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Search Engine Showdown: Black Hats vs. White Hats at SES

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What does a "hardcore search engine optimizer" look like? Does he wear a black hat? With little holes cut out in the top to allow for horns? Attendees at the "Black Hat, White Hat, & Lots of Gray" session at Search Engine Strategies Chicago got to find out.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, December 13-16, 2004, Chicago, IL.

For a new session that could have been content to trade in stereotypes, this turned out to be one of the most entertaining and illuminating panels of the week. The labels "white hat" and "black hat" have been used to describe different degrees of risk-taking in optimizing a website in the hopes of maximizing search engine traffic. Yet so many unspoken assumptions attached to each "camp" have threatened to distort the reality on the ground, much like the intense focus on "red states vs. blue states" in recent presidential elections.

In the early going, it was no easy feat to look beyond the costumes and the mirthmaking. Designated White Hat Jill Whalen sported a mesmerizing 10-gallon number, while purported gray-hatter Mikkel Svendsen sported a bright orange suit which might make dark glasses a must-have item for all attendees at future panels. Representatives of the black-hat camp, Todd Friesen and Greg Boser (who just as often go by their aliases, oilman and WebGuerrilla), were attired blandly, like wolves in sheep's clothing. Moderator Danny Sullivan's tan hat was suitably neutral.

The white hats make their case

Whalen's position might be considered the default here. As the best-known proponent of basic SEO techniques (sound knowledge of the current state of search engines, quality content creation, and 'lite' keyword optimization, mostly), Whalen's stereotypical white hat view offered a straw figure of sorts for the harder-core SEO's to take shots at, which they proceeded to do. Those familiar to forum debates on these matters will know that Whalen has sometimes chosen not to address certain details of critics' arguments, but also that she has never wavered from her stance that webmasters should follow the search engines' rules and not try deceptive tactics.

Alan Perkins, apparently a white-hatter, began by politely disavowing these polarized categories before launching into the most systematic description of them we've seen thus far. He compared the two camps head-to-head on a number of dimensions. Black hat SEO's use hidden text and hidden links, for example, whereas white hats keep everything out in the open, just as the search engines request. Furthermore, in Perkins' view, black hats view search engines as enemies whereas white hats either deploy sound website-building tactics as if search engines don't exist, or view them as friends.

Perhaps the most damning dichotomy was Perkins' note that white hat SEO's deal with "cherished, primary domains," whereas black hat SEO's deal in domains and brands that are "disposable." This may have been a more powerful argument than Perkins realized. One can think of other examples of business practices whereby lands, the environment, residents, etc., are viewed as "disposable," where there may be incentives to build cheaply, make a quick profit, and abandon. It's not a comforting image especially in light of Boser's subsequent argument that large corporations have become increasingly interested in black hat tactics.

Svendsen's presentation was a relatively dark shade of gray, perhaps reflecting his long experience in SEM and impatience with oversimplified concepts. After our massive stomach pains from his initial montage of hat jokes had subsided, the audience was told that marketing is aptly compared with warfare.

But what kind of war is it? Vietnam? Should respected brands really love the smell of napalm in the morning, or should they understand that a strong moral core is not only central to what makes us fully human, but as things usually turn out, also a practical means of ensuring long-term success, as moral philosophers from Aristotle to Adam Smith have always argued? Isn't it plausible to expect, for example, that the common consumer conviction that "I won't buy from anyone who sends me email spam, on principle," might spill over to those who appear to be attempting to reach them online with throwaway domains, redirects, gibberish pages, and hardcore SEO tactics?

AOL, for example, carpet-bombed the planet with annoying CD's for years. As long as the company's stock price was rising, there was some kind of consensus that the hard-nosed tactics, while distasteful, were "working." To be sure, even after the accounting got fixed, the final score is arguably something like "AOL grew rapidly to momentarily lead the world as an Internet brand, and this made insiders wealthy."

But this wasn't the final score, as it turns out. It was the halftime score. What lasting legacy has this aggressive marketing left the company? What taste has it left in the public's mouth? AOL's business practices are part of the reason why it's been in decline. Other companies have apparently pollyanish credos—Google, with its "don't be evil," and Yahoo, which employs a high-ranking gadfly who encourages people to be "Lovecats" in their business dealings—and they've done just fine.

The black hats counter-punch

Black hat representatives Todd Friesen and Greg Boser were impressive in their knowledge, and scored a number of points off their less-precise white-hat adversaries. While many of their arguments were difficult to dispute, ultimately they didn't convince me as to what general marketing methodology and "style" is most suitable for most clients. In the end, they did succeed in proving that doing hardcore SEO is something they enjoy doing—for the image, for the pay scale, and as a kind of cultural activity—and that they intend to go right on doing it as long as they feel like it and as long as the demand is there. That's undoubtedly true.

