I’ve just skim-read a mammoth thread over at inbound.org about the age old battle of good vs. evil,  heroes vs. villains…  oh, ok: White-hat vs. Black-hat SEO.

There are a couple of things I would like to add to the discussion, from personal experience:

A perceived ceiling on “white-hat” SEO fees.

inbound6I’m not clear whether Charles Floate is talking about building your own sites to make $5k/month (it looks like it to me) but its interpreted otherwise (ie. by Ed Fry) in the thread, so I’ll go with that.

$5k a month is the minimum retainer that a lot of experienced people in the industry work with now, thats because we understand where taking “risks” is appropriate & what strategies work for specific brands requirements.

Martin Harris goes on to mention that he knows a lot of high street retailers that won’t spend more than £3k a month on SEO. My favourite example of such a brand was HMV & look what happened to them.

I also know lots of brands that spend £20k+ per month with agencies, or  on in-house resourcing.  To insinuate the money isn’t there is misleading.  (EDIT: to be clear, I know lots of brands that spend over £3k per month, on SEO, in the UK only)

 

White hats are black hats because they build links

inbound1

I’ve argued this point a lot over the years, any form of linkbuilding for the sake of improving your rankings, is frowned upon by google’s guidelines.  They are quite specific:

Inbound2

The way I’m reading that, it says “ANY LINKS INTENDED TO MANIPULATE……A SITES RANKING”.  If you, as an SEO, are building links for purposes other than increasing rankings you’re probably not doing it right.

That doesn’t however make you a blackhat, it makes you a marketer.  Also, last time I checked Google guidelines weren’t law, so you are free to do what you like.

 

Blackhat still works, all you need to do is xyz

inbound3

I’m with Steve on this one.  Lets look at some typical examples:

inbound4

Method A: Blackhat

Versus:

inbound5

Method B: Whitehat

Which path you want to take is up to you.

I certainly used to buy 10,000s of blog-posts, spend thousands of dollars a month on links and so on.

Back then when you got a page level penalty, all you needed to do was no-index the problem page, then a short while later 301 it to a fresh URL.  It also used to take quite a while (if ever) for Google to punish you.

I’ve stopped doing that though because:

1) Google have got much quicker at finding link-spam
2) They are much more trigger happy with site-wide bans

 

Some final thoughts:

The issue as I see it, is that for many Black Hat SEO is just cooler than White Hat.  Lets face it, being a bank robber is perceived as cooler than being a bank manager.

inbound7

There is a certain glorification of finding the next cool trick to manipulate your way to success, and nothing that I say or do is going to change wider opinions on that, its just human nature.

I would argue though, that for 99.99% of black hats there is a much lower ceiling of earnings compared to having a roster of blue chip clients.

I don’t see many Fortune 500′s seeking black hat SEO‘s for help, but I reckon 99% of them pay for SEO.

 

For me then, the answer is clear:  
To really make it in this industry, you have to do it the white hat way.
That doesn’t, nor should it, preclude you from testing things until they break.  That way you truly understand how things work, and you are qualified to make a genuine risk/reward judgement.

 

 

Open Discussion: Would you / Do you engage in blackhat? Would you recommend others to get involved in BHSEO?

 

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Categories: blog-category, general

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42 Responses

  • Andrew

    Martin, good and ‘brave’ post.

    So many SEO’s say they do link building and I have always shied away from this. There is no telling how the Google or any other search engine rates the links but some of my clients insist that Page Rank is the most important thing and let’s face it Google encourages and perpetuates this myth by stating categorically that PR is measured through the amount of high quality inbound links. No wonder clients and SEO’s are confused.

    I had a conversation with a chap only yesterday who I met socially who has a very successful online business making good profits on a T/O of £3m a year.

    He asked me whether I thought link building had any value these days – my answer was no, I would rather see better, relevant page titles, content written for the user and long tail url’s that answer queries on a local and global basis – like ‘where can I get such and such. It seems this chap employed a few SEO’s that built links on his behalf and he is now paying the price by losing his ranking and getting caught in the vicious circle that you describe above.

    He now has to engage the disavow tool (without much effect)due to negative links coming in and also up his spend on Adwords and similar. My view is and always has been to build sites that are easy to navigate, inform, educate and entertain with calls to action that actually mean something and maintain your website as you would your bricks and mortar business – effectively, if your windows are dirty, give them a clean so that people can see in….

    If you do not actively engage in building thousands of inbound links and suffer at the hands of negative SEO, it is easier and clearer to appeal to Google to disavow those links or indeed to ignore them altogether.

