Do I need to know Blackhat SEO?

by rishil on January 21, 2010

The Colour of SEO

The Colour of SEO

Image source Hex Colours (hat tip SebastianX)

Sometimes it’s important to ask questions that may have answers that you already know. One such question popped in my mind yesterday, which obviously found its way onto twitter:

Ok Question tweeps: As an SEO do you NEED to know “black hat” tactics? Thoughts?

To my surprise I had a phenomenal number of responses. I either caught twitter at a good time, or the question is one that attracted peoples attention.

Of course not all answers were what I expected… Steve Plunkett asked:

define black hat tactics… lol

Fantomaster owns the Gray Hat!

Fantomaster owns the Gray Hat

…which to be honest is a perfectly good question. How DO you define Black Hat SEO? How do you recognise the difference between those who are Black Hat and those that are merely hackers for hire? I think Greg Boser nailed it (and I think others thought so too, his response was retweeted a lot):

It’s pretty easy for me to define. I consider BHSEO the act of breaking rules, not laws.

That’s the difference. Search Engines have a whole bunch of rules they don’t like us violating, and which typically lead to sites being kicked out of the SERPs if caught. Breaking those rules makes you a BHSEO ( I won’t debate the whole buying links and Gray Hat SEO thing here because it’s much debated and covered territory). Hackers work outside the law. Case and point? The whole Ugg Boots scene that played out in the UK recently. I consider the whole Link Injections scene to be beyond Black Hat and illegal.

Of course some people like my friend Dave Snyder just refuse to belong to a classification…

Dave Snyder "I only wear hats Cause I am Bald"

Dave Snyder "I only wear hats Cause I am Bald"

(Dave is Co-Founder of Search and Social and regular blogger at Search Engine Journal)

But getting back to the point, do I as a White Hat SEO need to know Black Hat tactics? Do I need to understand the intricacies of the Dark Side? Why? Shouldn’t I just run at the mention of black hat? My twitter peeps don’t seem to think so:

@wiep (who by the way is a link building genius) how else would you know what white is? Which he then followed by the biggest problems are caused by cowboys who think they’re wh, but don’t have an f*ing clue what they’re doing…

@andyheaps(Head of Search at Latitude) need to know what they are and be able to recognise them, not necessarily implement them…

…unless you’re selling viagra!

@drewhoward as an SEO I think you do need to make yourself aware of black hat tactics so you know what to avoid and how to stay ethical

@mosquitohawk I think it helps if you’re going to really say you understand the search engines, but isn’t required to improve rankings generally

@MichelleRobbins Was quite succinct: absolutely.

@swerveball yeah. you need to be aware / have some understanding. you can’t master something by only studying half.

@APSG 9/10 times they’re the ones who find the exploits first – you could look at how to waterdown the tactic turn it grey / white

@SEO_Doctor often debated that. If you can do quality white hat, then no. Big G is getting too good at filtering. But it’s great playing…

@robwatts definitely – you need to understand dirty tricks to combat them

@davidjmain only to know what to Avoid!

@DavorGoldie I think you should have an understanding of blackhat tricks, tactics etc. You need to know what you’re up against…

@Fearless_Shultz I say yes, if nothing else to know whether you might be inadvertently using them! But also they can inspire white hat variants…

@GregBoser not only know, but be proficient at it. Anything less is a disservice to a client.

@Dixon_Jones (Dixon is the director of Receptional who do run the Majestic SEO Campaign) Sooner or later, you’ll do something “black” by mistake if you don’t know what you’re doing.

@yrewol (although unknown in the general SEO industry, I vouch this guy is a genius, and I consider him a good friend) you absolutely do need to know them. Whether you use them or report them, you need to understand them and their impact.

@Matt_Siltala I think if you do not test, and have never tested on the dark side, you really can’t call yourself an SEO

@seoidiot just give them a white hat name ………. “commercial link programme anyone?”

@Skitzzo i think you need to be able to spot the most frequently used BH tactics so you can understand why sites outrank you etc.

@fantomaster (if you don’t know this man, you need to read up. He KNOWS Black Hat SEO) Expectably, my take is: Most certainly! If only to stay in the loop on the state-of-the-art side of things. (BTW Ralph is launching Customized Content Creation soon)

But for me one of the best analogies was by Kenny Hyder (who by the way just launched Awesome Tools):

Do cops NEED to know how to think like criminals? Gotta know both sides to compete on either.

