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The fuzzy boundary between Grey and Black Hat SEO

Episode Overview

Grey Hat SEO is an ill defined practice as much as it is a danger zone for marketers. Join Jordan and Ben to understand the boundaries and risks of operating in the Grey zone.

Topics covered include:

  • The risk of Grey Hat techniques and the inevitability that they will slide into black
  • Grey Hat back linking strategies and the importance of intent
  • Google’s ability to measure link intent


Episode Transcript

Ben:                 Welcome to Gray Hat Month on The Voices of Search Podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro and this month we’re talking to great SEOs to learn what separates a best practice from a bad practice at search. Joining us today is Jordan Koene who is the lead SEO strategist and the CEO of Searchmetrics. Today Jordan and I are going to talk about what we consider to be gray hat SEO practices.

But before we hear from Jordan, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data driven decisions. And to support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complimentary consultation where a member of our digital strategies group will provide you the consultation that reviews how your website, content, and SEO strategies can all be optimized. To schedule your free consultation go to

Okay. On with the show. Here’s my interview with Jordan Koene, lead SEO strategist and CEO of Searchmetrics Inc.

Jordan. Welcome back to Gray Hat Month on The Voices of Search Podcast.

Jordan:             Hey Ben, we’re tiptoeing into the gray zone.

Ben:                 We’ve talked about something that isn’t shady. We’ve talked about something that is shady. And now we’re talking about something that might be shady. Important level of nuance.

Jordan:             Is that the slim shady?

Ben:                 It’s different. It’s like that, but it’s different.

Jordan:             Fair enough.

Ben:                 Wow.

So look, let’s talk about what Gray Hat SEO is. We talked about White and Black Hat SEO. What’s good, what’s bad? Gray Hat SEO is a practice that’s ill defined. It’s not necessarily something that you should be doing, but it’s not necessarily something that is expressly against the rules. And it’s really just the area in between. How do you figure out if your SEO strategies are not actually on the up and up and could potentially get you in trouble?

Jordan:             Yeah, I mean this is a topic that covers a big area of uncertainty for SEOs. And the way you positioned it there, Ben, is actually quite interesting because it’s somewhat challenging to look at it purely from a policy standpoint. Am I following Google’s guideline? Yes. Or am I not following Google’s guideline? And it’s not that simple because the gray hat area, in many cases it is a challenge because it’s not about policy itself, it’s about its application in the real world.

Ben:                 Everything is gray hat until proven otherwise.

Jordan:             Pretty much. Exactly.

Ben:                 Right. Well, I mean let’s go back to the example that I had about the poor digital marketer who got his site basically abolished because of the bad implementation. I was trying to put up a subscription paywall and I didn’t do a good jobf implementing it. The next thing you know, my traffic went from hundreds of thousands of visitors per month to bubkis.

Jordan:             Right.

Ben:                 And it’s because of the implementation. So how do you determine, you know, what strategies you have are approved by Google, and what, you know when you think you’re doing something right how do you avoid finding out that it’s wrong without massive repercussions?

Jordan:             Yeah, I mean the biggest zone of gray that I like to highlight is scenarios in which webmasters and businesses are breaking a Google policy, doing so willingly. But by and large the industry or the market has permitted this activity. So, I’ll give you an example. I used to use this example all the time back in the day, I call it the Flower SEO Optimization. And what I mean by that is that most of the flower companies out there, the big national flower-

Ben:                 Yeah, the type vendors.

Jordan:             Bingo. They use a significant amount of below the fold text that is stuffed with keywords. It’s typically a very delicate shade of color, very similar to the background. And it is full of internal links for key holidays. And the funny thing is is that every flower company does this. It’s not just one of them. It is every major national flower retailer. And this is definitely against a variety of Google policies, not just one but like seven. And the flower industry just seems to get away with it. In fact like if you didn’t do this and you were a flower website, you probably won’t rank.

This is what I mean by the implementation of these policies in the real world have adaptations and they have unique outcomes that impact businesses in various ways. And at any time, the problem with this bucket of gray, at any time, if Google did want to lay the hammer down, it would penalize an entire industry or an entire set of sites.

Ben:                 So, let’s go through some of the categories that we defined as black hat activities and talk about where we think the line is. One of the first things that you mentioned was back [inaudible 00:05:49]. You can’t buy backwards, so you can’t go and be on a blog network, right? You can’t go and just pay for all of these links directly.

I’ll say personally like I run another podcast. We have podcast sponsors. People pay us to create content for them and we create links for them. Is that a black hat strategy for SEO? Or is it a partnership with a paid, you know, relationship? To me that falls very much in the gray hat bucket. Tell me what you think about gray hat back linking strengths.

