I am increasingly getting a question from organic search marketers about where the "line" is between sharp SEO tactics and spam. Basically, it's the SEO equivalent of "how many miles per hour over the speed limit can I go without getting pulled over?" If this sounds like an interesting question to you, I'd like to humbly respond that you don't get it. You don't get search marketing in particular or Internet marketing as a whole. And it's holding you back more than you probably realize.

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Now, don't misunderstand me. Many folks make a living by fooling Google and the other search engines. These "black hat" SEOs are extremely clever and hardworking, and they keep at their craft every day. They stay on top of the trends and they surf the changes each day so that they can stay on top of the results.

There's just one problem with this description. It's not you.

I mean, if you are a top black hat SEO, what are you doing reading this column from me? If you're reading this column, you are not anywhere near the knowledge level of a top black hat SEO. I know that because I am not either. I couldn't begin to do what they do, even though I have decades of experience in search technology and have forgotten more about SEO than most people will ever know.

So, if you are asking where the lines are, because you want to go right up to those lines and then stop, you are fooling yourself in several ways. First, you think that I know the answer—I don't. Second, you think that if you knew the answer that you'd then be able to skillfully manipulate your site so that it ranked highly—you probably won't.

But the biggest problem is that it is entirely the wrong question for you, borne out of the wrong attitude toward search marketing. Your goal for search marketing ought not to be to manipulate the search engines to show your pages and manipulate your customers to buy. No, I am not here to help you get into heaven—if you can live with your conscience after manipulating folks, I am not here to condemn you or absolve you from your sins. No, I am counseling you against the manipulation approach for a more basic reason—it won't work.

You won't succeed at manipulating Google. And you likely won't succeed at manipulating customers, either—at least not for very long. The Internet, and social media in particular, has changed that game. You might be able to fool one person, but you can't fool everyone and they talk to each other all the time.

So what is the right strategy? It's simple to understand, but difficult to execute. You need to have what people want (the product or service they want as well as the information they want) and you must promote it and optimize it and draw attention to it. In other words, you must do your marketing.

If you do, people will notice and eventually Google will, too. But if you instead want to see how fast you can go without getting caught, you'll find out that you made very good time, but you didn't know where you were going.

June 21, 2010

Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.

Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.

Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.


I read through that, with bated breath, and was left a little hungry by the punch line, which came in the last two paragraphs. Any chance on a follow-up to this for those with (even) less knowledge about the arts of SEO? Like just where those lines are, and what is universally accepted (and what, by extension, isn't!)?

Hi Beginner webmaster,

I am happy to do so. Look for it my weekly column next week.

What you write is all very true. The German Language web sites for Ricoh and BMW were banned form Google for more than six months for employing black hat tactics. One thing you failed to mention: with White Hat SEO, the listings you obtain are likely to be persistent for months and years without further tweaking of your web site. Once fully optimized in a white hat SEO campaign, you shouldn't need to tweak your web site unless you add new niches to your business or change the keywords you're pursuing. Attention to your link popularity should be enough to keep your new high rankings.

Good point, Bill. I've told my larger clients that they should avoid black hat tactics for just that reason--they can't move fast enough to make it work, even if they were somehow clever enough.

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