Grey Hat SEO Techniques That Work

by Peter Attia on December 20, 2012

Recently everyone has been talking primarily about content marketing and pearly white hat techniques. While I do think these methods are the safest route to take, they’re not the only ones that work. It’s important to know about various practices, even ones you don’t intend on ever using. You can gain insight into what your competitors are doing, get a better understanding of how the algorithm works, and learn how to fix issues if someone comes to you from a previous search marketing agency.

I’m referring primarily to grey hat techniques. These are techniques that can give you a slight advantage, but may not follow Google’s guidelines 100%. This means there could be some risk involved, albeit a low one. These are not to be confused with black hat techniques, which can give you an even greater competitive edge, but carry a very large risk.

Here are some grey hat techniques that I know about and continue to work to this day.

Grey Hat

Grey Hat Link Building Techniques

  • Give your product to bloggers to review
  • This is pretty straight forward. You can reach out to bloggers and ask them to review your product. They’re usually eager to accept, since everyone likes free stuff. However, since you’re giving an incentive, it’s possible for it to be considered a paid link.

  • Redirect old domains to yours
  • This works better than it should for pages targeting less competitive terms. You can hit up sites like Name Jet and purchase niche related domains that have backlinks pointing to them. You can then redirect those domains to a new page your trying to promote.

  • Offer bloggers a donation to a charity of their choice in exchange for a link
  • This is another one that could be considered a paid link depending on who you ask. Instead of offering a physical or monetary incentive to bloggers, offer to donate to a charity related to their interest. This works especially well on blogs “with a cause” for example, blogs that raise awareness or eco-friendly blogs.

Grey Hat Design Techniques

  • Moving content with CSS
  • This one can be a little tricky. Basically, you want to write the code of a site to where the content is as close to the top as possible and then use CSS to make the content appear lower on the page. The thought behind this is since the content is at the top it will be one of the first things Google crawls and thus giving it more “weight”. Then you can push the content down with CSS visually so you don’t harm the usability.

  • Cloaking content elements behind tabs
  • This is similar to above, but with one big difference. The content isn’t visible when you first land on the page. Instead, you can put several tabs or a “more info” button which will show the content when clicked. This way robots will see the content (which is great for rankings), but users have to click to see it; allowing you to optimize for conversion instead. While this does seem like black hat cloaking, since the buttons are functional and the content isn’t fully hidden, it doesn’t break guidelines. However, It’s still a very sneaky and frowned upon tactic.

  • Linking internally through unusual elements
  • This is another sneaky one that can be done various ways. Most commonly, it’s done through a separate tab like the cloaking content mentioned above. For example, you can do a “more services” tab and link to several of your own pages. However, you can take this one step further and turn selections, such as drop down menus, into links. This way the serve a functional purpose and don’t look like links, but they will still pass juice.

Grey Hat Content Techniques

  • Creating a separate page for each keyword
  • This is one that can really be beaten to death as long as you have the patience to write the content for it. You can create a new page for each keyword you’re trying to target, keep it off your navigation, but make it crawlable. This way you’re not harming usability, but you can pull in some traffic from long tail keywords. I’ve seen this done with everything from a few thousand pages to a quarter million pages. I would never recommend doing anything like this, but if you do, make sure to release the pages out slowly (a few thousand pages a month) so no spam filters are triggered.

  • Elaborate merge text or spun content
  • This goes hand in hand with the method above. You should uniquely write the content for every page even if it’s several thousands of pages. However, well done merge text and spun content do still work. Yes, even after panda. The thing you need to keep in mind is the more pages your using this type of content on, the bigger risk you’re taking. A bot spitting out a few hundred pages of content has a low risk of duplication. However, when you make that several thousand, the chances increase dramatically.

  • Creating separate microsites for each niche
  • Microsites are no secret. They have been abused in every way imaginable. However, I will say that the most benefit I’ve seen gained from them is splitting them up by niche for local services. For example, a law firm having one site for their divorce services and then another for personal injury. This allows you to focus on specific areas for each site.

