Black hat, white hat, blue hat, new hat… why should anyone care which color hat any search engine optimization (SEO) professional labels him- or herself? This was a question presented to me by one of my colleagues, Bill Slawski at SEO by the Sea, at the last search engine conference.
I have been thinking long and hard about the answer to that question for the past month. Now I have an answer.
Background: SEO reputations
One of the panels I spoke on at the last Search Engine Strategies conference was the one that addressed SEO reputation management. My situation happened a few years ago, when I was a Microsoft Search Champ. One of the Search Champs mentioned in her blog that a number of SEOs were at the event, and she basically lumped me in with the other “worthless, shady criminals.” In other words, she assumed that I practiced black-hat SEO. I was mortified because I sat right in front of her and talked to her about graduate school. I had just been accepted into my graduate program of Library and Information Sciences with a specialty in Human and Computer Interfaces (HCI). And one colleague at her school, Avi Rappaport, wrote me a letter of recommendation. We had things in common.
I was thrilled to be in a room full of information retrieval scholars and asked everyone’s advice on what courses to take, journals to read, and so forth. So, you could imagine my surprise at her blog post.
I tried to post to her blog to let her know that not all SEOs are as “bad” as she assumed. But alas! She would not allow my post to be published.
Clearly, I do not like being associated with black-hat SEO practitioners. That was and still is my gut feeling, my first reaction. But why do I think this way? That is what Bill was essentially asking me.
Black-hat SEO methodologies
Another panel at the search engine conference helped me answer the question—the “Are Paid Links Evil” panel. I sat in the audience with another colleague, Jonathan Hochman, and just listened and observed. I was completely fascinated with the dialog on the panel and the audience reaction.
Many people assume that I do not respect my black-hat colleagues, an assumption that is completely false. I have a great deal of respect for their knowledge and expertise…and their cleverness. Some of them are rather entertaining to watch, too. I agree with many of their beliefs. For example, I do not believe that Google, or any search engine for that matter, should tell people how to run their businesses.
Likewise, I like that black-hat SEOs keep software engineers on their toes, so to speak. If there is a “hole” in how search results are delivered, some black-hat SEO will surely find it. Quite often, patching up those “holes” leads to more accurate search results and a better searcher experience. I know these neverending situations are irritating for software engineers, and I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.
There was one panelist who was in with the sharks, and I felt a bit of empathy for him. Some black-hat SEOs should come with warning labels. Maybe I should come with one, too. But his opinion was the one I was most interested in hearing. He pointed out the hypocrisy—if Google (or any search engine for that matter) does not endorse or condone paid links, then how come they sell advertising space for those keyword phrases?
And I thought about AdSense magnet sites. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for search engine advertising. But I am against creating these piece-of-crap sites purely to generate AdSense income. Who is monitoring and allowing these piece-of-crap sites? Web directories seem equally guilty of piece-of-crap inclusion as well.
Maybe the engine and Web directory reps feel all the information should be available, and people will ultimately choose what is best for them. I do not know. I am not a mind reader. But I’m glad that an objective observer said something during that panel, even though he was rather quiet. His message was loud and clear.
It goes both ways
I remember one statement very specifically. “Google is NOT the government!” exclaimed panelist Michael Gray, to the great delight of the audience, who erupted with applause. I laughed at that reaction. It was cute.
But then I turned to my colleague Jonathan and said, “Well neither is he.” And it got me thinking. I have decided on a brand new SEO plan. Basically, I am going to pick my favorite black-hat SEO sites and I am going to put the text and graphic images on their home pages and others of my personal selection. I think I’ll do their blogs, too. They won’t know it is me. I definitely want text placed in the non-banner-blindness area. Not a lot of space, maybe 4 to 5 lines. I will be nice about it. I don’t want to hog the whole screen.
I really don’t care if my black-hat colleagues don’t like it. They should not be telling me how to run my business, since they clearly do not like others telling them how to run their businesses.
I know. I know. Those previous statements are ridiculous. I meant them to be ridiculous. Every business, every Web site, has terms and guidelines. I can’t tell the Wall Street Journal to publish my opinion on their front pages because that is how I run my business, and to hell with their publication guidelines. Just like with my Search Champ colleague–I cannot order her to publish my blog post.
Google, Yahoo, Microsoft Live, Ask, and every other search engine has every right to include or remove Web pages as they see fit. It goes both ways, guys.
So now…my answer
Okay, Bill, here is my answer. The reason I do not like being lumped in with black-hat SEOs is because they lack honesty and integrity. Unfortunately, I have been an expert witness in legal cases involving SEO fraud. Clients were not fully informed about the SEO methodologies utilized to promote the site. One case in Europe involved the SEO firm stating (in writing) that they followed all of the terms and conditions set forth by the search engines. The truth? The client site was eventually banned, and I am still helping to clean up that mess.
If any SEO is going to implement questionable tactics, I believe they should fully inform their clients. All clients should be aware of potential consequences, and let the client make the decision based on that knowledge. If it means the SEO firm loses the sale? Then so be it. I believe clients should be fully informed. In the vast majority of spam situations that end up on my lap, clients were not informed.
Personally, I have a great deal more respect for any SEO professional who fully keeps clients informed of all methodologies implemented and any potential consequences. Granted, I am not the person who purchases thousands or millions of disposable domains, sets up bogus link networks, and so forth. Nonetheless, until I see most SEO professionals take full responsibility for their actions and their consequences, I will still use the label of white-hat SEO.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.