Last week at SES, I sat in on the Black Hat, White Hat session. The panelists gave their definitions of “white hat” and “black hat” SEO, and then talked about particular techniques, such as paid links, and whether they thought they were OK or not. The panelists talked about shades of gray and the lack of rules and the need for experimentation.
I come from a background of working at a search engine, rather than from a background of being an SEO, so I may see things a bit differently than those on the panel.
White hat = no guidelines violations
Generally speaking, I don’t see a lot of shades of gray in this discussion. The search engines have published guidelines (and while I was at Google, I spent a lot of time expanding the descriptions of those guidelines to help make them clearer). Violate any of those guidelines and you risk having the site removed from the index. That’s pretty black and white.
Related discussions have more shades of gray
I do see shades of gray in different discussions, such as:
- Do all the guidelines make sense in today’s technological environment? For instance, are there valid reasons for cloaking that don’t manipulate search engines and deceive users, such as showing search engine bots a canonical version of a URL and different versions of that URL to users for tracking purposes? For discussions like this, there’s a reasonable debate to be had about whether search engines should consider different rules, but too often, I see the discussion tally up the reasons why a technique isn’t deception then conclude that it is therefore, white hat. But whether a technique “should” be OK and whether it’s white hat are two different discussions. With regard to cloaking, that’s currently against Google guidelines regardless of intent. So justified or not, it’s not white hat with the current set of guidelines.
- Do techniques that violate the guidelines work? Often, I see the discussion of black hat vs. white hat veer into a discussion about what techniques are most effective: which ones work for enterprise sites or affiliate sites or sites in highly competitive areas. This came up at the panel, when someone talked about how they didn’t believe that a completely white hat site in one of the three Ps (porn, pills or poker) could rank highly. Again, this is an interesting discussion, but a different one. Techniques that violate the guidelines may eventually get the site banned, regardless of their initial efficacy, so it’s important to understand the long term goal of the site before engaging in them. As the panelists noted, sites that are in it for the long term likely want the slow and steady approach.
- What about techniques that violate the guidelines but are commonplace? I hear this discussion integrated with the hat discussion as well, often when talking about paid links. Paid links aren’t black hat, I sometimes hear, because everyone uses them and they’re vital for ranking success. But again, whether or not a technique is commonplace is somewhat irrelevant to question people are asking when they want to know what is white hat. Paid links violate the guidelines (at least Google’s — the other engines aren’t quite as strict), so they can’t be considered a white hat technique. A different, but valid, discussion is whether all paid links should be against the guidelines.
While all of these discussions and more are certainly valid and useful, I feel the trouble comes in when people have these discussions as the discussion about what is white hat and what is black hat. When people who aren’t experienced in the intricacies of SEO look for information and they see statements like “these are white hat reasons to cloak” and “all paid links aren’t bad”, they can be led astray and think that those things adhere to search engine guidelines.
What are the guidelines?
As for the SES panel, I respect all of the panelists and felt they all had interesting, useful things to say. But for me, the question at hand is simple to answer. Techniques that violate the guidelines aren’t white hat. They may be effective (at least for a time), commonplace, non-deceptive, or justified, but that doesn’t make them white hat. To me, white hat is anything that doesn’t put the site at risk of being removed from the search index.
When I was at Google, I spent a lot of time expanding the guidelines, detailing examples, and providing options of techniques that didn’t violate the guidelines. Since then, Google’s continued to expand the information and make it even more helpful. Check them out, and in particular, click the links under the “quality guidelines – specific guidelines” if you want to read up on the details.
What is SEO?
So what is white hat SEO? The panlists agreed it was about creating quality content — being the most relevant result for a desired query. I absolutely agree, but SEO is also about making sure the site can be easily crawled and indexed by search engines. From a search engine perspective, the best site in the world is unlikely to rank if the bot can’t extract any content from it. That latter part of SEO is, of course, the motivation behind Jane and Robot (which is just getting started; look for more soon!).
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