There are countless strategies and techniques that marketing departments, startups and agencies have in their SEO toolkits but not all are equally effective or ethical. Implementing long-term, modern SEO techniques that comply with search engine rules and policies and drive the desired business results that make the most sense for a company’s stage is called holistic white hat SEO.


Image depicts the classic spy vs spy comic as representing white hat SEO vs black hat SEO techniques


What is White Hat SEO?

White hat SEO – also called ethical SEO – refers to the strategies and techniques intended to increase keyword rankings to grow organic search traffic that are safe and effective to do without the fear of incurring serious domain (website) penalties from Google and other search engines. 

White hat SEO is also considered more ethical because it uses proven, logical and honest methods for creating and structuring content on websites that is optimized for both real human audiences (target users) and search engine crawlers so that Google can show trusted and relevant search results that are closely matched to the intent of a users’ search query. This in a nutshell is what good search engine optimization is all about.


Image depicts Prince William and Kate Middleton with bright white hats representing good white hat SEO


White Hat SEO Techniques

Examples of white hat SEO techniques include:

  • Understanding competitor and industry keyword trends
  • Building a SEO information architecture for your website(s)
  • Conducting keyword research to guide content creation and optimization decisions
  • On page optimization of existing web pages to insert keywords thoughtfully in a highly readable way
  • HTML markup to help search crawlers understand and properly index website content
  • Crafting authoritative content that is useful to a wide audience of human viewers
  • Technical SEO optimizations for website security, performance and experience
  • Building a strong internal and external link portfolio


What is Black Hat SEO?

Black hat SEO – also called unethical SEO – is the opposite of white hat SEO and refers to the strategies and techniques intended to increase keyword rankings to grow organic search traffic that are sometimes effective in the short-term but unsafe to do because they violate search engine rules and policies

Black hat SEO is considered unethical because it uses tricks, manipulative schemes and workarounds to achieve higher keyword rankings on a website without focusing on longer-term, more thoughtful and strategic practices such as a high-quality content and website structure that humans find useful. There are major risks associated with practicing black hat SEO, including Google penalties and having your site completely banned from search engines and affiliate sites – a disastrous situation for any business. 

Dedication to the quality of content and positive end user experience on a website is the main difference in white hat SEO and black hat SEO and by sticking to holistic white hat SEO you will be rewarded by the search engines with better keyword rankings and more relevant traffic.


Image depicts a shady character engaging in black hat SEO


Black Hat SEO Techniques

Examples of black hat SEO techniques include:

  • Repeating keywords many times in otherwise thin content and generally overusing a keyword on a page (Keyword stuffing)
  • Invisible text copy or hyperlinks
  • Showing search engine crawlers different content from that seen in the user’s browser (Cloaking)
  • Content Scams
  • Guest Posting Networks
  • Buying high volumes of backlinks from spammy websites (Link manipulation)
  • Link Farms, Link Wheels or Link Networks
  • Falsely reporting a competitor website to get them penalized (Negative SEO)


What is Grey Hat SEO?

Grey hat SEO – as the name implies – is somewhere in between black hat and white hat SEO and is used to categorize techniques that are not explicitly denounced by search engine rules and policies but are still ethically dubious and may or may not result in penalties.


Image depicts Gandalf as an analogy for grey hat SEO


Grey Hat SEO Techniques

Examples of grey hat SEO techniques include:

  • Clickbait via deceptive title tags to get more clicks on SERPs
  • Excessive internal linking
  • Paying for influencer or product review backlinks
  • Fabricating news and stories for backlinks
  • Purchasing expired domains and adding content with backlinks to your site (SEO squatting)
  • Spamming other sites’ comment section with backlinks to your site


Now that we know the difference between white hat and black hat SEO, it’s important to understand what holistic SEO means and how conducting holistic SEO that is within search engine terms and conditions is the most comprehensive, long-lasting and impactful approach to generating more leads and/or sales through organic search traffic.


What is Holistic SEO?

When talking to potential clients about SEO services at Firebrand, we typically use the phrase holistic SEO to describe our process and best practices that involve using all of the known, trusted (white hat) and proven disciplines of SEO to achieve specific business goals. 

These main disciplines of holistic white hat SEO are:

  • Information Architecture
  • On Page Optimization
  • Content Creation
  • Technical Optimizations
  • Link Building


Important consideration should be given as to which SEO discipline should be pursued based on the company or startups’ stage of growth, size and configuration of website(s) or domains and of course business goals. For example, it does not make sense to spend time and money on link building if a website is in dire need of more authoritative content or keyword insertion for existing pages before another relevant domain would even consider giving that website a backlink.

