Back when John Wayne was the biggest film star on the block, the terms “White Hat” and “Black Hat” came into being. Because the characters is Westerns always wore hats, the studios recognised a handy trick.

Since they didn’t always trust audiences to root for the right guy, they gave the “good” character a white hat. The bad boy, in turn, wore a black one.

Fast forward over half a century, and those terms have been appropriated to delineate the different types of SEO. Search Engine Optimisation is how you get your website to rank. For any start-up, making sure its website is built for SEO is essential. For many, the question is: Black Hat SEO, or White Hat?

It’s quite appropriate that the naming terms for types of SEO came from the old Western films. That’s exactly how the area can feel particularly for people just getting started.

You know you should be on the side of the good guy, but how can you ever win? The bad guy is every bit as skilled and smart, and he’s also not afraid to break some laws.

In one way, the whole White Hat/Black Hat divide could be as easily compared to the world of pro wrestling. The babyface and the heel. And then you find out that there are some who don’t have time for those labels. In wrestling, they’re called ‘tweeners. They’re in-between, you see.

In the world of SEO, the Gray Hats are your tweeners. They’re not going to jump the gap and be straight-out bad guys but they’re aware that sometimes, doing things the “right” way doesn’t work out.

Doing Gray Hat SEO right means making sure that you’re right there in the gray. Striking a balance to ensure that you don’t do too much edgy stuff and end up being struck down by the search engines for being Black Hat.

Similarly, if you’re as pure white as the driven snow, you’re going to be left behind by people with fewer scruples. It is a fine balance, and the line is not permanently set.

If you do your own SEO in-house, then these are all things you have to consider. If you know how to use the rules to your advantage then that is great. But unless you have the knowledge and the time to stay attuned to these rules all the time, you may only have a short-term fix. This can kill a start-up before it gets time to breathe.

For all of these reasons it has become attractive to outsource your SEO to an expert. If you have one on your staff already, treasure them. If you are one, it’s even better.

Not everyone can carry as many staff, though, so it’s vital to know what your options are. If you’re considering hiring an SEO guru – permanently or on a one-off basis – it pays to know what you’re looking for.

1. Anyone can call themselves An SEO Guru

The term “SEO Expert” or “SEO Professional” is not a protected term. It’s not like “Doctor” or “Police Officer”. Try to practise as one of those without the official accreditation and you’re in big trouble.

But literally anyone can say they are an SEO Guru and they aren’t breaking any laws. So if you’re hiring someone, do your due diligence. What have been their successes. How were these achieved?

2. Inform yourself as much as possible

Reading about court cases and watching documentaries about true crime wouldn’t make you a lawyer. However, learning something about law does make you better informed on what the finer points are. As with the law, the same goes for SEO. You might not become a guru, but knowing what you need and what you want will enable you to ask the right questions when hiring someone.

3. Ask about their gray hat  credentials

Hiring someone to work Gray Hat SEO magic for your company may well pay handsome dividends in the long term, but making the right hire isn’t easy. You’re looking for someone who is a realist.

Be dubious of anyone who says all of their methods are White Hat. Be extremely dubious of anyone who glories in just how Black Hat their methods are. Even habitual Black Hatters are aware of the risks of doing it long term.

4. Don’t leave yourself vulnerable

If you are hiring someone to iron out the wrinkles in your SEO practices, make sure they agree to some ongoing agreement. In short, you want to have an agreement that guarantees they will tune up your website in future if it is affected by changes.

If the search engines change their rules on one thing or another, you don’t want to have to pay out in full for a tune-up.

5. SEO is one part of the machine

Using the whole bag of magic tricks that an SEO expert has at their disposal, you might think you’ll be ranking high in no time. Sustained high performance in rankings is however dependent on much more than backlinks and keywords.

If you want to get there and stay there then you need to have content worthy of the name. You’ll need to promote your site with everything at your disposal too.

6. Always keep learning

When you move into a new house, you may well hire some contractors to fit carpets, plumb in appliances and suchlike. If you’re smart, you’ll keep an eye on what they’re doing and learn a bit so you can do this yourself in future.

Do the same with SEO. Read up about landing pages, expired domains and linkwheels. Learn from those who know what will work and what won’t. It can save you money and effort down the line.

7. Hire and develop with digital marketing in mind

The bigger your business gets – and you’re always hoping to grow if you want to survive and thrive in business – the more you’ll need to focus on this.

Having an in-house SEO expert might not be something you can afford now, but as soon as you can, it will pay off. Training your existing marketing people in the ways is also a sound step. SEO is only going to get more essential as time goes on, so develop with that in mind.

These are seven key tips when it comes to building a sound SEO strategy for your business. It is worth bearing in mind that SEO is an evolving environment. As soon as the search engines change one thing, the SEO experts modify to evolve with it.

As soon as the engines detect that a trick is being used to game them, they’ll modify likewise. So if you read an SEO bible five years ago and are still living by it, it’s on borrowed time.

The idea of being in a moral gray area may be distasteful to some, but think of it like those guys above in the wrestling and movie worlds.

If you’ve got to live by a rule of absolute purity, you can bet your competitors will be living by the sword. It’s not like a cafeteria queue where everybody gets something. You might have to get your hands a little dirty.

But by the same token, knowing exactly how dirty they can get and still leave you with a clean rap sheet is something that will stand you in good stead.

It makes sense to give yourself every chance to thrive. See it as levelling the playing field, and hire the right people. With that done, you can concentrate on what you’re good at.