As you can see form the responses above, there is a certain pattern to peoples thoughts regarding BH SEO. What does that tell me? That I NEED to know Black Hat SEO:

  1. because I should be able to spot any of it by my competition
  2. because I have to make sure I am not inadvertently using it
  3. because there may be tricks that could be used in WH SEO
  4. because that is the way I stay on top of the game

And this old job posting on Search Engine Watch encourages me to add one more:

5. because my cients may request that I do

Some Resources:

(disclaimer: visit these sites at your own risk :P And be careful with any techniques, however harmless, that they talk about.)

With that, I leave you to draw your own conclusions as to why YOU need to know Black Hat SEO – and feel free to add your thoughts in the comments! (Oh and a Fantomaster Special below :P )

Blackhat vs White Hat - Conversation

Blackhat vs White Hat - Conversation

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Rishi Lakhani is an independent Online Marketing Consultant specialising in SEO, PPC, Affiliate Marketing and Social Media. Explicitly.Me is his Blog. Google Profile

{ 16 trackbacks }

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

richardbaxterseo January 21, 2010 at 8:11 am

Really interesting approach to a really interesting subject. Thanks for the list of links – I’ll be working through them and adding to my Google Reader later this morning. Nice work Rishi!

Reply

richardbaxterseo January 21, 2010 at 8:14 am

Now on Sphinn: here.

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Olivier Amar January 21, 2010 at 8:23 am

Rishi, I think this is one of the more informative and unbiased posts I’ve seen on why understanding black hat should be in every SEO’s repertoire.

Great question on Twitter + great response = Great Post!

Reply

Goosh January 21, 2010 at 8:41 am

Rishi, was great to see the response fly in to your question and the resulting post is definately a worthy read.

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Gareth James January 21, 2010 at 10:22 am

Very nice use of crowd sourcing, illustrating the power of Twitter.

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Robert Nicholson January 21, 2010 at 11:09 am

Hey Rishil,
Good points above, and nice to see so many people join in with their thoughts – I was in meetings otherwise I would have added the additional point:

Yes you need to know Black Hat SEO, just as Lawyer’s need to know the law, if white hat maybe you dont need to know it in exquisite detail. However equally Ethical vs non-ethical SEO needs to be known, as snakeoil SEO’s can do crap white hat and claim they’re not blackhat, yet they’re likely worse for the SEO industry than the whole black/grey/white hat thing.

Reply

Finch January 21, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Some of the biggest success I’ve had has been using Black Hat SEO to drive White Hat sites.

If you dismiss black hat or the need to learn it, you’re not really an SEO specialist. You’re just limiting the tools at your disposal. It means there’s somebody out there with more knowledge, more experience and willing to take more risk. No prizes for guessing who wins.

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rishil January 21, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Agreed -hence the final cartoon :)

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Rafael Montilla January 21, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Yes we need to know Black Hat SEO, because when we try any new tactics, Black Hat SEO is the yellow line.
The other questios is, Can we ware a Grey Hat SEO?

EDIT NOTE: I have edited this comment cause of anchor link on the word “SEO”. Comment spammer obviously… Rishil

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duane January 21, 2010 at 7:49 pm

I want a $700 bill, too!

Seriously, one of the best posts I’ve read in a while – anywhere. I practice white hat but do yearn to explore black hat because, well, ya know… enquiring minds want to know.

Thanks for the useful resources Rishil. :)

Reply

John January 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm

As many others stated, I think it’s important to stay on top of it. I Frequent BlackHatWorld because it’s very interesting, if nothing else. A lot of the ideas there are very unique, and you can pick and choose certain elements of them to put together something that may not be blackhat itself.

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Malinda February 15, 2010 at 9:33 am

That’s a really cool post. I loved reading it and those quotes are too good. Keep up the good work.
I also found some nice information regarding black hat on this website: seositecheckup.com/articles/43 and found it interesting too. More you learn better it is. :)

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John Ray July 18, 2010 at 4:09 pm

