Which Hat Should I Wear?

Last week, I covered “How to Select a Search Engine Optimization Firm.” One thing I didn’t touch on, but probably should have, is determining which search engine optimization firm is best suited for your unique needs.

Today, we’re going to discuss the various types of SEOs that exist and give you some insight into which type of search engine optimizer may work best for you.

White Hat. Gray Hat. Black Hat. What does this mean?

Search engine optimizers will often refer to themselves as white hat, gray hat, or black hat. There are some black hat SEOs that call themselves white hat. To help you make your own determination as to what is what, I’ve condensed this down in a (hopefully) very digestible manner.

White Hat SEOs

These are the guys that abide by the guidelines set out by the major search engines. If your brand reputation and domain are highly critical to your company, this is probably the route you want to go. These folks are going to be using basic methods that have a proven history of success. White hat methods take time to ramp up and – in my experience – have tremendous “sticking” potential; that is to say, rankings achieved will be there for a longer period of time.

This type of search engine optimization has been the foundation of what my firm practices, and we’ve had good results for some pretty competitive terms. White hat SEOs are – in my opinion – a friend of the search engines because we help the search engines see and index the Web sites. It’s similar to a PR firm helping the newspapers learn about a great story. White hat practitioners help Web sites and search engines “connect.” All this being said, there actually are some instances where I might (gulp) recommend selecting a firm that practices somewhat more “aggressive” tactics.

Gray Hat SEOs

Gray Hats are often, but not always, black hat wannabes. They may stuff some keywords into the alt text. They will probably have a link at the bottom of every page of a site that has “keyword A” linking to the home page. They may create a bunch of “information pages” that are strictly built to try to rank for a particular keyword but have little use to the end user/visitor of the Web site. Another method that some would consider “gray” are the buying of text links on various Web sites. There are certainly a number of other tactics that most would consider “gray,” but I’m just highlighting a few. Some competitive situations may make a white hat go a little gray on occasion, but most of the things gray hats get involved in are what white hats would consider ethically questionable, such as keyword stuffing, etc.

Black Hat SEOs

Some of the best SEOs (and by best, I mean they get the best results) in the industry are black hat students, if not practitioners. That is to say they are very technically minded and can do some pretty creative things to achieve rankings and try to avoid the “Google police” (i.e., avoid being banned or otherwise flagged for their practices). These folks may practice cloaking (showing the search engines a different “copy” of a given Web page than is viewable to a visitor), META redirects, etc. Black hat SEO may be an option if you don’t care about the domain or branding issues. I say this because there is a good chance that the domain could be flagged and then you’ll need to move on to another domain to get decent search rankings.

If you are working the affiliate/arbitrage game, then black hat makes a lot of sense because you are only interested in driving a bunch of traffic, and you may have several domains to rotate/use. It could also be that your market is so highly competitive that in order to rank, you’ll need to use some of these tactics. I know some black hat SEOs doing very well in the mesothelioma space because the average cost-per-click is so high, and there are so many attorneys wanting to rank for that one word that black hat SEO is the only quick way to gain traction against the competition.

Selecting the Best SEO for Your Site

So, how do you determine what’s best for you? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is my brand/domain vital to my business? If “yes,” you need white hat SEO.
  2. Is my entire business plan determined on how much organic traffic I get to the Web site and (as stated above) my domain doesn’t really matter? If “yes,” black hat is most effective and delivers the fastest results.
  3. Am I patient enough to see results grow over time? If “yes,” it’s been my experience that white hat can be successful, so long as there is time to allow for this to be a more “natural” approach.
  4. Am I willing to consider occasional compromises in Google’s best practices guidelines in order to accomplish my goals? If “yes,” then gray hat SEO probably fits your needs best.

For white hat resources and connections, you can check out Google Webmaster Guidelines and Matt Cutt’s Blog.

For black hat resources and connections, you can check out SEOBlackHat, BlueHatSEO, and Syndk8.

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