SMX Advanced Goes To The Dark Side

Mere seconds after the much anticipated Give It Up session ended on Wednesday, Virginia and I jetted to the airport to meet up with the rest of the BC team. We gathered in the Alaskan Lounge at Sea-Tac to wait out our one hour flight delay while unwinding and reflecting over cheeseburgers and beer (Bruce opted for the stew).

It may sound odd, but even though my office is literally next door to Bruce, I don’t get to have nearly as many face to face chats with him as I’d like. His travel schedule is among one of the most hectic I’ve seen and it’s rare that I see him more than a few days out of the month. But the conversation I had with him Wednesday night in the middle of a busy airport restaurant bar is something that will stay with me. It reminded me why I work at Bruce Clay.

Coming back from this show feels different than the others. Normally when I return home from SEO conferencing, I’m left feeling a bit wiser and a bit more assured of the industry I work in. This time I came home wiser, but also a bit confused.

Don’t get me wrong. There were a lot of great moments at SMX Advanced. The speakers, the venue, the friends, the networking, the desserts – they were all top notch. SMX Advanced is still one of the best shows around. The highlight for me was really the Developer Track. It was something I absolutely fell in love with. It was an entire track on how to build great, accessible Web sites. Those sessions gave attendees valuable insight that they could take back and use to make improvements to their site TODAY. It wasn’t about developing workarounds or exploiting algorithmic loopholes, it was about doing things right and avoiding problems from the start. That’s something every search marketer can get behind.

But at the same time, I couldn’t help but notice that this year’s Advanced show seemed to lean a whole lot more to the grey/black hat side of things. I couldn’t help but wonder: When did advanced search engine optimization get confused with being a black hat?

Here are some of the “advanced search engine optimization” techniques I picked up during my time in Seattle.

  • There are lots of old sites lying around on the Interwebz with great link juice. Buy them and capitalize on that. But do it carefully or Google will pick up on it and reset the score.
  • Conditional redirects are teh awesome.
  • Search marketers don’t need ethics. They’re marketers. Check the ethics at the door.
  • You can never have too many .edu links.
  • I need to grow some balls, stop fearing Matt Cutts and start buying links.

And though I can’t even mention the Give It Up panel for another 28 days, look at the folks who spoke. No judgments; I’m just saying that it looked very different from last year’s panel. You can’t tell me the SMX folks weren’t gunning for a certain shade of information there. When the embargo lifts for that session, SMX is going to get a lot of press.

But did attendees get what they were expecting from the show? I know I was certainly surprised by a lot of the content. I wonder who else was.

Microsoft’s Nathan Buggia seemed to be. During the Search Engine Friendly Development panel he specifically noted that he had to revamp his presentation after hearing what people were talking about the day before. He also wanted to stress that advanced search engine optimization was about analytics, not being a black hat. I was right there with him.

Where were the white hat advanced search engine optimization techniques in Seattle? Why was most of the material presented pushing grey and black hat? Are we supposed to believe that that’s what advanced SEO is – spamming? If so, that’s a bunch of crap. Or maybe SMX just thinks there’s no one qualified to teach advanced white hat techniques. I guess those folks were out drinking with all the ladies NOT on the Give It Up panel.

I don’t understand.

To me, advanced search engine optimization is about analytics, it’s about siloing, it’s about perfecting your site architecture so that you don’t have to even worry about tactics like cloaking for conditional redirects. There have to be other white hat advanced search engine optimization techniques out there. Why weren’t they covered?

The Developer Track started to take a really advanced approach but there just weren’t enough sessions. But that’s the stance I would have expected from a conference billed as advanced and being led by Danny Sullivan. If I want to learn about black hat SEO, I’ll go check out a forum or certain blogs. I don’t need to have that taught to me by folks representing the man who’s arguable the leader of this industry.

Sitting at the show made me realize why I like working at Bruce Clay, Inc. We don’t go down that road with our clients. Some of the black hat techniques taught at the show may get you results, but you’re also putting your clients in serious harm. We don’t believe in that. I simply don’t have any tolerance for folks publicly endorsing black hat SEO. And it’s not because I think “Google is good” or that the idea of people manipulating their algorithm or aggressively hunting for loopholes bothers me. Black hats get under my skin because (a) they’re not SEOs (b) they very often provide a bad experience for users and (c) they make the rest of us look bad by association. Why do I need to support that?

What was your take on the show? Did you get the information you were looking for?

Lisa Barone is a writer, content marketer & VP of strategy at Overit Media. She's also a very active Twitterer, much to the dismay of the rest of the world.

See Lisa's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (89)
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89 Replies to “SMX Advanced Goes To The Dark Side”

Doesn’t mean you shoud DO the bad and the ugly. Just means you should UNDERSTAND it inside and out.Like it or not the white hatter has manipulated the search results to their own benefit. Same as black hat in essence.

Anyway, as to SMX, the dark hat is not safe and stable. Although it may have a great effect at this moment, it won’t last long in the future. Maybe we can just wait and see the results. Reality will tell the truth.

On the flip side, I do understand why Danny in particular would want to limit the shadier stuff. I agree that’s best for the industry’s reputation. But if we are teaching morals, call it as it is. It should have a disclaimer that the techniques shown here only inlcude tactics approved by these [x] individuals. Anything against SE guidelines should ALSO be disclosed as such.

great post….lisa……!! Works great..!

well said, Chris. If you do something to hurt another site that could be considered criminal, that would be one thing. Doint something “Google asks you not to do” and being successful outranking others with it, that the Google’s and your competitors’ problem only. Which brings us back to the main reason why self proclaimed white hats get so out of shape when someone else figures out a more effective and easier way to achieve higher rankings than they do.

The thing is here that there is no black hat or white hat. You have to get that nonsense out of your head. ALL seo is ‘black hat’ if you think about it. All of it. Look at it this way. Say there are two sites and site ‘a’ has better and more comprehensive information than site ‘b’. Both sites are good but ‘a’ has just a bit better content.
Now here comes a ‘white hat’ cloaked in ethics (catch the pun?. Ok, so our white hatter sits down and says “ok, let me optimize the linking structure of this site (site ‘b’)…no black hat for me” and the white hatter goes on to optimize the site…internally.
Now, after this the white hatter says, “now I will get some links to this site, but not with software of any BH techniques as it is not ethical, I will instead ask for link exchanges via emai.” And so the white hatter gets some white links.
What is the result? Well, because the white hatter was very good at his job, site ‘b’, the lesser of the two sites, now outranks site ‘a’ even though site ‘a’ has the more valuable information.
Like it or not the white hatter has manipulated the search results to their own benefit. Same as black hat in essence.
If google were god everyone would just put content on their sites and all kinds of SEM (that’s Search Engine Manipulation) would be out lawed.
ANYTHING you do to increase the rankings of your site other than providing good free content is search engine manipulation. Period. It is not the technique which is white or blackhat but rather it is the general effect of the technique.
Ethically? I don’t see anywhere in the Bible where it says White hat seo is ethical and BH seo is not. Ethics? By whose standards? If you sell shitty products and you know it, but sell them anyway…you are unethical to me. Whether you promote these products through white hat or black hat doesn’t matter.
I’m online trying to market my business. I want to get my business in front of as many people as I can. Maximum exposure. Business principles. Does Google own the internet? Is it their house I’m playing in? Who said that Google can dictate to us what ‘ethical’ marketing is?
It is a game of skills just like the ‘real world’. All of us Seo’s are in a race to the top. There is no such thing as white hat or black hat. There are just different levels of expertise in seo.
There are no advance white hat techniques. You should know that already.
Think about how absurd it really sounds. You are “fooling’ a search engine. A piece of code. It is not human. Are we going to make the algorithm cry?
The ethics involved in seo or sem are, in the end, completely tied to the product or service being sold. For instance, if you are a WH and you promote a site that endorses child pornography is that ethical?
What if you promote a non profit site dedicated to the research of cancer but you use BH techniques? Are you now unethical?

I strongly believe that SEO is influenced marketing at its highest point. As SEO experts, we should considered the fact that we’re helping online visitors make an informed buying decision because we’re influencing the ranking of a particular website over another in the majors.

With this in mind, we can maintain our integrity and sleep better at night by implementing white hat tactics that will produced long term sustainable results for our clients.

I wish I had more time to frequent the forums, blogs and conferences.
I miss this shit :D
BTW – Colour is nothing but a state of mind!