    Something you have to be wary of with this is your local listings. If several websites are using the same phone number and address, it can screw up your places listings. You can resolve this in various ways, including using images instead of text on the microsites.

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven Jacobs December 20, 2012 at 10:58 am

Another good read from Cucumber Nebula. I know most of these, but learned a couple new ones here.

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Peter Attia December 20, 2012 at 11:06 am

Glad I was able to help you learn something new Steven! Cheers!

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Anthony Pensabene (or Content Muse when dressed in costume) December 20, 2012 at 1:39 pm

drop-down menu and css .. interesting.. i like the grey hat mystique.. kinda like robin hood, making his own rules.. #merrymenftw

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Rank Watch January 3, 2013 at 6:32 am

The CSS one is quite interesting, though i usually don’t follow much of these tactics much, out of fear of being bogged down by the Google tool disavow.

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Iftekhar Inan December 20, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Didn’t know a few tricks before. Also, I thought that the time of spun content is over. Thanks for an informative piece.

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Jason N. December 20, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Nice work on the post Peter. In your point about not putting keyword pages in the nav, if, for example, you were working on a Phoenix lawyer website would you recommend pages such as “Glendale Lawyer” targeting each of the individual communities around the larger city but don’t put the links to these pages in the nav? Thanks.

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Peter Attia December 21, 2012 at 10:23 am

Jason,

I was primarily referring to if you’re doing it with several hundred or thousand pages. It would be impossible to put them in the navigation in a way that makes sense. If it’s just a few pages, then there’s no real harm.

-Peter

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Alexey December 21, 2012 at 5:41 am

On the topic of Grey Hat Design take a look at http://www.salesforce.com . In my opinion it’s one of the most successful implementations of grey technics

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Alistair Lattimore December 21, 2012 at 8:48 am

Dan Petrovic was in a hangout recently with John Mueller and the technique of hiding content behind a set of tabs came up. It turns out that Google can and do ignore or reduce the importance of the content that isn’t immediately visible to the user. Under what circumstances they do this is unknown and Dan is running a simple test at the moment to see if he can discover anything about this behaviour.

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Peter Attia December 21, 2012 at 10:25 am

I’d never heard of that before. I’m definitely interested in seeing what sort of results they come up with. From everything I’ve seen, hidden content still works.

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IrishWonder December 21, 2012 at 3:33 pm

>well done merge text and spun content do still work
Very important point, the key stress is on WELL DONE

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Greg@Webemergence December 21, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Hmmmm…………gray hats now? So many hats out there now – is becoming more complicated than SEO iteself. Let’s work on Blue Hat techniques for 2013. Nice article though – kudoos!

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Peter Attia December 21, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Actually, blue hat is an SEO blog :)

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Ben December 22, 2012 at 7:58 am

@Alexey – Nice pick up on salesforce.com. I had never even seen that nifty (yeah, I just used the word, “nifty”) little JQuery slider they’re using to hide a crapload of content and keywords. My guess is their “Popular Search Phrases” would get a lesser brand banned/penalized.

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Geniusgeeks December 23, 2012 at 3:20 am

I still am unsure what you just said about “content behind tabs” or below “more info”. How can you call it a grey hat or somewhat shaddy method. Isn’t it about user experience? It directly gives user an option (called tab) to choose what to read and what not to. It simply enhances users expeirence. Yes, DejanSEO is already running a test with this things.

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Peter Attia December 27, 2012 at 1:14 pm

There’s no real definitive line on what is grey hat, black hat, or white hat. However, most grey hat methods are things that can be done in either a white hat or black hat manner. For example, content behind tabs can also be hidden entirely and work or be crammed with keyword focused content. It depends on how exactly you do it.

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Moosa Hemani (@mmhemani) December 24, 2012 at 1:48 am

Very interesting!

I mean after reading this one can simply realize how difficult it is to stay white hat especially in the competitive niches. Who don’t offer bloggers the product in order to get a review and link? I think this is really common as most people don’t even realize that this is gray hat instead of white hat.

