Black Hat / White Hat: Playing Dirty with SEO

Aug 20, 2008 • 8:25 pm | comments (7) by twitter | Filed Under Search Engine Strategies 2008 San Jose

Black Hat/White Hat: Playing Dirty with SEO Search Engine Strategies San Jose 2008 Wednesday, August 20, 2008 4:15p - 5:30p

Speakers: Jill Whalen, Bruce Clay, Dave Naylor, Todd Friesen, "on sabbatical" Greg Boser, 3 Dog Media

Moderator: Matt Bailey

(Town hall style debate. The initials preceding the comment indicate who is speaking.)

MB: Apparently, no one wants to be labeled, so let's start out by defining what "black hat" and "white hat". So let's start out by having Bruce and Jill define black hat and then let Greg and Todd define white hat.

BC: I think that black hat vs white hat are labels defined and applied by the search engines moreso than by the people in Search. The white hats tend to play in the middle of the acceptable area, the gray hats play near the edge of what is acceptable, and the people who are truly black hat are the people who consistently play in the truly unacceptable area. I think that if the only person you're hurting is yourself, you can be black hat all you want; however, people who do pain to their paying clients -- those are truly evil people.

JW: Black hat techniques are those methods that seek to decieve the search engines. There is spam and there are also "tricks" to make the engines believe your site is more releveant than it really is, or relevant to keywords that it's actually not. Those "tricks" are definitely black hat.

TF: White hat people are those who print out and laminate the Google Webmaster Guidelines, hang them on their wall and worship them every night.

GB: White hat is a euphemism for "SEOs with no game"

DN: I don't think I've ever seen a white hat site rank really really well in truly competitive verticals.

MB: It's come up a couple of times that black hat techniques can get you in trouble, so we know there is risk there. However, is there any risk associated with white hat techniques?

JW: White hat is making your site the best it can be, so really that's it, there's no risk with having the best site you can have.

BC: The way I look at it, if you're sitting at your laptop working on your website and Matt Cutts walks up behind you and your first inclination is to close your laptop -- quickly -- then you're probably not playing by the rules. I think that if you're doing things that are defendable in the face of inquiry and with the best of intentions, you can call yourself white hat.

TF: Look at cloaking, is it good? Is it evil? No, it's agnostic. It's a neutral technology that can be used properly or improperly.

GB: The crowd I run in, let's face it, we do some stuff that is "pushing the envelope" for our own personal sites and we look at it as R&D that sometimes pays us lots of money. Those learning experiences help us be better SEOs in general.

JW: Let's face it, there are white hats and black hats and then there are just plain old incompetent SEOs.

GB: There are a lot of people in this industry who just aren't qualified to do the work. They take jobs they don't have the experience or knowledge to handle properly and make promises they can't keep. Then they're in a position where they end up doing things they shouldn't to make good on their unrealistic promises.

DN: You know what's a big problem, it's when yer working yer nuts off on a site and then you find out that yer not the only SEO who's working on the site, and you start looking at it, and someone's been buying links in an uncontrolled fashion and thinking it's not leaving a footprint, when it's really leaving a big footprint. Most of the big mistakes come from someone within the organization who makes a decision to "help" and they don't really know what they're doing and they're doing more harm than good.

BC: People are looking at things like "should I invest the time building my site, making it expert, and building it into an authority site" or "should I just spend the money to buy 10,000 links and save all that time working on developing my site". If you

JW: I'd like to say something about "rules". You don't need to read the Google rules, because it's common sense. What's within the lines and outside of the lines is all known. We're all adults and you know what's right and what's wrong.

TF: I absolutely disagree that is common sense. If it were common sense, we wouldn't have an industry that's growing as fast as it is.

GB: Bruce is saying 3.5 years out versus 30 days out... I mean first of all I don't see buying links as bad or evil. The approach we talk with clients is this... if the client comes to me and I tell them it's going to take 3 years to get them to the top, that's just unacceptable, so we split the difference. We're always working with them to build a quality site so that when Google can actually accurately track and nuke the "bad guys" we will be the sole standing survivor, but until then we're simultaneously using "quicker" methods to stay competitive to not only start realizing gains sooner, but to also get the client on board to start incorporating *all* of the SEO recommendations.

MB: So is black hat SEO appropriate for every site?

DN: No! There are verticals that do not need it. I mean if you're in for the long haul and your industry isn't full of people that are buying links and stuff then you can go and be white hat all you want.

Audience Question: If you build a widget and it links back to you but it's on people's Facebook pages (behind their logins) do those links count?

Panel: No!

DN: I'd make a Wordpress plugin or widget and that would be great, but Facebook, no.

[Random questions...]

BC: I don't think buying links is essentially evil. It's commerce.

TF: The goal of buying links is essentially link acquisition. Buying links just jumpstarts the process.

MB: In other words, Todd, you're advocating "marketing".

