“There is black. There is white. Gray is a cowardly excuse to mix our wants with our needs.” ― Kim Harrison, A Fistful of Charms

The topic between black and white hat SEO have been around for as long as the practice of search engine optimization became widely used on the Web.

White hat represents the clean, penalty-free techniques that should get you ranking as long as you abide by the rules. Black hat SEO, on the other hand, is the supposedly evil twin: prohibited by Google’s Quality guidelines and designed to push your website to the inner pages of oblivion (i.e. the dreaded page two and below) if found guilty.

But the Web has changed much since the days of keyword spamming and buying links. After Google’s algorithm updates, plenty of black hats have basically gone underground – or disappeared entirely. Yes, there are still some crooks out there, but the SERPs have been fairly calm in recent years.

However, SEO is not as black-and-white as many people seem to think it is. Much like life, where our needs usually mix with our wants, there’s a gray area in optimization that a good number of SEO agencies are using today. They’re neither black nor are these techniques spotless.

Learn more about the various shades of gray hat SEO and the roles it plays in today’s digital marketing.

Gray Hat SEO As Told By Experts

If you’re looking for a single exact definition of this technique, you might find yourself battling over different meanings. That’s because even SEO experts are in a conundrum over what being “gray” really is. Let’s take a look at a few explanations:

SEO Consultant, John Andrews, defines gray hat SEO as “the practice of tactics or techniques which remain ill-defined by published material coming out of Google, and for which reasonable people could disagree on how the tactics support or contrast with the spirit of Google’s published guidelines.”

For instance: site B redesigns site A. As a token of appreciation for their efforts, site A agrees that site B can put a link in the homepage. It’s not illegal, but do so excessively and you’d be in violation of Google Quality Guidelines for link schemes.

SEO Specialist Jim Seward on the other hand, says “there is no such thing as strictly white hat SEO (or black hat for that matter) and everything is a shade of grey. The true white hat SEO would do absolutely nothing to artificially increase their rankings and let Google rank them where they will.

But without even a subtle manipulation, who knows how long a website will rank? On the World Wide Web, time is of the essence – and answering a client with “I don’t know when you’ll be on page one” is not just bad business, it also reflects on your title as SEO expert.

So SEO Consultant and writer Kristine Schachinger suggests you speed things up a little using gray hat because it is “merely a mixture of pure white, do only what Google (or whoever) tells us we can and then add a dash of strategies that bend the rules a little.

For example, you may write multiple types of content for distribution, as long as they are of good quality and relevance, and you don’t use an article spinner.

So far, we can conclude that gray is NOT bad (because it’s not black) but it’s not immaculate either (as it involves bending the rules a little bit). Bottom line: familiarize yourself with Google’s Guidelines (or any search engine of your choice) and know when it’s okay to play it rough.

But is it possible that gray could get darker? If so, how would you know?

From Gray To Black: Going One Shade Darker

Whereas gray hat SEO can still be argued as ethical, black hat SEO, on the other hand, is downright destructive. Engaging in these techniques will either pull down your rankings OR earn you a penalty. In worst cases, businesses that have experienced dealing with black hat tactics sadly lost revenue.

A few examples of these schemes are spamming and automation. Now while some automation is good (like in social media), things like content spinning and link-building should be a no-no. So if you’re hiring someone to do SEO for your website, beware of a company that won’t disclose their strategies! Promises that are too good to be true (i.e. #1 ranking in just weeks) should also be investigated.

But how would YOU know if your gray hat tactics are slowly leaning towards the darker end of the spectrum? If you constantly need to justify your strategies, or you find yourself chasing rankings instead of real profit, then perhaps it’s time to do a tactics check.

Going Green Instead

Now that we’ve tackled the differences between black, white, and gray hat SEO techniques, it’s time to learn a different kind of optimization. Ever heard of green SEO?


John Andrews mentioned it in a short blog post where he compares the analogy to money. This makes sense, because most forms of digital marketing should, indeed, earn money for businesses. Otherwise, it’s a lost investment. However, I want to assign a more special definition to green SEO:

“Green SEO is a collection of strategies that are sustainable and profitable. Through long-term, tailored, honest techniques, businesses can reach their goals, as well as keep lasting relationships with digital marketing agencies.”

The color green has always been linked with vitality and freshness. Many things are related to the color green – even content! So why can’t SEO be the same? Optimization strategies that are built on values of trust, honesty, and transparency will certainly go a long way, rather than if you simply employed tactics for your own benefit.

When it comes to SEO, especially in today’s fast-paced cutthroat world, don’t just focus on quick results. Think about the future, too. Include users and clients when creating your strategies. After all, gray is not really a fun color.