Fifty Shades of Grey Hat: The SEO Experts Weigh In

Grey Hat SEO encompasses a vast, heterogeneous, and rapidly-evolving body of “below the radar” optimization methods. Because there’s no fine line distinguishing these methods from the “Black Hat” tactics expressly prohibited by search engines, Grey Hat SEO exposes the marketers employing it to an unknown quantum of risk. To examine some Grey Hat tactics that are popular today – and to get a better idea of the trade-offs often made between risk and possible reward – I reached out to some SEO experts for comment, none of whose comments should be interpreted as endorsements.

Guest Blogging: Undeterred by the MyBlogGuest smack down

Of the 17 SEO experts I contacted, about one-third mentioned guest blogging as the riskiest, most popular Grey Hat tactic in use today. This finding is notable, given that Google’s very public penalization of MyBlogGuest, a popular guest blog network, happened more than 18 months ago. What appears to be keeping this tactic alive and healthy is that it remains relatively safe if done “on the down low.” As Saatchi & Saatchi’s Anthony DeGuzman notes, “it can be either a White Hat or Black Hat tactic, depending on how it’s done. For example, guest blogging a relevant topic, on an authoritative site, with generic anchor text is definitely walking the low-risk profile.”

Content Spinning Steams Ahead

Several experts mentioned article spinning as a Grey Hat tactic with admirable staying power in 2015, despite the fact that search engines expressly prohibit content generated through purely automated means. According to James Rice of WikiJob, “there are two principal risks here: first, how do you know where the search engines draw the line? Answer: you don’t. Second, you’re also inviting legal participation if you basically copy someone else’s article, make small changes, and present it as your own work. That’s plagiarism.” Given that one person’s “spun” article is another person’s “rephrased and improved” article, it’s likely that content spinning will remain a subjective – and hard-to-police – Grey Hat tactic for the foreseeable future.

The Case of the Phony Buying Guide

Oscar Oliva of MWI points out a new Grey Hat tactic emerging in the wild: creating ersatz independent buying guides that are basically clones of an e-commerce vendor’s product catalog. Over time, he says, “those guides will outrank your product on broad keywords, making it possible to eventually – and covertly – pass link value to the original product category or product via a canonical rel or 301 redirect.” Oliva notes that this tactic, while undeniably shady, is also pretty smart, given peoples’ demonstrated penchant for linking to supposedly neutral product guides.

Sketchy Sponsorships

A disruptively innovative Grey Hat gambit comes from Inseev Interactive’s Brett Bastello: “One risky Grey Hat link-building technique is purchasing links, or more specifically, becoming an event or organizational sponsor for the sole purpose of building back links. Sponsorship opportunities were around long before SEO and link building, and therefore occur naturally. Given this, sponsorships cannot be targeted by the search engines in the same sense that say, directory submissions, can be.”

Duplicate Content

Under certain conditions, duplicate content may have a legitimate, low-risk place in the information ecosystem, as noted by Alexander Ruggie, of 911Restoration. “If a company legitimately has services to offer in multiple locations, having multiple websites, then providing the same information is a solid tactic,” he says. “That being said, there is a huge difference between [providing] the same information and an exact word for word copy of that information [on multiple sites.] That is bad.”

Appraising Grey Hat Risks and Rewards for Clients

The SEO experts I communicated with generally agreed that SEOs need to be brutally honest about the risk that any tactic deemed Grey could be outlawed tomorrow, causing extreme pain – and possible implosion of a client’s entire online business. Because the “Grey” classification encompasses such a wide variety of tactics – each of which carries a uniquely distinct, but unquantifiable – degree of risk, it’s prudent to lay out the risks and rewards in a direct manner, and document any decisions made. Mauricio Prinzlau of Cloudwards.net finds it useful to present clients with a risk/reward matrix so that clients can decide for themselves how aggressive they want to be, and both parties can sign off on tactics before work begins.

When clients tell me that their competition is getting away with Black or Grey Hat SEO and suggest we follow suit, I often make the analogy of racing your friends down an interstate. The fastest car does win the race, unless he or she gets pulled over, in which case, not only does that entrant lose the race, but possibly suffer permanent repercussions. The faster you speed down the highway, the greater your odds of winning – and getting a speeding ticket or license revocation. Want to do black or grey hat SEO because your competition is? How lucky do you feel? What’s your risk tolerance?

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