Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO: Does It Matter?

by on March 20, 2011

in Search Engine Optimization

Did Silver Care About The Lone Ranger's Hat Color?For anyone familiar with search engine optimization (SEO), the Black Hat vs. White Hat debate continues to rage. Recent developments like the penalties levied against JC Penny & Overstock , not to mention Google’s Farmer Update have reinvigorated discussion on the proper way to perform SEO. I’ve come to believe that this debate is a waste of time and SEOs would all be better off if they focused their efforts on more productive pursuits. Here’s where I’m coming from:

What is Black Hat vs. White Hat?

Search Engine Optimization encompasses a wide range of techniques to improve rankings and these use Google’s Webmaster Guidelines as a starting point. In short, those that strictly adhere to Google’s rules are considered White Hat; those that violate Google’s rules are Black Hat and those that employ questionable SEO tactics are Grey Hat. To complicate the matter, the issue of ethics enters the picture provoking a good vs. bad debate which often becomes emotionally charged. Finally, as humans we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity so we crave certainty.

The Modern SEO Landscape is Grey

The nature of the internet combined with Google’s secretive valuation process makes the question of Black vs. White irrelevant when we live in a grey world. Search engine ranking factors must be surmised based on observation, experimentation and guesstimation; so it’s impossible to identify universally effective SEO approaches. And if that’s not enough, what about other common business challenges encountered every day? Like:

  • Competition – What Techniques Are Competitors Using?
  • Resources – Is There Adequate Time and Money?
  • Risk Tolerance – Is the Risk of a Penalty Worth the Return?
  • ROI – Is There a Positive Return Being Generated … Fast Enough?

Combining the complexities of Search Engine Optimization with these common business challenges is only the tip of the iceberg. Trying to simplify every situation into White, Black or Grey hat is the same as a dog trying to chase its tail.

Black Hat vs. White Hat: A Waste of Time

Frankly I think that the question of a Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO is a waste of time; every website requires a unique approach and SEOs that enter projects saddled with preconceived notions of the best way to optimize a site are simply thinking “inside the box.” Those interested in improving rankings should set aside labels and biases to focus on more productive pursuits like monitoring industry developments, testing hypotheses and keeping an open mind. As a result, approaching each new project with a No Hats, Just Rank attitude should be much more productive than meaningless debate.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Eppie @ Flip Websites March 21, 2011 at 10:02 am

Hey Bill. I agree that the white hat vs. black hat debate is a waste of time but for a slightly different reason. If all you’re doing is white hat (on-page optimization and creating good content), you’re screwed. You don’t have to go all-out blackhat and fire off demonic spam, but you’re probably going to have to place some links (instead of “earning them”) at some point in time.

I also think there needs to be more focus on conversion optimization — not just drawing more traffic, but increasing the likelihood that traffic will convert. Split test landing pages, build an effective email autoresponder series, whatever it takes to improve the user experience for your visitors.


Bill March 22, 2011 at 4:05 pm


I totally agree on both counts. The internet is competitive; SEOs and business people are ill-served by simply strapping on blinders in the name of ethics*. As far as conversion optimization: Unfortunately too many people rely on this overly simplistic performance measure, probably because measuring testing & tweaking takes work & patience.

Thanks for your comment.

* Note: I’m not saying don’t operate ethically – but just be aware of what you’re up against and what it will take to be successful.


Lynette Young March 21, 2011 at 3:10 pm

The point I liked best from this – thinking about what your competitors are doing. It’s hard to stay on the ‘up-and-up’ when your competition is not playing fair.


Bill March 22, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Thanks Lynette.

What’s a business to do if they operate in a reasonably competitive industry? Every business online should set aside their biases (black, white, grey hats) to take a clear look at what they have to work with. Only then can they make an informed decision…


Samuel Symes September 20, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Most link building by most SEO firms is not “natural” and is in fact blackhat according to Google. If you have to pay for it, ask for it, comment for it or insert a link in your article to gain it, then you are manipulating Google search results and Google terms that as blackhat. You just need to view the many video’s by Matt Cutts to realize that if you are doing any of the above, then you are creating links manually and you violating Google’s TOS.

It simply baffles me how many SEO experts will quickly denounce Cloaking as “unethical” or against Google’s TOS or even label it as spam which manipulates search results but then on a daily basis create artificial, manual or software generated backlinks for clients.

If you are distributing countless articles with links or posting on blogs/forums to obtain backlinks or using automated backlinking software, isn’t that also spamming to manipulate search engine results?

What is the difference? It all violates Google’s TOS.

So does “blackhat” or being “unethical” really exist anymore? Isn’t this really about traffic, conversions and surviving within an ever tightening monopoly created by Google for which we now are left with few other options, unless to line the pockets of Google shareholders.


Bill Rowland December 20, 2011 at 9:05 am


Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I couldn’t agree more.

Frankly, I think that it all comes from society’s continual “battle with right vs. wrong,” or “good vs bad.” In the end, businesses must make a decision about how they will choose to compete and in the online world this can often present muddy choices.

Personally, when working with clients I use a risk tolerance approach that avoids areas that could create problems or diminish long term value. However when working on my own projects I have been willing to experiment with methods that could be considered risky. Ultimately I feel that whoever the recipient, as long as they are informed regarding the risks then the methods employed are acceptable.


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