SEO: Black vs White Techniques

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011 | Business | by

An excellent write up over at Matt Legend Gemmell’s blog, SEO for Non-dicks, got me thinking again about the concept of “black/white” hat SEO.  His blog post is in reference to an SEO speech given at BrightonSEO 2011.

I need to get this out, and I don’t think it’s what you may be expecting…

What is SEO?

SEO is Search Engine Optimization.  It’s what we do to better place in search engines for our key terms. It’s a combination of technical SEO (ensuring code meets certain standards, check out Google’s SEO Starter Guide), and best practices (such as writing good/relevant content, keeping fresh, etc).

This will normally be handled by an “SEO Expert” or a standard Web Developer.  As a web developer, I consider it part of my job to deliver search engine optimized sites.

What is SEM?

SEM is Search Engine Marketing.  This refers to the marketing efforts you to do enhance your site’s visibility.  Usually it includes paid advertising, contextual advertising, and paid blog posts.

This job role falls in the hands of the marketing guys, and possibly an “SEO Expert”.

White Hat vs Black Hat SEO

When typing that title I accidentally typed “Good Hat vs Black Hat SEO”.  Telling?

White hat SEO is everything search engines want you to do.  You gain traction with White Hat SEO by coding properly, organizing content, providing sitemaps, etc.  Ideally the more useful your site is to users and search engines, the higher search engines will position you.  This includes talking to other bloggers to get mentions, participating in your community, and all other natural forms of link generation.

Black hat SEO is everything search engines DON’T want you to do.  If you are trying to artificially inflate your search engine ranking, you are trying to “cheat” the system.  This includes building a set of sites you control, all to boost the popularity of another site you control.  I believe purchasing links on other people’s sites is questionable (in terms of SEO, it may just be considered advertising).

The definition of the two is fairly clear.  Search engines want you to use white hat techniques, and to avoid black hat techniques.  Google will punish you if they catch you trying to deceive them.  Check out what happened to JCPenney when Google caught them trying to cheat the system.

Should I use only White Hat, Black Hat or Both?

The decision to get involved in black hat SEO is a tough one.  I don’t think any business decision should be purely based on morality.  If your business is your family’s income, and you have competitors who are cheating, shouldn’t you?  After all, it’s a tool at your disposal.

I liken it to hockey.  Teams get punished for breaking the rules such as fighting, high sticking, and other nefarious deeds.  However, the only thing that counts is who wins in the end.  The Stanley Cup doesn’t go to the team that play the fairest, it’s the one that wins.  Hockey teams know the impact of their actions, 2 minutes here, 5 minutes there, and it’s part of the game.  If the other team is getting shots in behind the refs, your team needs to fight back in order to win.

That’s the way everyone should decide.  You need to understand what you are doing, and the possible impact.

White hat techniques should last you a long time, and in the long run continue to generate links for the organic effort you are putting into it.

Black hat techniques will probably get you more traffic in the short term (when done right), but this will cost money, and put you at risk of being punished (either by specific Google actions, or by search engines wising up to your scheme).  Black hat techniques are like swimming upstream.  It takes a lot more effort, with little rewards — but may be the only way to get to your goal.

How will Google know I’m cheating?

You are not smarter than Google.  Nor is that SEO expert.  Google is smart, but slow.  You will get away with a lot if you’re ahead of the pack (after all, how big is Google?).  Eventually Google will catch up with you.

Take, for example, creating a mini blog network of 20 blogs, all saying how wonderful your main site is..

  • Google can see that those sites are probably not linking to many other blogs
  • Most of those mini sites will probably not have any inbound links, Google can see this
  • Google knows the IP address of your host, so they can see if they are all on the same host
  • Google can lookup your registrar, to see when each domain was registered.  What are the odds that all your inbound links are on sites created by a “John” on the 4th of May, 2011?
  • Most companies can’t afford to properly design / develop content for their farms, and it shows.
  • Your “SEO Expert” probably updates each site on a regular/schedule basis.  Google knows when sites are last updated, and will see they all get updated on a specific day, or few days.
  • Google doesn’t like change in general.  If your site all of a sudden has 1000 in bound links, and had only 20 last month … it’s going to look suspicious.  Even if you did this properly Google probably wouldn’t immediately push you up.
  • It’s just expensive to properly maintain 20 sites with content, all to just prop up one site.  Why not put the effort into your main site?


Any good business owner should understand both of these techniques, and make an informed decision on where to allocate funds.  It’s not morality, it’s what do you need to do to compete with your competitors.  If every competitor out there for your target keywords is using black hat techniques, then you need to do so as well (just do it better).

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to do this at all, but it isn’t a perfect world.  Per the initial article that sparked my interest, there are “dicks” out there.

Keep in mind that I feel all white hat methods should be used before any black hat ones.  They are more cost effective.  You could always hope your competitor’s tricks will be discovered.

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