White Hat vs Grey Hat vs Black Hat

by on January 11, 2011

When I started doing online money making, blogging, and affiliate marketing, there were lots of terms around that I didn’t really understand.  There seems to be an internal language that  doesn’t make much sense at first and everyone takes for granted you know exactly what they’re talking about.

One of them was something called “White Hat” and something called “Black Hat”. You see people talking about them and why a certain marketing technique or search engine optimization (SEO) method is considered Black Hat or not. And like everything else on the Interweb, it took an hour worth of looking to truly figure out what was meant by each of those two terms.  And even then I wasn’t 100% sure.

Now that we’ve been around the block a couple of times, I’m going to give you a little free Hat class…

The terms were mainly used to describe hackers, where a “white hat” hacker would try to break into systems or discover vulnerabilities for the purpose of testing or informing to increase security, where “black hat” hackers would try to break into systems for fun or theft.  At least, that seems to be the most common understanding of where the terms came from.

What does it mean in internet marketing terms though?

White Hat

A White Hat internet marketer or SEO (search engine optimizer) only uses legal and company sanctioned techniques to move a site or pages rankings up the pages in the top search engines or to gain traffic.  That means that a white hat SEO will only use link building techniques that meet all the criteria of everyone involved, the site the link is being made on, all the search engines, etc.  A true white hat internet marketing affiliate will play 100% by the rules.

If you go White Hat that means:

  • No paid links – against the Google TOS
  • No forum or comment junk posts for links – against most sites TOS
  • No sneaky redirects
  • No hidden terms and conditions
  • Nothing illegal – false claims of earnings, etc.

Note that the vast majority of larger SEO and marketing companies wear the White Hat.  They don’t want to risk their business getting banned from anywhere.

Black Hat

Black hat is when you actually risk jail time or major government fines in your marketing or money making efforts.  Black Hats are basically criminals, petty or otherwise.   Some of these items used to be legal or at least unregulated, but now have laws against them.  The internet is so large and the FTC and government agencies are so understaffed that most of them will never be caught.

If you are doing the following you are risking the wrath of the authorities, at least in the US:

  • Email spam
  • False testimonials
  • Unrealistic earnings expectations
  • Hidden rebill charges
  • Credit card transfers to other companies
  • Software theft

Grey Hat

The vast majority of Internet Marketers and individual SEO’s wear the Grey Hat.  Some might argue that they’re more White than Grey, but they’re frequently wrong.  Most of them lean toward the Black hat without even realizing it.  Think of it this way.  Doing anything illegal makes you Black Hat.  Have you downloaded software without paying for it?   Have you created any fake testimonials?  Both those are illegal you know.

Doing anything against the rules of a particular website or company, but not quite illegal, changes your hat to Grey.

For example:

  • Buying or selling links
  • Spamming forums or comments for links
  • Sneaky redirects in ads
  • Adsense arbitrage
  • Affiliate cookie stuffing
  • Misleading advertising – Punch the Monkey and WIN!
  • Fake Social Media accounts
  • Nothing illegal

The vast majority of Affiliate Marketers fall into this category, and I’ve learned that the majority of those tend towards the Dark Grey Hat.  As long as it’s not illegal, they’ll do it.  If you’re a company that has an affiliate program, beware!  Most of your affiliates are actively looking for ways to screw you.

Shades of Grey

You’d be hard pressed to find a single affiliate marketer that wasn’t at least slightly Grey Hat.  Heck, I hate scams and false advertising as much as the next guy, but I’ve created some fake Social Media accounts in my day just to post links.

The question is where to draw the line?  At what point does a Light Grey Hat slide to a Dark Grey Hat?

What do you think?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Phil March 18, 2011 at 12:11 am

So I assume black hat makes more money than gray hat, and gray hat makes more money than white hat?

Steve August 3, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Well I tried white hat at the end of the day you have to use a bit of black hat.

You buy a new domain set up a website .. you will rank a lot higher and faster through bit of black hat ! Just my personal experience. I wouldn’t bother with pop ups etc just in general. Its like the dark side of the force :)

Samuel Symes September 7, 2011 at 1:24 am

Unless its natural, all link building is Blackhat!

I often read posts where SEO experts frown upon Blackhat strategies but then openly promote link building. According to Google’s TOS, natural links are links others point back to your site without the need to pay for it, ask for it, comment for it or insert a link in your article to gain it.

So, if all link building strategies are in effect manipulating search engine results, doesn’t it stand to reason that all link building is Blackhat and the majority of off-page SEO practiced by SEO firms is in effect, Blackhat?

Isn’t having an online business all about rankings, traffic and conversions in the first place and search engine optimization should essentially be a technical, and possibly not a moral or ethical issue?

El Plumber (admin) September 7, 2011 at 10:33 am

Samuel, that’s why I try to differentiate between Blackhat and Greyhat here. Link building isn’t illegal (Blackhat) but is frowned upon by the search engine companies (Greyhat).

And the main question is, where is that line drawn? Is releasing a press release with a link on it considered Greyhat by Google? Technically I’m paying a PR firm for distributing it.

Bee Primrose June 19, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Some clients have asked for grey hat services and we have refused. To their credit, they have remained with us, despite competitors’ websites pushing them way down the rankings.

The problem is that, despite Google’s various ‘sweeps’ it is the black hatters that are top of the results (we have proof of this). When a competitor starts up and within two months has 900 back-links, you think Google would smell a rat.

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