Black vs White: SEM Soul Searching

First published on Jan 6, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

At the recent Search Engine Strategies conference in Chicago, there was a new addition to the session list: Black Versus White, And Lots of Gray! Danny Sullivan wanted to stage a showdown between known black hat SEO’s and those that have chosen to tread the purer path. Holding down the dark side was Todd Friesen and Greg Boser. The champions of the straight and narrow were Alan Perkins and Jill Whelan. Falling into the great gray in between was Mikkel deMib Svendson.

The Lighter Side of the Dark Side

The session had a somewhat tongue in cheek tone, but nevertheless, some serious issues that lie at the heart of organic search optimization were explored. Alan Perkins began to tackle the thorny issue of whether black hat SEO was even legal.

His reasoning was that manipulation of factors to increase rank for obviously commercial pages of questionable relevancy was in fact misleading presentation of advertising messages. There’s also the issue of whether hiding or presenting content specifically for search engines falls offside of the recently enacted accessibility legislation.

Todd and Greg countered with a plea for all search engine optimizers to come clean and admit we all manipulate search results (Greg believes SEM should stand for search engine manipulation); it’s just that some of us are more effective at it than others. They use tactics of varying degrees of aggressiveness, and only use the extreme black hat tactics in industries where it’s an absolute necessity to compete, such as online pharmaceuticals and gambling.

Greg made the excellent point that the most serious breach of ethics he’s run across in SEO are those companies that use black hat tactics but don’t disclose the fact to their clients. He insists on full and total approval of tactics by the client.

Was Sun Tzu a Black Hat?

Mikkel likened search marketing to warfare, citing Jay Conrad Levinson’s guerrilla approach, and said that you have to do whatever you have to do to win. Greg agreed, calling it a “full frontal assault” on the search engines. Alan Perkins found the warfare analogy unfortunate and distasteful, saying he didn’t believe that search marketing should be compared to war, because there are no winners in war.

As could be predicted going into such a heated topic, no one changed their minds, but I think we discovered a few more shades of gray between the two extremes. I suspect that was Danny’s intention in putting the session on the agenda. Somewhere between the blinding white of Alan’s world and the dark practicality of Todd and Greg’s, the real world of SEO exists. And as long as people continue to look for organic results, that world will continue to be colored in various shades of gray.

In fact, there is a somewhat symbiotic relationship between the two extremes in our industry. Many reputable companies that steer well clear of questionable practices look with fascination on the tactics employed by the true black hats. One cannot help but admire the sheer brilliance of the methodical attack on the algorithms of the search engines. And in those tactics, they hope to pick up the kernel of a strategy that can be pulled back and employed in a less aggressive manner for their clients. Even the search engines routinely plant informants at the shows at which the black hats tend to congregate to pick up intelligence on the latest tactics.

In the “Wish I Said” Category…

So, at the end of the day, there were no easy answers. But there were a couple of points made in my follow up conversations that I wish had come up in the session. One of the best points was made by my friend Greg Jarboe of SEO-PR.

The fact is that black hats will aggressively look for any hole, and they will attack that hole with everything at their disposal. This means that legitimate ways to gain search visibility are soon exploited by the black hats, forcing search engines in many cases to close down legitimate and useful opportunities for both users and advertisers.

We know that search marketing is a real estate game, and there’s nothing wrong with aggressively looking for new opportunities to gain territory on the page by exploring new strategies including shopping feeds and news engines. That’s just smart search marketing. But the line is crossed when the black hats aggressively subvert the rules and use those new channels to artificially build links or boost their visibility at the expense of the user experience.

And that brings me to my final point. I believe there is a place for guerrilla marketing, but I think Mikkel, Greg, and Todd missed an important point in using the all-out war analogy. Levinson’s intention was that the casualty would be the competition. When you attack the search engines, the casualties are numbered amongst the users of that engine. And those users are your target consumer. I somehow doubt that Mr. Levinson ever wanted you to launch a war on your customer.

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