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View Poll Results: SEO Is Getting...
More white hat 16 32.65%
More black hat 6 12.24%
More gray hat 22 44.90%
No real hat changes 5 10.20%
Voters: 49. You may not vote on this poll

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Old 11-11-2005   #1
dannysullivan
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Is SEO Getting More Gray?

Gord's got a new article up, A Whiter Shade of Black, on a black hat thinking to go legit. That got me thinking about a talk I had with a reporter recently on how things seem to be getting grayer. Here's what I've put on the blog:

Quote:
A reporter asked me recently if the black hat and white hat branches of SEO are getting further apart these days. I replied I thought things were coming more together.

More white hats seem to feel things they might have deemed wrong in the past to be more acceptable, while some black hats are deciding some aggressive tactics might not be worth continuing with. Meanwhile, "bad" techniques like cloaking suddenly don't seem so black hat when Google itself fully cooperates with some sites to allow it. The world of SEO just getting more gray, to me.

A Whiter Shade of Black from Gord Hotchkiss over at MediaPost is a good piece on this, looking both at how white hats can enjoy the "guilty pleasure" to talking with "these dark magicians" but how his dark hat dinner companion conversely found things getting harder and wanting to go "legit."

One point of dispute. While Gord feels the Nov. 2003 Google Florida Update was the biggest blow to spam and dark hats, I have the exact opposite view. In the wake of Florida, many, many people I talked with and read commenting on forums felt like they had been trying to go the good content route.

When Florida hit and Google stayed quiet about the mystery "signals" in place, I felt like that made it an open season for some people to feel like "anything goes" with Google, not less. Just my take.
So what do you think? White hat winning? Black hat winning? More gray? Note I'm trying not to start a big ethics debate but rather a sense of where things are going.

Last edited by dannysullivan : 11-11-2005 at 09:02 AM.
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Old 11-11-2005   #2
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I voted for more gray hat, but I think it has more to do with being more open about things. White hats are more inclined to openly discuss black hat techniques (with some notable exceptions, who do not need to be named, since we all know who they are). We've seen some very good, open conversations, such as the one Rand put up on his blog. The two sides seem to be more willing to consider the opinions of the other, and have intelligent debate. Any time there is intelligent debate, the two sides of an issue can usually come to some sort of middle-road (gray hat) that is acceptable to both. Hence, white hatters will at least try a bit of gray hat (at least once), and black hatters will at least try a bit of white hat. Both may end up rejecting it in the end, but they tend to at least give it a chance. And occasionally, each will find a bit of gray to be useful.
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Old 11-11-2005   #3
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I'd say things are getting more interesting on both sides of the fence - success isn't really the black and white process it once was. Maybe that causes some folks to cross over to the other side to see if things are any better, but I think the real change is that to succeed we need to be more innovative and creative regardless of what particular hat you choose to wear.

I think all SEOs regardless of their hat could take great pleasure in learning from their counterparts on the other side of the fence - it's not really an issue of crossing over, more that we really need to be informed about the industry as a whole to keep ahead of the game.

For example, my ability to do my job (consultancy; organic white hat) would be seriously impaired if I didn't know about spam techniques, etc. A lot of clients these days come to us having received crap SEO from someone else. Sometimes that means we need to fix stuff that's hurting them, but in general, knowing what shape the industry is in will help you know what to expect in the future.

At the end of the day, we all need the same information to succeed (namely, what works to rank well, and what are the search engines likely to clamp down on in the future) - it's really how we choose to implement this that defines our "hat".

I don't believe in ethical SEM - I think it's just nonsense that is used to sell a service. The area that ethics comes into play is giving clients the real picture of what you are about to do to their site. With this in mind, I would say the industry has indeed greyed up a lot - there are black hats who will lay it all on the table for a client and tell them exactly what may or may not happen to their site - that's ethical IMO. On the other hand there are white hats who will BS clients with spin and marketing crap - that's unethical.

Quote:
When Florida hit and Google stayed quiet about the mystery "signals" in place, I felt like that made it an open season for some people to feel like "anything goes" with Google, not less. Just my take.
I'd agree, but with no real experience to back it up - it would seem like the obvious reaction some people would have. But I do think it may have been fueled by a lot of poor information around the time (there were still "linking to Google helps your ranking" rumours floating about around Florida time! ).

Today, there's a lot more information that can be verified by different sources - SE's are more forthcoming with information (well, it's more of a PR game for them) - experts are more readily available and more easily identfyable. Basically, any random_user starts posting wild theories, they will be embraced or shot down - 3 years ago they would have been debated at length and people would have taken the pieces that suited them and ignored the rest (OK, not always, but more commonplace than it is today).

