maintains the integrity of your website.
Don’t know what Google is looking for? Don’t worry – the tech giant published a guide to help SEO professionals stay within the bounds. We suggest you bookmark this tab on your computer – it’ll come in handy when you or your law firm SEO company makes optimizations to your website.
These are some of the practices that will send your website to the top of the search engine results page (SERP) without breaking any rules:
1. Publish interesting, original, long-form content.
When a potential client searches for a lawyer online, they want as much information as possible in a short amount of time. Among many other things, they want to know where you are, what you stand for, and what kind of results you’ve gotten for other clients.
One of the best ways to fulfill client expectations and keep Google happy is by creating interesting, original content.
Interesting content sets you apart from the thousands of other lawyers at a potential client’s disposal.
Think about it – if you spurt the same information as 20 other lawyers, what would set you apart in the client’s eyes? They would notice that you lack ideas of your own, so why would they hire you?
Interesting content doesn’t just keep users happy.
Google is more likely to rank websites with original copy containing more keywords and more topics than websites with stagnant, every-topic-is-the-same content.
If you’re having trouble brainstorming new content, try Clearscope’s “Content Grade” tool.
Their AI-powered platform will help you decide what to write about and how to write it, based on data analysis of what other users are searching for. Content Grade is a great tool, but you do have to purchase one of Clearscope’s plans, which can range from $170 to $350 per month.
If you’re wondering how to make your legal-centric copy different than everyone else’s for free, try out these tips:
- Use Google Suggest to discover terms that are related to the main idea of your article, blog, or landing page.
- Integrate multimedia in your content with videos, infographics, and images.
- Give an in-depth description of the legal process for a given practice area. For example, if you’re a DUI lawyer in Pennsylvania and you’re writing a blog about the dangers of driving and prescription pills, include a few paragraphs about what your clients can do to prepare themselves for a DUI charge. You can do this in blogs, on landing pages, and anywhere else that you need an easy boost in copy.
Here’s something to remember: you can create the most interesting content in the industry, but if it’s only 200 words, it won’t be seen by Google or by potential clients. Research shows that the average first-page result on Google contains 1,447 words – that’s about six double-spaced pages.
2. Spend time with on-page SEO.
On-page SEO (on-page optimization) refers to the practice of optimizing elements on a specific landing page in order for it to rank higher in search engine results.
We’re talking meta descriptions. We’re talking title tags and image alt tags. We’re talking URLs, internal linking, and strategic keyword use. Here’s how you can optimize every page on your website (or at least get started):
- Write descriptive URLs. Google uses a page’s URL to understand what that page’s content is about, so make Google’s job easier (they’ll reward you for it) by creating short, keyword-rich URLs. Let’s say you’re a personal injury lawyer in Atlanta. Instead of a URL that looks like this:
www.atowninjurylawyer.com/personalinjury/practicearea17475859292y3y4y44i2i27u38.html, write a URL that looks like this:
The second option looks cleaner, better, and is easier to tell what the page is about.
- Use internal linking correctly. Internal linking (linking from one page on your site to another page on your site) helps Google understand what your page is about and follows Google’s preference for hierarchical content.
Continuing with the PI analogy, let’s say that you have four practice areas within personal injury: medical malpractice, slip and fall, wrongful death, and car accidents. Because your main personal injury page is “more important” (has more weight) than the four practice areas, you can link to the main PI page from the practice area pages to signal to Google that the PI page is what you really want to rank for.
For example, you can link from the medical malpractice page to the personal injury page using the anchor text “personal injury lawyer atlanta.”
- Use keywords strategically throughout your copy. The key word here (no pun intended) is strategically. In the 90s and early 2000s, you could get away with keyword stuffing (adding your keywords everywhere and so often that it didn’t make sense). Those days are over, and Google will actually penalize you for keyword stuffing today. (More on that in the black hat SEO section.)
To keep Google happy and to include those important keywords that will help users find your site, shoot for one keyword every 250 words.
