If you’re trying to write content with search engine optimisation (SEO) in mind, then you should be aware that SEO practices fall under two broad categories: ethical SEO and unethical SEO, also known as white hat SEO and black hat SEO (the terms ‘white hat’ and ‘black hat’ come from Western movies, with different coloured hats distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys).
Ethical SEO is what Google recognises as good SEO practices. It involves optimisation strategies, tactics, and techniques that are tailored to a human audience, rather than a search engine. Unethical SEO, on the other hand, refers to a set of practices that are designed to boost a site or page’s rank in search results through methods that violate search engine rules.
Let’s examine some of the important differences between ethical SEO and unethical SEO. As we shall see, writes should really try to avoid unethical SEO at all costs. If you start to engage with these frowned-upon practices, it could end up ruining the potential of your content – or your website itself – to rank well on Google search results.
What is Ethical SEO?
If you’re practising ethical SEO, then this means you’re applying SEO practices that are in line with the terms and conditions of search engines, including Google’s. Writers, website owners, and marketers who use ethical SEO will be able to improve their content’s search rankings on a search engine results page (SERP) while maintaining the integrity of the website that is publishing the content. There are many examples of ethical SEO. I’d like to highlight some of the most important ethical SEO techniques I try to keep in mind when optimising my content:
- Long-form content (in general) ranks better than shorter content. A lot of the highest-ranking articles, which garner significant organic traffic, are 3,000+ words in length.
- It’s better if the keyword(s) you’re targeting are long-tail keywords (long, rather than short). A long-tail keyword would be ‘what-is-capitalism’, which it is easier to rank for than ‘capitalism’, since the competition for the second is much higher. In general, aim for very specific, longer keywords, as there is less competition for these. For instance, ‘what-is-capitalist-ideology’ would be easier to rank for than ‘what-is-capitalism’ since it is much more specific.
- You want to aim for optimal keyword density (proportion of keyword(s) to overall text). Many SEO experts consider the best keyword density to be 1-3%.
- With the keyword you’re targeting, include it in the article title, the meta description (summary of the article you can create in WordPress, which shows up below the article title in Google search results), in the first paragraph of the text, in the higher level subheadings (e.g. the first and second, not the third and fourth), and as a tag.
- For the permalink (URL) you ideally want the keyword to appear at the beginning, not the end.
- Google rewards keyword diversity, which is variations of the keyword you’re targeting, or keywords related to it. Say you were targeting the keyword ‘capitalist ideology’, variations would include ‘capitalism’, ‘capitalist’, ‘capitalist theory’, etc.
- Articles with internal links (links to other content on your site) and external links (links to other websites) rank better than articles without links.
- Google rewards content that includes links it thinks are relevant and have a high authority – this means the link refers to specific content with a high page authority (PA) score and the website publishing the content has a high domain authority (DA) score. Highly authoritative links would include links to articles that rank well for the topic/keyword you’re targeting (e.g. if you’re targeting the keyword ‘capitalist ideology’, it would be better for SEO to link to an article on the first page of Google when you search that keyword, rather than link to an article on the second page).
- When adding a link to a phrase in the text (the anchor text), it’s better for SEO to make the anchor text as descriptive as possible. For example, if you were writing about a study, adding the link to the text ‘study’ would be generic and not help with ranking, but adding the link to what the study is about (e.g. a study ‘shows a link between this and that’) would help with ranking.
- Google rewards content that uses keywords in a natural way. So if you were aiming for 1-3% keyword density, you might hit this target by including the keyword 10 times in the first paragraph. But this would look unnatural and weird. It’s easier to rank well if the keywords are distributed throughout the text. I don’t really think about when or where I’m putting a keyword in a text. I just keep the keyword in the back of my mind when writing, then check after if I’ve used it enough times (or too many times) and where it appears in the text.
- Faster-loading sites rank better than slower-loading sites. My site is mainly slowed down by the number of images that need loading. So the main thing I’ve done to get around this is compressing images (I use Optimizilla). Certain WordPress plugins can also help with site loading time.
- Using keywords in your image details can help with SEO. When you edit an image, there’s a section for image title, description, and alt text: here it’s worth adding the keyword(s) as part of the description of the image.
- Link building, the process of getting other sites to link to yours (known as backlinks), can help a lot with SEO, especially if the site linking to your content or site is reputable and ranks high on search engine results.
