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SEO : Sleepwalking Ever Onwards?

Alan Perkins's picture

I was privileged to be a speaker on the "Black Hat, White Hat & Lots of Gray" panel at the recent Chicago Search Engine Strategies Conference. Unfortunately, a worse than usual case of jetlag meant that, by the time of the session, I'd had only 5 hours sleep in the 60 hours since I had left my bed in England. I felt as though I was sleepwalking and by the end of the session I didn't feel alone. If those present were representative of the SEO industry, then the industry as a whole is sleepwalking towards disaster.

The idea of the session was for so-called SEO "White Hats" and "Black Hats" to make the case for their approach to SEO in five minutes or less, then for the audience to ask questions of the panel.

The first speaker was Jill Whalen. Jill made the point that real businesses with real sites never need to use black hat techniques, and that white hats can achieve long-term results with less stress. Prior to the show, Jill wrote an article, "Black Hat/White Hat", which summarised her position.

I spoke next. I stressed the importance of discussing techniques rather than people. I covered the main differences between Black Hat Techniques and White Hat Techniques, which I've summarised later in this article. I finished with the following contentious points for discussion:

  • That White Hat Techniques are ethical whereas Black Hat Techniques are not
  • That Black Hat Techniques are probably illegal, and that there is a slight chance that White Hat techniques are illegal too!

The next speaker was Mikkel deMib Svendsen. Mikkel showed some hilarious slides of people wearing hats of various descriptions. Mikkel went on to draw an analogy between SEO and war, based on the book "Marketing Warfare" by Al Ries and Jack Trout.

Next up was Todd Friesen. Todd took us through various black hat tactics such as referral log spamming and cloaking. In summary, Todd stated that one should be aware of the tactics competitors are using and be prepared to use the same tactics.

The final speaker was Greg Boser. Greg suggested that SEM stands for Search Engine Manipulation. He questioned whether aggressive search engine manipulation was really bad for the brand, citing examples of many major companies that cloak without penalty. Greg finished by stating that full disclosure to clients of the tactics being used and the risks being taken was essential.

The questions then followed:

  • Why is affiliate marketing considered black hat?
  • If Google gives geo-ip results, how is that the same as trying to fool a spider?
  • How do you know when you've been banned by search engines and how do you correct it?
  • What's the difference between Yahoo and Google black hat techniques?
  • Is buying links a black hat technique?
  • Does Google permit cloaking for Flash? Is it white/black hat?
  • What do the search engines owe the website?

These questions did not really get to the heart of the issue of selecting an appropriate SEO technique. This was disappointing. By focusing on the simple nuts and bolts, the real opportunity of the session was lost - to look ahead and see where the SEO industry is headed on its present course. In retrospect, I should have spoken more about ethics and law. The questions were about the topics we covered on the panel - not about the things that were left for discussion. So, in this article I will discuss what I said on the panel. In the following two articles I will discuss what (given that I only had five minutes to talk) I left unsaid, hoping to discuss - ethics and law.

My presentation was only one slide, consisting of the following table:

 Black HatBlack HatWhite HatWhite Hat
Content and LinksSearch EnginesHumans
Visibility to HumansHiddenVisible
Quality of WorkHiddenVisible
Search EnginesEnemiesNothing / Friends
Domains/BrandsDisposableCherished, Primary Domain
Site & RelevanceApparently ImprovedActually Improved
ResultsYes, "Short" TermYes, "Long" Term
Ethical TechniquesNoYes
LegalNo?Yes?

This slide summarises the difference between black hat techniques and white hat techniques. I'll now elaborate the differences.

Content, Links and Visibility

When using black hat SEO, the content on a page and links both on and to a page are developed for search engines to see. Humans aren't supposed to see them at all, and various black hat techniques can be used to hide them. If humans do see them, their experience is degraded because for example (as Todd Friesen demonstrated) the content may be machine generated garbage. When using white hat techniques, the content and links are designed for both humans and search engines to see. This means they must be at least coherent. The mistake that many white hat practitioners make is to produce visible yet ugly pages that don't read well, and therefore don't convert well.

Quality of Work and Peer Review

Since black hat practises are designed to be hidden from humans, the quality of the work produced by the practitioner is also hidden to humans. This causes a couple of problems:

  • Clients often can't tell what has been done on their behalf or in their name
  • The work is not open to peer review, so it would be difficult for professional organisations to review the quality of the work, too. This is likely to be more of a problem in future as the industry evolves.

White hat methods are visible to humans. Therefore, the quality of the work can be seen straight away, both by the client and by peers of the practitioner.