Firstly Lisa, I’ll start by saying that I didn’t attend SMX. But I’ve seen some of the post conference blogs, and this is by far one of the more controversial that I’ve read.

I personally think that if so called black hat techniques aren’t discussed in the industry then this only limits our understanding of the engines.

The bottom line is that most SEO’s at one time or another have bought links, or looked at acquiring old sites, in order to reap rewards, and if we all sat at the edges of the circle, and just created linkworthy content – no one would eat, or worse still, those who didn’t mind bending the rules a little in their favour would be rubbing their bellies, laughing at the rest of us. I think pointing the finger at certain blackhats instead of saying bravo thanks for the information, and thus being informed on whether to use it or not is ridiculous.

In my own opinion its up to Google to filter the crap, and adjust their algorithm to reward white hat techniques over black hat. Until then, people are still going to be discussing techniques on both sides of the fence.

I keep saying that advanced white hat SEO is direct-response copywriting applied to content. I’m not smart enough to do anything black hat. :-)

More power to those who don’t ask for permission to do what they believe to be right.
No need to apologize, Danny. For anything.
Great decision and no shame in your game!

Marianne, I didn’t mean for anyone to think that Lisa was incurring my “wrath” for not contacting me first. About the only wrath I’d direct your way is if you call me “Mr” again :)
I wasn’t looking for Lisa to vet anything. I just would have liked the chance for her to have known beforehand that I agreed with things she was concerned about, rather than it seemingly like I was oblivious to some of these concerns.
But hey, people rarely do get in contact before writing up impressions of things. I’m as guilty as the next person, and I shouldn’t have started out my post to her that way.

Lisa, I enjoyed your post. I have sat back and not said much because I didn’t go. I do plan on going to SMX East. I do want to say one thing, I have been discussing SEO ethics for awhile on my blog. I have received a lot of hate mail, believe it or not. I have been insulted and belittled by people that are considered very influential in the industry. I asked Michael Gray, Matt McGee, Jim Hedger, Todd Mintz and others to contribute their thoughts on ethics because they are people I respect and I hoped people would think about their comments and maybe learn from them. I had to, again, sift through jerky emails and delete comments I didn’t feel should be on the blog. I don’t know what happened at SMX because I wasn’t there, but I will say that I am shocked at how many people don’t care about being ethical and/or doing what is right for their clients. I guess we all have to choose which side to be on…I won’t be choosing the dark side and I am glad to know you won’t either.

Hello Lisa and Kudos for a great post on your experience at SMX Advanced. I’ll be writing my own blog post this weekend and will likely incur Mr. Sullivan’s wrath as I will not be contacting him before hand to vet my impressions and experiences.
I am intrigued by the “Give It Up” session and will home for more detail once the “cone of silence” lifts. It is a credit to the conference, regardless of glitches or random disappointments, that choices have to be made. Despite missing what was a great session, I got something out of the one that I did.

Doug, when you dig things out, don’t forget how you were happy to abandon all your issues with me if we could just reach some business arrangement, apparently:

“By merging our views, I believe it would be a great help to our industry as a whole. Let’s face facts; if you continue on with another group, or even with your own group, you will always have that “pesky” IHY group who will be pretty much against many speakers, etc. I have a great way to get rid of all of that, and even keeping your own core people intact in some way.”

1. Somewhere around half-way through my twenty years of Aikido, I realized there were no “basic” techniques or “advanced” techniques — that applying the apparent basics really, really well was as profound and powerful and any apparently advanced technique. That is at least as true here. Perhaps even more so, since the fancy tricks won’t do much if the basics aren’t in place.
2. Name-calling or attempting to blanket paint what others are saying with negative emotional trigger phrases are no substitute for having a valid point, expressing it clearly and backing it up well.
3. Framing the discussion as right v wrong or moral v immoral is limited and is not the most useful way to look at all this. More useful, I think, is business and simple survival. Internet marketing is extremely rapidly being understood to be, primarily, MARKETING. A wonderful read though Neuromancer was, that’s not where we are going, in the foreseeable future. Those who don’t want to conduct themselves in a business-like and professional manner, and who want to carry on thinking they are some kind of post-punk, Neuromancer techno-outlaws, will be brushed aside as mainstream marketing and PR firms move more and more online. The role of conferences in fostering a professional and powerful industry is crucial.

I’ve seen Danny write this in the past at a few different places:

“We do not teach spam at the conferences.”

If he wishes, I could find all the references.

Now; not only are blackhats asked to speak at conferences and getting all the credibility associated with that, AND gaining new clients because of that, but they are also actually teaching spam and giggling about how they are getting away with it.

I find all of this astonishing. It’s hard to believe the industry has sunk to such a low level. Many leaders out there were totally silent on the lyndon fake content fiasco. … danny included. He never once wrote any type of article about it, but certainly will wrote stuff when it directly affects his conferences.

Someone asked above that blackhats should be touting their tactics instead of in smokey bars. I just got to ask why? Can’t the people in this industry see and understand the road the industry is going down? Why is it that only a very scant few of us totally understand what is happening, but people who are close to the conferences don’t see it?

Is it a money thing? How about a friendship thing? Or maybe a combination of the two? I truly don’t get it. Others don’t get it either… believe me. Those others just do not speak up as a very few of us do.

Danny; you are living in your own little bubble. You just don’t get that many SEO’s out there do not attend your conference for the same reasons I don’t attend. I know this for a fact.

You also never take a phone call from a site owner who hired a firm, and they do not understand what the firm is doing. At least you have not taken that kind of call in years. I take them. I take quite a few each month. You would not believe the goings on out there. Much of it stems from the site owners trying to verify a tactic by reading what ALL the experts are saying. Most owners are just totally confused about what is what. Your conferences are not changing this at all, but are confusing all the issues more than ever.

It use to be that blackhats were criticized widely in this industry. Not anymore. Matter of fact; it’s more of how much money can you give me for advertising today? It’s more of how can we do a better job of tricking Google without getting caught?

I am amazed.

Danny and others can ignore me and the things going on by spinning the same tune over and over. The fact is that there are many more people out there who are not a part of this industry. There are people truly wanting to do the right thing. There are people truly trying to understand. The atmosphere in the SEO industry is totally not conducive to learning at all. Too many have vested interests in keeping blackhats close to them. This blurs the lines greatly between right and wrong. Anyone saying they don’t see this is either totally blind or totally naive, or morally corruptive.

What a great thread. Thanks Lisa. I find this conversation stimulating as it makes me think through events of the past as I relate them to the dialog here. What a line up! This conversation is filled with long standing SEO professionals and industry giants. Surfing the web for SEO tips brings a sea of who knows what. Can you imagine what it must be like for someone that is new to SEO to sort through the myriad of online opinions and techniques and try to sort it into actionable items? Being able to place something at one end of the spectrum, Black or white, is a little easier because some stuff just fits nicely into one of those “hats”. I am wondering how we can include the context into the discussion for the “gray” items (the color, not the wolf). I think everyone has an example of a technique that works and could stand up to the legitimate technique test when x is true. i.e. Some paid links make absolute sense and represent no risk, and some don’t. How can we communicate the context of the middle ground, “gray hat” to a new person in a way that increases their understanding so they can learn to apply the “invisible discretion” sooner?

Javaun Moradi

I was late getting to this post but chimed in on Danny’s post on Search Engine Land
All in all, I did enjoy the conference and it stimulated a lot of thought. I especially liked the developer and analytic tracks. I think you’ll have a lot of takeaways and look forward to SMX Advanced next year.
My tome is in the thread, but on the subject of what is advanced:

Advanced can mean a lot of things. I think it does mean a greater understanding of how our work touches everything from development to usability, design, ecommerce, and analytics. We’re also coming into our own as strategists and online marketing managers. There is no one-size-fits all way to handle even fundamental tactics. We can argue whether PR sculpting is advanced. From a technical standpoint, it may or may not be. What is advanced is (as Nathan suggested) following a rigorous decision process as to whether it’s the best use of your time, bang for buck, and if so, how you would measure its results. I’ve spent months analyzing engine data, the search landscape, web analytics, our customer profiles, you name it. One of the major “advanced” initiatives I’m undertaking is drilling titles and alt tags with our writers. Why is that advanced? Because I’ve looked at my resources, my opportunity, and my expected outcome and in my long-term strategy, this is the right short-term move for my specific situation, for our team, for our site. Advanced does mean staying abreast of the cutting edge of tactics. Advanced also means the set of critical thinking and soft skills to actually get things executed in organizations of all sizes.


