In Western films, the outlaws traditionally wear black hats and the law-abiding sheriffs wear white hats. The world of search engine optimization (SEO) borrows this imagery: “black hat” refers to SEO practices that circumvent search engine guidelines, while “white hat” refers to those that abide by the rules. Learn how to follow white hat SEO best practices and be the hero the internet needs.
What is white hat SEO?
White hat SEO refers to following publicly available guidelines that search engines provide to make websites more helpful. Although search engines' specific guidance can change over time, white hat SEO generally follows a consistent principle: SEO work should make websites more helpful to users and search engine crawlers. SEO strategists know that using white hat SEO will land your website at the top of a search engine results page (SERP) by making content accessible and relevant.
White hat vs. black hat SEO
White hat SEO is often defined in contrast to black hat SEO. Here’s how they differ:
- Black hat SEO. Black hat SEO is any activity that circumvents search engines’ policies, aims to trick search engine algorithms, or harms the user experience. Examples of black hat SEO tactics include purchasing links to your site from fake blog posts (which don’t have a readership or provide useful information), hiding keywords in white text on a white-background section of a page, or redirecting a page that is ranking on SERPs to a page with entirely different subject matter. Black hat SEO can result in a stiff penalty to your rankings that most websites never recover from.
- White hat SEO. By contrast, search engines encourage and reward the implementation of white hat SEO tactics. White hat SEO practices include creating helpful content, earning high-quality backlinks, and optimizing your web pages for mobile.
5 key white hat SEO techniques
- Publishing high-quality valuable content
- Including relevant keywords
- Earning backlinks
- Optimizing for user experience
- Configuring crawler settings
The following white hat SEO methods are all acceptable ways to improve your site’s ranking in organic search results:
1. Publishing high-quality valuable content
Regularly publishing updated high-quality content is an effective white hat SEO practice. Whether it’s a blog post, article, or landing page, each new page you create gives you the opportunity to rank for a new keyword. Google and other search engines consider any page unique, truthful, and helpful to be valuable content.
As you develop your content marketing strategy, create content your target audience wants. Avoid highly repetitive content, and don’t plagiarize. Your content should be original and in demand.
2. Including relevant keywords
Optimizing your site to include keywords related to common search terms is a generally accepted SEO practice. White hat keyword optimization practices include:
- Performing keyword research. Use a keyword research tool such as Google’s Keyword Planner or Moz to identify target keywords related to your content.
- Including keywords in title tags. To indicate to search algorithms your content is relevant to common search terms, add keywords to your title tags. This is a relatively intuitive practice: If you’re writing a blog post about the best mineral sunscreens, include the keyword “mineral sunscreen” in your title. To avoid being perceived as black hat, ensure your page titles are unique, specific, and don’t repeat keywords unnecessarily.
- Writing meta descriptions that include relevant keywords. Use your meta description to accurately summarize your page’s content. This is a great opportunity to use secondary keywords related to your primary keyword.
- Using keywords in headings. Headings are also a great place to use your primary keyword as well as related long-tail keywords (phrases composed of a few words).
3. Earning backlinks
Backlinks are links to your website from other websites. Search engines effectively consider this an endorsement: If your website receives a link from another reputable website, it’s an indication the other website trusts your content enough to share it with its readers.
Backlinks are commonly associated with black hat SEO, as they are often abused (for instance, paying sites to link back to yours is considered black hat). However, proper backlinking is a key part of a white hat SEO strategy. White hat SEO strategies to earn backlinks include:
- Excellent content. The best way to earn white hat backlinks is to create great content your readers naturally want to link to in their own content.
- Broken link building. This involves finding broken links on other websites, creating content that could replace the broken link, and then suggesting to the website owner they replace their broken link with a link to your new content.
- Testimonials. Writing a testimonial for a product or service you’ve used and can recommend can result in a link back to your site.
SEO Specialist at Shopify Antonio Santarsiero encourages ecommerce websites to implement a strategic plan for backlinks. “Your best bet is to secure backlinks from reputable websites relevant to your product or industry. For example, if you sell athletic shoes, a backlink from a well-known runner’s blog will likely boost your Google ‘credibility score’ far more than a backlink from a pet food blog. When you adopt this perspective, you'll realize many online backlink opportunities can emerge from real-world, offline collaborations.”
4. Optimizing for user experience
Search engines want the websites they show to load fast and be easy to use on all devices. Improving your website’s mobile or tablet experience—either through its speed or layout—is one of the safest white hat SEO techniques. Google provides diagnostic tools, such as its PageSpeed Insights and Mobile-Friendly Test, to help you improve the experience.
5. Configuring crawler settings
By default, search engine crawlers will attempt to crawl every page on your website. There are times in which, absent other context, this can lead to issues. For example, if your site has a version of a page that lists products in Canadian dollars for Canadians and another version lists them in US dollars for Americans, the content may be very similar, which Google could perceive as duplicate content.
Search engines provide several white-hat tools to tell crawlers where to look. To solve the problem mentioned above, use hreflang tags, which specify localized versions of pages. Additional tools you can use to guide crawlers include your sitemap (list of relevant pages), robots.txt file (sitewide rules for what to crawl), and index/noindex meta tags (page-specific rules for what to crawl).
By following white hat SEO practices, you can improve your site's ranking in organic search results and build a sustainable SEO strategy. Your visibility on the SERP will help you get in front of the audiences looking for your products and services. And, if you’re only able to implement one strategy?
Head of Technical SEO & SEO Product Management at Shopify Paul Shapiro suggests ecommerce entrepreneurs focus on their backlinks strategy, “The importance of creating the right content for earning backlinks cannot be overstated. Your goal is to create something others will find valuable and worth referencing, whether that means providing original data, a unique viewpoint, or a perspective that aligns with a distinct persona or article topic.”
White hat SEO FAQ
Is white hat SEO effective?
Yes, white hat SEO is the industry-accepted best practice for long-term SEO success. It involves optimizing your website to align with the guidelines and expectations of search engines—primarily Google. White hat SEO avoids damaging the user experience and helps you steer clear of penalties from search engines.
What is gray hat SEO?
Gray hat SEO refers to practices not clearly white hat or black hat. This happens when a search engine’s policies on a specific practice are vague, or the impact of the practice is open to interpretation. For example, writing sensationalist title tags that encourage people to click is not explicitly against the guidelines, but if the content doesn’t align with the user’s intent, it ruins the user experience.
What is a good first step toward implementing white hat SEO for my website?
The best first step in a white hat SEO strategy is to audit your website through the lens of Google’s SEO Starter Guide. This will help you understand if you have any black hat practices in place that need to change, and it will also show you how you can improve your SEO in a way that benefits your site and your audience. You can also use this complete SEO checklist to hone your SEO techniques.
Is white hat SEO legal?
Yes, both white hat and black hat SEO strategies are legal because they have to do with search engine policies, not laws. Black hat SEO techniques circumvent Google’s policies, not laws, while white hat SEO strategies are recommended.