September 10, 2009
I read a lot of articles and postings regarding Internet marketing, SEO and the like. One frequently recurring theme is the distinction between black hat, grey hat and white hat methods. Interlaced with the use and abuse of these terms is the notion of what is “ethical” and what is not. It seems to be generally assumed that anything black hat is somehow unethical. More disconcerting yet, anything that Google frowns upon is often deemed unethical as well. I would like to clear the air about these terms which seem to mean all things to all men.
First of all, let’s put to one side for a moment the recently coined terms which euphemistically refer to SEO techniques under hats of various colors. These are not dictionary terms, and anyone can make them mean whatever they want. However, the words “ethical” and “unethical” have very strict meanings, have had for generations and their misuse can call into question the personal integrity of individuals. So what does ethical mean anyway? According to dictionary.com (http://dictionary.com/):
- pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct.
- being in accordance with the rules or standards for right conduct or practice, esp. the standards of a profession: It was not considered ethical for physicians to advertise.
So doing something unethical is first and foremost immoral and wrong. Additionally, it may be implicitly wrong because it violates an accepted code of conduct adopted by a recognized professional body, whose moral judgement is above reproach. Given these definitions, when would Internet marketing cross the line into the realm of the unethical? Well, let’s try to ring fence the concept and limit it to what we think may be just plain wrong by any reasonable standard of measure:
- lying to people to get them to buy your product
- offering a product that does not meet the expectations created by your marketing material (variation on lying)
- deliberately abusing a resource to the detriment of its owners or of the other users
- deliberately devising strategies to deprive affiliates of their fair share of profits after they have expended money and effort to sell your product
- fraudulently generating affiliate or other revenues
I am not suggesting that this list is exhaustive. The point I am trying to make is that something is truly unethical if it promotes falsehood, if it is to the detriment of someone or if it involves fraud. So the sixty-four dollar question is: when is SEO unethical, when is it black hat, and are the two the same thing?
The term black hat usually refers to SEO tactics that are designed to trick the search engines into ranking a page that they wouldn’t otherwise rank. Let’s apply this to the present question.
Suppose by some top secret powerful method you could trick Google into ranking your porn site for the term “clip art”. I think we would all agree that this would be unethical. Your content is potentially damaging to people, especially minors. It has absolutely nothing to do with what people are looking for when it comes up in the SERPs. It further harms Google’s reputation for providing relevant results, so it would be detrimental to the owners of an online resource.
Now, suppose that by some top secret powerful method you could trick Google into ranking your clip art site for the term “clip art”. The method is definitely black hat, because it attempts to circumvent the search engine’s algorithm. If Google really knew what was up, it would not rank the site. But you did not abuse Google’s resources, or overload their servers. You are not acting to the detriment of people searching your term because you have what they want. Quite to the contrary, the SERPs for the term “clip art” are polluted with absolutely valueless sites. You would in fact be doing everyone a big favor, Google included. But, you have done something that Google said not to do. You did “black hat” SEO.
Now it is increasingly clear that Google is beginning to believe its destiny on earth is to police the Internet and tell us all what we should and should not do. It is not the first nor will it be the last corporation to have delusions of moral superiority. But when I read articles that imply, if they do not state outright, that an SEO technique is unethical because Google said not to do it, I become concerned. This is what totalitarianism is made of: the masses cowing to bullies who invoke some self-serving principle to justify their moral high ground. It may be in order to ask whether Google itself would stoop to unethical or black hat practices. Consider just two examples of Google’s questionable behavior:
- Anyone who has had their AdSense terminated with no explanation whatever knows that Google keeps the unpaid balance of funds in the AdSense account. They claim they keep it to refund the money to the advertisers, but do they? Just try to find an advertiser who has been victim of click fraud, and has received a refund from Google. You may be looking a long time…
- Google uses a black hat technique known as cross-domain cookies. First let me say that cross-domain cookies are legit when needed to run a tightly integrated set of domains. For example, if your secure online store is on a domain owned by your hosting provider, you would be justified in using cross-domain cookies to carry user preferences from one domain to the other during checkout. But this is not the case when you visit any Google owned site (Blogger, YouTube…) and Google tracks you. If you log into your blogger.com (http://blogger.com/) account, then your AdSense account, Google’s all-watching eye knows you are one and the same person. Yet the two sites are entirely unrelated. This is violation of privacy.
