Climbing The Slippery Slope Of Mount White Hat

On Monday of this week, fellow Search Insider Ryan DeShazer bravely threw his hat back in the ring regarding this question: Is Google better or worse off because of SEO?

DeShazer confessed to being vilified after a previous column indicated that Google owed us something. I admit I have a column penned but never submitted that Ryan could have added to the “vilify” side of that particular tally. But in his Monday column, Ryan touches on a very relevant point: “What is the thin line between White Hat and Black Hat SEO?” For as long as I’ve been in this industry (which is pushing 17 years now) I’ve heard that same debate. I’ve been at conference sessions where white hats and black hats went head to head on the question. It’s one of those discussions that most sane people in the world could care less about, but we in the search biz can’t seem to let go.

Ryan stirs the pot again by indicating that Google may be working on an SEO “Penalty Box”: a temporary holding pen for sites that are using “rank modifying spammers” where results will fluctuate more than in the standard index. The high degree of flux should lead to further modifications by the “spammers” that will help Google identify them and theoretically penalize them. DeShazer’s concern is the use of the word “spammers” in the wording of the patent application, which seems to include any “webmasters who attempt to modify their search engine ranking.”

I personally think it’s dangerous to try to apply wording used in a patent application (the source for this speculation) arbitrarily against what will become a business practice. Wording in a patent is intended to help convey the concept of the intellectual property as quickly and concisely as possible to a patent review bureaucrat. The wording deals in concepts that are (ironically) pretty black and white. It has little to no relationship to how that IP will be used in the real world, which tends to be colored in various shades of gray. But let’s put that aside for a moment.

Alan Perkins, an SEO I would call vociferously “white hat,” some years ago came up with what I believe is the quintessential difference here. Black hats optimize for a search engine. White hats optimize for humans.  When I make site recommendations, they are to help people find better content faster and act on it. I believe, along with Perkins, that this approach will also do good things for your search visibility.

But that also runs the danger of being an oversimplification. The picture is muddied by clients who measure our success as SEO agencies by their position relative to their competitors on a keyword-by-keyword level. This is the bed the SEO industry has built for itself, and now we’re forced to sleep in it. I’m as guilty as the next guy of cranking out competitive ranking reports, which have conditioned this behavior over the past decade and a half.

The big problem, and one continually pointed out by vocal grey/black hats, is that you can’t keep up with competition who are using methods more black than white by staying with white-hat tactics alone. The fact is, black hat works, for a while. And if I’m the snow-white SEO practitioner whose clients are repeatedly trounced by those using a black hat consultant, I’d better expect some client churn. Ethics and profitably don’t always go together in this industry.

To be honest, over the past five years, I’ve largely stopped worrying about the whole white hat/black hat thing. We’ve lost some clients because we weren’t aggressive enough, but the ones who stayed were largely untouched by the string of recent Google updates targeting spammers. Most benefited from the house cleaning of the index. I’ve also spent the last five years focused a lot more on people and good experiences than on algorithms and link juice, or whatever the SEO flavor du jour is.

I think Alan Perkins nailed it way back in 2007. Optimize for humans. Aim for the long haul. And try to be ethical. Follow those principles, and I find it hard to imagine that Google would ever tag you with the label of “spammer.”

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