Jordan:             Yeah. Rehab back-linking strategies is specifically focused on the intention. If the intention is to manipulate, if the intention is to create an artificial partnership or an artificial relationship, this is where Google becomes extremely … Puts extreme scrutiny on these situations. So yeah, if it becomes public that this partnership has some sort of fallacy to it this is when Google comes down on those businesses. And this has happened, there’s been a variety of use cases where there’s been an exposure because this email that states that, you know, we should trade these links or this letter that states that, you know, the two entities that are involved should exchange links is exposed and then Google comes down with a penalty because of the exposure.

Ben:                 It all sounds logical where if Google makes a decision that, you know, you are buying links and that you’re doing it just to manipulate search results then they’re going to penalize you. On the flip side, if you have a partnership and you’re paying back and forth, then it’s a trade agreement and you decide that, you know, links are going to be exchanged. How is that different than just out and out buying links? It’s not very clear to me.

Jordan:             It isn’t very different, right. And I think that’s the challenge and that’s why Google looks at two particular buckets when it comes to making these decisions. One of those buckets is intention. What is the intention here? Is the intention genuine and for good standing with the users who are involved? Or are the intentions manipulative and deceptive and in the best interest of one or multiple entities?

The other bucket, so the first one intention here. The other bucket that Google looks at here is the publicity. So what exposure has been garnered because of these activities or these behaviors, and has the backlash or the community response to these things and negative or deemed as negative. And so Google looks at both of these things and I tell SEOs all the time that you have to be very careful about how you expose and communicate your strategies and your practices to the public. It is a very dangerous thing to create exposure about a practice that can be deemed or qualified as gray hat.

Ben:                 Google, if you’re listening, I don’t exchange links with my partnerships. Anyway. Moving on.

Jordan:             Now you’re walking back.

Ben:                 Like Michael Jackson, doing the moon walk.

Jordan:             Exactly.

Ben:                 Let’s talk about one of the other categories that we outlined in our black hat SEO episode. Keyword stuffing. When you’re flooding Google’s index with things like search results, or when you’re taking someone else’s content, obviously against the rules, but on the flip side name an eCommerce company that doesn’t have search results pages listed in Google’s index.

Jordan:             Yeah, I mean there’s a couple of things to unpack here, right? There’s the concept of keyword stuffing, like in the flower examples. I mean, just look at profiles. Look at 1-800-FLOWERS, look at Teleflower. I mean, all of these companies are literally taking the footer of their website and just stuffing it with links and keywords to propagate certain parts of their website. Not a practice that’s condoned by Google, but for whatever reason the flower industry gets away with this. And I’m not here to chastise the flower industry. This has been going on for decades. This is a known tactic within this category.

And keyword stuffing does still exist. It is a practice that is used frequently and it is an unfortunate challenge because Google can’t just easily disseminate their policy against one or all the websites. Especially if there isn’t a public event where this is becoming criticized. So, keyword stuffing is one aspect of your question.

The other aspect is the search result pages. And in the eCommerce space this is a very common tactic. A lot of eCommerce retailers submit their own internal search result pages to Google’s index. This is also one of the policies that Google has outlined and explicitly states that Google does not want search results in Google’s search results. So we call this here at Searchmetrics, search and search. So you basically go to Google to do a search. You get search results. You click on a link and you end up on another page that has search results. That type of experience is something that Google does not want for their users and they’ve made it very clear that they don’t want this for their users.

But if you look at almost every eCommerce player out there, they all are submitting search result pages to Google. And there’s a limit to that. That limit is somewhat ambiguous. And the reality is that because it’s already against Google’s policies, webmasters have had a very hard time understanding how to deal with this threshold. And it’s a very hard challenge for Google to set up policy against this because there is no hard, fast rule in terms of how many search result pages you can submit and whether or not they’re a good quality.

Ben:                 So why does Google just D index search results page when they realize it’s a SERP, why don’t they just not show it instead of penalize people for it?

Jordan:             This has happened to a variety of companies, including our former employer, eBay. It has happened to lots of eCommerce websites where search result pages have been penalized. I mean the most recent example of this is some challenges with Wayfair and other retailers who have been aggressively increasing the number of search result pages to Google and thus harming their own performance.

Ben:                 Interesting. I think that there’s a lot of, for lack of a better term, gray area to interpret what the rules are. This is very much like speeding, right? You could probably say, look, if I’m driving on the freeway, I could get away with going 10 miles per hour above the speed limit. But in reality if a police officer pulled up behind me and I’m going 75 in a 65 they are very well within their right to pull me over and the ticket is expensive.

I think the other area that we talked about with our black hat SEO is the idea of matching the user expectations. Talk to me about where the line in the sand is or if there is one with, you know, serving up the expectation that a user had. This is where I got in trouble.