- Doing a reverse image search can be useful. This involves searching Google images using an image URL, which you can find by right-clicking on any image and choosing ‘Copy Image Address’. You can also choose ‘Search Google for Image’ after right-clicking, which will also do a reverse image search for you. A reverse image search will show you everywhere that image is being used. This can potentially benefit your SEO because if other sites are using one of your images without crediting you, you can claim a rightful backlink from those sites, and any new backlink you gain – especially if it’s from a highly authoritative site – will improve your SEO.
- The more activity you have from Twitter and Facebook for your content (likes, shares, comments, tweets), the better this is for SEO.
- The more unique the content is, the better.
- The more mobile-friendly a site is, the easier it is to rank well on Google.
- Having an easy-to-navigate site will also boost your SEO performance.
While it is useful to keep each of these SEO practices in mind when writing, ethical SEO also depends on providing high-quality content for readers. This means offering genuinely insightful and useful content to readers. Such content should answer a reader’s questions and help them solve their problems. In this regard, it’s crucial to use SEO keyword research tools (such as Google’s Keyword Planner) so you can find the most relevant keywords that you should optimise your content for.
What is Unethical SEO?
Unethical SEO relates to any SEO practice that a search engine like Google disapproves of. Both Google and Bing have listed in their Webmaster Guidelines the tactics and strategies used by SEO black hat marketers. As a writer or marketer, if you want to know whether an SEO practice is white hat or black hat, you need to honestly answer the following question: “Is this technique going to provide real value for the user or is it just going to make it easier for search engines to see the content?” Any tactic that aims to boost search rankings without helping readers is, generally speaking, unethical SEO.
There is an extensive list of unethical SEO techniques, each of which should be avoided if you want to stay on good terms with Google and other search engines. These practices include:
- Keyword stuffing (overusing keywords). In the early days of SEO, overusing keywords made it easy to rank well, but Google now punishes this, so if you do it, it will harm your SEO.
- Hidden text or links – this involves adding text (with keywords) or links to a page that can be seen by Google but hidden from viewers (e.g. you can do this by using white text on a white background, locating text behind an image, and setting the font size to 0; and you can hide links by adding it to one small character, such as a hyphen, in the text, which a reader probably won’t notice).
- Doorway pages – these can involve multiple domains or pages that all take you to one page. Doorway pages are bad for users, as it leads to a less diversified reading experience.
- Sneaky redirects – these send you to a different URL than the one you initially requested.
- Cloaking – this is the practice of presenting different content or URLs to human users and search engines.
- Article spinning – this is when you vary existing content and create an alternate version of it, so Google can’t technically see it as duplicate content, but it will contain all the same keywords, links, and other aspects that you want to help the content to rank well. These alternate versions don’t provide any new content for readers, the focus is all about trying to rank well.
- Link farms, link wheels, or link networks.
- Creating pages, subdomains, or domains with duplicate content.
How Unethical SEO Can Impact Your Content and Website
Now we come to the most significant topic relating to unethical SEO – how these unethical practices can harm your content and website. First and foremost, it needs to be emphasised that engaging in unethical SEO can result in your site being banned from Google and other search engines. If this happens, it would be catastrophic for your marketing aims.
While you may be able to notice some impressive results in the short-term from unethical SEO, these shady practices can lead to negative results in the long-term. Google’s penalties for black hat SEO are becoming ever more sophisticated. If Google finds out you’re guilty of unethical SEO, this could have truly devastating consequences for your search rankings and, in turn, your traffic.
Any website owner or blogger who is serious about building the presence and reputation of their site should avoid unethical SEO. Unfortunately, many marketers still focus on unethical SEO, which may happen for a variety of reasons: poor guidance, focusing on the short-term rather than the long-term, or lack of knowledge about best SEO practices. Whatever the reason, these marketers will eventually have to pay the consequences. Unethical SEO disrupts the user’s experience and negatively affects the site’s online presence.
If you’re a writer, blogger, or website owner and you’re determined to enhance the long-term success of your website, then it’s vitally important to be aware of current ethical SEO practices. By knowing the differences between white and black hat SEO, you can devise your SEO strategy using only ethical practices and ensure that you avoid unethical tactics at all costs. Ethical SEO is a win-win situation. It guarantees that users benefit from visiting a site or webpage, which, in turn, will help to improve the reputation, credibility, traffic, and success of your website or blog.