    Good post, keep it up..

    AP

    August 12, 2013 at 8:11 am
    • John Gibb

      hi Andrew

      I feel you…

      I believe “black hat” is done by those who would rather try to build back-links using private networks and spun content, instead of focusing their time, skills and resources on producing the best contest possible — which should generate more viral traffic and SEO power than black hat backlinking…

      Anyway, even creating amazing content has its “black hat” flavor to it, isn’t it?

      I mean, why do we create this content for our site, isn’t to make a profit?

      Unless we’re a non profit organization, we’re creating content to profit from it one way or another, whether to get a lead or a customer, right?

      To me, black hat has two connotations… one which I’ve explained above, it’s a practice… and second, it’s a strategy…

      August 27, 2013 at 12:38 pm
  • Jim Seward

    I’ve traditionally been very much on the white hat side of things, but recently I’ve been engaging in some slightly more dodgy tactics.

    As I work in house, I would never do anything that would hurt our main money sites, and every single one of them has remained completely penalty free through panda/penguin etc and no manual penalties to date and I have every intention of keeping them that way.

    But the creation of a lead gen microsite, with the domain owned by someone else, hosted elsewhere and throw a bunch of dodgy link spam at it until Google kills it, lather, rinse, repeat is something I’ve been trying over the last couple of weeks.

    Black hat tactics aren’t something that are traditionally used in our niche, sure, some of our competitors have obviously been traditionally buying links (and some are yet to be caught) but the potential lead gen rewards of just plastering the serps for our money terms, even if it’s only for a few days are incredible.

    August 12, 2013 at 8:16 am
  • Mike Essex

    I think it’s probably true that on their best month ever some black hats have made more money than the best white hats.

    However as you suggest it’s not sustainable and when people hold up edge cases like Shoemoney, it’s not like it’s an achievable for everyone. It’s also unlikely that a lot of the old money making schemes still hold value or can be achieved without putting vast amounts of that money back in to buying links etc

    You only have to look at this survey to see just how profitable and well paid the industry is as a whole (http://www.brightonseo.com/2013-uk-seo-search-marketing-salary-survey/). Not to mention the number of roles going at top agencies and the overall industry growth. Being a white hat just makes more sense.

    August 12, 2013 at 8:16 am
  • Barry Adams

    The whole White Hat vs Black Hat is entirely artificial and constructed anyway. Google wants us to see some tactics as ‘right’ and some as ‘wrong’, part of their enduring propaganda efforts to rebrand SEO to mean “stuff Google has approved”.

    Bottom line is that we are indebted to only one party: our clients. Fuck Google, fuck inbound.org, fuck anyone else. I have one duty and one duty only: to add lasting value to my clients’ websites.

    Most of the tactics I employ in service of that goal are ‘white’, others ‘grey’, some ‘black’, but all of them work and all of them are future proof. That’s all that matters.

    August 12, 2013 at 8:23 am
    • Niklas Aronsson

      Barry Adams is spot on. “Black-Hat” vs “White-Hat” is all bs.
      There are two sorts of SEO, the one that works and the one that doesn’t.
      Then there are tons of things we as SEO’s needs to consider of course.
      If a “Black-Hat” tactic is working today, and most likely working in the next couple of years, is it a better or worse tactic then something that is considered to be “White-Hat” that is doomed to stop working in a couple of Google updates?

      The colour of the hat is completely irrelevant, understanding Google as a company and Google as an algorithm is what matters.

      August 12, 2013 at 8:42 am
    • Martin Harris

      Spot on, I’m baffled why “ethics” comes into play with the whole white vs black debate.

      Consider the risks and do what works.

      August 12, 2013 at 9:40 am
  • Gael

    Coming from the grey side and having turned into full white one thing I can say is that most “black hats” are completely blindfolded and only thing in terms of organic traffic.

    As you grow up as a marketer you come to embrace all kinds of traffic & sales generation as one big activity. This is when you start realizing gaming search engines only is pointless and that everything you do for white hat SEO doesn’t help if not harm your other traffic sources while everything white hat actually helps them often times.

    Because of this ignorance and lack of experience, black hats perceive white hat as being lower ROI when the fact of the matter is it’s much higher value.

    Most of these black hats also have very limited understanding of true marketing and branding which is why they equate higher rankings with higher success when it’s slightly more complicated than that in real life.

    Anyway great post, thanks Martin!

