Link building (getting other websites to link to yours) remains an important part of SEO as well as a way to get more referral traffic from other websites. The reason that links are important is because Google believes that the number and quality of links pointing to a website can be used to determine the quality and authority of that website and therefore the position it deserves to rank in the search results. This only works if links are being given for “honest” reasons (white hat links) but the high value of ranking in Google has encouraged a large industry of links given for “dishonest” reasons (‘black hat,’ or ‘manipulative’ links).
There’s no official definition of ‘white hat’ and ‘black hat’ and Google has instead gone for providing vague guidelines which are occasionally clarified by their representatives and also change over time. The general gist of ‘white hat’ is obvious; these are links that are given “naturally” and not coerced in some way, however, a “general gist” really isn’t good enough when you’re operating a small business that lives or dies by your rankings and your competitors aren’t standing still. Naturally, some businesses try to push the envelope and see if they can get a better return on their marketing dollars and because Google’s response is not at all transparent or even handed it makes it difficult to determine what exactly is the right strategy to take.
This has lead to many webmasters and those in the SEO industry reading between the lines and defining ‘white hat’ and ‘black hat’ for themselves. These definitions also change over time as Google releases new information. The two approaches that we suggest using to determine whether a link is white hat or not are;
- Ask; “are the links being given after being scrutinised by a relatively unbiased editorial process?” If they are, then you can say the links are white hat.
- Ask; “would you be happy to explain exactly what you’re doing to a member of Google web spam team?” If not, there’s a good chance its a black hat technique producing black hat links.
Google is continually trying to stamp out manipulative link building practices and have various tools at their disposal including the ability to give penalties to sites that break the rules which introduces a risk factor. However, purely white hat link building is very expensive and often slow so you should consider all of the elements when choosing what sort of link building strategy you’re going to use.
Many shonky SEO companies and consultants claim to be using white hat linking techniques but, in reality, few of them are. An ethical SEO provider (such as Wicked Cow Marketing) should always explain the techniques they are using and any associated risks so make sure you take an interest and ask.
In the past we’ve advocated a purely white hat link building strategy, however, we now believe that this strategy is too expensive for most small businesses so we focus on an affordable, low risk technique which can still produce good results. Read more about our link building strategy here.