I don't think the industry is greying as such, but it is maturing - there are a lot more experienced SEOs now than back pre-Florida and I think that helps stablise the flow of information to the rest of the industry, resulting in a more consistent approach to SEO as oppose to 2 opposing camps. That is, you can be a SEO today without defining your hat, whereas a few years ago you were one or the other.

I also think AdSense helped bring a lot of White Hat idealists into the sweet, sweet reality of the business world. Of course it acted as a new incentive for the BH community as well!

MG
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Old 11-11-2005   #4
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Black Hat, White Hat, Dunce Cap.

I first wrote this April 28th, 2005
Black Hat, White Hat, Dunce Cap.

Can you tell that I think the hat concept is moronic? Somewhere along the line, some brilliant thinker, decided there had to be good guys and bad guys in the search engine world because some people were damaging the reputations or quote unquote of reputable search engine optimization professionals. Now while I am all for outing the real crooks, guys who sell a service they cannot deliver, obvious over charging, or just not knowing what they are really doing. I do think the white hat black hat distinction has become something rather telling about how people are to close minded on they way they want to see the industry.

I stated in the online marketing Industry in January of 1999, so this puts me about 7 years in give or take a little. In the beginning there were basically no rules and it was the Wild West where companies were just trying to find ways to deliver results on a seemingly huge variety of search engines. As the industry has evolved there are now organizations such as SEMPO and MarketingSherpa that have attempted to apply best practices to what industry experts believe are the best way to do things for clients. These best practice guidelines have had various effects on the industry. But in truth the problem is innovation is being stifled by the fear of labeling.

In one classic example MarketingSherpa interviewed International Crossing and asked the company a specific set of questions, the most important one was did International Crossing cloak web pages for their clients? MarketingSherpa defined cloaking as IP detection used to determine if a robot or user was visiting a site, and then serving a different page depending on who was visiting. International Crossing said that they did not cloak as per MarketingSherpa's definition. When MarketingSherpa checked they believed International Crossing had lied and gave them an F grade for their review. International Crossing was forced to take legal action against MarketingSherpa for their F grade because they did not cloak, based on how cloaking was defined at the time. Misunderstandings like this one highlight the fact that when people don’t understand the technology how it works it often leads to misrepresentation and or confusion. In this case it was a nasty law suite and damaged suffered to the reputations of all parties involved. All this occurred because a company was attempting to apply best practice standards to innovation it did not understand.

In many cases, the black hat SEO techniques of yesterday have become common place white hat optimization techniques. Now while my example above may be an extreme case the point is the people who are pushing the envelope and attempting to find different and creative ways to out maneuver the search engines and develop internet marketing techniques that will allow for a competitive advantage. I believe the terminology out maneuver is the correct phrase too, because no search engine marketer wants to ruin the search engines as it would put us out of business. But what we do want to do is discover ways to work within the frame work of rules that have been set up by the engines. Sometimes when people go beyond that set of boundaries, there are penalties we have to pay for our folly and sometimes we end up teaching the Search Engines about new a creative ways that they can leverage their own technologies.

In this business it doesn’t matter how many PhDs Google or Yahoo or MSN has they will always be at a disadvantage because there is just to many other people scrutinizing them and trying to find the next best way to succeed in one of the most competitive marketing places ever.

Back to the point on colored hats for a moment, I want to make it clear I don’t believe in the distinction. Search Engine marketing is all about risk management. People in the low risk areas tend to qualify as white hat people. People in the medium risk areas fall into grey and of course high risk Search Engine marketing tends to fall into the black hat category. But risk changes as technology advances and what was grey hat today will eventually become the white techniques of tomorrow so take off the hats and start measuring the risk.

Reference
http://searchenginewatch.com/serepor...le.php/2164711
http://www.marketingsherpa.com/
http://www.icrossing.com/
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Old 11-11-2005   #5
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I really don't think there is such a thing as gray SEO. Either you set out to deceive an engine or you don't.

What some people call gray hat, is not gray at all, but very white. Finding technical solutions to bypass a search engines programatic limitations is not black hat nor gray hat because it's not deceptive.

For instance, I had a post here about using a 302 redirect if one needed to start using a new domain for an old site. This bypasses Google's aging delay if done correctly and links are also built up and changed to the new domain.

With that post, my blackhat friend DaveN gave me some positive reputation and wrote "gray hat."

Huh? How so?

The aging delay was presumably put in place to stop spammers from adding new domains constantly when their old ones get banned. It was not (presumably) put in place to stop real companies from rebranding themselves with a new company name and domain. But unfortunately, Google is just a program and can't work out the difference. So we use a 302 workaround. Nothing tricky or deceptive there.

