BACK TO BASICS: The Case for White Hat SEO

BACK TO BASICS: The Case for White Hat SEO

By Bruce Clay, October 15, 2008

A month ago I spoke with Eric Enge from StoneTemple Consulting on a variety of SEO-related topics, and he wrote up the interview in a fascinating article (no bias here). One issue we covered was the difference between black hat and white hat techniques. This has been a big topic over the last year, especially at conferences. What is white hat SEO, and is black hat SEO evil? When do you have an ethical responsibility to play in the safe harbor?

White hat SEO means operating ethically so that you never bring harm to your client.

This in-a-nutshell definition has always been true. One thing that has changed over time, though, is the boundary line between what helps and harms a client. When I started in the industry in 1996, the search engines didn’t really have any stringent spam rules or ways of enforcing them. Your job as a search engine optimization professional was to get your client ranked, period; almost everything was acceptable because you were working without rules. You had a fiduciary responsibility to help your clients achieve their goals.

Back then I played within the stated spam boundaries even though they weren’t being enforced, to make absolutely sure I didn’t burn my clients. But in order to know where the middle of the safe zone is, you need to know where the edges are. As a result, most SEOs experimented on their own test sites to learn what worked with the search engines and what crossed the line into spam.

In the ’98 to ’99 period, spam filters showed up. By 2000 they had teeth, when Google really stated what the best practices were and began enforcing them. Until then the rules were Wild West rules; after 2000, most search engine optimization providers learned to play within the white hat zone.

I think the actual term “black hat” was coined by Mike Grehan. In the Wild West there were white hats and black hats, and the good guys always wore white hats. That does relate to how people treat their SEO approach even today.

When an SEO works to get a client’s site ranked at any cost, even violating best practices, and they deliberately do things that are deceptive or which they know the search engines prohibit, they’re wearing a black hat. They know what the boundaries are, because they play right at the edge. And, the black hats recognize that if you can play there and get away with it, there is a lot of money to be made. But honestly, few people are nimble and smart enough to stay there for long.

Playing in the Safe Harbor

White hat SEOs do not play at the edge, but they pay attention to black hat behavior to observe where the boundaries are. Or sometimes they may test things in the gray-to-black zone, but only on their own sites. With their clients’ sites, the white hats choose to play in the middle of the acceptable area — in the safe harbor. And, fundamentally that’s our take on how the white hat and black hat mentality differs. The white hats play by the rules, and don’t take their clients near the edges where they might get hurt.

Ethics come into play because it is unethical to harm your client. So if you know that something could potentially harm the client, it’s unethical for you to do it. This is the core of our Code of Ethics.

Making Black Hat Ethical?

Some SEOs feel that as long as they tell the client up front that there’s a potential risk, they’re covered. But is it ethical to tell a client who may not understand SEO at all that Option A will generate a lot of traffic, and that you think you can do it in a way that won’t hurt them, when in reality you know that it could? In many cases the client doesn’t have a clue what the consequences could be. They have to trust the SEO, and they are being led down a path of doom.

It is clear to me that obtaining a client’s uneducated permission does not make it an ethical act. Look at what happened to BMW. Someone made a decision to take a risk and spam, probably thinking, “We are BMW; we are immune.” But they were wrong and they were removed from the index for three days, costing them untold dollars. So, who pays the price? The client does.

Gray Areas Can Get Really Fuzzy

If white hat plays in the safe zone and observes where the boundaries are, and black hat deliberately plays at the edge, who’s falling into the middle gray areas? I contend that about 80% of the people who are gray hats are just undereducated in the white hat way of doing SEO. They don’t know where the boundaries are, but if they see somebody else getting away with it, then they assume it’s OK.

That’s why it’s so important that those of us in the industry advocate white hat practices only. At conferences and seminars, we have a responsibility not to lead astray all of those webmasters trying to learn SEO. Search engine optimization is still a new field, but it’s growing. More and more people are becoming aware of the need for SEO, and more and more Web sites are attempting to apply its principles. We can see this growth just by looking at the increasing attendance at SEO industry events.
Google’s concept of spam includes using “deceptive or manipulative behavior” in order to intentionally mislead the search engines. Unfortunately, without proper education, a lot of unsuspecting folks find themselves in dark waters. Through ignorance or misinformation, they have to learn the hard way where the safe harbor ends.

So, many people may believe that what they are doing is okay, when it’s not. A few years ago a small SEO company in Las Vegas named Traffic Power sold a service that they could prove would help clients rank. They created a version of the client’s page for end users and a different version of the page stuffed with keywords that appeared only until the mouse was moved.

Because it apparently “worked,” many, many clients had this technology installed. At least they did until Google pulled the plug on those sites. Traffic Power went out of business, and its CEO eventually landed in jail for a reported scam. Essentially they were spamming. The clients should have known their Web sites were violating the rules, but they didn’t – backed by Traffic Power’s claim that it wasn’t spam, that the technique was totally OK and it worked. So, they bought it. Snake oil salesmen are still out there today, preying on the uneducated.

Keeping It Natural

Doing things naturally is the best way to succeed on the Web. Don’t do deceptive things, and don’t try to fool the search engines. You have to play by the rules, so you need to know the limits of search engine acceptance but that doesn’t mean you should constantly be testing them on your clients’ sites. You need to know that one technique is out of bounds and another technique isn’t.

A good SEO needs to pay attention to what the search engines are allowing versus disallowing, because the line does move over time. But that shouldn’t be a white hat SEO’s primary focus.

According to the Google quality guidelines: “Webmasters who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes they can exploit.”

That goes for us SEOs, too.

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