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This year has been a turbulent one for SEO. Many updates, both announced and unannounced, have hit website owners in a short amount of time. You may be asking: What works, now? What’s the safest way to invest your marketing dollar for both short-term and long-term growth?
The answer is the last one some people would have expected a few years ago: white hat SEO. In this article, you’re going to learn what white hat means in the modern age, what makes it important, and the 9 most important white hat techniques that are going to matter now and in the future.
- 1 What Exactly is White Hat SEO?
- 2 What Makes it Important?
- 3 9 White hat SEO Techniques that actually Make a Difference
- 3.1 1. Prioritize Quality Content
- 3.2 2. Satisfy The User Intent
- 3.3 3. Focusing on Mobile First
- 3.4 4. Claim Your Local Business Listing (GMB)
- 3.5 5. Make User Experience (UX) a Priority
- 3.6 6. Excellent Keyword Research
- 3.7 7. Focus on Content Marketing
- 3.8 8. Utilize Schema Markup
- 3.9 9. Quality Link Building
- 4 Stay Future-Proof with White Hat SEO
- 5 FAQ
What Exactly is White Hat SEO?
White hat SEO is a term that covers all the techniques that operate in good faith with the rules and expectations of search engines and their users. If you’re not trying to trick, undermine or outsmart the search engine’s ranking algorithm, what you’re doing is probably white hat.
This hasn’t always been the preferred way to do things. In the early, wilder days of search engine optimization and affiliate marketing, many entrepreneurs collected their first big payouts from underhanded tactics like keyword stuffing, invisible copy and link spamming.
So, what’s changed? Why has white hat become so important? There are a few answers.
What Makes it Important?
While risky, black hat once promised reliable growth, if you knew what tactics to use. White hat was frustratingly slow to get working and depended on standards that Google was very secretive about.
However, recently, white hat has become more promising than black hat SEO because of a wave of new technology, search standards, and transparency.
It’s not just that white hat is less risky in the first place. Black hat SEO doesn’t promise the rewards that it once did, and there are several reasons why.
Search engines are getting better at catching black hat loopholes
Much of the analysis that Google uses to evaluate its search engine is now automated.
If you utilize a loophole that violates terms of service, Google’s internal tools can indeed flag your page for inspection within days. For example, the Google search engine can now easily detect software-generated spun content—once a favorite tool of black hats.
Even SEOs who are determined to use black hat techniques have to be careful to keep their growth modest and slow enough to avoid detection. You have to ask, what’s the point if white hat strategies move at about the same speed?
Online audiences are far more savvy and discerning
Many black hat tactics of the past relied on searchers being comfortable with slapdash sites and sketchy content. Increasingly, they aren’t. If low quality doesn’t cause them to navigate away immediately, their browser might drop its own warnings that something is off.
Black hat SEO takes far more quality control these days. Once again, if you’re already taking the time to build a quality site and passable content, why bother with the risks of getting hit with a penalty?
Google is far more transparent about what works
Google used to have a far more tense relationship with SEOs. They were secretive about what worked, what changed with each update to the search algorithm and why websites were penalized.
Now, Google’s standards are regularly discussed, revealed and published. Key team members make themselves available for public questions and a greater effort is made to shield SEOs who operate in good faith from being penalized at a later date for permitted practices.
There are many good reasons to adopt a white hat search engine optimization strategy, but that doesn’t mean that simply following the rules is all it takes. There are some tips and techniques that are simply more effective.
Here are the 9 strategies that are going to make the biggest difference in 2019.
9 White hat SEO Techniques that actually Make a Difference
It’s important to understand not only what tactics work, but how to pull them off so that they make the biggest difference for you. What follows is everything my team and I have learned about what works best, and how to do it right.
1. Prioritize Quality Content
Content was king, now it’s whatever outranks a king—Emperor, perhaps? In any case, the content on your website is one of the most significant ranking factors, and many see it trending toward becoming even more important in the future.
It’s not as simple as just writing “good” content though. Google’s search engine evaluates your content based on a range of different signals that include…
- Keyword distribution
- Links (and their anchors)
The right way to write content is to make sure that it is appropriately long, relevant, and well-sourced. You should be planning ahead whenever you create a piece of content to make sure that you have enough information to fill 2000-4000 words with valuable information.
You want it to be interesting and authoritative enough to draw links from others. This will be an important part of a technique we’re discussing a little later on.
A quality piece of content can be an engine for the growth of a page, multiple pages, or an entire website. However, even the best content needs between 3-5 months to mature.