To help SEO clients understand when to use and what the SEO disciplines are we use the analogy of building a house:


Table showing the different SEO techniques or disciplines that are all white hate SEO


Holistic SEO Discipline 1: Information Architecture

For any website to be successful with SEO activities there needs to be a logically structured information architecture that ultimately aims to create a user experience that is accessible and useful to real human visitors. This refers to the way site navigation, information on each page and set of pages (ie: solutions, products), internal linking within page copy (anchor text links) and keyword research is structured and implemented. 

Within our analogy of building a house, this is your blueprint which contains keyword research and HTML markup mapped to each page in the form of a keyword distribution sheet and usually a diagram that maps target keywords to each page in a more visual format. This will serve as your source of truth for any and all changes made to each page during your SEO odyssey.


Image depicts a blueprint of a house as part of the disciplines of white hat SEO


Holistic SEO Discipline 2: On-Page Optimization (OPO)

Once the blueprint has been generated the next discipline is about mapping that structure to the appropriate pages through on-page optimizations, largely guided by keyword research. SEO on-page optimization is how websites can beef up the keywords they try to rank for and how web crawlers understand the information on a page and includes; keyword insertion, SEO copywriting, HTML markup and conversion rate optimization (CRO).

For our analogy of building a house, think of on-page optimization as the frame. By adding keywords in the right places you are essentially creating the framework for which all of the following disciplines depend on.


Image depicts a house frame as part of the disciplines of white hat SEO


Holistic SEO Discipline 3: Content Creation

Let’s be real, content is still king in digital marketing. Once content that already exists on a website has been optimized the next move is to identify what type of content to create that can facilitate new, relevant keywords and high competition keywords that a site might rank for. 

This discipline represents the walls and roof (substance) in our house analogy. A proven process for ranking for more keywords through SEO content creation is using content clusters and content anchors for writing content that is long form, educational and that contains a higher volume of keywords than say, a product page. The output of this can also be utilized in a more broad content marketing program across social media etc.


Image depicts the roof of a house as part of the disciplines of white hat SEO


Holistic SEO Discipline 4: Technical Optimizations

A site could have a ton of well written, keyword rich content but unless the technical site performance is in good standing, the Google algorithm will not reward the site URLs with higher rankings. 

Going back to the analogy of building a house, technical SEO optimizations are like the plumbing and electrical – your house might be built but it’s hard to live in without those basic functions. Some important technical optimization activities include: indexability, accessibility, backlink quality, fixing broken links, page speed and accelerated mobile pages.


Image depicts the plumbing of a house as part of the disciplines of white hat SEO


Holistic SEO Discipline 5: Link Building

Once a website has new and existing content optimized for a strategic set of keywords and is technically sound so that users and search crawlers can find and understand that content, it’s time to focus on building some quality backlinks. Backlinks – both quantity and quality – send strong signals to search engines that your site and content is trusted and authoritative and thus can have a major positive impact on search rankings. 

Rounding out the analogy, link building represents your wifi – connection to the outside world (other websites and users) – and decorations because you don’t invite people over until your house is looking fabulous. There are numerous white hat methods for building quality backlinks but beware of services that offer to build links for a price as many of these are a rip-off and fall into grey or black hat SEO techniques.


Cheers to holistic SEO

Image depicts the full house representing all the disciplines of white hat SEO


Conclusion: Maximizing Organic Traffic with Modern SEO

At Firebrand, we have had great success with a holistic white hat SEO approach for our clients that puts their website in a prime position for SEO success in the long run while also quickly scaling up organic traffic and conversions that help the bottom line. 

Using this methodology over a 6 month period for a tech client of ours, Firebrand was able to achieve:

  • 504% increase in organic traffic 
  • 23% increase in ranked keywords (top 100)
  • 170% increase in position one keyword rankings
  • Substantial increase in quantity and quality of leads through organic search


With the countless SEO tools and tactics available, modern SEO can be daunting. Taking a strategic, white hat approach that utilizes all the best practices in the appropriate order, will allow any website big or small to improve their sales or lead generation through this vital digital marketing channel.

About the Author

Alastair is Senior Vice President of Digital Marketing at Firebrand Communications. With over 15 years of both creative and analytical marketing he combines wisdom from both arenas to drive measurable and memorable marketing results for clients. Prior to joining Firebrand, Alastair has been a web designer, creative specialist, and PMM, for a tech manufacturing company, entertainment agency, and mobile gaming startup.