There are a zillion other things that blackhats would like to say are gray or black, but they're not, they're white. Another example would be feeding the search engines URLs that do not contain session IDs. Nothing deceptive about it. You're providing the engines with the same URLs that are on your site, minus the session IDs so they don't start indexing the same content using multiple URLs. This is not, nor has it ever been spam.

It's true that some pointy white hatters might call that stuff gray, but that's only because they don't understand the technology. And some deep dark black hatters might call it gray because it makes them feel better about their REAL deception.

But that doesn't make it so. It's white now, was white before, and will always be white.

--

P.S. While we're on this topic, you might get a kick out of this Black Hat and White Hat have a Gray Hat Baby satire. It's hilarious!
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Old 11-11-2005   #6
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I voted for "No real hat changes" because there are still no hats. Hats are a nonsense, and always were. In the real world there are simply strategies of risk and reward analysis, which always, always, have to be placed in the context of the market and competition.

I'm sure most of us recall Tim Meyer's excellent honesty regarding taking swords to gunfights. Indeed, that was a particularly apt metaphor for certain markets. The sword is indeed the long-term reliable weapon when the bullets run out, but are you sure they'll run out of bullets before you get hit, or even die of old age?

Certain high-risk tactics are very short-term. They have a relatively short life-span. Reliable, safe practices are far more secure and will outlast any one given practitioner of short-term tactics. The safe methods may let a site sit there, right behind the risk-takers and just wait for the high-risk tactics to run out of time, get caught, or have the loopholes they exploit closed. But in some markets you know that as one loophole is closed, another is found, and additionally there is no shortage of folks willing to churn-and-burn an almost limitless supply of domains.

So, the actual market and real world have not changed. This is still true now, as it was 3 years ago. Just as in the financial world, it is often the highest-risk investments that pay off the biggest. The safer investments are safer, but take longer to pay off, and don't pay off in as high a proportion to the amount of investment.

There's no ethical divide in being a high-risk speculator in futures markets against being a safe investor who places their money into an interest-yeilding savings account at the bank. Sure, deceptive practices, not telling people the risks and returns is unethical. One must tell customers about the probable performance of the investment they are making. One cannot ethically present a high-risk investment as a safe one, nor ethically present a safe investment as being of equally high yield. The risk is what makes the investment cheaper for the returns - that not everyone investing will get a return at all.

Its a really good article, Danny, and I know exactly the feeling of growing closeness on the middle ground you are referring to. I just simply can't bring myself to buy into the hats nonsense, even grey ones. We (as an industry) are sharing more of the middle ground for certain.

I have one other, so far ignored part of the 'bigger picture' to present however. That the more extreme ends of the illusionary spectrum of black hat/white hat have simply faded from view because they didn't meet or understand those real-world business facts.

Many so called black-hats who got too tied into the 'battle against the search engines' and took their eye from the business objectives have ceased to matter. Equally, many of the foremost so-called White hats were simply seeking to create an imaginary USP, and again, didn't truly understand or focus on genuine business objectives. The extremists are still out there in many cases, they simply ceased to matter.

What company wants to sit at the bottom of the SERPs snug in the knowledge that they meet some made-up definition of ethical? What company wants to take unnecessary risks just to 'sock it to Google'? Simple, the company that wants to go bust. Real business is far more pragmatic and practical. They adhere to 'do no evil' in the sense that Google does - its a nice aim, and a very attractive sound-bite, but the reality is that so long as they call whatever they do good (allow me to insert my own links on your pages anyone?), they can claim to have never done evil.

Last edited by Black_Knight : 11-11-2005 at 02:07 PM.
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Old 11-11-2005   #7
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I voted white. Black wins, but more and more of my cohorts have found methods to switch to white and still use the techniques ~well, mostly the powertools~ that were once only in the dark provinces.
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Old 11-11-2005   #8
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Quite simply I feel as though Google has made it now more of a pain to keep up with the algorithm and try to trick it than it is to just build a great site. As such, I completely focus on building great sites for my clients rather than trying to game the algorithms. Its not only better business, it is starting to yield better rankings.
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Old 11-11-2005   #9
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I've notice more jumps towards (and interest in) white hat tactics after major updates like Florida and Jagger... imagine that...