- Optimize images using alt tags. Google doesn’t see images the way we do. It’s a very intuitive interface, but it’s not human. That’s why Google rewards websites that take the time to “translate” an image into something Google can “see.” That’s an alt tag, and it tells Google exactly what the image is depicting. When you write an alt tag, make sure you include the keyword for that specific page.
For example, let’s say the Atlanta personal injury lawyer has an image of a hurt worker on their homepage. They could optimize the image to say “Atlanta personal injury lawyer helping a client.”
3. Build high-quality backlinks.
Backlinks, also known as inbound links, incoming links, or one-way links, are links from one website to a page on another website. You can think of a backlink as a “vote” – a website that wants to be associated with the material on your site.
Pages with a high number of links tend to have high rankings in search engines, so these are important to focus on if you want to outrank your competitors.
Here are a few tips to make sure you’re getting high-quality backlinks. Remember, one quality backlink can carry more weight than 1,000 low-quality ones.
- Earn links from authoritative sites. Websites that end in .gov and .edu can have an enormous impact on your rankings because they have high domain authority. Think about it like this: do you think Google would consider a backlink from Yale or a backlink from your neighbor’s younger cousin more important?
- Include your focus keyword in the anchor text. Anchor text is the visible part of a link – the words that you can click on a website to visit another one. For example, wherever an Atlanta personal injury earns a backlink from, they can ask that the website include the link using the keywords “atlanta personal injury lawyer.”
- Make sure the site that links to yours is topically relevant. This one just makes sense. If you’re a lawyer wanting to earn backlinks, try and earn them from law directories and universities providing scholarship programs. These websites have clear and obvious connections to the legal industry, and Google will rank your site higher if your links come from relevant websites.
4. Make sure your technical SEO is up to snuff.
All of your efforts will be in vain if your website doesn’t have the infrastructure to load or function properly. If your website takes too long to load, the number of visitors leaving your site increases exponentially – and that means less business.
New research by Google explores the relationship between page speed load time and user bounce rate:
You can test your site’s page speed yourself using Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool. It’ll tell you if your site has bloated code or large images slowing down page speed and can give you actionable ideas to reduce loading time.
Quick page speed isn’t the only thing you should focus on. As you work on your site’s technical SEO, make sure you fix errors that could prevent your website from being indexed and ranked by Google.
Use the Index Coverage Report in Google Search Console to find errors, which can include redirect and 404 errors, crawling issues, and more.
Technical SEO can make or break your SEO efforts, so make it a priority as soon as you can.
Well, that’s our time for white hat – now on to its sinister-sounding cousin, black hat SEO.
What is black hat SEO?
In the digital world, “black hat” typically describes people who perform unethical actions with computers. Think hackers, virus creators, and the like.
In the SEO world, “black hat” speaks more to those actions which are not necessarily unethical but go against the search engine’s terms and conditions.
Black hat SEO marketers use these techniques to try and manipulate a search engine’s algorithm to increase their website’s rankings on the search engine results page (SERP).
If that sounds like cheating, it’s because it is.
And like so many other areas of life, cheating and manipulation can only work for a short while. Soon enough, the truth will come out.
In the SEO world, the “truth” means penalties from which you may spend months or even years working to return your website to its original position.
SEO marketers put so much information out there, some of which directs people toward black hat techniques. When you’re looking for SEO tips online, be extremely careful who you listen to and take advice from.
The wrong person’s advice could land your website at the bottom of the pile, and that will take time, energy, and money to recover from.
It’s in your best interest to hire a law firm SEO company that will evaluate your situation, listen to your goals, and provide a white hat, law-abiding strategy to help you rank. If you have questions about what’s considered white hat and what’s considered black hat, call EverSpark today.
In the meantime, here are some of the most important black hat techniques to avoid when optimizing your site:
1. Keyword Stuffing
Keyword stuffing was a common tactic used by marketers in the early days of the internet, but some black hat “professionals” still use this trick.
