The phrase "white hat link building" occurs nearly 1/2 million times on Google yet we do not have a clear definition of the phrase. At best, it appears to be a subjective term that has over time has included everything from reciprocal link building to infographics to guest posts. It is no wonder that those not well-versed in search engine optimization are easily duped into one tactic or another by an SEO when even the the SEO's haven't yet settled on a definition for the term. Moz's latest whiteboard friday covered this subject, but instead of providing a succinct definition, they simply created a codification of rules. Instead of considering these statements as rules, we should consider them as boundaries and try to determine a single definition that can be applied such that any tactic that falls within the definition also falls within the boundaries, and any that falls outside the boundary falls outside the definition.
It is not Cyrus Shepherd's or any other SEO's fault that he looks at link building through a web of rules, it is Google's. Google has given us their own list in their Link Schemes which at best provides us some specific tactics to avoid like article directories and keyword rich anchor text. They do provide us at the very end some language that gives us a hint as to what they are getting at...
The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.
Google here employs the language "editorial" which you have, no doubt, heard Matt Cutts use on a number of occasions along side other terms like "natural" or "organic". There is something here that is quite important to notice. There are a number of SEOs who hold than any link building is a violation of the guidelines because of this language...
Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme
Notice, though, that the links must be "intended to manipulate PageRank" and only then "may be considered". The looseness of this language is necessary because Google if the language were strict like "intended to change PageRank...will be considered" would have a dramatic impact on content creation itself. Reconciling this part of the guidelines with the recommended acquisition of editorial links requires that there be some wiggle room allowing content creation for the purpose of improving rankings that attract links naturally.
A Proposed Definition
- White Hat Link Building
- Any tactic employed on behalf of a website to acquire backlinks in which the sole motivating factor for the placement of that link is the value the target content offers the linking website's audience.
Let me unpack this a little bit:
- tactic employed on behalf of a website: You aren't building anything if you aren't trying. This really doesn't impact the "white hat" side of the term, but I think it is necessary to differentiate between link building behavior and general web activity which might produce links.
- sole motivating factor: you cannot wrap your link in anything of value when doing outreach: no infographics, guest posts, press releases, or paid links.
- the value the target content offers the linking website's audience. This one is huge. This is where your link building is no longer "manipulating PageRank" but, rather, accurately fulfilling PageRank's goal. The PageRank is mapped directly to the value of the content produced, and nothing else
I think we have a good, functional definition which we can employ to determine which types of techniques are "white hat". It is worth pointing out here that this definition is largely agnostic to the process of outreach but, instead, cares about the message of the outreach. There is nothing wrong with promoting your content insofar as it does not lead to the placement of links outside this definition.
So, what fits this definition
- Link Bait: General link baiting is still a completely viable and reasonable white hat technique given that the promotional methods themselves do not generate links. Don't blast your content out to every pligg directory which may include backlinks or you will have violated the definition. However, general social media outreach is completely acceptable.
- Broken Link Building: This remains an extremely white hat form of link building as long as you credit the original source and don't incentivize your outreach. This one should be in the arsenal of nearly every SEO in 2014
- Reformed Guest Posting: It is possible to make Guest Posting completely white hat, but it involves making links optional and/or nofollowed by default. This will drive Guest Posters to make their links actually bibliographic in nature, rather than just anchor text links back to their modestly-related company website.
What doesn't fit
- Paid Links: Clearly, paid links do not fit this definition because they would provide a separate motivating factor to the placement of the link other than the value the content offers to the linking webmaster's audience.
- Traditional Guest Posting: Because you are giving the webmaster content (something of value), you have motivated them to place the content and the links with it. At minimum you must give the webmaster the discretion to remove any links he/she feels do not meet his/her editorial opinions.
Hopefully this definition will help webmasters in the future judge link building tactics as white hat or not. While you may choose to go after one tactic or another regardless of whether it is white hat, we should have an objective definition that we can come to agree upon as an industry.