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Old 11-11-2005   #10
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Talking

I think the search engines force "white hat" programmers to go "black hat". Even when you apply the white hat techniques you get beat out by black hat tactics by some site that's totally irrelevant, forcing you to go black hat.
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Old 11-12-2005   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by aplusjimages
I think the search engines force "white hat" programmers to go "black hat". Even when you apply the white hat techniques you get beat out by black hat tactics by some site that's totally irrelevant, forcing you to go black hat.
Couldn't agree more!
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Old 11-12-2005   #12
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Quote:
I think the search engines force "white hat" programmers to go "black hat".
That's a common justification that blackhatters like to say as it makes them feel better about their deception. (Everyone else is doing it...I have no choice...and all the rest of the excuses.)
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Old 11-12-2005   #13
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Originally Posted by Jill Whalen
That's a common justification that blackhatters like to say as it makes them feel better about their deception. (Everyone else is doing it...I have no choice...and all the rest of the excuses.)
"Even when you apply the white hat techniques you get beat out by black hat tactics by some site that's totally irrelevant"

...seems like a valid reason than an 'excuse'.
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Old 11-15-2005   #14
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to succeed we need to be more innovative and creative regardless of what particular hat you choose to wear
Regardless of the techniques utilized, the approach towards marketing a site (or sites) has to be well thought out in advance. Obviously, some of these techniques work. Otherwise, there wouldn't be this much discussion about them. I think the negative connotation stems from the abuse of some techniques by those that have no idea what they are doing.
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Old 11-16-2005   #15
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I agree - for something to get so much coverage and such a following, it has to be worth doing and it has to be working.

As far as headwear is concerned though , I think that the hats are definitely changing shade to grey - it is the natural evolution process of all intellectual things.

As more people are becoming aware of the subject of SEO/SEM they are starting to ask more questions, so they get more answers... As more black hat techniques get exposed it forces the forward thinking to invent new ways to stay ahead of the crowd, hence boundaries get pushed and SEO/SEM reinvents itself, and so on...

Same goes for the white hatters' techniques. To everyday Joe Bloggs the boundaries between the two camps are mixed already, so by the time things hit the press/public eye it's all very very grey...

Phew, on that philosophical note, it is worth saying that it will be very interesting to see where SEO goes to from here - what do you think is the next step?


P.S. By the way, I am in no way implying that only black hatters push the boundaries...
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Old 11-16-2005   #16
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After reading through all the posts, it looks like many disagree on just what the definition of white, gray, and black really are.

White: Honor SE guidelines
Black: "trick" search engines

White: Site marketability is important
Black: Top rankings at any cost

White: Content driven
Black: Technology driven

Where some of these overlap, does that make gray? Some probably think so. Here is my quick definition of "White Hat":

Doing everything necessary to improve a website's performance for it's target audience.

Anything that puts a site at risk of being banned would ultimately not qualify. This, of course is not disparaging any or all black-hat techniques (though I won't hesitate to disparage anything that cr@ps up the search results with non-relevant junk!)

That said, my company is always looking for ways to get "whiter" (not that we even use that term!). More precisely, we look for ways to give Google and the other engines *more* of what they like, and ultimately, what will serve the client's marketing interests the best.
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Old 11-16-2005   #17
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A tale of several hats

Danny, I respectfully submit, you need to add "pink hat" and "green hat" to the list.

Pink hat: People who wear rose-colored glasses, who think that ranking well in SE's as a commercial enterprise is something you can do with best practices and a to-do list and go about their business as if Florida and Jagger never happened, and as if there are no other sites competing for attention;

Green hat: Those who pragmatically use money to achieve SEM success, whether it's directly on paid listings, or indirectly with paid inclusion, improved content, public relations and other media spends, business networking, improvement of products and services, and so forth.

I like a gray-green hue myself.
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Old 11-17-2005   #18
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I think the SEO white hat/black hat question is less of an issue, by virtue of SEO itself being less of an issue. I see more people focussing on traditional marketing tactics such as brand building. Anymore, SEO seems to be somewhat edging towards the sidelines, as traditional marketing takes the field.

Who needs to gamble on "search engine optimization", when you can go here and get what you paid for, no risk involved?
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Old 11-17-2005   #19
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JohnScott, I agree and disagree. Yes, SEO is moving more towards traditional marketing, but that is in no way the cause for the elimination of SEO, but rather the integration of SEO into real marketing. Those who focus on one w/o the other will be at a considerable loss in the long-term.
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Old 11-17-2005   #20
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So is this example black hat or white hat?

Since content is king I took my hotel site and added more content to it. What kind of content? I exhausted information about my site, so I talked about area attractions by the hotel. I did page after page about area attractions. I did it so well that I rank above the area attractions themselves. So when people are looking for a shopping mall (that happens to be by the hotel) my hotel web site pulls up before the shopping malls web site.

So the question is, is this black hat tactics?
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