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Gray Hat SEO: Are Reciprocal Links
Good for Your Website Ranking?

The internet is a busy place. A really busy place. As it stands, there are over five billion users and nearing two billion websites - though not all are active. It’s even becoming the place where other technologies like phone calls, through the advent of technology like a VoIP system, are being performed online rather than by landline.

Trying to build a platform for yourself or your business in this environment will only become more difficult as user numbers continue to grow. Any help - artificial or organic - that you can get to do this is welcome, right? After all, the internet is designed to provide people with the opportunity to have their voices heard, so why not do that by any means necessary? 

Having the best-optimized SEO possible is a great way of getting closer to achieving online visibility. The more Google - and other search engines - index that your site is being visited, the more the value of your site increases. 

When this happens, you achieve a higher position on search result pages (SERPs). And so the tale of internet success snowballs, becoming self-perpetuating.

If you’re finding it difficult to grow your site through organic visitors alone - building websites and social media profiles for sites and maintaining them can be time-consuming. So, a little bit of manipulation here and there could help, or so it may seem.

Gray Hat SEO is one such kind of artificial technique that can be employed in this scenario. Throughout this article, far from being an SaaS link building guide, we’ll explain what exactly it is and how it works, as well as putting the case forward for it and against it.

What Is Gray Hat SEO?

Gray Hat SEO

Before we get into the rights and wrongs of employing gray hat SEO as a tactic, we first need to discuss what gray hat SEO actually is. 

If you’ve heard of the terms “Swapping Backlinks”, “Link Exchanges”, or “Reciprocal Linking”, then you’ve been exposed to gray hat SEO practices. While not a dictionary definition of gray hat SEO, it belongs to the same world.

If you’ve heard the terms “white hat SEO” or “black hat SEO” then you’ve got a head start as to what gray hat SEO entails. 

The fact that white and black hat SEO exists should tell you all you need to know about where on the spectrum gray hat SEO belongs. It sits somewhere between the two, both in terms of morality and legality.

Legality? So, gray hat SEO is a criminal act?!

No, gray hat SEO is not illegal. However, it may violate some search engine guidelines surrounding prohibited practices. Essentially, if you get caught out, it’ll result in your site being banned, but no one will serve any prison time for practicing gray hat SEO.

Examples of Gray Hat SEO Techniques

We now know whereabouts gray Hat SEO exists on the spectrum between white and black hat SEO. To illustrate this further, let’s take a look at some of the techniques used that count as Gray Hat.

Creating Matching Content

Gray Hat SEO

Otherwise known as “duplicate” content, this isn’t about screen sharing software. Rather, it’s the practice of copying and pasting sections or entire articles across several domains. It can be used to steal traffic from an original poster if the domain it is pasted to has a higher domain rating. 

It can also be a tactic used to essentially hedge the bets of the website owner. It’s the content equivalent of betting on all the horses in a race, safe in the knowledge that one horse will win.

Using Private Blog Networks (PBN)

Doing this openly actually comes under the group of black hat SEO. However, if you keep this private and ensure that no one knows about it, avoiding new technologies like cloud computing, this is a gray hat SEO technique.

Using PBNs means that you control a group of websites that are solely there to build backlinks to a site that will see its SERP ranking increase.

Automated Content

Automated content describes the technique of using software or an automation system to automate content creation. This fools search engines into believing your site is getting a consistent flow of content. At the same time, it allows you to have more opportunities to rank higher in their results. 

However, it is important to create a clear system and cultivate a culture of quality around your content creation automation process, for this to be a success. 

Expired Domains

We mentioned previously that, whilst there are almost two billion websites on the internet, not all of them are active. The space between the total number of websites and the total number of active websites shows how many dormant or expired domains are out there. 

This provides an opportunity for those willing to practice gray hat SEO. It allows them to buy a domain that has expired but still has some backlinks pointing to the site.


Gray Hat SEO

This technique involves presenting two different pieces of content or URLs to a human user and a search engine respectively. This tricks search engines into inflating the SEO value of certain keywords whilst delivering content to users that is not that which they sought.

The Case for Gray Hat SEO

Gray Hat SEO

Having now discussed both what gray hat SEO is and how people use it, let’s now focus on whether you should use gray hat SEO as a strategy. As with most things in life, there are pros and cons to utilizing this technique in your work. So let’s begin with the benefits. Here’s the case for gray hat SEO.

For starters, it’s an effective way of increasing your standing on search engines. Whether SEO Experts will admit it or not, the vast majority of sites employ the practice of reciprocal linking.

Furthermore, the objections which you may encounter from people or companies around making use of the practice aren’t always from the perspective of your best interests. There’s a certain amount of competitive spirit and pearl-clutching going on if someone dismisses or attempts to dissuade your efforts.

When it comes to our own jobs, we all like to convince ourselves of the vital nature of whatever it is we do. When push comes to shove, it’s less about how you achieve success and more about the result of your efforts. 

If we take the last 18 months where remote working has proven more worthy than its most ardent critics could have foreseen, meaning more companies are taking on an enterprise digital strategy, these advances often come about despite the resistance they meet.

Finally, in terms of a case for gray hat SEO, it can genuinely open up opportunities that are more “acceptable” for you. 

Whilst you may indeed court links from sites that have nothing in common with you other than their desire to increase their SEO ranking, more often than not you’re going to be link building with sites that have some sort of overlapping interest, at least with content. 

Let’s not go as far as to say that this should be used as a networking tool or as a replacement for lead generating strategies. However, you won’t know the value of any given business relationship unless you at least do some preliminary research.

The Case Against

Gray Hat SEO

It isn’t all roses and rainbows, though. As you may have guessed with a practice that toes the line between good and bad ethics, the downsides to gray hat SEO are as prominent as the positives outlined above.

To begin with, it’s simply riskier than other alternatives. White hat SEO - essentially SEO practice that adheres to the codes of conduct and terms of search engines like Google - can be as effective as its black or gray counterparts without veering into territory which could, in extreme cases, cause your site to be banned.

It also isn’t a case of throwing enough mud at the wall in the hope that some of it sticks. If you’re doing that whilst still avoiding “getting caught”, chances are your strategy isn’t as effective as it could be. 

All sorts of questions over the relevancy of partnerships and the volume of links need to be had first, and even then, it is in no way a guarantee of sure-fire success.


The truth about gray hat SEO is that, when it comes down to it, common sense really should prevail. These techniques which fit somewhere between white and black can be effective in helping you to get ahead in building site traffic. 

They can also come at quite a cost if you’re either complacent or ill-disciplined when using them, even more than just being plain ineffective. So, before implementing gray hat SEO techniques, ask yourself questions like “is it a natural fit?” or “is this partnership (with the other site) advantageous?”

If you’re vigilant and are accustomed to performing SEO duties well, gray hat SEO, through high-quality backlinks, presents a wonderful opportunity to you that can improve your website ranking beyond all expectations.

Author: Grace Lau - Director of Growth Content, Dialpad

Grace Lau

Grace Lau is the Director of Growth Content at Dialpad, an AI-powered cloud communication platform with cloud PBX system for better and easier team collaboration. She has over 10 years of experience in content writing and strategy. Currently, she is responsible for leading branded and editorial content strategies, partnering with SEO and Ops teams to build and nurture content. Here is her LinkedIn.

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