Search Engines - War and Peace

As Mikkel said, black hat practitioners tend to see search engine optimization as a war, and search engines and SEOs as the enemy.

The white hat approach is either to ignore search engines altogether, or to treat search engines in a friendly way.

When I say search engines can be ignored, I don't mean by SEOs! By definition, any SEO practitioner is in business because search engines exist. But white hat techniques may be used by people who are not SEOs, since a white hat technique almost always has an alternative audience. A web designer, information architect, copywriter or other person may use the same technique to talk to that alternative audience, and in the process produce a page that performs well in search engines, despite the fact that they are not an SEO practitioner per se.

Most white hat techniques, then, make sense in the absence of search engines, whereas black hat techniques have no utility whatsoever beyond search engines.

Misconceptions about Search Engines

There is a misconception that white hat practitioners strictly follow search engine guidelines. They don't. For example, I hardly ever read search engine guidelines. The work that I do makes sense for humans and that's all I need to know. I may refer to guidelines if I am doing something that is of no value to humans. Examples of such activities are setting up a robots.txt file; the use of meta tags; and free and paid submission, when appropriate.

There is also a misconception that search engine guidelines constitute a "terms of service", and by not following them one is breaking the TOS. This is not the case.

Domains and Brands

There is always a risk that a site will accidentally or deliberately be removed from a search engine's index, whether or not SEO is performed on that site.

Some white hat techniques can increase this risk. However, other white hat techniques (such as managing server moves or mitigating against valid content delivery techniques being misinterpreted as cloaking) can actually reduce the risk.

Black hat techniques, by contrast, will always increase the risk that a site will be deliberately removed from a search engine's index. Better black hat practitioners know this, will warn their clients of the danger and will have a strategy to cope with that danger. They may treat domains as disposable items. This is obviously not a suitable tactic if the work is being performed under the client's primary domain. Recently, problems were caused when Google dropped a number of domains from its index for using black hat techniques, when those domains were the primary domains of the clients of a particular SEO firm. These kinds of cases don't help to give the SEO industry a good reputation.

A white hat practitioner will normally work with the client's primary domain. They may offer a guarantee that the domain will not be deliberately removed from a search engine's index as a result of using their techniques.

Sites and Relevance

When we talk about relevance, we need to be clear what we are talking about. Like SEO techniques, relevance is not a black and white issue. There are lots of shades of grey.

Any individual person may say they find a page relevant to a particular keyword. That doesn't mean that it is among the most relevant pages on the Web for that individual or for other individuals. This is a subjective assessment.

Search engines work at the group level. To a search engine, every page in the index is relevant for every possible keyword. The question is "How relevant?" A search engine applies algorithms to determine a relevance score and orders its search results by that relevance score, most relevant first. Thus the results at the top of any set of search results are literally the most relevant. This is still a subjective assessment, as it is effectively made by the programmers of the search engine algorithms. However, as the assessment is made automatically by the algorithm, according to pre-determined criteria, there is also an element of objectivity to it. The function of a search engine is to deliver search results in response to keywords that the individual searchers in its target market find to be relevant - in other words, for its assessment of relevance to match its users' assessment.

Search engine algorithms mainly assess relevance based on the content that people will see on a page and the links that searchers will follow, both to and from a page.

When, in response to a particular keyword, a search engine scores a page low for relevance and therefore ranks it lowly, there are two methods for increasing its score and its ranking:

  • To apparently make the page more relevant, by deceiving the search engine algorithm that content will be seen on a page when in fact it won't or that links will be followed to or from a page when in fact they won't. This corresponds with black hat techniques.
  • To actually make the page more relevant by changing the content and link structure, but still using content that people will see and links that people will follow. This corresponds with white hat techniques.

Results from Black Hat and White Hat SEO Techniques

Black hat SEO techniques may quickly deliver results. However, due to the disposable nature of the domains, the results are often short term - although they can be long term.

White hat SEO techniques can take some time to implement (although not necessarily) but their results tend to last for a long time (although, again, not necessarily).

It's true to say, then, that both black hat techniques and white hat techniques can generate both short term and long term results for clients, whether results are measured in terms of rankings, traffic, conversion or profit. However, do the ends always justify the means? I don't think so. I believe that by continuing to condone black hat techniques the SEO industry is setting itself up for failure and sleepwalking into oblivion. The following two articles, Ethical Search Engine Optimization Explained and Search Engine Optimization and The Law, will expand upon this belief.

Alan Perkins : 11/01/2005