For those who haven't heard, for the past year or two some have labeled different forms of search engine optimization by different hat colors. Those who practice what some refer to as "ethical" SEO are the White Hats (like the good guys in the movies), and those who some refer to as "spammers" are the Black Hats (like the bad guys in the movies). Those who are not quite as pure as the driven snow but who aren't quite as... umm... aggressive as a full-fledged "search engine spammer" are sometimes referred to as Gray Hats.

But are these labels helping anyone, and do they really mean anything? Certainly, the SEO methods I use would put me into the White Hat category. Lucky me. Does this make me better than those in the Black Hat category? I guess the question would be, better at what? It doesn't make me a better person, nor does it necessarily make me a better SEO. It might make me better at not getting a site banned from the search engines, but then again, most Black Hats know that their sites will eventually get banned and have figured that into their business model. So it's not really a question of good or bad, like the hats seem to imply.

I've had the unique opportunity of meeting SEOs of every hat color in forums and in person. For the most part SEOs are all just regular people trying to run their businesses, hoping to make some money, and trying to do what's best for their clients. What I've noticed, however, is that even though we may all call ourselves SEOs, our clients and our business models are truly like night and day. So instead of having a different word for what we do, it has been easier for many to use the hat thing to differentiate ourselves.

I have the luxury of picking and choosing my clients, and I simply won't take a client that will have to compete with tons of sites that use Black Hat SEO techniques to survive. You know the types I mean, they're the kind you see in your email trash folder every morning. Basically, if they spam you by email, you can pretty much bet they're spamming the search engines as well. The reality is that there is a TON of money to be made if you can figure out how to get high rankings for those types of sites. Some can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a month using their Black Hat techniques for their sites. That's pretty impressive, and it's also big business. Some of the brightest minds in the industry are Black Hat spammers and proud of it! They don't even mind being called Black Hats or spammers.

What those guys do as SEOs, however, really has nothing to do with what I do as an SEO. Sure, we're all trying to bring targeted search engine visitors to our sites, but that's where the similarities end. I don't have to keep up with every tiny algorithm shift, or the latest technique that the engines haven't caught onto yet. It's completely irrelevant to what I do. In my biz, I simply have to be aware that search engines exist, understand how and why people use them, and fix my clients' sites so that there's a good fit between the site, the user, and the search engine. White Hat SEO is about 1/3 science and 2/3 art, whereas Black Hat SEO is probably the other way around. The art for White Hatters comes into play by finding the perfect balance between user and search engine. The art in Black Hat SEO comes into play when dreaming up new techniques to use in the engines, when the current one stops working.

Both White Hat and Black Hat SEOs have their place. Lots of people are indeed looking for the types of products and services that Black Hatters specialize in. There is a huge demand for their black magic. As much as I hate lousy search results, as long as the Black Hats are doing their thing to the types of sites that I wouldn't be seeking out anyway, then it really doesn't bother me; it's the search engines' problem to get rid of it.

The important thing to note, however, is that most sites don't need to resort to Black Hat SEO.

It all depends on what the Website owner's goal is. Do they want quick fixes and throwaway domains for the chance of a temporary big payoff, or do they want a stable business that takes a lot of time and energy, but which pays off handsomely over time? Neither one is necessarily right or wrong -- just different. It's just like the stock market or gambling in many ways. If you're willing to be extremely aggressive, there's a chance you'll make a ton of money. However, there's usually even more of a chance that you'll lose a ton also. It really comes down to how much of a gambler you are.

For a company looking for long-term success, there is absolutely no reason to gamble with their site. I cannot stress this enough. When I've written in the past on how spamming the search engines is bad and unnecessary, this is what I'm talking about. Most people don't have Websites in industries that need to go the Black Hat route. Those that go to the "dark side" anyway often regret it later. (They like it while it's working, of course!) But seriously, even though it may take more lead-time, the White Hat method is a lot less stressful, and quite frankly a whole lot easier. I can take a look at almost any site and know exactly what needs to be done to it to help it achieve long-term success.

I think even most of the really good Black Hatters wouldn't even recommend their techniques for most brand-name companies and the like. It's simply not worth it, and in nearly every case it's unnecessary.

There's a whole lot more I could say on this subject, and I may do so in another article in the future. But even if I don't, you can watch my colleague Alan Perkins and me duke it out with a couple of Black and/or Gray Hatters on a new panel at the upcoming Chicago SES appropriately called "Black Hat, White Hat and Lots of Gray.


November 16, 2004

CEO and founder of High Rankings®, Jill Whalen has been performing search engine optimization since 1995 and is the host of the free High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter, author of "The Nitty-gritty of Writing for the Search Engines" and founder/administrator of the popular High Rankings Search Engine Optimization Forum. In 2006, Jill co-founded SEMNE, a local search engine marketing networking organization for people and companies in New England.

High Rankings is an internationally recognized search engine optimization firm located in Framingham, MA specializing in search engine optimization, SEO consultations, in-house training, site audit reports, search marketing seminars and workshops. High Rankings has a 100% success rate for substantially improving client rankings and targeted traffic.

Jill speaks at national and international conferences and has been writing about SEO and search marketing since 2000. She's been quoted in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report and The Washington Post. Her articles have appeared in numerous print magazines and online websites including CIO Magazine, CMS Focus, The Internet Marketing Report, ClickZ, WorkZ,, Entrepreneur, Lycos Small Business, WebProNews, SiteProNews and others. Jill has also appeared on many online and offline radio programs such as Entrepreneur Magazine's E-Biz Radio Show, SearchEngineRadio and the eMarketing Talkshow.

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