Jordan:             This is a great question and I think this is a really good one for our listeners to focus on. Because recently there’s been a very public display of discourse on this topic of user intention, and in particular the concept of cloaking. Because cloaking is one of the most often utilized tactics to deceive user intention, right? You basically tell a user one thing and they end up on the website and there’s a totally different experience. And one of the challenges that’s been going on over the last say half decade is the significant increase and use of JavaScript as well as progressive web apps and other technologies that can lend themselves to a manipulative experience. And recently two companies, and CarGurus have been exchanging this public discourse over the strategies of how you display content on your website. In particular, the challenge here has been for CarGurus, who uses a JavaScript capability to collapse or “Hide” content within their listing pages.

And so let’s say for example, you know, a Honda Fit or let’s take a Ford F150. You have this page, you show a whole bunch of Ford F-150s and on the page you show the actual image of that car, the price, maybe the location, and a few other details. Now what CarGurus has been doing on that page is also embedding all of the text, the description of that vehicle, on that same page. However you as a user cannot see it unless you A, disabled Java script or B, you actually click on this expand feature that they have, which is very, very, very hard to see. So in a way, this may seem like a deceptive practice. But it’s been pretty clearly stated, not only by CarGurus but also by other experts in the field, that this is not cloaking and that this is not a deceptive practice that CarGurus is imposing.

And the debate begins because this is exactly what we’re talking about today in terms of gray hat. You have two companies in a competing space, one claiming that this is a deceptive gray hat practice, another standing ground and saying that this is not a deceptive practice all in the pursuit of higher Google rankings. And I think that that’s the interesting challenge about gray hat in the unique position that SEOs and practitioners of SEOs are placed in when dealing with these gray hats and areas.

Ben:                 So Jordan, I think that there’s a balance here between what are the expressly stated policies which are written in black and white, right. They’re right there on your screen, and then what people are actually doing in a real world environment. What’s the right way to figure out if the tactics that are affective are actually going to end up getting you penalized? How do you determine where to draw the line with being relevant in your competition? Staying up with the speed of traffic or breaking the law?

Jordan:             Yeah. That’s a great question and I think that the best way to look at this is by creating risk management models and allow your business to evaluate how much risk you’re willing to take and how risky these situations are. Gray hat matters are a part of every website in a part of every company’s environment. The challenge for webmasters and for SEOs alike is to measure the potential risk of that and evaluate whether or not you want to, say, adapt new technology, improve that experience or stop a particular behavior or investment.

So the reality is that there’s a variety of different risk management models that can be utilized. The first one is obviously identifying the risk, assessing the risk, and then getting down into the nitty gritty of things. It’s what kind of abilities do you have around controlling the risk and then constantly reviewing it. And I think it’s a full circle, right? The companies who do this well, they’re not just sitting there going, “Oh, that’s risk over there.” They’re actually getting involved in this process, this model, and they’re evaluating it on a consistent basis according to their business and their business needs.

And they can vary, right? Like you may only be in a very small part of your website and it gets a very small amount of traffic in a risky situation. And you might be okay taking that risk and evaluating and testing it. But the most important takeaway for our listeners here is that you have to implement some sort of risk management model in order to be a good steward of the SEO practices that you’re implementing on your site.

Ben:                 I think like with most things in SEO, the real answer is it depends on the market situations, right? You have to test, you have to evaluate and nothing is certain, right? It is a black box when submitting you’re pages to Google to be indexed you don’t know what is going to rank. You don’t know what they are going to deem a bad practice or unacceptable and effective practice. And so the strategy here is to test and learn and pay attention and also network and figure out what’s happening with other people in the SEO community.

Jordan:             Yep, absolutely, Ben. And I think, you know, that last piece there on getting advice from the community and from other experts is one of the most important takeaways. And I think a lot of folks who get in trouble not only in the gray and black space and they do so because they don’t secure that additional advice.

Ben:                 Hopefully they don’t know. But that’s what we are going to help with for the rest of this month by talking to some great SEOs to understand some of the gray hat experiences which maybe turned a little darker and got them in trouble. And also understand how they draw the line in their SEO practices.

So lots to look forward to this month. We’re going to talk to some great SEOs about how they define gray hat SEO and that wraps up this episode of The Voices of Search Podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Jordan Koene, lead SEO strategist and CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. We’d love to continue this conversation with you. So if you’d like to contact Jordan, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You could send them a tweet. His handle is JTKOENE, J-T-K-O-E-N-E.

If you have general marketing questions, or if you’d like to be a guest on our show, you can contact me by the link in our show notes. Or you can send me a tweet at BenJShap, B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P. If you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team.

And if you like this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app and we’ll be back in your feed next week. All right. That’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.


Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene is the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. a wholly owned subsidiary of Searchmetrics. Previously, Jordan was the Head of SEO and Content Development at eBay. During his time at eBay, Jordan focused on utilizing eBay content to improve user experience and natural search traffic.

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