JW: Yeah, go hire a traditional PR firm.

BC: I don't think a major, established brand should ever black hat.

GB: Yeah, you know, BMW did it and it totally burned them... for less than 48 hours. I disagree. I even wrote a blog post about it and said that big brands totally should spam search engines because they don't suffer any repercussions like little people do. Look at BMW specifically, no one ever went into a BMW dealer and said "You're cloaking! I'm going to go get a Mercedes!"

Matt Cutts: Ok, I just want to add a little disclaimer. I know the sites we take out, and not everyone outside of Google always knows who we take out. We don't always make announcements. We absolutely take action on big sites, we just don't always call them out.

GB: What about Forbes?

Matt Cutts: You'll notice they no longer have pre-sell pages. There's not always a need to call people out and pick on them. I think the question is, do you want to take that risk?

GB: Here's the deal, the BMW work was so amateur. They did it sloppy and they got caught.

DN: I know Google is holding back some companies in the UK that ought to be topping the SERPs for link buying and it's all hush hush.

Audience Question: So if we don't buy links, what DO we do?

DN: Content (obviously, I mean I don't want to say Content is King because that's so cliche at this point)

JW: There's public relations, there's social...

GB: Yeah but even with social if you don't pay someone to get it going on Digg it gets no traction anyway, so in the end it's all paid.

JW: and also, just because Google says it's evil doesn't mean it really is "evil".

Live blogged by Carolyn Shelby, co-host of SEO 101 on

Previous story: Facebook, Feeds and Micro-Blogging


Charlie Fredell

08/21/2008 03:58 am

I was at SES 2008 and wish I could been there as well. I did like this quote "JW: Let's face it, there are white hats and black hats and then there are just plain old incompetent SEOs." All the vendors at SES claimed they were the very best

Sukkim Lama

08/21/2008 04:05 am

Oh am very excellent track of news.


08/21/2008 05:38 am

Nice News and conversation. It is very useful for SEO people like me

No Name

08/21/2008 12:04 pm

They still don't really come to terms with what is black hat or how to get ranked in a reasonable amount of time.

Bill Kruse

08/23/2008 04:57 am

Um. Whatever your views, this doesn't sound like it would have been worth trekking all the way to wherever it was to hear. I'm none the wiser for reading this and I doubt I would have been for hearing these pearls in the flesh either. I'm glad I didn't go. BB

Mike Farley

08/28/2008 12:57 am

I read the live blog here after the fact and I agree, I wasn't "wow'd". However I DID attend this session in person, and it's amazing how powerful it really was and night and day to the live blog. A number of hot topics and tense moments weren't captured on the live blog and more importantly the back and forth, the attitudes and the emotions weren't captioned (how could you?). It was the best session I've attended at SES so far and a bit eye opening to really see how these "Top SEOs" on the panel really felt about google's guidelines and how the focus isn't black and white when it comes to tactics, it's knowing where the line is and how to walk it. That's where the comment about incompetent SEOs came from, those who don't know where and when to push and where and when to hold back. @noname: If you want to label white hat as following the guidelines or as Todd said 'put them on the wall and pray to them daily' then it's near impossible to rank in a reasonable time. Bruce Clay said it himself, you can rank in a month or rank in 3 years. The 3 years route is white hat, and it's good to think long term, but if the client doesn't want to wait and they know the risk, why not choose methods that might be walking that fine line. It's incompetent SEOs who don't let the client know the risks who are the dangerous people out there. Like I said, all around brilliant session. I'd love to see this roundtable type discussion every year.

Samuel Symes

09/27/2011 12:43 pm

There’s a pervading myth in the SEO industry that if you practice "whitehat" or "ethical" SEO, Google will pat you on the head and will reward you with excellent rankings. It's simply not true and not only does it confuse the real issues involved, it also attracts all sorts of gut level so called SEO experts with religious and moralistic overtones. If you rely on Google organic traffic for your online business model, you should realize that there’s a serious conflict of interest at play: your business model requires good rankings to achieve revenues, while Google couldn’t care less about your revenue. All they care about is your labor intense content to expand their database to create more attractive search results. As an online business you’re always being shortchanged: if your business goes belly up because Google updated their algorithms, Google will simply feature someone else in their SERPs without thinking twice about you. The convoluted debate that blackhat is risky and whitehat is safe is ludicrous to the extreme. There is no guarantee by Google that whitehat SEO will provide you good rankings. Like there is no guarantee that if you have good rankings, Google will ensure that you enjoy ranking consistency after an update.   Ethical or whitehat behavior only makes sense amongst equals. So, as an online business, are you really an equal to Google? No, you're not – the odds are stacked solidly against you. In fact, as long as SEO experts and search engines cannot agree by mutual consent on rigorously enforced TOS, worrying about the so called "ethics" is in reality a mere pastime for self-appointed prophets whom enjoy self-righteously sermonizing others.

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