Honestly now-a-days who isn’t buying links? EVERYBODYis! Do you advocate creating content which attracts links? Oh my you have to pay a writer. Why are you creating this content? Oh its for links.. seems like your paying for links.

Are you creating content on other sites? Wow you have to pay people to write that content! Your buying links.

Are you competing in a competitive space? Wow you have to pay people to write content on sites, buy directory links at “authority sites” such as yahoo’s craptastic directory, submit to dmoz forget about it then bribe a editor because google likes dmoz’s dead directory, create link bait, pay programmers to create a blog & a forum, pay graphic designers, pay lots and lots of writers etc. etc. etc. and thats ‘white hat’

Hmmm. Seems like i am paying for links even though I’m white hat… wait I’m not, and nobody else is if they’re competing in a competitive industry worth the time.

If I can pop a squidoo page up and rank for you’re keywords your not in a competitive industry…

If you don’t know black hat techniques you aren’t going to be good enough for your clients.

Tom Steves

I was present at both SMX advanced conferences. Yes, last years was a bit wimpy white hat, and this years had a lot more of a black hat element. As if we didn’t know it was there. Hell, I would have liked to go to the London conference to get a closer look. Instead I got some of it here.
I stuck with organic throughout last year while I found a lot of good stuff in the SEM/Developer tracks this year.

Most of the anguished posts here on all sides have links to their websites. Of course that is completely white hat. Are any of them self serving in some way? Of course! Who is more self serving and self promoting than the SEO/SEM community?
I do want to thank Danny for a very interesting conference, and bloggers like Lisa and others for the great coverage and and thoughtful analysis.
I just don’t understand why most of you are angry and seemingly not part of the problem.

This is a comment / response directed towards Danny… please do not apologize for the content. Although I was not there, I agree that information needs to be shared and I’m sure the [black-hat] information did provide a lot of value for those present (whether or not they know it yet).

The majority of us detest lawyers and blame doctors for sky-rocketing health care yet we all want our kids to have a respectable career… like a doctor or lawyer. What gives?!

Black hats are out there and they are coloring your landscape. Why pretend they aren’t there? Do we pretend lawyers don’t exist? More importantly, why not try to learn from them? They wouldn’t be where they’re at if their collective strategies were worthless, correct?

Thank you for helping bring black hats out of the “smoky bars” to share their views and suggestions; thank you for allowing beginners to see just how “advanced” and speculative SEO could be; thank you for not pretending a big chunk of the industry doesn’t exist; and thank you for not censoring too much.

Could you have done things better? Of course! That is optimization and that’s what you do best.


I think the most useful whitehat info was in the Developer’s sessions. It was especially helpful that during the Dev sessions Vanessa Fox was accessible on Twitter to answer questions about the topics being discussed. After Day One’s litany of shady tips, Day Two’s Dev sessions were a breath of fresh air.

I’d like to thank everyone for the comments all around. It’s been really useful for me to get this type of feedback, and I appreciate it deeply.

Just as I had some people say privately to me that they felt I was being too defensive or hostile to Lisa earlier, I’ve also had some feel that I’m trying to sell some of the speakers down the river, so to speak.

I’ll clarify that a bit more. I’m proud to have had those speakers take part. They’ve shared blackhat things not in some smoky bar with a few select individuals but openly on stage, in the full glare of search reps watching. And I did consistently hear them warn about risks.

Yes, there were a few things I was embarrassed about, especially as I realized we had beginners in the audience who might not know better. I’ll single out Jay Young. No, I don’t think it’s anything goes. I do think there are ethics in marketing and limits you don’t go past. I don’t want to blog spam a tribute page to someone’s dead friend, as Mike Grehan once wrote about happening to him. And it is embarrassing to hear someone say that if some of those people are coming away with the idea that the conference overall is endorsing it, or that I’m promoting it.

That’s a difficult struggle — that people may not understand the idea of various opinions and ideas being presented with their responsibility to choose for themselves. As a conference organizer, I need to do more to setup and prepare people for that, especially when there are beginners around.

But while I might disagree with Jay, I’m glad to have had him take part and raised the issue. There was value in it.

I also want to go back to what Lisa wrote before:

“Where were the white hat advanced search engine optimization techniques in Seattle? Why was most of the material presented pushing grey and black hat?”

I don’t know that it was most of the material. I honestly do not know. I think there was more than I would have liked, because I know I want whitehat people to come away with practical tips, not just an education about what others are doing. And I certainly reacted and noticed the blackhat stuff more.

But there was a lot of whitehat. And in fact, there was a lot of whitehat even from “blackhat” speakers. So I think they deserve a little more credit that they are given — though I take nothing away from Lisa voicing her impressions as she saw it from the show. I do appreciate that.

I could go on and on as I do. So I did :)

Where were the white hat advanced search engine optimization techniques in Seattle? Why was most of the material presented pushing grey and black hat? Are we supposed to believe that that’s what advanced SEO is – spamming? If so, that’s a bunch of crap.

No, Advanced SEO Does Not Mean Spamming

That has a lot of thoughts from me on the show, the importance of design, the role of blackhat coverage, what SEO “is” and more.


I’m late to the conversation, I know, but I wanted to say that I’m glad this conversation is taking place. It’s especially encouraging to read Danny’s comments that he recognizes there is a problem and will work to fix it at next year’s conference.
I’m in the group that feels the topics of this year’s presentations veered too far into black hat territory. It isn’t what I expected from an “Advanced” conference. To me, advanced means that you are beyond shilling for links and scurrying into different corners when the light shines.
I agree that it’s important to understand the more blackhat techniques so you know them when you see them. However, I don’t recall any of the blackhat information being presented that way. If a presentation had been called “Blackhat Techniques And Why You Need To Know Them” then that could have been useful. But that’s not how they were presented. They were presented like a group of teenage boys giggling about what they were getting away with.
I agree with commenters who have said that it would be great to have more content for those of us at agencies with large clients and the SEO challenges we face. I couldn’t really go to them and say “How bout we buy a lot of spammy links and point them at your competitors?” which was suggested by a presenter. That wouldn’t go over so well.
But like I said, it’s great to hear that this isn’t what Danny wanted and hopefully next year “Advanced” will have a different definition.

Yes Todd; Many of us know how you view things. The prevailing thang in the industry now is mainly about how do we trick Google now and in the future without getting caught.

Kudos to you for following that wisdom. Not me. I won’t get caught with pants down when some group comes around and doesn’t include the blackhats in the group.

Great post Lisa
I agree totally with you.

Maybe a way to get past all the black-hat talk is to put together the white hat stuff we need to know more about to really be advanced.

My list includes:

a) Testing. I like Rand’s tests and results, but there is a paucity of information on developing good tests (and measuring their results). Too many in the industry (as Josh wrote earlier) just talk about and implement the latest verbal fad.

b) Analytics/Measuring. Posts on the analytics track made it sound really good (wish I had been there). The industry needs to talk more about what measurable business benefits a tactic brought (whether on-page, on-site or off-site), how much it cost (development labor dollars and marketing dollars), and whether the ROI was worth it. Even better if we can get past the “we can’t guarantee anything and therefore don’t predict anything” to the “based on our past experience we think these types of results are probable with this tactic”. How do we get from here to there?

c) Process and methdology. Turn SEO into a well defined and repeatable process that managers can understand and junior folks can be trained on. And then plug tactics in to be tested, measured and prioritized. Would love to hear more about what this process looks like for others.

d) Scaling. It’s fine to get one page ranking high for one broad phrase, or a small number of pages for a small number of phrases. But how about enterprise sites that have 1,000,000 pages with 2,000,000 target tail keyword phrases (ecommerce and directory sites)? Which tactics do you prioritize?

e) International SEO. Good to see there was a panel on this. Enterprises want to go global – how do they get global traffic from Baidu, Naver, Yandex, etc. How do you handle language issues? What are the material SEO differences among the engines?

My 2 cents on advanced SEO…of course, the black hat stuff is more sensationalist and always interesting…

Too Black vs. Too White. Wow – there’s a new arguement:) You folks keep discussing this, and I’ll be over here figuring out what works today versus what’s going to work 10 years from now, and what level of risk I’m willing to take on both.

Hey evilgreenmonkey, I have absolutely zero interest in antagonizing you but I was just reading your last response here and thinking back about your very enjoyable give it up presentation and having trouble reconciling the two.