It should go without saying that your content needs to satisfy your user’s intent. As the next item will reveal, that’s something you need to focus on no matter what technique you’re using.
2. Satisfy The User Intent
Google has long been obsessed with delivering results that more accurately matched the motivations of searchers, a mission that has been called “user intent”.
Every update has been about building up the number and accuracy of the signals that go into guessing user intent. Now, there are thousands of such signals and they don’t need much input to assign your site a place in the online world.
Everything you do, from your content to your site layout and images should be based around matching the intent of the users who are navigating to your site via an online search.
There are several ways to accomplish this. First, consider where your site belongs in the buying process. Are your users looking to be informed? To be convinced of something they already want? To make a purchase right now?
The answer should guide how you develop your website. If the answer is information, then most of your information should focus on that. If they want to buy, the product should be front-and-center in their vision when they land.
It’s now easily possible to analyze the user’s expectations. You can use TF*IDF tools to determine—with a very high degree of accuracy—what topics users expect to be covered in each niche, and what kind of prominence each topic should have.
Of course, not all of the best tips are dependent on timeless criteria like content and user intent. Some search ranking signals have changed a lot in the past few years, including the importance of mobile.
3. Focusing on Mobile First
If you haven’t updated your process to focus on mobile quality first, you’re falling behind. Google first started emphasizing mobile results in 2016, when they announced a mobile-friendly label designed to guide searchers toward content that could be easily read on a phone screen.
A year later, they warned that…
“Starting today, pages where content is not easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search results may not rank as high.”
This warning came with new guidelines about appropriate content (image examples are provided in the previous link), ads and email optin pop-ups. Content that is designed without consideration for mobile users may suffer overall, not just from mobile users.
Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to make a mobile-friendly site. Google has released its own mobile-friendly test app where you can check to make sure that your website isn’t penalized, and figure out where you need to make changes.
In addition to focusing on mobile users, there’s another audience that needs specific attention. The increasing importance of local intent has made it vital that you secure your Google My Business listing.
4. Claim Your Local Business Listing (GMB)
Delivering locally relevant SERPs is just one more way that Google is trying to match user intent. Naturally, users who are looking for home services, restaurants or some outdoor fun don’t want to see results that are hundreds of miles away.
That may be a lot more searches than you’d think. Recent research has shown that 82% of smartphone shoppers conducted “near me” searches.
Prioritizing local searchers is a major opportunity for most web pages and businesses because it gives them the chance to be the biggest fish in a much smaller pond. The best way to take advantage of these searches is to claim the GMB page for your company.
GMBs, when claimed, appear in a special box above other Google search results called the Map Pack. Searchers are shown the physical location of all relevant businesses and have access to a profile that includes address, phone number, reviews, prices and more.
Claiming your GMB is as easy as applying for it and completing the confirmation steps.
A special entry point for local searchers is a great way to improve the user experience, but you can accomplish far more with a wider view of what that means.
5. Make User Experience (UX) a Priority
Meeting demands for better UX is one of the ways that white hat tactics have pulled so far ahead of black hat tactics in recent years. Google now has a massive range of signals that allow them to identify (and punish) bad experiences.
Even in the past, signals like bounce rates helped them identify when a site was delivering a bad experience. Even without analysis, I’m sure you can agree that a user’s needs aren’t being met if they immediately leave a site.
Building for UX was harder in the past because it encompasses every part of the website. However, part of Google’s growing movement toward transparency included publishing a massive UX guide that covers dozens of different standards.
Making UX a priority is as easy as implementing these guidelines as you continue to build out your website.
The meaning of great UX hasn’t changed much since the earliest days of search engines, but the next strategy is one that has had a much rockier history. Keywords have been the main battleground between black hats and search engines.
6. Excellent Keyword Research
If you asked an SEO in 2009, and one this year about what it meant to properly use keywords, you would get some very different answers. Keywords were once the main tool for manipulating early algorithms, and that has led to many significant changes over the years.
The old way of using keywords—picking a collection and then planting them wherever possible—is officially dead. Google doesn’t respond to simple keywords anymore.
Instead, it considers an entire constellation of signals around certain terms to determine if they are being used appropriately, authentically and with consideration for the needs of the user.
“Keywords” doesn’t refer to single terms anymore, but instead the whole body of terms that are used in a niche, including longer phrases that point to intent and the context in which they are used.
The way to properly use keywords is to use them all, use them naturally, and make sure that they fit the topic in which they are being introduced.
