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You'd better know the difference

If you've been reading about search engine optimization (SEO) and trying to apply it to your website, you've probably wondered what "white hat SEO" and "black hat SEO" really mean.

White hat SEO refers to tactics employed by website owners, webmasters and SEO professionals that are approved by search engines - especially Google - to get their sites appearing high in search results. The standards are pretty much set by Google because about 70 percent of Web searches worldwide are made on the popular engine.

Black hat SEO is the term used for gaming the system. People who knowingly use black hat techniques understand they could be punished for violating search engines' guidelines by having their pages removed from the engines' indexes. But they're willing to take the risk to make money or accomplish some other goal.
If you're a website owner, and you know you should be trying to make your site more visible on the Web, you've probably noticed ads and emails from SEO "experts" who promise they'll get you into the first page of search results - but don't explain how. It's not always easy to tell what's black hat and what's white hat. This quick guide should help.

What is Black Hat SEO?

Black hat SEO is what you should NOT do:

1) Don't steal content from other sites. It's not uncommon for unethical website owners to take content from other websites and use it on their own sites. Some people even take content, pass it off as their own, and offer it - larded with links to their own sites - to web publishers that solicit articles from outside contributors.

This is a bad practice for a number of reasons. First of all, it's stealing. Secondly, search engines regard sites with content that's duplicated elsewhere on the Web to be of low quality. You could be seen as offering something of little or no worth. Also, the site owners you took content from could report you to Google and other engines. Did we mention that taking other people's content is stealing?

2) Don't pay for links. Plenty of sites on the Web offer to get you lots of inbound links - that is, links from other websites to yours. Why would you want to do this? Because one of the factors search engines consider when deciding how to rank a site is the number - and quality - of other websites linking to it.

Note that I said quality sites. Inbound links from sites that have a good reputation can really help your site rank better for specific searches. That's because search engine algorithms take notice of whether a site linking to yours is authoritative and has content related to your content.

3) Don't create doorway pages. A doorway page is a page that has been created only to funnel traffic to a website. Doorway pages appear in results for specific searches, and when someone clicks on them, rapidly redirect the person to a different website. Some doorway pages have lots of content on them, with links to another site. The content is usually meaningless or duplicated from somewhere else.

Another version of doorway pages is called "cloaking." In this case, the website owner shows one page to search engines and another to site visitors, with the intention of deceiving the search engine.

In all of these cases, the site owner is trying to get traffic in ways that violate search engine guidelines. Sites that engage in these practices risk being penalized by being removed from search engine indexes.

What is White Hat SEO?

Broadly speaking, white hat SEO is a set of best practices for most websites that seek greater visibility on the Web:

1) Create great content. If you've gone to all the trouble of creating a website and trying to get more people to visit it, you probably know a lot about the product or service you're trying to sell. Write about your field, hire and invite other experts to write about it, and offer people the kind of information they may need to make a buying decision.

2) Get good incoming links. Once you've created worthy content, you can find bloggers and other website owners who are influential in your field, and invite them to link to your content. Our article about getting good links offers a number of ideas for earning more of those valuable incoming links - from the right places.

3) Redirect alternative domain names to your site. If you do some good keyword research, you'll probably find there are a few keywords or phrases that people use to find what you're selling. You can purchase domain names that incorporate these terms, and redirect them to your site. This is not the same practice as cloaking. To learn more, read our article on redirecting alternative domains to your site.

Where To Find SEO Guidance

Google's guidelines, available in its Webmaster Central resource center, can help you understand what Google considers the best practices for getting your website into Google's index. You want all your important pages to be in that index so they can be found when people search for something you sell.

Google Webmaster Forum is also a great place to read answers from Google staff to real-life questions about how to best modify your site for good rankings in search results. You can also download a PDF version of Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide.

Though Google gets the most attention from people looking to optimize their websites for search, you should also pay attention to Bing. The Microsoft-owned search engine now powers Yahoo's search engine, too, so Bing and Yahoo together account for nearly 30 percent of Web searches. Bing offers its own SEO guidance, and also has community forums where you can see real people's questions about SEO and Bing's answers.

AboutUs.org has a large library of articles for business people about SEO and Internet marketing. We know you don't have time to become an SEO expert, so we create articles in plain English to help you understand what you can do to become more visible on the Web. Dive in, enjoy the articles, and let us know if there's a topic you'd like us to cover.

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