Oh, I forgot:
Derrick; Kudos to you for standing beside Shari and speaking the truth. You work for Microsoft right? what do they think about conferences teaching spam? I believe they do their very best to fight spam because we all know spam is the one thing that can ruin a search engine for it’s users real quick. Since that’s the case, it’s hard to believe that any major search engine loves spam being taught at these conferences as it seems it goes against many things you all try to do, right?
The idea that people should know the blackhat tactics is just crazy stuff. Do people who make up other industries need to know how to cheat their industry in order to do well in them? I don’t think so.

Hi Rob (evilgreenmonkey)
You wrote:
“Yay, Doug! I missed your rantings and conspiracy theories, where have you been all this time?”

Well, been busy with clients and at one of the few places that does not teach spam. Thanks for asking.

Rob wrote:
“Are Matt Cutts and Danny still giving black hat advice? Don’t worry, we’ll get them eventually.”

Danny does by virtue of being associated with spammers for money and that feeling of being loved by everyone I guess. Matt? I didn’t know he did. Must have been before my time… 1996.

“That tin foil hat looks good on you man, keeps those evil frequencies out.”

I have a daughter your age Rob. I don’t whether to sit you in the corner or spank you. Maybe when you grow up you will realize that praising the fake content deception that lyndon pulled was in fact very unethical.

Michael (Graywolf) Thanks, but no thanks. Terry wrote that I’m not in “your” good o’l boys club, and I am not. Besides, the conference would not be able to get me to show up even if they paid me to sit in the audience. Just like at the old builder shows I attended, spammers were thrown out.

Someone asked what the industry wants to look like in 5 years. I’m thinking some form of governing body will reign supreme over the industry by that time since the industry doesn’t seem to have any morals or ethics to speak of, and certainly cannot police itself as this thread clearly shows. It was also very evident with the fake content fiasco of which many in this thread and at spin praised lyndon for being unethical in every way possible.

Nice job guys and gals.

“We all know that people are the same where ever you go. There is good and bad in everyone. We must learn to live, learn to give eachother what we need to survive together alive.
Ebony and Ivory live together in perfect harmony…”
This is one of the best threads EVER! Thanks Lisa for sharing your thoughts. Special thanks to Danny for being the best possible “Godfather” of the industry. I am proud to be a part of it, even with all the controversy.
One other thing I want to comment on… Shari Thurow’s SEO strategies are not dribble. She is a pioneer in the perfectionistic approach to SEO. Her approach is as advanced and challenging as any technically-driven work-around or black hat technique.
I love you all!

Doug isn’t one of the “ole boys club” so the only way he sees a show is if he’s willing to shell out the rediculous $s they charge to listen to industry brown nosers.

Funny thing is that 90% of what is called advanced SEO here is just uninspired web promotion. Buying domains isn’t optimizing a thing but the clients wallet! I wish we could just all agree the off page stuff is just so much “SEO BS” it’s not SEO, it’s web promotion!

“That’s all nice, but blackhat is NOT SEO. Never has been and never will be.”
SRSLY? That’s just inaccurate. Blackhat SEO might not be ethical SEO, *YOU* might not label it SEO, it might not be good SEO, but if SEO is a collection of techniques, skills, strategies, aimed at making sites more visible and rank higher in search engines for certain target phrases, then black hat SEO *IS* a form of SEO. Might not be a good one, but it IS one.
@Michael Linehan
If it was an email marketing conference, I would suspect sessions like that would get a very high draw as well. And at the one small email conf. I went to, that’s pretty much the stuff the more wiley vets were interested in hearing and sharing. Plus, I equate search engine *spam* more to splogs, doorways, and scrapes, *maybe* even crappy thin sites and parked domains. Ya know, stuff a user doesn’t want but it’s delivered to them anyways. Not quite the same as site aquisition, siloing, sculpting, strategic redirecting, etc. Those techniques can and should be used in accordance to guidelines and for the benefit of the user AND the site owner.
Listen, I am not waving the flag for blackhat techniques. I don’t even practice them. I’m just saying ethics and tactics are two different things. IMO it’s imperitive to have a wholistic knowlege base of how to rank sites. That means knowing the good, and the bad, and the ugly. Doesn’t mean you shoud DO the bad and the ugly. Just means you should UNDERSTAND it inside and out.
Head to head, somebody who understands both sides, and everything in between, stands a better chance against someone who understands one version of it. Plus, if you wanna be holier than thou, then how can you even REPORT sites if you don’t fully understand the strategies they are using that got them ahead of you?
It’s like an MMA fighter vs. a boxer. Uness they match-up in a pure boxing match, the MMA fighter will usually kick a boxer’s ass. Because they are more well rounded. People who refuse to fully embrace the rest of the game are left only with their hands and no legs so to speak. Uhm, that analogy was a stretch but you catch my drift.
On the flip side, I do understand why Danny in particular would want to limit the shadier stuff. I agree that’s best for the industry’s reputation. But if we are teaching morals, call it as it is. It should have a disclaimer that the techniques shown here only inlcude tactics approved by these [x] individuals. Anything against SE guidelines should ALSO be disclosed as such.
In the real world, as long as there are loopholes, and as long as there are people raking in dough from exposing them… knowing only half of the equation puts you at a competitive disadvantage. Those willing to push the limits will continue to kick ass a lot of your verticals.
It’s BS, yeah, but it is the reality of what’s out there. And we all gotta deal with it.
So to sum it up, let’s just separate church and state already. This is getting old (tho it doesn’t really ever get boring IMO)

Great post. Have been following the comments and had to chime in. This was my 1st SMX event, yet I’ve been in the industry since doorway pages and hidden text in 1999. (Confession: Been there, done that.)

I think Danny did a great job in putting on the show and responding above. Fortunately, he didn’t serve as a dictator and control the speakers’ content. From this conversation, I imagine he’ll implement some guidelines, however, for future events. So the discussion is valuable.

As Michael mentioned, where does the industry want to be in 5 years? Let’s pull together and work toward that. If there continues to be backbiting and so much Black Hat, then we give fuel to our SEO Trademark villain who thinks trademarking the term will set us straight and provide standards, his.

Give it Up? I actually enjoyed it, however. Yes, some of the content was like the steroid approach mentioned above. But, some VALUABLE strategies and insights were delivered as well. It was like an R-rated movie. The R delivered some approaches I don’t want in my SEO life. Most of the people I spoke with after SMX said the 30-day silence period didn’t matter to them. They weren’t planning on going down that road. There was some good PG stuff and a little PG-13.

In my rating system, PG is true Optimization. PG-13 is Gray. R is Manipulation. If it’s not squeaky clean, we loose reputation.

@doug heil I forget how much fun you are sometimes, you really should come to a conference and speak now and then. Or at least come to a networking event have a beer or two and chat.
If you don’t like the direction the industry is moving in best place to change it is there at the shows not comments on a forum or blog. Really I’d love to see you come.

“Black hats get under my skin because (a) they’re not SEOs (b) they very often provide a bad experience for users and (c) they make the rest of us look bad by association.”

I was surprised at how much there was – some of the extreme being the praising of the completely fabricated 13-year-old’s story as brilliant marketing and statements like, “We’re not here to be moral; we’re marketers” and “You’re not going to get creamed, the site will, so don’t worry about it.”

Since when is telling a bald-faced lie brilliant marketing? And for morality I think, do you have no morality? None? You’ll just help child pornographers, arms dealers, tobacco companies, etc.? If the answer to that is “No”, then there clearly is a line that even the blackest hat will draw. So it’s just a matter of where the line is drawn, and how the line is decided.

“There’s a market for it. Somebody will fill that void. Why not SMX?”
By that logic, it’s fine to have a session on how to
– carry out an email “pump and dump” stock scheme
– develop a Nigerian email scam
– get past the spam filters and send at a million emails
The fact that there is a demand, does not mean it should be presented at a conference purporting to represent a professional industry.

I think the question then becomes strategic. Where does the industry want to be in five years? Then make decisions according to that goal and plan. It cannot be based on “anything goes” or “whatever we can get away with”. I think that just deepens the perception of “they’re just fringe geeks with their own rules and no morals” — which to most people with money means “jerky little twerps” — which means the companies with big money are going to go to Ogilvy for their web stuff. (Simplistic on Ogilvy, but I think you know what I mean.)