Never tried the idea of moving content with CSS but it seems workable!

Great Read!

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Eitan Yariv December 25, 2012 at 1:25 am

A great read indeed though I’m not sure that “Cloaking content elements behind tabs” as described here is a Grey-Hat technique. If you say so you can just as well say the same about content in sliders. There are major sites as well as “Google Analytics home page” that use this technique…
As long as the slider’s arrows or content tab navigation is clear and intuitive- this should never be an issue.

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Peter Attia December 27, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Eitan,

As I said above, it really depends on how you do it. If you’re cramming content behind tabs, but the content is strictly keyword focused, that’s not really helping anyone; yet it will still help you rank.

-Peter

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Nancy Brown December 28, 2012 at 1:45 am

A great article indeed, I would like to suggest that, though spun articles still work, but they should have some grammar and should make some sense. Spelling mistakes and bad grammar will harm your visitors and ranking as well.

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Yassin of Hives Treatment January 14, 2013 at 6:49 pm

isn’t that just playing with fire considering that there is safer practices to follow.

anyone tried this ?

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Peter Attia January 15, 2013 at 12:02 am

Yassin,

As I stated in the post, I don’t necessarily recommend doing any of these without some tweaking. My primary reason for interest in these methods is incase a friend or client comes to me that has been using these methods. That way I have an understanding of what did and didn’t work and how to fix any issues.

-Peter

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Ray April 22, 2013 at 9:49 am

Hi Peter,

Thanks for the Grey hat techniques. I was specifically looking to put content behind tabs for my website. I basically want to have small content on the top of each page(20 pages) and the bottom pane I want to put content behind in 7 tabs. The 7 tabs content will be almost same for all the 20 pages. Is this a good SEO practice?

Regards,
Ray

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Peter Attia April 22, 2013 at 10:52 am

Hey Ray,

Personally, I think if the content isn’t providing useful information to visitors, then it shouldn’t be there. However, if you’re going to hide content behind tabs, make sure it’s as different as possible. You don’t want to put the same content on two pages let alone 20.

-Peter

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Garratt July 28, 2013 at 10:39 am

“make sure to release the pages out slowly (a few thousand pages a month) so no spam filters are triggered”
I lol’ed hard at this…

Realistically all bloggers should be considered greyhat then, if creating pages for each keyword. I know most pages target 10-20 longtails and actually contain useful content (most of the time), but still the same principle.

In regards to G+ local, I’ve seen so many duplicate entries about 100 (all pointing at the same address). This was for a window tinting service.

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Peter Attia July 29, 2013 at 10:45 am

Garrat,

I think you missunderstood. I was referring to targeting keywords that are similar and should all point to one page. To use your example, having a separate page or “window tinting” and “window tint”. I was referring to a very specific example I’d seen where a national restaurant made a page for each and every zipcode and city, even if there wasn’t a restaurant in that location.

Regarding your “I lol’ed” comment. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be condescending or not, but all the examples above were based on real scenarios.

Cheers,
-Peter

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Garratt November 26, 2013 at 8:28 am

Of course it wasn’t condescending… I assumed you were joking when you suggested to only release 100+ pages a day. (few thousand per month is a lot)

Seriously people do that?

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Lara September 3, 2013 at 12:50 am

didn’t know there’s a grey hat. just knew about white and black :). it’s always nice to be in the middle :)

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Christy Kunjumon September 6, 2013 at 4:48 am

Hey Peter,

Intersting post but I think few of these are not going to work out now. The one’s which I am referring are:

Creating a separate page for each keyword.
Elaborate merge text or spun content.
Cloaking content elements behind tabs.
Moving content with CSS.
Linking internally through unusual elements

Lot have changed now.

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Peter Attia September 9, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Hey Christy,

While this post is old, I actually know several domain authority 70+ sites where all of these still work. However, they probably wouldn’t do much for a new or a lower authority site.

-Peter

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