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July 9, 2008

Men (and Women) with Hats

SEO is so easily divided into two categories, the good and the bad, the yin and the yang… the light side the dark side.  Okay so it’s not all a battle between good and evil, but the Star Wars analogy is closer to the mark.  SEO is often broken into two camps those that practice safe optimisation (White Hat) and those that prefer to break the rules for immediate results (Black Hat).Much like Darth Vader, a black hat SEO will use all possible weapons at their disposal, often sacrificing a ship (site) or two on the way to gaining victory (top ranking).  This dark side of SEO breaks the “terms of service” set out by the search engines by any means they deem necessary.  The only thought is immediate results.  Sometimes these sites may show lasting results, but this is rarely the case.

On the other hand the white had SEO is more like Obi-Wan.  Controlled, directed, methodical and with a much better staying power.  Okay so I know that Obi-Wan Kenobi was struck down by Darth Vader in Episode IV, but he made an awesome apparition guide.  There are guidelines put down by the search engines and the white hat SEO does their best to stick to the rules knowing that deviating from this could lead to penalties which would quickly undo all the good work done up to this point.

Most SEO consultants know how difficult it can be to explain to a prospective or new client that results may take time.  Very much like a Jedi this can sometimes sway an SEO to offer quicker less than ideal solution.  Once you start down this path it is often difficult to turn back.  Sometimes it is impossible.  The rewards can be great but if caught out the penalty could lead to the end with a very dead website.

Okay, so that’s very much a black and white or light side, dark side take on it.  Lets face it, few things are that clear cut and simple.  White hat is only white hat for as long as the powers that be say it is – or until they catch on and ban a technique.  I guess I would say, “White Hat SEO is an oxymoron to some degree.”  You aren’t supposed to game the search engines but surely optimisation to some degree is gaming the system?

Going back to the Star Wars Universe I would say that most SEO folk fall into a third category: Han Solo.  This is more a greyish kind of hat.  This is where you go with your “gut feeling” on what is possibly right.  If optimising a site for a client you certainly would keep well clear of anything that would get their website banned.  But you would also be looking to rank as highly as possible so would be willing to “bend” a few of the rules.

By going through most of those points I think most people would realise that the simple act of optimising a website IS gaming the system.  Okay, so many do try their best to keep within the webmaster guidelines.  But an attempt to gain a favourable ranking is in some way an attempt to skew the results, in your favour.  While sticking to the webmaster guidelines one could call this technique white hat.  Although I would say a true white hat SEO is one that does nothing.  They simply build a perfect website never considering a search engine for a single moment.  Black hat SEO would be the exact opposite, building a website for a search engine, never considering the user for a moment.

Personally I think we are all pretty much like Han Solo, we know where the boundaries lie and we stick to our side of it… well as much as possible.  However as the boundary keeps changing, what is right today is outlawed tomorrow, it does become difficult to maintain a perfect score.  Fortunately the powers that be are quite forgiving as long as it’s not blatant over the top Black Hat you’ll usually not be in too much hot water.

Black hat?  White hat?  Grey hat?  Which one do you wear?  Personally I don’t like wearing hats.  Mostly as I’ve got quite a bit of hair and usually end up with terrible hat-hair.  But I do think that it’s time we got over the idea of SEO being a shade of black/white it’s so much more than that.

Robert Cerff is a search engine analyst and marketing consultant for Prop Data Internet Solutions. He has ten years experience in e-commerce, online marketing and web development.