I am sure that most of us want to build solid, professional, long-term success for our clients, and for ourselves. I don’t think that comes from pump and dump stock schemes — or by making making completely fabricated news articles.

Yay, Doug! I missed your rantings and conspiracy theories, where have you been all this time?
Are Matt Cutts and Danny still giving black hat advice? Don’t worry, we’ll get them eventually.
That tin foil hat looks good on you man, keeps those evil frequencies out.
Lots of love, Rob.

Doug Heil

Rob wrote this when “despinning” what Lisa wrote:
“I agree with Matt. Although I’m quite close to the situation, I still think this story is extreme and out of kilt with the general consensus.”

Of course you are close Rob. Well duh? You are only danny’s left hand man at his main social site so what the heck would you say anyway? And just what or who is the general consensus you speak of? If you think your own little circle of buddies is the consensus, you are gravely mistaken.

And Rand wrote pretty much the same thing. Well duh? Same goes for you.

And Chris Hooley wrote this above:
“Teach people *everything* there is to know about SEO AAAND guide them down the right path.”

That’s all nice, but blackhat is NOT SEO. Never has been and never will be. No need to know how to cheat and spam to do well. You don’t realize how many calls some of us get with an owner wanting a review of what their SEO is doing OR NOT doing. Just last week I had one of them. The SEO did nothing at all with their site… nothing. They did the social media thang and the link thang as they stated thru email that this is what was needed these days according to the “experts”. I had never heard of the SEO before but it’s VERY obvious they are listening to some of you people about what is what in this industry. The fact is this: The site was a total mess from backend to frontend. I’m very sure the SEO had no idea how to fix the site.

I told the owner to blow up the site and start over again. He wasted money on this SEO he had hired last October. If the damn site was fixed as it should have been 6 months ago, the site would not have seen an across the board decrease in positions in Google the last couple months.

I’m sick of this industry allowing spammers to be a part of it. It’s been nothing but headache after headache for the unsuspecting owners out there.

wow i really wish i’d seen this, sounds like it would have been very interesting. You have to be an idiot to attend a session like this and not expect some darker shades of grey to come out.
As long as the more dangerous info was presented with a disclaimer (ie tread carefully, don’t use this stuff on your clients etc) then I don’t see a problem. As John said “It’s definitely not Black and White”. I think it is beneficial to learn as much as you can. What you do with that info on the other hand is up to you.

Wow – this is like an old-fashioned 90’s discussion forum thread at IHelpYou, Doug Heil and all!

While unable to attend the event, I applaud Lisa and Danny for eloquently discussing their thoughts. In Danny’s case a great example about how to manage your reputation online.

As for the white hat/Black hat debate, it really has been flogged to death and is the main reason I never got involved in forums much to begin with.

It is a bit like the 100 metre sprint. You can take steroids or growth hormones, cheat the system and maybe win a gold medal, or steer clear of the drugs, train your backside off and still struggle to compete. As an athlete you need to understand the risk and reward of both routes to make an informed personal decision. As for me, I’d steer clear of the steroids – they make your balls shrink!!

Lisa actually it is a good idea to talk Black Hat at SMX. It is up to each individual Webmaster to figure out if they want to be Good or Bad!
But teaching Webmasters what is Black Hat may convince them to stay stay away from Black Hat!
Black Hat only works until you get caught! also the amount of time and energy you invest in gaming the search engines with Black Hat is bad ROI.
I think I spend 5 minutes a month on SEO on my business Website. You set it up right the first time, and just fine tune it once in a while.
I guess Google Likes me! lol

I wasn’t there. But after reading this, I wish I was even moreso than before.

ETHICS and TECHNIQUES are two different things. If you want to hear about techniques that work, you want to generate discussion, you want a session to be remembered, then you can’t leave the more high risk / high reward techniques out. These techniques aren’t illegal, unless Google somehow also figures out how to corner the market on generating the world’s laws. They just don’t fit within most of the white hat SEO’s morals or ethics.

What if there was a session DEDICATED to blackhat techniques, with a big honkin’ disclaimer that this isn’t your stance, but here is the info… and also a session on SEO ETHICS. I bet BOTH sessions would draw well. But I be the blackhat one would be the biggest draw. Because that’s what people want to hear.

Why do you think Boser, Rand, Todd, and most of the speakers on that panel have a cult like following and always draw well when they speak? They are not teaching anybody to do anything illegal, and they aren’t preaching their morals (though I’ve read some posts that contradict that last statement).

They are simply telling the truth about techniques that do actually work to get sites ranked. Black, gray, white, purple, whatev.

Whether the info presented fit into anybody else’s morals, or even the community as a whole’s ideals, seems like a moot point. There’s a market for it. Somebody will fill that void. Why not SMX?

And if we’re so worried about educating people about the shadier practices, why not foster discussions on search ethics as well? Then we can accomplish both goals. Teach people *everything* there is to know about SEO AAAND guide them down the right path.

Lisa, I thought the analytics presented during the conference were amazing. I came home and started wiring in all sorts of new analytic hooks nearly breathless with excitement.
The international SEO advice was brilliant. Rand’s mastery of advanced Query Operators was stunning.
How is it that all of a sudden out of nowhere we’re all “going black.”
It seems to me that in 1999 everyone was blending masses of 8 pt. keywords in with similar hexadecimal colors close to the background.
Heck SEOs FORCED the engines to discount and finally eliminate meta keywords because we spammed the bejeusus out of them. Was it somehow magically “cute” then or was there just less at stake?
There’s an example of “gray” from every generation of SEO. That’s why Matt Cutts has a job. :) Long live SEO.

Doug Heil

Wow. The blackhats speak up in here as well. Good for you all. Just wait until this industry finally wises up and you all will be out of a job.

And this:
“I heard two different speakers talk about how to make Flash files crawlable and rank well. Can any of the self-proclaimed white-hats repeat that information back? No. It’s boring.”

Oh yeah? First off; I don’t need to “make flash files crawlable” as you say someone spoke of. There are plenty much easier ways to accomplish what you want to do. I also don’t need to tell you how to do it as it’s VERY obvious those speaking don’t have ONE clue.

And Greg wrote this:
“It isn’t about listening to Shari Thurow regurgitate the same drivel about how awesome she is and how all you need is “search usability”.”

Let me tell you something Greg; I’d take Shari and all of her “drivel” as you call it over any blackhat cheater any day of the week.

Is this what the SEO industry is now? It’s a damn joke. Jason Calacanis is very right about this industry. So are the many others who think it’s nothing but cheaters and tricksters. Just read this thread and read the blogs about the sessions and anyone out there would come to the same conclusion.

Lisa was very nice from what I have read about this latest conference. Kudos to Lisa for being extremely diplomatic. Not me. The biggest problem this industry has is being too nice to spammers and giving them a podium to tout their wares and teach spam.

A lot of great points Lisa – I didn’t attend SMX as the timing wasn’t right for me this year, so I’ve been relying on bloggers to keep me in the loop.
I personally, will continue to stay away from Black Hat techniques, although the link buying options available are gaining ranks for our competitors, I can’t risk my clients websites this same way. I’ve earned my clients’ respect, it would be incredibly irresponsible for me to put their websites into a situation that could ultimately reduce their profits.
Danny, it’s always wonderful to read your responses to controversial posts, you continue to earn my respect as a leader in this industry. Keep up the great job.


*** It isn’t about listening to Shari Thurow regurgitate the same drivel about how awesome she is and how all you need is “search usability”. ***

So why is it then, that so many sites still get those basics totally wrong? I don’t think that site architecture and usability issues are drivel at all. Sure, they are not “advanced” but they are relevant, necessary, and things that make a positive contribution to a site.

Lisa, Lisa, Lisa…
I’m not surprised this topic came up, because it always does. But I’m a bit surprised it came from you.
First off, as the person who programmed the give it up session, I think it’s important for everyone to know that I didn’t get a single pitch from anyone who would be considered a white hat genius. If I wold have, I would have definitely added them to the panel.
The reason I didn’t get any is because give it up is supposed be a session about giving up a tip that might allow you to get ahead in the SEO game yet isn’t something that is common knowledge. It isn’t about listening to Shari Thurow regurgitate the same drivel about how awesome she is and how all you need is “search usability”.
The kind of content that all the white hat zealots feel is morally acceptable was well represented at SMX. The link building and give it up sessions were designed for those looking for real, actionable solutions to help them cope with completely arbitrary and asinine standards of what is “good content.”
You can sit back and call buying links, site acquisition tactics, or creative redirection strategies black hat all you want. But the reality is that those types of strategies are indeed what is required to compete in a huge chunk of the spaces on the web.
And as long as that’s the case, people trying to compete in those spaces should be able to get reality-based advice that will give them the knowledge needed to make intelligent decisions as to how to best proceed.
Listening to a bunch of lame “follow the rules and it will all work out” crap isn’t a realistic path until Google figures out how to either discount all the techniques they hate algorithmically, or hires enough people to effectively police the entire web in order to make sure those that follow the rules aren’t getting screwed.
I may be a bit cynical, but I don’t think there is much chance of either of those happening anytime soon.