The black hat/white hat argument is indicative of the youth of the SEO industry. There are no white hat SEOs. If you do anything other than write “great content that people naturally want to link to” to achieve ranking, then you are black hat. Anyone who thinks that writing great content alone is enough to get ranking is naïve. If no one ever sees your great content because it isn’t ranking, how will they know it exists, if they do not know it exits, how will they link to it. It’s called a Catch 22 children.
The definition of a white hat SEO is someone who is too much of a self righteous hypocrite to admit they are bending the rules in one way or another. It doesn’t matter if you take one dollar or one thousand dollars for your affections, a prostitute is a prostitute.
You can find all the White Hat SEOs in one place, the unemployment line. Get over yourself already.
Over 30 Years ago when I was an under grad one of my ethics professors defined business ethics in the best manner I have ever heard “Ethics are what the rich use to keep the poor, poor”. He further explained that the powerful in a give industry are the ones that set the ethical standards, who do you think they will set those standards to favor.
As someone who has been successful in business longer than most of my fellow SEOs have been alive, I find the black hat/white hat arguments childishly amusing. It will be interesting to watch this industry and those in it grow up and go through the cycles that all industries go through as they mature. Capitalism is evil my nature, it works because humans are evil by nature.
“ Like virgins to the alter the veil will be drawn and the children will be forced to see their own reflection”. If you know the origin of this quote you most likely already agree with me.
Yes, I am an arrogant jerk, but I am not a naïve hypocrite.

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rishil July 18, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Via Twitter: supernaut76 @rishil it’s all manipulation – so call it white/black/grey…whatever, there are 2 types of SEO, effective and ineffective

Reply

rishil July 18, 2010 at 4:32 pm

cre8tedtweets
Via Twitter @rishil he talks some sense…imo white hat SEO’s are off-white to various degrees? nobody links to content they don’t know about

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crockstar July 19, 2010 at 2:44 pm

For what it’s worth I agree with @rishil for the most part but totally see your point John Ray.

There are obviously exceptions to the rule: sometimes good content does somewhat “naturally” take off. Some content is just made to be shared and it truly doesn’t take much to get the ball rolling. Outreach through a newsletter formed the old fashioned way, or uptake on Reddit or another community is most likely not a manipulation of the link graph.

I’m not saying this type of content is common… but there are occassions where literally “if you build it, they will come.”

Clearly this is the exception to the rule and I doubt anyone who refers to themselves as an SEO relies solely on this theory/type of behaviour. I just wanted to point out that there is such a thing as “whitehat SEO” (aka onpage optimisation coupled with luck) but it usually requires a seriously talented marketing team to create something that needs very little help in attracting links.

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Nikki May from Copywriting services September 28, 2010 at 10:46 pm

Great piece, Rishil!

The responses just show how diverse people’s through are on Black SEO.

Great responses on Twitter!

I love the Cartoon!

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Anoki Anderrsen November 2, 2010 at 8:57 am

It’s a nice resource mate ,love the illustrations =) .Well for me ,some of the black hat methods can be used in a clean white hat way as well, It defends on how you are going to use it .

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Chris December 28, 2010 at 7:21 am

I’d say it’s vital to know all about black hat SEO, just so you know you aren’t toeing the line or something. Also, for those companies who don’t run their own SEO campaigns themselves, I’d recommend that they themselves find out which tactics are good and which aren’t – that way they don’t fall for the companies just offering snake oil in the guise of cheap SEO and stuff like that.

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Fantomaster USA October 1, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Myths and rumors abound on the being banned for cloaking issue, and five experts will probably give you six different answers … Well, here is mine: ……don’t be fooled by the hype!

Can your core web site get banned by the search engines for cloaking? If that was true, then your competitor could build some cloaked domains and point them to your primary web site so that it would be banned! Think of the damage that would be done if that was at all true. Not a very likely scenario, is it?

So can you really have your “cloaked” domains banned for cloaking? The answer is yes – if, for example, the search engines’ staff have manually checked and compared your spider content with what you are actually serving your human visitors. In a worst case scenario a human editor may come along to check the matter out.

On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that you will get penalized or banned unless some silly campaign build mistake has taken place. If a cloaking campaign is implemented professionally and with sound marketing techniques, your chances of being banned are minimal.

Note that I do NOT condone cloaking for misleading purposes: it is counter productive and will only serve to make life more difficult for all parties concerned.

So can cloaking be abused? Sure it can! But so are kitchen knives and painkillers. I for my part have never advocated misleading search engine optimization, if only because it’s dumb marketing. There’s no excuse in the world for misleading visitors like that and it certainly doesn’t seem to pay off either, which is why the SERPs is actually seeing less and less of such practises these days.

But let’s face realities here: while the search engines may take a strong-arm stance against cloaking in public, they don’t really seem to worry too much about it in everyday life, even if they state otherwise.

One of the reasons being that there’s so much legitimate cloaking about, it would simply be impossible to weed it all out. Else, you might well expect the world’s top 1000 web properties to disappear from the SERPs.

It’s quite important to realize this fact before fretting about the possible penalization of cloaking, as so many clueless SEOs are preaching, without a single tangible proof of what they’re claiming to know absolutely everything about.

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