    -G

    August 12, 2013 at 8:34 am
  • Pete Young

    Good article, and been thinking of this myself for a while. Think the whole white hat/black hat thing is kind of limited when one considers this from a corporate environment – something you mention above – as I am increasingly finding clients looking to more sustainable means from SEO – and keeping clear of traditional black hat ways of increasing SEO share of voice.

    When one takes a step back into smaller organisations that decision is a lot more difficult to make. Short term wins against long term sustainability – and comes down to potential risk-aversion.

    At the end of the day black hat does still work – however those potential wins are often much shorter both in terms of financial and commercial.

    August 12, 2013 at 8:35 am
  • Dawid

    Good white hat can do good white hat… Good black hat can do good black hat and awesome white hat. You can’t be really good at something if you are not testing it. You can’t say you are an expert if you only do as you told (Google guidelines) or follow PR bullshit from top marketing personas. This industry is evolving CONSTANTLY. If you want to be good at it – you need to be the one that is coming up with ideas, not the one that is following others that already had some success. Whole debate WH vs BH is pointless. Use whatever gives you results and doesn’t carry more risk than you can afford to have.

    August 12, 2013 at 8:43 am
  • Martin Harris

    Hi Martin,

    I think you have taken my comments out of context.

    First the comments on not knowing big named brands that won’t spend more than 3k per month on SEO.

    This is strictly speaking from first a UK perspective and second just an SEO perspective.

    I know many agencies that online marketing spend can go well over 200k per month but if we remove content/inbound marketing from that equation (in my experience) the majority will be reluctant to spend large budgets.

    The argument Charles was making (and i was backing up) was that the U.S are far more ahead than the UK when it comes to putting budget aside for SEO, U.S business are better educated and more willing to part with their cash.

    “Blackhat still works, all you need to do is xyz”

    Again, out of context, Steve Morgan was suggesting that bans might be begin from micro sites, I suggested that the way link network are set up, they might struggle when the tiers go three levels deep.

    Thanks

    p.s (i’ll repost on inbound)

    August 12, 2013 at 9:09 am
    • Martin Macdonald

      Hey Martin H.

      Sorry – I am aware of plenty of brands that spend more than £3k per month purely on SEO in the UK market only… I used to be head of SEO at Omnicom UK dealing with plenty bluechips, we wouldnt deal with accounts at or lower than the figure mentioned.

      August 12, 2013 at 9:47 am
  • Martin Harris

    Of course is was out of context, you can’t use the the title:

    “Blackhat still works”

    and then put my comment talking about black techniques below, it’s insinuation which was nothing what the original post was about. You then followed up with “i’m with steve on this one” which was never about if Google could find out, i said they would “struggle”.

    Again, please read again… saying “From a personal perspective” is exactly that, the argument is saying that UK companies are not willing to spend as much as the U.S, i gave an example, not pitched it as fact, which is why i used the term “most” not “all”.

    August 12, 2013 at 10:09 am
    • Martin Macdonald

      I’ll be honest, I didn’t really notice that the original comment on that screenshot was yours till you pointed it out.

      Still, my point is that any arguments along the lines of “blackhat still works you just need to do this then that….” are rendered null and void by the increased difficulty in executing the BH campaign.

      When it gets to the stage that whitehat is easier, thats when I’d ignore blackhat.

      August 12, 2013 at 11:29 am
      • Martin Harris

        Martin, Of course and i agree with you…

        but that has nothing to do with my comment?

        August 12, 2013 at 12:36 pm
        • Martin Macdonald

          sorry, what’s your beef here, that I agree with steve? I’m not saying you’re a blackhat. Im saying that adding layers of protection to blackhat techniques breaks the effort/results equation.

          If you’re talking about something else, feel free to correct me.

          August 12, 2013 at 3:15 pm
          • Martin Harris

            No Beef, just the structuring of the article.

            I know you’re not implying i’m a black hat, it was just the use of the comment above Steve’s comment, it didn’t need to be there or if it did at least include the whole discussion.

            Leaving it there, gives the impression of white vs black hat debate which wasn’t the discussion between me and steve, more an observation of Google’s ability to regulate link structures.

            I’ve given up caring now anyway haha

            August 12, 2013 at 4:23 pm
          • Martin Macdonald

            I apologise for any misconception construed by my haphazard screenshots – I can hereby fully confirm that no SEO called “Martin” is in anyway blackhat! ;)

            August 12, 2013 at 7:29 pm
  • Hariet Rhodes

    Great Article Martin. This ongoing debate seems to flare up every now and again (normally shortly after an algorithm update).