The point I am making is that of all the companies out there, Google is not particularly qualified to lecture on right and wrong. Just how badly we have run amok on this point can be seen in this extract from an article posted on about.com (http://about.com/):
“Black Hat search engine optimization is customarily defined as techniques that are used to get higher search rankings in an unethical manner. These black hat SEO techniques usually include one or more of the following characteristics:
- breaks search engine rules and regulations
- creates a poor user experience directly because of the black hat SEO techniques utilized on the Web site
- unethically presents content in a different visual or non-visual way to search engine spiders and search engine users.”
If you do not find this appalling, then we need to have a talk. According to this piece, it is unethical (morally wrong) to break search engine rules and regulations! Since when does any search engine have any right whatsoever over what I do with my web site, my shoes, my car, whatever? Creating a poor user experience is unethical? Hello??? As for their third point, we have already dealt with it. Cloaking is not unethical in itself. It is what you do with it that may be unethical. You may have to cloak because some crawler is so clueless that cloaking is the only way you can get people to find your site when they are looking for what you’ve got.
Here is another of my favorites, taken from Google’s Webmaster Guidelines:
“If you believe that another site is abusing Google’s quality guidelines, please report that site…”
Abusing? It would be fine to refer to sites as not adhering to their guidelines, because adhering is something we do voluntarily. Anyone is free to adhere or to not adhere to Google’s quality guidelines. But to refer to non-adhesion as abusing? If I tell everyone to wear a red shirt, and someone wears a blue one, are they abusing my guidelines? We are on a very slippery slope here. The underlying assumption is that if you disobey Google, you are doing something wrong. For Google to take this stance is bad enough. That it is widely accepted by webmasters everywhere is serious cause for alarm.
OK, we have attempted to defined ethical and unethical. Now let’s try to answer the key question as to whether black hat is unethical. I suggest that SEO is black hat when it uses specific techniques in order to get a search engine to behave in a way that is not what its owners/designers intended. In other words, it tricks the search engines. So when is it unethical? It is unethical when it is detrimental to the owners of a resource it uses/abuses (in general, spam), or when it promotes falsehood. I would include fraud in the list if I could think of a way to use SEO fraudulently, but I can’t. (Cookie stuffing and CPA cloaking are both black hat and fraud, but unrelated to SEO).
You may argue that if I intentionally trick a search engine I am acting to its detriment by definition, and therefore to the detriment of its owners. I would respectfully disagree, and refer to the previous discussion on cloaking.
Black Hat SEO is clearly unethical when it abuses resources. It is common to automate the creation of social media accounts, create hundreds or thousands of sites and spam them with links. To camouflage the operation additional thousands upon thousands of bogus entries are scraped from RSS feeds. First, this usually violates the terms of service which would prohibit opening large numbers of accounts. Further, it pollutes the sites with rubbish. Finally it is detrimental to the owners of the site by wasting storage space and bandwidth. Does this mean that automating posting to social sites is unethical? Only if it abuses resources, violates terms of service or is harmful to people. A user agent is a user agent, whether it is called Firefox, googlebot or libwww. It’s what you do with the automation that may be unethical.
All of our SEO efforts should be done in good conscience to the benefit of our clients and to the larger community, not to appease a bully. Google’s hegemony is cause for serious concern among many informed people. Black hatting, or resisting tyranny? You decide.
Peter Adamson is a marketing geek, and creator of The Link Juicer, an online tool that is used to ‘get backlinks’ (http://www.thelinkjuicer.com/) and designed to produce long-term results through natural organic search traffic.