Staying White Hat in a World of Gray

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On the web – no matter what your business – if you have a website, you have been faced with choices related to how you market and promote your site.  Once upon a time the choices were pretty simple.  To spam or not to spam.  Email was the weapon of choice, because it was the only choice. Some people went the spam route with great success, some failed, and others ended up in court.

Years later, my inbox shows that spam is not going away, and marketers are still using email with reckless abandon.  While we’ve gotten better as email users at filtering and avoiding the spam, it still finds its way in, doesn’t it?  I think most of us would agree that sending unsolicited commercial email is still a black-hat approach to marketing, regardless of the success or failure of the spam campaign itself.

But the “black hat white hat” argument now affects far more than just email;  From on-site SEO to link building to social media, the techniques and tactics for web promotion each offer multiple opportunities for promotion, and with that comes opportunities to choose – black hat or white?

The answer to the question “what color is your hat?” has become murkier over the years. What you consider white hat, I might consider black hat, or at least gray hat.  And there is the challenge. Everyone has their own definition of what constitutes black, white, and gray hat web marketing.

I’ve noticed that many of us “net veterans” who have been around since the early 1990s are far more conservative and likely to call something spam than those who have only been online a few years.  There’s logic to this. If you dared to send a commercial or promotional email to someone or some group who didn’t ask for it in 1994, you’d be flamed (chastised publicly via email).  Now people seem resigned that various types of spam are just part of the web culture. It is accepted, like litter in the physical world is accepted by most.  We don’t like it, but few of us complain anymore.

A specific and current example of the complexity of the “white hat black hat” argument can be found with social bookmarking and tagging tools.  Take a service like StumbleUpon.com, which is a very cool and fun way to share and discover new sites or old sites you were not aware of.

As a marketer, is it acceptable to install the StumbleUpon toolbar so you can “Stumble” (i.e., socially bookmark) your client’s sites?  On the surface, it seems fairly harmless.  After all, if nobody likes the site nobody will visit it and nobody gets hurt, right?  While I see that logic, as a conservative white hatter, I say “wrong.”

The moment you socially bookmark a site for which you have an agenda, you are engaging in a black-hat tactic.  Why? Because StumbleUpon was not created for business people to use as a marketing channel. It was created as a way for people to share sites they liked, not sites they were being paid to promote.  But many people disagree with me, so for the sake of congeniality, I’ll say that socially tagging or sharing a site for which you are paid to do so is gray hat, at best.

Another “black/white/gray hat” example is in the many wikis that exist where anyone can edit and contribute to the collective content.  Take a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mattel, which is the Wikipedia entry for Mattel.    Notice there is a new section devoted to the product recall issues Mattel has faced over the past year.  If you work for Mattel’s PR department, it is certainly in your best interests to make sure this Wikipedia entry is as positive as possible. But is it okay to edit out anything you don’t like?  Of course not.  That’s black hat, and you’d get caught anyway. But what about adding a link to the new Mattel website devoted to providing recall information and product IDs?  Adding a link to such a site inside the Wikipedia section dedicated to external links is a perfectly acceptable and 100% white-hat tactic.

But where do we draw the line between these two extreme examples from Wikipedia?  Your answer and mine are probably very different, and again, this leads to shades of gray.

Beyond wikis and social networks and bookmarking services, there’s also the plain old link.  Link building has gone mainstream over the past ten years as both people and search engines realized there was much to be learned from links.  Indeed, all the major search engines use some type of link analysis in determining rankings.  Since we, as marketers, know this, it’s only logical we would try to generate links to our sites to help the engines see how wonderful our sites are, and therefore worthy of higher rankings.  And that’s fine and fair.

However, what you consider to be a great site and what Google considers to be a great site might be very different. And since most sites have limited inbound linking potential, spammy link building services have proliferated.

Since link development is my life, and I’m an old-time white hatter, I’ve been amazed at the link building services whose creators consider to be white hat.  Link buying? Reciprocal link farms?  Triangular linking? The list is endless.  And the list is also, in my opinion, all black hat.  If you are interested in link building only because you want to improve your search rank, and you are buying links in bulk in order to improve it, it’s black hat, no matter how badly you want to believe it’s gray at worst.

More concerning is that people who don’t know and don’t have the time or inclination to understand the nuances of the link building process become victims of services they trusted. Even more concerning is those services are created and sold by people who do not understand that the service they have created is a black-hat service.  I received an email (unsolicited) the other day selling me a service identified as a “100% spam free and white hat link building service”.  The email stated they could get me 100 links with sites having a PageRank of 3 or better for a just few hundred dollars.

Excuse me?  How in the world can a service like that think of itself as 100% white hat?  But they do.  And if you aren’t savvy enough to realize it, you might buy such services.

The ease of entry onto the web creates as many problems as it solves. When anyone can launch a website for $20, why not launch 100 websites?  Why not try to fool Google?  Who is harmed?  Don’t I deserve my chance to cash in?  Why should I behave in an ethical and white-hat way when my competitors aren’t, but they still rank ahead of me?  These are all fair questions that probably won’t get answers anytime soon.

I cannot envision the day when there is 100% agreement as to what constitutes black, white, and gray tactics of online marketing, link building, SEO, etc.  One man’s black will be another man’s white, and we each operate with our own professional compass that helps steer us the way we feel is right.   The search engines do the same.

One of the hardest things to do is sit idle while a competitor slips past you in the rankings, especially when you are sure they are using black-hat tactics to outrank you.  But it is usually best to resist the temptation to fight fire with fire.  I’ve had this very thing happen to me several times.  A site will come from nowhere and outrank me for the term I most care about, which is “link building expert.”  At first, this makes me mad and I wonder how it happened.  But after I calm down, I do a little analysis, and every time it turns out the site that came from nowhere to outrank me vanishes from the rankings just as quickly as it appeared.  In other words, the site was doing something black hat and was found out.  That’s an even more rewarding feeling – to sit tight and trust the engines to spot the junk and reward the good.

Ultimately, if your goal is to rank well so you can make money and feed your kids, then black hat, white hat, or gray hat is irrelevant.  The only rules that matter are the rules the engines set. You might know a black-hat trick that will fool the engines, but what good is it if the engines catch you and ban your site?  That may not sound fair, but just like some folks don’t think a 55 m.p.h. speed limit is fair, it doesn’t matter what we think.  We either operate by the loose collection of rules and regulations the engines give us, or we don’t get to play in every part of their playground, not just the sandbox.

About the Author

Eric Ward advises clients on link-building strategies and tactics that actually make sense. Eric created the web's first service for building links and publicity for websites, and he continues to offer these services today.

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