Once again, TF*IDF is one of the best ways to generate the full list of terms that are being used by top-performing websites. Larger-scale analyzing tools like AHREFS look at how keywords are used and helps you track their effectiveness in certain niches and over time.
In modern SEO, keyword research is still important, but it takes time, tools and a light hand. It needs to be part of a larger strategy, like our next item.
7. Focus on Content Marketing
Content marketing is another of the most significant ranking factors. Think of it like the way that you grant authority, prestige and greater lifespan to your quality content.
As a white hat technique, it involves the ways you get high-quality pieces in front of the right people. This can be accomplished by sharing via social media, having the pages linked to, published on more prestigious sites or delivered directly with mailing lists.
There is a right way to do all of this, and it’s by focusing on finding the right audience. Start with great content, have a repeatable process for promoting it on your own social media accounts, and be kind and helpful to the people who want to promote it to their own audiences.
Focus on creating content about topics you understand so that you can establish yourself as an authority. Build relationships with the people who promote your content so you don’t end up just pestering strangers when your content needs a little help. Reciprocate when they ask for help.
Good content marketing is all about relationships, and when done authentically, that can take a long time. Fortunately, the next technique moves a lot faster.
8. Utilize Schema Markup
Google has a powerful algorithm that relies on many signals, but it’s not magic. Like any piece of code, it can have trouble understanding the context of certain information or sometimes, what it’s even looking at.
Schema markup is a way of structuring the data on your website so that Google gets additional clues into what information is being presented and why. This goes well beyond simple meta tags and title tags.
For example, you can tell Google that you’re serving up a post detailing a recipe, or a video, or a certain type of data.
You can use schema meta properties to let Google know which Facebook and Twitter profile is associated with your business.
The list goes on.
Structured data gives you a simple, easily-implemented advantage over anyone who isn’t using it. Google encourages its use and has published a comprehensive guide about how and when it should be used.
Schema has become even more important as Google has expanded the use of rich snippets. Using schema gives you a much greater chance of having your content chosen for rich results in certain categories.
The final technique, link building, is quickly taking its place among the most important out there.
9. Quality Link Building
Link building is one of the most fragile processes in the white hat SEO toolbox. Links are vitally important, in that a site with none of them is going to limp rather than dash to the top of rankings. However, it can be easy to overdo it.
Link building itself can be done in a black hat manner. What makes a link-building strategy “white hat” is a dedication to getting quality links for real websites that are relevant to your own. Most links are going to come from the content or other resources that you create for other sites or their audiences.
Naturally, this is no simple task. You are going to need to do a lot of email outreach to partners that you choose very carefully. You are going to have to make a lot of pitches, and carefully manage the velocity at which you accept and acquire new backlinks.
Fortunately, this isn’t too difficult with the right understanding. It’s not hard to build a great team of writers to handle your email outreach. Neither is it a nightmare to carefully choose and then profit from high-quality links.
Staying on the white hat side of things is just a matter of being discerning, and caring about what your audience shares with the audience of the people you link to.
Stay Future-Proof with White Hat SEO
The great thing about going White Hat is how future-proof it is. Most black hat tactics get caught eventually, even when Google doesn’t understand exactly how they work. They can catch black hat SEO just based on results that don’t make sense, and from there, they just have to work backward.
By focusing on quality and user experience, you can feel sure that your work isn’t going to be undone by a later update. Quality content, keywords, links and site design come together (like I discussed in this SEO crash course) with best standards like GMB, Schema markup, and mobile-first principles to create lasting, reliable growth.
If you’re looking for an solid agency with a white hat approach, I can strongly recommend working with The Search Initiative.
Full disclosure, this is my agency, but it’s the only agency that I can get behind to guarantee a pure, yet effective, white hat strategy.
Get in touch for a free audit…
How many types of SEO are there?
It depends on the context.
If you’re talking about the categorization of tasks, these are typically broken down into onsite, offsite, and technical SEO.
If you’re talking about risk approaches, then white, grey, and black hat SEO.
What is the difference between white hat SEO and black hat SEO?
With white hat SEO you’re following Google’s terms of service, producing quality content which gathers links on its own merit.
With black hat SEO you’re manipulating search results by using techniques and software to create your own backlinks.
What are the black hat SEO techniques?
Typical black hat strategies include keyword stuffing, cloaking, automated link building, hacking websites, etc.
What is GREY hat SEO?
Grey hat involves using a strategy called Private Blog Networks (PBN) where you repurpose expired/aged domains to use as link assets.
Is SEO Dead?
Definitely not. According to a recent study, the SEO industry is worth $80B and grows year on year.
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