(This is the article I originally wrote for the BrightonSEO newspaper – I thought it would be of interest to a wider audience than BrightonSEO attendees. That said, BrightonSEO is a highly advisable event. It will be run again on September 12-13th 2013 so try to get your hands on a ticket – they are free but go really fast.)
There are two kinds of SEOs, and no, I do not mean whitehat and blackhat. There are two kinds of SEOs: those who are curious about everything related to search and those who are so dogmatic you’d think SEO is some sort of a new religion, not a technology related concept. A newbie entering the industry gets told all kinds of things by different people with different level of knowledge and different personal concepts, and ends up on either of these two sides eventually. Unfortunately, I tend to notice the dogma often hides the fact that a person attaching oneself to it hasn’t got a clue.
The whole concept of blackhat vs whitehat was born out of the search engines trying to enforce some rules. People have been trying to trick their way up the SERPs before this concept came about, they have continued once it was born. Search engines being a commercial entity, the rules set have been in place in order to maximize the profits, not ensure ethical approaches or anything of the sort. Let’s agree to take the morals out of this whole story. This is not about a new church, this is only about business and making money.
There are two kinds of approaches to SEO: the ones that work and the ones you use to cover up your inactivity or lack of knowledge. Call it whitehat, call it observing the Google TOS, call it whatever you wish. As an SEO, your goal is to achieve the result for the sites you are working on, and those results come in the form of rankings, traffic, conversions. Profit. Something tangible, measurable. You cannot really measure how “moral” you are and report that to your paying client.
Remember the sandbox? Some people still use that as an excuse for the sites not ranking – yes, today, in 2013. Yet, you see a blackhat spammer ranking a site after a site in a top competitive niche with only a week of spamming links. I am not saying you should do the same – but you probably need to do something and not just complain about how hard it is to rank sites these days, and how dangerous links are, and how some nasty blackhat is running a negative SEO campaign against you, and how Google won’t act upon your disavow tool submission. Stop whining, stop covering yourself with your holier-than-thou talk and get to work.
There are two kinds of people: those who are clueless about what they do and those who are brilliant at what they do. Sure, there is also everything in between but over time, you tend to drift towards one of these extremities. Which one will it be for you?
Knowledge empowers you. Without knowledge, you are helpless at mercy of Google (replace with any other commercial entity your business can possibly depend on and this will still be true 20 years from now). Knowledge cannot be blackhat or whitehat – knowledge is knowledge. It is about understanding the system you work with, getting to know all its ins and outs, and figuring out how to use them for your benefit. No need to fight the system – just use its logic. The best blackhats have always been good exactly at that.
Take the casino bonus case. The success of the model used there is completely due to using the logic of Google. Google is still about the links. They are looking for certain qualities in links – fine, we’ll give them that. The link are coming from relevant, frequently updated pages with plenty of content. Some will say it’s a hole in the algorithm – I will say it’s the logic of it that did not happen by mistake or immediately, it was formed by all the algorithm updates rolled out in the last couple of years. In most cases it works to fight spam, and that was the reason to build that logic. But in this one specific case, the spammer worked out a way to use this logic to his own benefit.
Some will say this is a short term strategy and all about chasing the algo – not true. The main site in that scheme has been receiving traffic for half a year, non stop, without even getting indexed. By regularly rolling out the new sites instead of banned ones, the spammer kept his scheme going – and probably will continue to do so for a much longer time. How is this now a short term strategy?
Blackhat is not about violating the law, or using techniques that no longer work, as Google and some others are trying to portray it. Blackhats are in it for the money, they would not do it if the money wasn’t there.
I am not saying everybody should quit doing what they are doing and become blackhats. It’s worth learning and understanding instead of using it as a scarecrow, but the model is surely not for everyone. If building a brand and maintaining clean reputation online is vital for your business, do not do anything questionable. If brand is not a money making factor for you, that’s a different story. In every approach there are risks and rewards. Nobody can guarantee your “whitehat” approaches are not going to end up in your site getting penalized. However, if you do not even know what blackhat SEO is, how can you know if you are not pushing things too far? How can you be sure that whatever gets preached as the ultimate SEO technique today does not end up getting condemned by Google tomorrow? It’s not about specific techniques, it’s all about the way of thinking.
Being a sheep and following whatever gets preached today will invariably end up in getting burned tomorrow – just because everybody else is doing it and it becomes apparently abused and Google has to handle it. Coming up with your own approach is not easy – but the reward is much greater.
There are two kinds of people: those who have some imagination and those who have none. Most people have no imagination whatsoever so it’s easier for them to just follow things others come up with. However, SEO is not for those with no imagination. If you cannot analyse how stuff works and come up with your own solution fitting this internal logic you are probably in the wrong industry.
There is some kind of an animal fear in the air each time somebody mentions blackhat SEO. It’s time to put this fear aside and start learning. Just because somebody is a blackhat doesn’t automatically mean they are going to hurt you – most likely they are too busy doing their own stuff and making money with it. True, if you give a good blackhat enough reasons to get your site penalized, it will most likely happen. However, not everybody calling themselves a blackhat is really a blackhat. Just because you run some tools you bought you are not yet a blackhat. Tools are just tools. Automation is just one part of blackhat SEO. The other, much more important one, is using your head.
The difficult part is, nobody will teach you blackhat SEO. Sure, we have our own informal gatherings where we share things we learn with the likeminded people. But if you are not one of us, you will probably never even know when and where these gatherings take place. Blackhats do not like to talk too much. If you have found a trick that works for you, you typically keep it to yourself or only share with a few friends. Let too many people know about it , and it will be killed. Anything that goes mainstream gets killed sooner or later. The only way to get into this community is show your worth, show that you can think and are willing to learn and not stuck in the dogma.
Sugarrae once said, “Every good blackhat I’ve ever known can whitehat their asses off”. On the other hand, the best whitehats I know (if there is even such a thing – unless you just sit there watching the pagerank grow, you are already at least a greyhat) have a very advanced understanding of blackhat SEO. No surprise – if you get to learn the logic of the system, it’s only a matter of the actual techniques to stay within the rules or forego the rules. You know your risks, you evaluate them, you choose the most viable approach. But unless you look into things yourself, unless you try things, experiment with them, nobody will teach you this.
Blackhats have been forcing the search engines to keep developing. They have been pushing the limits to test how a system works, and how it can be used to their benefit. If not for all this extensive testing, we would likely have been stuck with something as primitive as Altavista or Infoseek today. Progress has its costs, and if it means sometimes you will see the SERPs that are not relevant, then this is exactly what is causing the search engines to keep developing. Without this constant challenge, would they spend tons of money on perfecting their algos?
So next time, before you jump to conclusions and label somebody a blackhat spammer, think what you can learn from them. Blackhat or whitehat, it will make you a better SEO in the long run.