I was at the recent Search Engine Strategies conference in Chicago, and was fortunate enough to attend the seminar entitled “Black Hat, White Hat and Lots of Gray” and it really opened my eyes.
Depending on which definition of black hat or white had you go by virtually all of the SEM industry is at least grey, leaning to black, while very few should be considered white.
At this time, let me give you one of the many opinions of the differences. This I think is a pretty common definition – although some will disagree with me.
Essentially anyone who does anything to influence search engine results is NOT a white hat SEM. In other words – any SEM is at least grey – but to what extent depends on what they consider safe and acceptable techniques.
At least at this seminar the “black hats” were honest about their opinions and feelings. They know they are black hat and freely admit it. They also admit that they do have clients which don’t use black hat techniques.
Now before you go to your local SEM and fire them for not being entirely white hat, consider that search engines like Google allow many of the tactics which white hats should consider as “bad” or those that are used to influence search results.
– Writing meta tags and title tags is done to influence search results.
– Creating phrase specific content, or copywriting is also done to influence search results
– Using tools such as URL rewriters can have an effect on search results.
Virtually any change you make to your website is done to influence search results, therefore NOT considered white hat, but considered acceptable to the search engines.
So, based on that knowledge, is anything less than white hat bad? I think not. I think in the end, if you were to think of black hat vs. white hat on a spectrum, there are a tiny number of strictly black hat SEM’s and a tiny number of strictly white hat SEM’s (as I’ve said, my opinion is that white hat and SEM are almost the antithesis of each other and they probably shouldn’t be used in the same sentence), and a large population falling in the gray area – taking on various shades.
In the end, when it comes to choosing an SEM firm, you have to decide (as one of the black hats put it) what type of risk do you want to assume. If you go with a firm in the darker range of grey to black – they may know lots of ways to get your site found, and likely a good deal of them are closer to black and could get you penalized or even banned.
Obviously most well known firms in the industry operate in the light grey to white area, and use techniques which are widely acceptable to the search engines. That doesn’t make them bad. And for any firm to say they are strictly white hat doesn’t seem right to me. How can you be an SEM firm and not hope to manipulate rankings to your clients benefit? I guess it all depends on what you consider white hat.