Darren Slatten

SEO ethics are nothing more than an extension of human nature. White-hat SEO isn’t popular, because human beings are more greedy than ethical. There were a lot of advanced white-hat topics being discussed, but they don’t stand out in anyone’s mind. White-hat is boring.

SMX Advanced provided a broad range of information. It had something for everyone. In the developer sessions, I heard two different speakers talk about how to make Flash files crawlable and rank well. Can any of the self-proclaimed white-hats repeat that information back? No. It’s boring. Microformats and schemas… or stealing content and automating links? Which one is everyone going to talk about?

SMX provided plenty of white-hat material, and I think it’s a shame that everyone overlooks it. Look at the comments on this post! Even the white-hats want to talk about the black-hat topics!

Danny… there’s nothing wrong with your conference. It is human nature that is to blame.

To all you “white-hats” that are complaining… you are no better than anyone else. Instead of dwelling on what’s negative… you should be promoting what’s positive. Instead of commenting on this post and trying to defend your false sense of good vs. evil… why don’t you write up a guide on how to get a purely-Flash website to rank well?

To Google… The reason we invented JavaScript, CSS, Flash, etc. is because they IMPROVE THE USER EXPERIENCE. Is there some reason why your algorithmic understanding of these technologies is so pathetic? Why don’t you guys just program Google with artificial human intelligence already, and make this whole issue moot? I’ll tell you why… because you have limited resources and you have to prioritize. And just like the rest of us… you’re first priority is self-preservation.

We’re all putting ourselves first. We’re all greedy. The entire human race is black-hat. Period. Everyone needs to just point at themselves. Well… except for you, Jesus.

Maybe the issue is less about the content, and more about the “Track” that it was contained in (it was still entertaining whether you think it crosses the ethics line or not).
If I had known what was being covered, I would have taken my mostly-white-hat self over to the paid search track. Maybe next year things could be labeled differently, like “White Track” vs. “Shades of Gray Track”, or even organized a little different with a “Corporate Track” vs. “Small Business Track”. Most of those items in the shady category aren’t anything I would expect to see large corporations doing. (I could be naive)
Agree with previous folks that search analytics, as well as the developer track was done quite well. If anything, would like to see those expand and push the sophistication up a notch.

There were some great “advanced” panels (analytics, intl) and some lousy “101” ones (bot herding). Re the blackhat stuff – If this were a homeland security conference don’t you think there would be a lot of interest in a panel of guys who hacked into the Pentagon’s computer system?

Blackhat info is pretty darn entertaining and interesting, whether you choose to use the techniques or not. If I were an in-house SEO I would be dying to know about this stuff, maybe not to use it, but at the least to understand it so I know what’s going on out there. After all some black hat might be affecting my business by pushing me down the results with some wacky technique. Yesterday I was on the phone with a big name client who is having some rep management issues. I mentioned one of the controversial techniques that I heard at the show and I’ve got to tell you “shock” was not what I heard on the other end of the phone.

Ethics should be part of the discussion but where to draw the line is a personal choice.

So Danny I say for next year lose anything that is not truly “advanced”. Definitely bring on more discussion about analytics and about how to use technology to build great, search engine friendly websites. And definitely bring on more discussion about how to exploit search engines, black hats and all.

I didn’t attend this time, but WHY I didn’t attend is relevant. The speaker line up is ESSENTIAL to evaluating a conference. This time, the session pitch guidelines were very specific, and after reading them I decided that, as a potential speaker, I didn’t fit in anywhere. I also couldn’t picture most of the “regular” speakers fitting in, either.

As various speakers did fill in the agenda slots, that helped me decide not to attend. Of course the speakers define the conference.

Vanessa ended up white-labeling the developer day with speakers from the major search engines. How else could she meet the guidelines? What familiar SEO speaker is “advanced” at developer issues, and what SEO-savvy developer is going to share for free + a free registration at an SEO conference? None that I know.

I expected the developer day to be good for the SEO crowd, but not “advanced” from my own perspective. Truth is we rely on leadership to define the tone of the industry, and that leadership is often relying on conference speakers and agendas for the same.

I consider myself hard core SEO but I’m not a black hat trickster, and not chasing trends like what has been called Social Media Optimization. I focus on what matters, and that includes substantial amounts of technical developer work, research, and interactive SEO. The bottom line is you need to compete and be profitable.

I’m also not easily fooled by suggestions like yours that these BH tricksters give the real SEOs at Bruce Clay a bad rep. You may have been a baby when Bruce was plying his craft back in the day, Lisa, but let’s not pretend we never spammed the engines, ok?

I love the post and the discussion… SEO is complex and worthy of more, and we should all demand it of our self-proclaimed leaders. It’s definitely not Black and White.

Lisa, you pretty much summed up exactly how I felt about the conference.

I had a great time at give-it-up – possibly more fun than any session in all of the 4 SMXs I’ve attended. Most people love hearing about if not practicing) these shenanigans and it’s always a great cap to the show. But Lisa’s points are well-taken.
I mean…I love to void warranties as much as the next geek but did that align with the attendee base? I seem to remember a sea of hands when the audience was asked “who’s in-house?”
I’m not in-house so I don’t know, but do we really think these folks will be mod-rewriting their brand off the Internet anytime soon?
I know it’s not as much fun as mad-scientist highjinks but SMX has only scratched the surface of advanced white-hat topics.


i thought this was a fantastic reflection post and while i was unable to attend this conference, i read the vast amount of posts that covered the sessions.

perhaps i needed to be there to get a less than white hat feel, but all the information was great, but i always believe that using bits and pieces of any technique that is given is the best way to go.
it’s up to the optimizer how they want to use the information and the knowledge they’re given to meet their clients expectations…

i think the conversations in the comments was the best part of the post… i look forward to reading Danny’s post about whether or not seo’s have lost their way because the comments he posted here were insightful and almost raw thoughts. thanks Lisa for posting this, i’m going to enjoy all the conversations about this in the future :D

Danny, kudos for being so accountable and open about the issues here. And kudos again for Lisa to address this issue, it’s not an easy one.
I’d also like to add, as a long-time SEO who’s new to conferences – there’s definitely a “cool guy” camp where black hat = awesomeness and white hat = lameness. In the end the only truly scalable approach to search marketing is white hat imo. Black arts don’t scale (I’m not saying they don’t work, just that they have to constantly be changed and sites have to constantly get killed off/start over).
Everyone can make up their own minds about that. Key issue is advanced SEO is not equal to black hat. Part of my presentation was this comment: to me advanced SEO has always been about balancing what’s right for users with what’s right for search engines.


*** first click free is now fine to do in web search results. That’s new. And that would have been cloaking until it came out as OK at this show. Black hat became white hat somewhere along the way ***

I have never considered that technique as black hat. It is merely exposing subscription content to indexing. Nothing black hat about that at all, but we’ve (the industry, that is) had this conversation already.

Black hat is, well, err, Matt has given plenty of examples of cloaking in the past… serving keyword stuffed content to Google and other bots, and a “normal” page to real users. That’s cloaking; content swapping for a deceptive reason.

You’re a stand up guy, and for the record, I would never have classified any of your comments as being “defensive” or “unsupportive”. You put together a great show and it was unfortunate that some of the content presented pushed things a little too far and perhaps gave off the wrong impression about what advanced SEO really is.

I’ve had two people I trust tell me they feel like my comments here sounded defensive and unsympathetic to Lisa. So for the record, I agree with much of what she said.

The conference had content that was far more blackhat that I would have liked to have seen. It had content I was embarrassed to see presented, because it is not about the type of SEO I’d like people to learn or know about. I felt sorry that I oversaw a show that may have pushed things backwards rather than forwards.

Yes, it is useful for people to understand the blackhat world. But there’s more to advanced than blackhat, and I wanted a lot more of that to be shown.