    I’m in agreement that while Black and White hat techniques will serve you well in the short-term, Black & Grey tactics are not sustainable long-term.

    Unfortunately, it seems that plenty of businesses and marketers are still unaware of the lines that split the differing practices and unintentionally blur the lines of what is and isn’t acceptable.

    Guest-blogging was long deemed the ‘white hat’ version of link building, but that now is being rinsed by link farmers and giving it a bad name.

    Coming from a content marketing background I would always leverage good quality content to boost SEO efforts. There’s still plenty of things you can try and test as a marketer which may have a positive impact on rankings but doesn’t cost you excessive amounts of money or your credibility.

    August 12, 2013 at 10:30 am
  • David

    Ah one point missed out here scraping Google SERPs for competitive intelligence. It was stated rather blatantly by John Mueller on a Google+ thread that Google also considers that blackhat.

    So anyone tracking their SERPs with software is now an evil blackhat SEO… well umm…. yeah I’ve got nothing to counter this!

    So stop being so blackhat by tracking SERPs and trust GWT data is accurate…

    August 12, 2013 at 11:11 am
    • Martin Macdonald

      I track SERPs in the 10ks to 100ks per day, does that make me a super blackhat? (For the record, I use AWR as my scraper) ;)

      August 12, 2013 at 11:16 am
    • Philip Petrescu

      I believe we all have the right to know where our website is ranked in Google. Ideally, they would give us this information for free. After all, they are just crawling “our content” with “our permission” and then sorting it.

      They do provide some great info in the Google Webmaster Tools. One thing I like is the average ranking position for a keyword. As far as I know, this is measured when the user actually clicks on the link. This is pretty powerful given the fact that it’s the only measurement of your ranking in the SERPs when a user is logged in on Google and he therefore gets personalized results.

      And believe me, more than 70% of people are logged in in Google and see personalized results. At least that’s what Google Analytics shows for the AWR website.

      If you are interested in reading more about this topic, I suggest you read the two articles below:

      Brian has written a very good article recently about GWT data on the Authority Labs blog:

      http://authoritylabs.com/blog/google-webmaster-tools-ranking-data/

      Jon from Raven Tools is also looking at this topic from a different perspective:

      http://raventools.com/blog/scraped-rankings-versus-average-rankings/

      All things being said, it’s important to uderstand that GWT has its own downsides too. A major one would be that it only tracks the average position of your website. That means two things:

      1) it’s not very accurate, especially for low volume keywords
      2) you won’t be able to see how your competitors rank for your keywords and whether you need to step up your game or not

      To conclude, in a world where 70% of organic traffic is “not provided”, one needs to know whether people can actually find his website in the Google organic search results. That’s what rank tracking is good for, regardless if you consider it white hat or black hat.

      Until we have a better way of getting this data, I don’t see how we can do this differently.

      Any thoughts?

      August 13, 2013 at 10:54 am
  • Jack

    I think it depends totally on how much you are willing to risk on doing black hat. There was a time where you could go months without being clocked, or ever at all, and really benefit from the quick wins that Black-hat can provide.

    The most telling point I think is at the end:
    1) Google have got much quicker at finding link-spam
    2) They are much more trigger happy with site-wide bans

    Can you really risk a site wide ban for ANY length of time? I know I can’t!!

    August 12, 2013 at 11:32 am
    • Jim Seward

      I think it entirely depends on the site and what it’s purpose is.

      Should you do it for a main money site that you rely on for lead gen, a company’s main online presence. No of course not.

      Should you do it with a wordpress blog you whipped up in an afternoon to provide lead gen that has nothing to do with your main web presence, then the answer is a little more blurry, so what if Google dumps it…big deal

      August 12, 2013 at 11:51 am
  • Jonny Platt

    I think the issue here is that you are comparing the rewards / long term nature of white hat seo for big brands with black hat seo for an independent webmaster.

    The problem is that as Google has become so much more arbitrary in their penalties and declarations of what constitutes a ‘link building scheme’ so many of the typical white hat tactics have been reclassified as grey to black. If you have the credibility earnt through years of being a big brand you tend to get the benefit of the doubt, whereas an independent, relatively unknown site can easily get dinged by infractions that wouldn’t touch a bigger brand.

    As a result for independent webmasters the white hat flow chart is beginning to look a lot more like the one for black hats – except with slower feedback and more sunk cost.

