One of the themes that has emerged at the recent conferences I have been to, is the notion of "Intent and Extent". The premise is that there are a variety of tactics that are perceived to be spammy. One of these is using hidden text and/or keyword stuffing as recently blogged about by Matt Cutts. Other well know no-nos include cloaking, swapping links en masse, purchasing links, etc.
However, there is general agreement that for nearly every tactic associated with black hat behavior, there are also scenarios where the same tactic might be used on your site in a legitimate manner. Let's give four examples of black hat techniques that are sometimes used for legitimate reasons:
- Cloaking, also known as IP delivery: By definition, this is the delivery of different content to users than the search engine bots. However, IP delivery is a common method for delivering foreign language versions of sites to visitors come from foreign IP addresses.
- Swapping Links: As we know last Summer's Big Daddy update resulted in the demotion of sites that had a high percentage of sites implemented as reciprocal links. This was not a penalty, so much as a discounting of link value. Net-net - you should trade links with sites that are highly relevant to yours if it makes sense from a business and editorial prespective on your site.
- Purchasing links: Nothing wrong with it, but, if Google determines that are doing it for purposes of manipulating rankings, look out. Outright banishment is a possibility for this one. However, buying advertising for traffic and/or branding reasons is a legit practice.
- Hidden text: How I am going to justify this one? Simple, there are CMS systems out there that use coding methods that tend to embed hidden text in the web pages they create. This is not intended as a spam technique, but it is a coding technique of some sort. Point is that it emerges from the CMS implementation, not any bad intent.
There are many more examples of these types of scenarios. So what is a poor search engine to do? The answer is that they attempt to evaluate the intent of the use of the technique, and the extent to which it is used. If their evaluation leads them to believe that the intent is not bad, then that counts in your favor. They also evaluate the extent of the use of such techniques. In principle, one small transgression carries a lot less risk than massive and continual transgressions.
Regardless of what they might say, in my experience the search engines attempt to make the right decision. But the key word here is "attempt". Using these techniques does come with significant risk, no matter what your intent is, or the extent to which you use it. Even if your use of "spammy techniques" is in fact for completely legit reasons, I'd still proceed with extreme caution.