Important post Lisa!
I’ll relate my experiences – as a first time speaker to SMX Advanced, I was pretty nervous about my presentation. My topic was centered on user experience/white hat reasons nofollow may not be the best decision for internal PR flow. In a way I felt like I was a voice in the wilderness – I’ve never thought conservative “white hat” stuff would align me with search engines and oppose me to SEOs. Yet I felt that way (at least a little bit) at the show.
It was annoying to have to quote Matt Cutts so extensively in my presentation – I couldn’t find any official Google speak on nofollow apart from Matt’s own words. It made me feel like I was trumpeting the Google horn, which I wasn’t – just trying to get at the core of the issue using documented research. It did align me pretty firmly on the side of search engines, but not intentionally as part of my arguments. Just happened that way I guess – when you get down to it relevance and user experience are cornerstones of white hat search marketing and they’re key to Google too.
As for the conference, I think the content was pretty excellent all in all. I agree it was darker than I expected, but we need that balance. These conferences aren’t easy to pull off I’m sure.

Most well-trained speakers/panelist have a sense of their audience’s expertise level by either research before the conference or quick show of hand during the presentation. Since there don’t seem to be such clear “levels” in an audience like SMX Advanced it makes it a bit more difficult for a speaker to know how to present. So maybe that’s an area that can be looked at in the future. Also, the idea of Black/White hat seems to have messy boundaries. So speakers/panelists might need to present their understanding of whether the idea they present is Black/White/Gray. Then the responsibility for clarifying how an idea is placed in the spectrum falls clearly on the speaker’s shoulders, not the producer of the event. No producer can know in advanced exactly how a speaker will present, however guidelines and suggestions are always welcomed by those in the speaking profession. Seems to me that both Lisa and Danny want the same thing: greater clarity from the presenters.

Just my 2 cents worth.

Doug Heil

Oh Gee; is this a surprise? Nope. It is heartening to see more people speaking out. What’s also not mentioned is the added credibility blackhats are getting at these conferences as well. Someone above stated that the industry is more run by blackhats now; I couldn’t agree more with that… sadly. It’s the industry’s fault for this.

“the simple matter is that Black Hat SEO is at the cutting edge of the industry.”

I’m sorry Rob, but I just don’t think that’s true at all. Sure, there are cutting edge black hat techniques, but saying those techniques are the cutting edge of the industry is just proving that everyone who says SEO is a nefarious, shady activity are right. (And I don’t think they are right.)

Eric: If you don’t judge a conference by its panels and the presentations given by the speakers, what else are you supposed to judge it on? The parties? Or perhaps the food? The dessert was pretty good. You know I love some good carrot cake.

The fact is, the conversation wasn’t pulled a certain direction because the audience wasn’t advanced enough. It was led in that direction by the speakers. There was no “insinuation” of unethical practices. It was rolled out and carried through the audience like you were at some alternative high school pep rally.

well if google were hostess twinkies they would take up 90% of the shelf space in your local super market. Sure you could always stop by the bakery and pick up yestedays day old yahoo bagels or the produce department and pick up that crazy fruit that they keep changing the name of, but you’d still be tripping over pop up displays of twinkies in every aisle.
corporations shouldn’t make the rules in any industry, but in our world they do, and it’s even worse that it’s not even multiple companies but just one.
it’s not about right or wrong, it’s about google’s way or everything else. I’d love to recall a time when google changed something do to public opinion, but doesnt happen

Let’s not be quick to judge conferences on their panels alone.

Attendees, their expectations and the questions they submit are equally important to shaping the quality and perception of a conference.

The attendees this week fueled discussions while insinuating that techniques were unethical, questionable or blackhat.

As Michael points out, advanced SEO requires an element of risk. Whether they were inexperienced, ignorant, or both – some attendees assumed that risk equates to unethical search marketing.

It would be unfair to say that SMX promoted unethical practices. I’d be more inclined to state that it’s not possible to have 1,500 truly advanced SEOs in a room together.

It’s hard to comment without mentioning your Give It Up presentation, which I’m sadly not allowed to do. But yes, your presentation was one that I was referring to. There’s a reason the entire audience broke into giggle fits as you were delivering it. :) And I don’t agree that all of the speakers you mentioned offered up white hat advice. I guess we place the line differently.
I will say this: If site architectures was an SEO 101 topic, a lot of the black hat techniques focused on at the show would be moot. Half the reasons site owners need to exploit loopholes is because they’ve created sites that don’t work. An advanced SEO show should focus a lot more of the Developer-type sessions and a lot less on the ones that teach site owners to put their clients at risk.

On analytics, by the way, I also agree — that’s why we had “Analytics Every SEO Needs To Know” as one of the panels :)

Lisa, please don’t take my comment as defensive. I’ve literally been running through my head a “Have We Lost Our Way” post since Wednesday. I’d have loved to have heard from you before you posted only so I could agree with much of what you said from the start — that this is really heavily on my mind. I’m saying it more from being disappointed not to join from the start rather than “oh no, I have to react.”
I’m torn between finishing that post I mentioned but likely will leave it until next week. I’m pretty worn out from the show, plus I wanted a little more time to reflect on some things.
I guess the short story of what I’m working on is like this. When I started writing about SEO, you’ll remember my guide was called “A Webmaster’s Guide To Search Engines.” It was all designed for designers, developers and others who had to run web sites and needed them to be “search engine friendly,” a term which if I didn’t coin I certainly helped popularize. Search engines were like browsers, I long explained, and you want them to be accessible because of the traffic they can deliver.
The first time I ever saw a doorway page, I was shocked. It simply never occurred to me to make up content out of the blue to pull in traffic — I was all about “optimizing” existing content that had a purpose in the first place. I was more shocked when I had several search engines say doorway pages were perfectly fine.
And so it goes, made even more complicated by the issues with linking. Consider that I get a designer or developer all educated about why Flash or Silverlight just ain’t good for the search engines and they figure out how to do all the accessibility and on-site SEO things they need to do.
That alone should bring them more traffic — just doing that alone. But then you know what? Someone or somehow within the organization, people still want more. And they hear it’s all about the links. And then they start worrying about whether they should be doing more with internal linking and siloing or sculpting. Which, if you recall from when Nathan asked the audience, many people are doing but few actually think does anything.
Who knows? Well, the search engines know. Oh, but I can’t even get Matt to give me a straight answer when I ask him like three times to say if all the links pointing at a root domain help pages within the domain do better. Meanwhile, this war on paid links goes on, where some people think you need them, other people think you don’t and some of those links may or may not pass credit anyway, depending on where they are linked from, how they are done and if they are caught.
And we lose our way. You might love siloing, but to me, that’s losing our way. I shouldn’t have to be thinking about what links get “credit” or not on my pages. I should be able to do things that largely make sense for humans and trust that the search engines will do the right thing (and for humans, it means you naturally link to “right” pages on your site — and if you have a About link on every page, they ought to be smart enough to discount that without me having to slap a nofollow on it).
That’s what I want to work on — how it all does start (to me) with having a great site, one that’s accessible and building from that. This is definitely what I want taught, and it’s the foundation that everyone should have. From that foundation, people can then go forward to learn other things that are being done and make their own decisions on what they may or may not want to do.
Perhaps I assumed too much of attendees, though. I mean, it doesn’t occur to me that anyone at an advanced conference would think advanced SEO means link building as opposed to good site architecture because to me, if you’re an advanced SEO, you already know the importance of being search engine friendly. I wouldn’t have thought people would get these things so confused, but clearly some did. And I’m sorry for that and really take it to heart that I have to find a better way to ensure people are both getting a good mix of content as well as better education about stuff that might be risky. I still think anyone can benefit from understanding from some of the risky things that happen out there, but really my goal isn’t to be doing a conference that’s dominated by that stuff. I’ll have to work harder at it.

I guess that my Give It Up presentation was one of those that you considered Black Hat, although half of the speakers gave up information that I would class as White Hat (Rand, Michael and Marty).

We clearly stated that some techniques should not be used on brand sites, and a number of people in the audience would have been affiliates and small biz owners looking to learn alternative techniques (dozens of people approached me afterwards and said so). I wouldn’t use the techniques I presented on a FTSE/Fortune 250 client, although the fact is that they work and result in good rankings, traffic and income.