    August 12, 2013 at 11:51 am
  • Minchala

    If i can sum this up in other words: white hat v black hat is a misnomer for the friction between 2 business models, not two categories of tactics. In the end, the choice to produce rankings for payment or provide broader online marketing consulting for payment requires slightly different skills & perhaps personalities on either side. Thus the pontificating over tactics and ethics that no one can agree on. Everyone’s going after the same dollars/pounds, though, so of COURSE we’re sniping at each other, trying to invalidate our competitors’ *business model*.

    When are we going to start being honest about this?

    August 12, 2013 at 1:12 pm
  • Charles Floate

    Thanks for the post Martin.

    I thought I’d add into your thing about the earnings (which is correct, if you own an SEO agency or are a director/manager for a big brand) but what if you’re a consultant?
    Speaking from the UK side, most SEO Consultants won’t hit £35k/year (Which is perceived as good pay in the UK but not all that great in the SEO industry as a whole).
    Certainly you can make more money as a white hat, if you’re 1 of those things but what if you aren’t and you can’t wait 5 years to build up your company or your reputation?
    In terms of the fortune 500 thing, I’ve worked with 3 For. 500 and 1 Inc. 500 companies on black hat projects, though slightly more deals under the table style, never the less they still made some significant money on a quite “small” (big to me of course, big to any single person, unless you’re bill gates) investment.
    Dominating the #1 spot of a big keyword for a week can make you millions, and with black hat SEO thats pretty much the only way you’ll do it within a few months.

    August 12, 2013 at 1:25 pm
  • Abdi Mohammed

    One thing is for sure – this ‘black hat vs white hat’ argument will probably never cease! Everyone has a different take on it and the same principles keep reoccuring – no offence but this article has taught me nothing new. I am very much of the opinion of Jim Seward in his comment above – nothing dodgy on client sites but then create ‘non-attached’ microsites and be a whole lot more grey. Best of both worlds perhaps?

    August 12, 2013 at 2:18 pm
  • Phil Buckley

    I was with you until the end when you say, “I don’t see many Fortune 500′s seeking black hat SEO’s for help”.

    If you are considering link building as “black hat” then I think you need to take a closer look. That’s like saying, “I don’t imagine many Fortune 500 companies have executives that are in a secret organization.” – How would you know, since it’s a secret club that you are not allowed to know about?

    August 12, 2013 at 2:57 pm
  • IrishWonder

    Ah what a post… Typical Martin :)

    First of all indeed, it’s shocking a) how many people perceive Google’s TOS as an enforceable law and b) would rather die than accept the fact/call themselves anything other than white hat. That said, I drop you a link (in the best traditions of a link spammer) to a rant I did way back on the same topic, for those who did not see it: http://www.irishwonder.syndk8.co.uk/2013/06/17/should-you-be-afraid-of-blackhat-seo/

    As for long term vs short term strategy, I like to mention every time this is discussed that quite a few of my scrapers built back in 2006-2007 are still alive, indexed and get traffic – how many of your “white hat” sites can boast the same?

    Oh, and I think Barry Adams is my spiritual brother :)

    August 12, 2013 at 3:47 pm
  • Richard

    Great post! White Hat SEO is a great way to build a website. There are a lot of Black Hat SEO guys out there that still do a good job. But overall white hat is honestly the way to go. Black hat is just a faster way of getting results!

    Cheers!

    August 12, 2013 at 10:41 pm
  • Thomas Smith

    To me there is no WH or BH, there just is and there isn’t. You either win or lose. Even WH SEO turns BH eventually, look at PR’s and Guest Blogging for details. If it works, use it. If you get penalised, stop. End of. In the meantime, cut the WH BH BS, SEO is SEO, full stop.

    August 13, 2013 at 12:52 pm
  • Gus Ferguson

    @irishwonder… if Barry was your brother I’d love to see the parents!

    August 13, 2013 at 3:13 pm
  • David

    I agree wholeheartedly that SEO is SEO- the minute you attempt to manipulate Google’s rankings (which we are all doing in some form or another) you are violating Google’s guidelines.

    Speaking only for me personally, I was a big trumpeter of “white hat methods” before I got good at SEO. It was a sort of crutch that I fell back on- “create good content and it will share itself.” Not exactly true.

    Once I stopped drinking the Moz koolaid and started reading Viperchill and NoHat SEO I gained a much deeper understanding. My experience has been as an entrepreneur and small business owner and not working with brands, who I think can leverage white hat methods most effectively. Being “grey” works well for me and will continue to do so for years to come, so I’m sticking with that :)

    December 17, 2013 at 1:29 am