It involves writing “stuffing” keywords across a page so that Google will associate the page with the desired keyword. Keyword stuffing will not only not help you rank, but it could make your site drop lower in results.
Here’s an example of keyword stuffing provided by Google:
This paragraph sounds unnatural and is completely unnecessary. Instead of stuffing keywords into every paragraph, try and shoot for one use of the keyword per 250 words.
2. Duplicate Content
You should never, ever plagiarize copy. That’s one of the first lessons you learn in school, and it applies to website content creation as well.
As the name suggests, duplicate content consists of copying entire sections of content from one site and pasting them to yours. As mentioned earlier, search engines prefer unique content, which is why duplicate content is one of the worst black hat techniques to make.
An example of duplicate content is a lawyer having identical copy on several of their practice area pages. It certainly takes time and effort to make original content, but it’s worth it.
3. Gateway Pages
A gateway or doorway page is a page that is created and optimized to target specific search queries, acting as a funnel to one page with no intention of providing high-quality information to users. This is a violation of Google’s guidelines, and you shouldn’t create pages just to rank for irrelevant keywords.
Google is a highly intelligent and intuitive platform, and it’ll know if you’re creating pages to trick users into visiting your desired page, not the page they thought they landed on.
“Cloaking” is a deceptive technique where a developer presents different content or URLs to users than it does to search engines. It’s an attempt to rank a page on its content for search engines, not for users. In fact, many of these pages will point users to another page entirely.
Cloaking is deceptive because it tricks search engines in order to rank for target keywords. It’s also a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines because it provides irrelevant results to users. You should always create content and landing pages for humans. If your content is informational, unique, and compelling, humans will love it, which means Google will love it, too.
5. Misused Structured Data and Rich Snippets
Schema markup is a structured data vocabulary that allows search engines to understand what’s on your website. They allow search engines to see the meaning and relationships behind people, events, articles, products, organizations, and businesses mentioned on your website.
When black hat marketers try to cut corners, they might mark up content that is invisible or irrelevant to users. Many publishers in the coupons and vouchers space have been called out for misusing structured data, and Google has warned that they will enact harsher penalties for doing so.
Here’s an example of misused structured data:
In this example, a publisher has created event markup where an event does not actually exist. It’s great to offer deals, but not when they’re mislabeled. That creates a bad user experience, and Google takes user experience very seriously.
6. Negative SEO
Negative SEO is essentially sabotaging someone else’s site. It includes any malicious practice that seeks to undermine another site’s rankings. Types of negative SEO attacks include:
- Creating destructive backlinks with spammy anchor text pointing to the website
- Copying a website’s content, duplicating it, and spreading it across the web
- Posting fake negative reviews about the website
- Removing a website’s backlinks by sending fake removal requests
Risks of Black Hat SEO
Implementing black hat SEO techniques puts you at risk for manual actions. A manual action is when a human reviewer at Google determines that a certain page or website goes against the Webmaster Guidelines.
Most issues that are reported and reviewed by Google employees will result in your website being ranked lower or omitted entirely from search results. You’ll be notified of the action in your Google Search Console account, where you can also request a reconsideration review.
Manual actions are serious and you definitely don’t want one taken against your site. The consequences of a low or omitted ranking can take months or years to correct and return your website to its original position.
Our advice? Take the time to optimize your site correctly the first time. It’s not worth the risks.
EverSpark Will Help Your Site Rank Using White Hat Techniques
If another law firm SEO “expert” tells you to try any of the black hat tactics listed above, you should run the other way. Not only does black hat SEO go against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, it’s dishonest and can be extremely frustrating for users.
It’s always best to take your time and put real effort into optimizing your site. Your clients will thank you, Google will rank you higher, and you’ll help eliminate those sites using fraudulent techniques to gain traffic.
When you’re ready to create a Google-compliant, user-friendly site, contact EverSpark to learn more about website design for SEO. We’ll help you gain clients effectively and responsibly.