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Grey Hat SEO - The Fine Line Between White Hat & Black Hat Tactics

Stewart Dunlop


Chief Link Building Strategist

Search engine optimization (SEO) techniques typically fall into two categories: black hat and white hat tactics.

Black hat techniques are those that directly violate Google’s and other search engines’ guidelines.

On the other hand, white hat SEO techniques are those that not only follow Google’s guidelines but are also acquired ethically.

However, SEO isn’t that cut and dry. At times, link-building tactics become grey hat, meaning they don’t necessarily break the rules, but they are morally ambiguous.

These techniques fall somewhere between white and black-hat SEO, often pushing the boundaries and leveraging loopholes to improve search engine rankings.

In this article, we will discuss:

➡️ What grey hat SEO is.

➡️ The differences between grey, white, and black hat techniques.

➡️ Some examples of grey hat SEO scenarios.

White Hat vs Black Hat vs Grey Hat SEO

SEO methods are constantly evolving, and the rules surrounding them keep changing. This makes it challenging for businesses and SEO professionals to understand what’s acceptable and unacceptable.

Before we discuss grey hat SEO specifically, let’s break down what white and black hat practices look like.

What is White Hat SEO?

White hat SEO strategies involve using ethical and legitimate means to improve a site’s ranking on search engines and generate organic traffic. These practices follow search engine guidelines closely and put the user first.

The goal behind white hat SEO is to focus on long-term outcomes that prioritize users' needs and overall experience. These techniques aim to provide valuable content and ensure that websites are relevant, accessible, and optimized.

What are some white hat techniques?

Some common examples of this SEO practice include:

  • Content marketing, including developing high-quality content.

  • Conducting thorough keyword research.

  • On-page optimization like meta tags, headings, and image alt text.

  • Building relationship with journalists, publications, website owners, and brands to build backlinks.

  • Helpful participation on industry blogs and forums.

  • Social media promotion.

  • Optimizing websites for user experience.

The results you can expect from white hat SEO

While white-hat SEO tactics may take longer to see success than other practices, they produce long-term, sustainable results.

Additionally, your efforts should pay off in the long run by having your website rank higher in search results and driving more traffic to your pages.

What is Black Hat SEO?

Black hat SEO tactics are those that purposefully and intentionally manipulate search engines to improve rankings and get more traffic. These techniques focus solely on exploiting the weaknesses in Google’s algorithm to gain an unfair advantage.

What are some black hat techniques?

  • Using private blog networks (PBNs) for building links.

  • High volume, low-quality directory, and social bookmarking submissions.

  • Unnatural links, in general.

  • Spam comments.

  • Article spinning or spun content.

  • Keyword stuffing.

  • Engaging in link schemes.

  • Creating duplicate content.

  • Using doorway pages.

  • Redirecting through expired domains.

  • Creating multiple social media accounts to inflate link sharing artificially.

To gain a proper understanding of these black hat SEO techniques, check out our infographic to help you visualize some key differences:


    The results you can expect from black hat SEO

    Using black hat SEO techniques can quickly lead to search engine penalties that can significantly affect your website traffic and rankings. Your site could completely be removed from search engine results, for example.

    These penalties—also known as a Google manual penalty—can be very difficult to recover from.

    Additionally, black hat SEO can damage your reputation and result in losing customers and destroying their trust in your brand.

    What Is Grey Hat SEO?

    Grey hat refers to SEO practices that fall into a grey area. They are neither white nor black hat techniques. They don’t necessarily directly violate Google’s guidelines, but they aren’t entirely ethical either.

    What makes a tactic grey hat is that SEO pros aren’t deliberately manipulating search engines and results, but they aren’t following best practices either.

    Why are certain techniques classified as grey hat?

    SEO techniques are classified as grey hat for several reasons.

    Interpretation of Google Webmaster Guidelines

    Search engines have specific guidelines in place that delineate which SEO tactics are acceptable and unacceptable.

    However, some of these search engine rules are ambiguous and open to interpretation. This ambiguity allows for some SEO guidelines to be manipulated, resulting in blurred lines where tactics may be questionable but don’t directly violate search engine policies.

    Manipulation of search engines

    Grey hat SEO techniques sometimes involve strategies that somewhat manipulate the algorithms of search engines to improve rankings. These techniques aren’t necessarily prohibited by search engines, yet they aim to influence search rankings artificially.


    Grey hat practices will often result in short-term successes in improving search results rankings. However, in the long term, their effectiveness is questionable.

    Search engines also constantly update their algorithms to detect and penalize manipulative techniques. This means that what is grey hat today might be black hat tomorrow, potentially impacting your rankings in the future.

    A higher risk of penalties

    A white hat SEO technique carries very little risk of a website incurring a search engine penalty. However, grey hat tactics pose a far greater penalty risk.

    While a grey hat practice might not be strictly prohibited, it can still be detected by search engines as manipulative and artificial.

    What are some Grey Hat SEO techniques?

    Remember, it’s not necessarily the technique that makes something grey hat, but rather how a tactic is implemented that gives it this classification.