Advanced SEO doesn’t have to be Black Hat, although the simple matter is that Black Hat SEO is at the cutting edge of the industry. Do you think that Bruce or Matt were the first to think of and implement PageRank sculpting, or was it a group of Israeli Black Hats that I saw doing it on poker sites a few months after the nofollow tag was brought in? It only became “White Hat” once Matt gave it the thumbs up 2-3 years later.

Personally, I wouldn’t class site architecture as an Advanced topic – this should be SEO 101 and I’d be disappointed if someone in our field could not create the perfect site and content schematic.

“To live outside the law, you must be honest.”…Bob Dylan

Seeing the darker side presented at conferences is good not because there is an implicit recommendation that you should go out and do it. Rather, when you see an alternative viewpoints, you can combine it with what you are currently doing and that causes you to think and perhaps improve upon your current methods, whatever shade of color they are. You aren’t going to improve in the art of SEO if you see presentations of material that is already familiar to you.

Michael, you’re absolutely right. It’s Google’s fault. Just like it’s Hostess Foods fault for making their Twinkies so delicious that that one guy couldn’t stop eating them and he went crazy and killed people.

Leaving ethics out of aspects of your life is how we get into bad situations in the first place. But that’s a totally different discussion so I won’t start that rant.

I blame the google (shocking I know) if they didn’t ratchet the trust/authority knob so high making it nearly impossible for new sites to rank for competitive phrases people wouldn’t need to look for “black hat” ways to game the system, and get into teh goog.
if Google would be more open and honest instead of obfuscating things, If google would stop telling us it’s this thing that counts when all the evidence says other wise, maybe we wouldn’t have to run around torching, and burning websites, to get to the truth.
I really wish we’d leave the ethics out of it and just talk risk. I doubt you’ll find any industry with as much infighting as ours over ethics.


My apologies for not coming to you before posting. I wanted to get my thoughts out while they were still fresh in my mind and knew you’d likely stop by to add your input. And thanks for that. As always, you bring an incredible amount of value to any conversation.

Please don’t think that I am discounting Developer Day from the rest of the show. I’m not. I understand that it was part of the show and for me it was the best part. I may not have understood all of it since my background isn’t particularly techie, but even I saw the immense value there for the attendees. I’d love to see that track extended in the future.

On the topic of siloing, I don’t think talking about it is a waste of time. Yes, Bruce Clay has been doing and talking about it for years. To us, it goes back to basic site architecture, setting up your site correctly from the start, and showing the search engines which are the most important pages on your Web site. Has it gotten too much talk lately? OMG Yes. But is the conversation still worth having? Absolutely.

At the end of the day, I thoroughly enjoyed SMX Advanced. You guys put on a great show. I just came away quite surprised with the content and wondering if we’re supposed to believe that that’s all advanced SEO is. Because I don’t believe that’s true.

Lisa: It’s a good question, but I don’t think anyone would assume advanced = black hat. The problem is black hat techniques are sexy and FUN and analytics is the doping PC guy.

Rebecca–Half the panel from last year was asked back, half wasn’t. Looking back at the coverage it looks to me like the supposed anemia in the content wasn’t limited to the people who weren’t asked back.

Not to be all ‘up with BC’ but I’ll point out that Bruce was discussing siloing at the session a whole year before it became all the rage.

I think people mistake exciting for useful.

First, I wished you’d taken a moment to ask me before posting. Had you done so, you’d have had a better article since I agree with much of what you found.
I don’t think SMX Advanced went over to the dark side, but yes, I think there was a lot more black hat stuff than I would have liked to have seen.
I think anyone needs to understand black hat tactics, if only to know what’s possibly being used against them or by others. It’s fine for Google to say don’t buy links, or buying links won’t help you. It’s another thing to hear from people who find they’re still getting through.
That doesn’t mean you want to do black hat stuff — some people can’t do them for brand reasons or don’t want to do them at all because of their own reason — but it’s good to know what’s happening out there (some “white hat” at the show told me exactly this). And I don’t think it’s irresponsible to discuss them. And I also think most speakers were pretty clear about covering the risks involved.
Still, watching Nathan talk at Developer Day about how “Advanced SEO” doesn’t mean blackhat, I was both nodding my head in agreement and worried that I may have let the program give some people that impression.
I’ve actually been thinking about it a lot since the show ended and was planning to do a post next week, to talk about my feelings in this area more (I’m afraid I’m pretty exhausted right now). But I’m somewhat concerned that we’re losing our way in SEO — IE losing track of the content aspect of it — and I’m disappointed in myself if I’ve contributed to that.
If you go back to this article I wrote:
I talked a lot about the idea of “content SEO,” and I wonder if I / we as an industry need to perhaps divide up the area more. I never wanted to do that, but yes, maybe it is helpful to talk about the activity of dealing with content on a site to make it search engine friendly aside from the more off page tactics some will do (black or white hat) and black hat period.
Still, let’s take two things out of the show that got discussion: PageRank Sculpting and cloaking.
Well, you know Bruce popularized sculpting as siloing — and while that’s not black hat, it’s certainly not something that a typical developer should waste time on. But we’re talking about it so much now in part because Matt himself started suggesting it back after SES San Jose 2007. So we’ve got a big waste of time (in my opinion) for something that Google itself helped generate.
As for cloaking — hey, first click free is now fine to do in web search results. That’s new. And that would have been cloaking until it came out as OK at this show. Black hat became white hat somewhere along the way. But as a result, other type of what would have been cloaking comes up (conditional redirects, swapping code for pages for no JavaScript readers).
I think you over estimate what I was “gunning” for, and maybe you should give me a bit more credit given the stuff I’ve written about and recommended in the past. In particular, when we did have an entire developer day track at the show that you loved, why would you toss that out as not being part of the overall show? It’s part of it too, and I was very happy to have it.
As I started out with, yes — I think the show got more into black hat stuff than I would have liked, and it’s definitely something I’ll work to change going forward.


Awesome post. The reasons you work at Bruce Clay is also why I work at Brulant. One of our sticking points is in the ethics of what we do. We work hard to maintain the highest level of integrity, not just because we don’t want to risk our clients’ sites, but because it’s the right thing to do. I’ve heard many speakers at different venues that throw out those questionable suggestions and I’m always caught off guard. I guess I just expect more from highly visible members of an industry that I greatly respect. Thanks for posting this.

I wasn’t at the show but certainly got the impression that there was a lot more stuff from the fine line between white & black. I have to agree with Rebecca though – last year’s Give it Up didn’t really deserve the name…

Rebecca: The problem wasn’t that the speakers were different. The problem was that they offered one way to do things. There’s more to advanced SEO than that. It would have been nice if that was represented.

Lisa I agree with certain points but also disagree with others. Truth is, I think that you have to know who the speaker is and what type of content to gain from them. This also allows you to asses the type of risks you are going to take when doing something like “buying links.” For exmaple, I wouldn’t use any black hat techniques for clients. But, if I am messing around with sites to learn things, I definitely will to gain a better understanding. At the same time, I do feel that topics like site architecture and analytics are way more important for client or in-house type projects.

The “Give It Up” speakers were largely different than last year because a lot of the speakers last year had really wimpy tips, regardless of whether they were black or white hat strategies.

Rhea: I got a lot out of the show, I was just taken aback by some of the content being presented. I’m not sure how responsible it is to put something on stage, give them that authority, and then allow them to tell marketers to leave their souls at the door. Or to advocate things that have a really good chance of putting clients in harms way.
In the end, I think it simply opened up a good conversation. Is advanced search engine optimization anything more than thinly veiled black hat techniques? I have to hope that it is, though I didn’t get much of that from this show.

“…I need to grow some balls…”

So…I agreed with everything else you said. However, I’m quite sure you’re adequately equipped in that area.

Very nice post.

I got fair amount of info from the show, but I only attended three sessions, the rest came from the interview series for SEJ and personal networking. I did spend 99% of my time with grey-black as night hats, so the information tended to fall into that category, but to Todd Friesen’s point, there’s a level of risk and a good SEO should know when to take that risk or not. Whether we admit it or not black hats are shaping this space, not white hats. And labeling certain methods as black hat isn’t exactly fair when size is the true factor in what you can get away with and Google is constantly changing their mind as well.

Great post, Lisa. I couldn’t agree more about using analytics as Advanced SEO. My biggest complaint about SEO conferences is that they don’t get advanced enough with Analytics. The sessions are usually extremely basic, and don’t provide enough insight on how to get the most of them.

Each conference should have an advanced analytics track that is actually advanced.


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