When Google’s Hummingbird update blossomed, many black hat SEO tactics quickly dropped from the strategy bags that unethical tricksters had attached to their hip, as the new algorithm promptly regarded their activities as Spam. But some of these dying SEO sable stratagems didn’t just go away; they slowly bled out to the sound of search engine trumpeters and mingled with pure white hat SEO endeavors that sought to achieve high organic ranking through the means of honest methodology and the production of original, well-written content. But just as the title suggests, gray hat SEO connotes ambiguity, and when most SEO consultants are asked their opinion of the “ashen bowler”, you might as well flip a coin because they either embrace it as being contemporarily ethical, or they shake their finger at its practices ruling it a cardinal sin.
Examining the Risks
There is no immediate risk of Google banning a website from the search engines that flavors itself with gray hat SEO tactics. This is the main argument gray hat proponents use to uphold its ethicality. However, there is no way to know whether or not the gray hats of today will be deemed the black hats of tomorrow, as Matt Cutts clearly suffers from ADD. For example, linking to foreign language sites was legitimate back in the day, as many businesses have international clients. But this is now regarded as a “black hat no-no” and its need was replaced by the Google Translate tool. Another example of measuring risk can be seen in linking to irrelevant content. In the past a webmaster optimizing a craft beer website could link to a Catholic Church’s site with a high page rank and be as safe as Switzerland. But in today’s Google landscape irrelevant linking with no stress on relevant content can come back and bite you. Proponents of gray hat SEO will argue that this practice is not carved in Google stone as being acceptable or frowned upon, and therefore if you can get away with it by going into stealth mode your reward will usher organic gain. However, opponents regard this as playing by one’s own set of rules and therefore deem it unethical.
It’s a Gray Area for Content
Theoretically Hummingbird is supposed to discourage duplicate content. However there are ways to regurgitate content under Google’s radar. Whereas a black hat villain will steal another author’s idea or concept and publish it in his own words (or flat out steal the content word for word), gray hats will simply take their own content on other websites and re-word their language using online duplicate checkers like CopyScape making adjustments until the content reads at a publishable safe level. Proponents of this practice argue there is no plagiarism because the content was borrowed from their own pen and was re-worded to appear original in the eyes of search engines. But opponents defend that recycling one’s words rebels against Hummingbird’s call for original content sighting that whereas synonyms may be used to trick SERPS, the metaphors, themes, message and verbal concept remains the same.
Depending on your social circle you may have heard that SPAM has a new definition: “sites positioned above mine”. Informing or snitching (however you look at it) to Google that a competitor is using illegal tactics to outsmart the SERPS with the goal to get him penalized so your site ranks higher is, considered by many, a gray hat tactic. Those who view this maneuver as fair play argue that they are simply informing the search engine authorities of foul play the way a good citizen would report to the police that his neighbor is cooking meth in the basement. An SEO consultant can check a competitor’s backlinks and scrutinize the ones that fuse with irrelevant content and send the data to Google. However the folks on the other side of the fence will deem this espionage, in addition to being found guilty of failing to gain organic ranking by their own merit.
Opinions and more Opinions
We live in an exciting digital era where sharing information, ideas and opinions on a global scale has never been easier. The topic of gray hat SEO is a provocative one that encourages a stimulating forum for opinionated voices. Perhaps as we begin to understand just how Hummingbird works, some new speculations and viewpoints will surface from the pond of gray hat SEO. In the meantime, we either avoid any spice, pepper our SEO salads gingerly, or the optimization con will simply dump the condiment in its entirety thus saturating the SEO salad to the point it is black and inedible.