The least convincing—although troubling—parts of Boser's and Friesen's exposes related to the nasty things major advertisers and major search engines are often found doing. In keeping with the search engines as enemies theme, any example of Google or other search engines acting in their own self-interest was used as a reason to spam them. But if my neighbor runs an illegal grow operation in his basement, I don't take the law into my own hands and poison him (or his weed) with dioxin, do I? Much of the black hats' rationalizing wouldn't get past Judge Judy.

Friesen, who joked "I cut my teeth on Viagra and Phentermine," noted that some of the tactics he used to regularly employ now seem almost "white hattish" in today's SEO environment. He's right. Tactics he cited, such as "buying sites with high PageRank and good inbound links" and "buying off-topic links for the PageRank they'll pass" seem less risky today because the reverence once held for Google's PageRank has waned, and marketers are aware that risk of serious penalty for such tactics is minimal.

These tactics are no doubt appropriate for someone building "yet another throwaway Viagra site," since the only goal is short-term cash flow, and hiding in the shadows doesn't hurt business. Yet some of the other tactics Friesen describes are annoying in the extreme from the standpoint of anyone who comes into contact with them: referral log spamming and auto-generated gibberish pages, for example. Clearly, black hats are willing to try anything, but in some of these areas it pays to ask whether the profit is worth the effort, or if the dangerous image is the main attraction.

Boser, even more than Friesen and Svendsen, was deeply knowledgeable about the technical workings of search engines, and made at least a dozen impressive points. But by packaging what might be a sensible re-examination of certain SEO tactics in a deeply amoral wrapper—he actually began this very public speech by claiming to find "the concepts of good and bad disingenuous"—Boser undermined his own credibility. As clever and nuanced as this moral stance probably is, one's religious beliefs (or crises) are probably best kept off the podium at a business conference. At some point, all businesspeople need to form alliances, and entire industries (like SEM) can find themselves coming under fire by confused outsiders. Why throw fuel on that fire with inflammatory rhetoric?

Boser didn't need to champion the black hat role so fervently, given that he professed to select mostly "gray hat" (improving indexability) tactics for corporate clients. (These seem more white than gray, though, so why the fuss?) But it did make for a more polarized debate.

Boser's core points about the ethics of actually running a consulting business and dealing with clients revealed him to be more thoughtful than the majority of the hundreds of SEO firms out there who lurch unreflectively from sales pitch to crisis. Because Boser is acquainted with the full range of SEO techniques, he stressed the importance of a structured process of sitting down with a client and apprising them fully of risks associated with different SEO tactics, and having them sign off on any riskier ones chosen. Choosing the tactics that are most appropriate to clients' needs is the mark of an effective consultant; an ethical one, even. (It remains an open question, though, whether some of the blacker-hat tactics are ever appropriate or absolutely necessary.)

Boser's choice of words—"be a man and cloak," eBay has an "army" of affiliates who "rape and pillage" on their behalf, "full-on algorithmic assault," and numerous others—was no doubt intended as light humor, but lent a pro-wrestling flavor to what, at bottom, could be boiled down to some relatively tame key points. Pro wrestlers, like Svendsen and Whalen, at least show up in costume.

The first key seemed to revolve around certain allowable tactics (such as cloaking of a certain type) that have wrongly been labeled "black hat" by some observers, even though reps from the search engines quietly accept them. The second (unconvincing) tack taken by Boser was to list as many examples of improper business behavior he could think of, implying that "everyone's doing it, so that makes it OK."

The problem is, he's partly right. The minute you begin "optimizing" your site for search engines, you're aiming to manipulate the search results for pecuniary gain. Boser argues that "SEM" should really stand for "search engine manipulation." The implied message is that the white hats are hypocrites.

One helpful Boser suggestion was scribbled down by numerous attendees: "Face time with Google's Matt Cutts or Yahoo's Tim Mayer can lead to follow-through on improperly penalized or banned sites." Search engine representatives are sometimes willing to take business cards from attendees at conferences. Those who make the effort to show up to the shows stand a greater chance of getting a problem investigated.

An audience member asked Boser about the type of upheaval caused by re-indexing initiatives such as Google's "Florida," and whether he thought they'd do it again. Boser was clear in his answer, which was another question: "Does a search engine owe you anything? Be prepared. Have a budget for pay-per-click in case you get torched."

Perkins, for his part, responded sweetly: "Florida didn't make much impact on my sites."

No clear boundaries, after all

The colorful personas brought to the table by this panel did a lot to generate solid debate about some SEO tactics that are often glossed over and distorted by broad ethical categories that do little to address how search engines actually work. Is Whalen as lily-white as she lets on? Is Boser really as poorly-acquainted with basic right and wrong as he wants us to think? Does Svendsen plan to run a short film about hats at the next meeting of this panel?

No, no, and (hopefully) no. But by packaging their approaches in black, white, gray, and bright orange, these panelists achieved what any good marketer aspires to: brand recall. The only remaining question is which of them will someday go on to become governor of California. Surely not Whalen or Perkins.

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the Black Hat, White Hat & Lots of Gray discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

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