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If you’ve ever watched an old Western, you know the person in the black hat is the villain and the person in the white hat is the hero. The person with the white hat will do what’s right. They’ll fight for justice. They’ll speak honestly. They’ll even show restraint and mercy when defeating their opponent. By contrast, the person with the black hat will probably lie, cheat and steal in pursuit of their goals.
In the search engine optimization (SEO) world, these characterizations have led to terminology referring to “black hat” and “white hat” SEO. But what exactly is white hat SEO? And how does it work in 2021?
Black Hat SEO And A Brief History Of Google
Before you can delve into the tenets of white hat SEO, it’s important to talk about the history of Google and how SEO, in general, works. Google is a search engine designed to connect people to relevant results. Early iterations of the search engine were based almost entirely on two factors: keyword presence and PageRank. Essentially, if you had a lot of commonly searched keywords on your pages and a lot of links pointing to your site, you’d rank highly for those keywords when searched.
“Black hat” practitioners took advantage of this. They engaged in a number of shady tactics, like stuffing keywords throughout their pages — even hiding keywords in the backend code of their site — and spamming backlinks however they could, ruining the experience of web users in the process
Thankfully, Google took notice and fought back.
Over the years, Google introduced a number of updates designed to punish sites that use deception or rank manipulation to boost their rankings and reward sites that genuinely strive to give users a better experience overall. Today, the foundation of Google is similar to what it was in the beginning (in the sense that it prioritizes relevance and authority), but it’s a completely different animal from a technical perspective.
And as you might expect, it’s increasingly difficult to get away with black hat tactics.
The White Hat Philosophy In SEO
So, if “black hat” tactics are bad, what do “white hat” tactics look like?
The philosophy of white hat is simple. Whatever actions you take for your website, whether they’re intended to boost your rankings or not, should be designed with user experience in mind. In other words, if you take actions that make the web a better place for average users, you’ll be following the white hat philosophy.
Many SEO experts, including myself, believe that there’s an ethical imperative to following a white hat philosophy. Doing what’s right for web users and genuinely trying to make the web a better place will, inevitably, make the web a better place. In some ways, it’s its own reward.
Of course, ethics aren’t the only reason to follow white hat tactics.
Better SEO results: Since Google intentionally penalizes black hat practices like link schemes, following white hat tactics will almost always yield better SEO results, especially long term. Some black hat practitioners do occasionally see a quick, sudden surge in rankings, but eventually, they always take a hit.
A better reputation: Writing good content, building strong links and creating better user experiences will lead you to a better reputation. People will think more favorably of your brand and will be more likely to buy from you — or stay loyal to you.
Peripheral benefits: Most white hat SEO tactics end up yielding a higher return on investment (ROI) in part because of their peripheral benefits. While black hat tactics are singularly focused on increasing rankings, white hat tactics tend to help your site in a number of ways.
White Hat SEO In 2021
Anyone with SEO experience knows that the game is always changing, thanks to new technologies, new user behavioral patterns and Google algorithm updates. So what does a white hat strategy look like in 2021?
Design with users in mind. Everything you do, from designing web pages to writing content, needs to be done with user experience in mind. If a tactic detracts from user experience to favor search engine algorithms (like stuffing an article full of keywords), consider it black hat. If your users aren’t happy, Google won’t be happy.
Improve security and speed. Design and technical optimization should always favor site security and speed. The faster and more secure your website is, the better. Your primary goal should always be to serve your users as well as you can.
Create amazing content that serves a purpose. Content has always been the heart of SEO and that remains true in 2021. But to be a true contender in search engine results pages (SERPs) and appeal to users at the same time, your content has to serve some kind of purpose, such as informing or entertaining an interested audience. That content also needs to be immaculate — no filler!
Build links that are useful. Link building is a contentious topic in the SEO community, but it’s hard to ignore the importance of links in increasing domain authority. In white hat philosophy, usefulness is the name of the game. If your links are sincere, relevant, accepted by publishers and genuinely valuable to users, you can consider them white hat.
Whether you want higher rankings, better user experiences, a better brand reputation or some combination of these, white hat SEO tactics are going to be incredibly effective. Prioritize them in your digital marketing strategy.
Originally appeared in Forbes