    Here are some common SEO techniques that could easily turn into grey hat practices.

    Buying links

    Buying links from other websites is often considered black hat SEO because it involves exchanging money for links to manipulate how search engines interpret your website.

    If you’re caught explicitly buying backlinks to your website, you may be penalized.

    However, many brands circumvent this rule by purchasing a sponsored article on a third-party website that includes a contextual backlink to their brand, for example. This looks very natural, and it's almost impossible for Google to detect and penalize.

    When buying links becomes more nuanced or less straightforward, it can start to edge into grey hat SEO territory.

    How Buying Links Goes from Black to Grey Hat

    Indirect link buying—which is indirectly earning backlinks through partnerships or collaborations—is where money or goods are exchanged. This is viewed as a grey hat practice as there is an understanding that the exchange will result in a link.

    It’s worth noting that search engines discourage link-buying practices that are specifically intended to manipulate rankings rather than provide value to users.

    Product reviews

    This is an area that Google has tried to clamp down on actively. However, it’s something that users are specifically looking for. In fact, 93% of consumers read online reviews before making a purchasing decision.

    Reviews are the cornerstone of your success if you sell a physical product online.

    Reaching out to influential bloggers in your niche will be an essential and high-priority digital marketing strategy for any eCommerce business. You'll be gaining valuable backlinks from sites with high authority while winning new customers.

    However, reviews become grey-hat when they are fabricated or manipulated to deceive search engines. Some examples include:

    • Fake product reviews: These are either fabricated or written by individuals who were paid to do so.

    • Review spamming: This is intentionally overwhelming a platform with excessive reviews, often using bots or automation software.

    • Review gating: Only publishing positive reviews and filtering out the negative ones.

    Native advertising and partnerships

    Native advertising is a term that’s broadly used nowadays. This is advertising which is inserted into the content of a website.

    If links are purchased through native advertising where the intention is clearly disclosed and the content provides genuine value to readers, it may be seen as a grey hat practice.

    Here are some examples of what we mean by native advertising:

    To ensure that you maintain transparency and ethics in native advertising, it’s crucial that you use proper disclosure.

    Paying for citations and listings

    A large number of companies pay for premium business listings and citations.

    Insurance companies, for example, pay a significant premium to be featured on aggregator cost comparison sites. Without this exposure, they lose out on business to their competitors.

    Google approves listings on quality, official directories. But when online businesses become greedy and believe that quantity is more important than quality, this can become grey hat.

    Affiliate marketing

    Affiliate marketing isn’t considered grey-hat SEO. However, it can quickly become grey hat when deceptive techniques are used to gain an unfair advantage.

    What Is Affiliate Marketing?

    This type of marketing involves individuals or businesses earning a commission by promoting a product or service or referring customers to a website. This is a mutually beneficial relationship for both affiliates and the brands they promote.

    Having an affiliate or brand ambassador program can be a valuable tool in motivating third-party bloggers and influencers to promote your brand.

    Wrapping up on Grey Hat SEO

    It’s worth noting that any SEO technique can become grey hat. Grey hat is less about the technique and more about the objectives and intentions behind it.

    Grey hat techniques are those that don’t necessarily break a search engine’s rules, but they aren’t strictly abiding by them, either.

    Our advice is to practice extreme caution when using grey hat SEO techniques. They can quickly become black hat the next time Google releases a new version of their guidelines. Once you’re on Google’s bad side, it’s hard to bounce back.

    Additionally, these tactics aren’t always sustainable and often don’t have long-term benefits, which should be your ultimate goal as an SEO pro.

    At LinkBuilder, we only focus on providing our clients with white-hat search engine optimization and link building. We believe it’s not worth risking your reputation to temporarily earn a higher spot in search engine rankings.

    The techniques we use never become grey hat because we pride ourselves on closely adhering to search engine rules, which we regularly review as each update is rolled out.

    If you’d like to learn more about our white hat link-building strategies and how we avoid grey hat practices altogether, visit our website.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    What is grey hat SEO?

    Grey hat SEO techniques are those that fall somewhere in between white and black hat tactics. They are not white hat because the intention behind them isn’t exactly legitimate. However, they are not black hat either because they’re not directly aimed at manipulating search engines.

    What is the difference between black hat SEO and grey hat SEO?

    A black hat SEO technique is specifically aimed at manipulating and deceiving search engines to improve a website’s rankings and organic traffic artificially.

    A grey hat technique differs from the above because the intention isn’t to mislead search engines, but it also isn’t a completely innocent attempt at search engine optimization.

    What is an example of gray hat SEO?

    An example of grey hat SEO would be link buying or acquiring links through questionable means.

    While buying links outright is generally considered black hat SEO, there are times when the practice is more nuanced and falls into a grey area.

    If you approach a webmaster of a relevant and reputable website in your niche and offer to sponsor a piece of valuable content in exchange for a backlink, this link is not being purchased to manipulate rankings explicitly but is rather part of a genuine partnership.