If you want to grow the customer base of any organization, you have to become great at conducting and promoting your business online. And if you’re doing business online, it’s critical that you rank as high as possible in search engine results. According to a recent HubSpot study, 75% of users never scroll past the first page of search results, and 60% of users’ clicks go to the top three organic search results. This means that if your company is No. 5 or 6 on the list when a potential customer does a Google search, you likely won’t get their business. And if you don’t show up on the first page of search results, you’re in even worse shape. 

How Rankings Work 

Search engines use a complex set of proprietary algorithms to categorize and rank websites based on how relevant they are to your search terms. Part of the ranking is dependent on inbound and outbound links, and part is dependent on keywords, which are terms that describe the content on a webpage. Search engines analyze webpages and index them according to their keyword patterns. Search engines also analyze the links in your webpages. This includes both the sites you’re linking to and the sites that are linking to your page. Keywords and links therefore play a big role in your search engine rankings. 

There are different ways to use keyword patterns and links to maximize your website’s findability, and this the essence of search engine optimization (SEO). Some SEO practices are good, and some are bad. It’s important to know the difference between how these practices work if you want long-lasting results, because search engines can sniff out and penalize folks who attempt to game the system. 

Two Types of SEO Practices

There are two types of SEO practices: “white hat” and “black hat.” The terms come from hacking culture, where white hat hackers hacked for the public good, while black hat hackers hacked for personal profit or material gain. For our purposes, white hat SEO is a process of creating useful, relevant content for users that boost search rankings; it follows SEO best practices. Black hat SEO, on the other hand, focuses on creating content for search engines; its entire goal is simply to manipulate the algorithms so that their sites, whether useful or useless, rank as high as possible on results lists. 

Black Hat SEO Practices

Black hat practices are tempting because they can give you some short-term gains in traffic, but they come with a high risk. They usually violate search engines’ terms of service, which can lead to them banning your site from their search results. Users also find these tactics annoying because the keywords are misleading and the content on the site is typically not helpful in their searches. Here are a few common black hat SEO practices. 

1. Keyword Stuffing 

This is the worst of the offenders, and it involves placing nothing but keywords on your site, often at the bottom of the page. Sometimes, websites make keywords invisible (all black text on a black background, for example), and some go so far as to include keywords that are popular but have nothing to do with the site. Other webmasters stuff keywords into comment tags inside the site’s code. Keyword stuffing misleads users into thinking the content of the site is useful when it typically isn’t. 

2. Page Stuffing 

This is similar to keyword stuffing, except the website creator first creates a webpage that gets high ratings; he or she then makes duplicate pages so they all rank highly and thus displace competitors’ pages. People try this because some search engines can’t detect how similar one webpage is to another. While this may not mislead users like keyword stuffing, it is unfair to competitors whose sites are pushed lower on search results because of the repetitive pages being displayed.

3. Cloaking 

Cloaking occurs when a website purposely shows different content to search engines than what it shows its users. This is how it works: Search engines use web crawlers to find and catalog a webpage’s keywords, links and html tags in order to rank their relevance to individual searches. If a cloaking site identifies a user as a web crawler, a server-side script sends it a different version of the webpage than what is on the actual site. Like keyword stuffing, this tactic misleads users into thinking the site provides relevant content when in fact it does the opposite. 

4. Buying and/or Exchanging Links 

Linking to other websites should be a natural, organic and free activity. However, a black hat SEO tactician might pay people to link to his or her website in order to manipulate how the search engine evaluates their webpages. Alternatively, black hat practitioners can exchange links with other sites, whereby each site agrees to link with the other. Sometimes, people even create link farms, which are groups of webpages all linked to each other solely to increase their sites’ ranks. In many cases, these sites are little more than lists of links to every other site on the farm and are of little, if any, use to a user searching for relevant content. 

5. Doorway Pages 

These pages are full of nothing but keywords. Users don’t see these pages; only search engines do. The doorway page exists solely to manipulate the search engine into giving it a high search ranking; as soon as a person clicks through to the page, it automatically redirects the user to another webpage that likely has no relation to what he or she was looking for. 

White Hat SEO Practices 

A number of white hat SEO practices prove extremely effective and stay compliant with search engine best practices and terms of service. Here are a few that you can implement. 

1. Good Content 

The most powerful way to maximize the findability of your website is to put great content on it. Great content is useful to readers, who will seek it out and come back to it again and again, both of which increase your search rankings, your traffic and hopefully your conversions. Adding more high-quality and relevant pages to your website can also increase your page rankings. 

2. Good Headers, Page Titles and Metadata 

Search engines look at headers in your content, so if your headlines, page titles and section heads contain popular keywords and clearly reflect and organize the content, your site will rise higher in search rankings. Also, be sure to tag your images and links with metadata that describes what they are, as search engines use crawlers to catalogue these data as well. 

3. Appropriate and Honest Keywords 

Your keywords should be specific to the content you provide. Do not use them to mislead. If your website is about dogs, make sure the word “dog” appears in headers and at the top of your body content so that web crawlers can easily find and catalog them. Be as specific as possible, and try to use the same keywords that people would use to search: don’t get too fancy. For example, if one of your pages was about dog grooming, don’t use “canine” and “preening” as your keywords; instead, use common words that people are likely to use when searching. Google AdWords has a great tool called “Keyword Planner,” which tells you how popular certain keywords are. This can surely contribute to better search rankings. 

4. Quality Links 

Search engines hate webpages that link to spammy, worthless sites that provide no relevant or useful content. Websites that link to legitimate, useful sites are given higher ranking. The same is true for the opposite side of the spectrum: if you can get credible sites to link to pages on your site, your ranking and reputation will rise. The best way to get these inbound links is to provide top-quality content; paying for inbound links is a poor practice that might get your site in trouble with search engines. If your website is providing information that is so incredible or valuable that other sites can’t help but link to you, good news: you’ve become “link bait.” 

Most businesses in today’s economy need to understand and implement SEO best practices in order to leverage the massive amount of influence the internet and, more specifically, search engines have on consumers.  As studies show, ranking higher in search results can directly contribute to greater revenue. However, few people realize that some SEO practices can actually damage their business. By knowing the difference between black hat and white hat SEO tactics, you can also determine whether your consultants and webmasters are actually helping you responsibly reach more consumers, or if they’re a detriment to the growth of your brand