One of the sites I really enjoy following for SEO advice is Matthew woodward.

He posted an article recently discussing the new Penguin 3.0 update, and while I have no interest in going into a specific SEO update here, there was a comment that he made, which really caught my eye:

Matthew Woodward Comment about Blackhat SEO

This short little comment really resonated with me, reminding me of a conversation I had with some colleagues not even 1 month ago where we essentially came to the same conclusion. The King of White hat is often assumed to be Rand Fishkin (the man behind Moz) recently caused quite a controversy with his tweet suggesting that he sometimes follows “black hat” practices.

As it turns out, Rand considers buying expired domain names to be black hat. Considering that most domain names in today’s age (the .com’s at least) have been purchased or expired at some time.

What is Black Hat?

So this brings forth the question, where does white hat end and black hat begin? For someone that doesn’t know what white hat SEO stands for, it generally means using SEO concepts which are in line with the terms and conditions of search engines.

Wordstream defines White Hat SEO as:

White Hat SEO is the opposite of Black Hat SEO. Generally, White Hat SEO refers to any practice that improves your search performance on a search engine results page (SERP)while maintaining the integrity of your website and staying within the search engines’ terms of service. These tactics stay within the bounds as defined by Google.

So then that makes us question what Black Hat SEO might be. Well to compare apples to apples, I figured we might as well just compare the definition of Black Hat SEO from the exact same website.

Black Hat SEO is most commonly defined as a disapproved practice that increases a page’s ranking in a search engine result page (SERP). These practices are against the search engine’s terms of service and can result in the site being banned from the search engine and affiliate sites.

So basically, the only difference between the two terms is whether or not something is for or against the search engine’s terms of service. Of course where are these fancy terms of service we keep hearing so much about? As it turns out they don’t really exist in the form that you would expect, but what we can find is Google’s official SEO Starter Guide, which is the resource that most sites link to. You can download the PDF guide there, but don’t get too excited. Its basically the first 5 minutes of an SEO 101 course, anyone reading this blog likely already knows everything that might be in there.

In a nutshell it suggests the following tactics which we can now deem “White Hat” because it is explicitly allowed within Google’s guidelines:

  • Create unique content
  • Use the meta description tag (yes they make a big deal of this)
  • Have a sensible site structure
  • Make your site as easy to navigate as possible (seriously)
  • Use headings appropriately (h1, h2, h3, etc)
  • Make images accessible (use alt tags)
  • Make relevant anchor text for links
  • Have a robots.txt

Thats seriously it. I went down the table of contents. Each topic only takes up about about half a page each, so basically what you see there is the whole guide. The reason this is frustrating is because as you can imagine, there is a whole lot that is not discussed as it relates to SEO. So is anything not listed here considered black hat? If we follow the definitions set forth throughout the web then one would argue that it is, and since all of us take action beyond these tactics to improve our SEO then I think we could all be potentially considered Black Hat SEOs.

In fact the book barely touches on the most important factor of SEO, which is offline search engine marketing. This guideline focuses almost entirely on the on-page SEO and as you may know, doing everything right with on-page SEO won’t help you begin to rank of the first page, even for long tail keywords. Google’s guide only has this one meaningless paragraph about off-site link building, barely acknowledging it as a viable tactic of SEO.

Putting effort into the offline promotion of your company or site can also be rewarding. For example, if you have a business site, make sure its URL is listed on your business cards, letterhead, posters, etc. You could also send out recurring newsletters to clients through the mail letting them know about new content on the company’s website.

Really Google? This is your best 2015 marketing advice, that we should start putting our URL on our business cards or in our newsletters we all send out through snail mail? Sometimes I swear google is just telling us to all fuck off.

Black Hat is everything we do

I have acquired thousands of backlinks in my time as a marketer but I have never acquired a backlink through my direct mail newsletter before. By that logic, I start to wonder if I am maybe one of those black hat SEOs that I have been taught to despise.

Back to the original Matthew Woodward post I showed, he says “as soon as you build ANY type of link you violate webmaster guidelines and as such it’s all black hat“.

Personally I could not agree more, technically Google doesn’t want you involved in any link building. So a true white hat SEO is someone who has never engaged in link building. Google finds links to be important but they want your site to gain links naturally without you doing anything to get them. Influencing the building of links is a manipulation of that natural process and by this logic falls out of the category of white hat.

I find this frustrating to say the least and this is why I really hate using the terms Black Hat and White Hat. We are judging each other’s tactics when we really have no right to be.

I was shocked when I heard Rand Fishkin call out Neil Patel as a black hat seo on a moz forum one day. Neil Patel is a major endorser of inbound marketing, just like Rand Fishkin. I will admit, that occasionally Patel will touch his toe on the line sometime and play around with the occasional black hat tactic, it is usually for the purposes of his blog to educate users and he is emphatic that he does not use those tactics on his own websites.

Again I think to myself, are you possibly being as risky or more risky than Neil Patel? Then maybe you too are a black hat SEO.

Where do we draw the line? Any time we acquire a new link we are working in ways to manipulate the natural process of things. PR is often considered the “white hat way to build links” and the biggest educators in white hat SEO teach this principle right now.

I am sorry, but I have a hard time seeing the difference between traditional link building and PR link building. In both cases you send out lots of emails that follow templates in hopes of getting a few responses back. You ask for a link and do whatever the site owner or journalist wants in return in exchange for a link. Just because you cold email journalists instead of cold emailing webmasters doesn’t make you a saint. The core activity is exactly the same.

In fact, I was talking to a respected journalist today and he complained to me about this exact thing. He said he probably gets 12 – 15 completely irrelevant press releases sent to him every day. People don’t even take the care to filter him and see if these are something he would even consider writing about. They are thrown together press releases sent to a large list without even a personal note attached. Newsflash everyone: This is not white hat. You are spamming professional journalists for links, that is no different than spamming webmasters for links or paying for links in my opinion.

Yes, there is legitimate PR out there, and I spend a good portion of my week (10-20% of it) working with legitimate journalists to try to get stories. But this takes weeks or even months to get a single link. Most of the time the benefit from doing PR is not the SEO that comes from it, but the actual press and public awareness. I would rather get one no-follow link from a prominent media outlet then 100 do-follow PR Newswire press releases syndicated out to 100 sites that no one will ever read.

My point in all of this is not to get us to stop doing SEO the way we are doing it, but instead to illustrate how meaningless these white hat and black hat terms are. It can be extremely derogatory in a professional manner to refer to someone as a black hat when there is really no true meaning behind it. In reality we have all dabbled in it once and will dabble in it again. Lets please stop drawing lines in the sand and calling each other names. Instead lets have some integrity and get out there and make the internet a better place and make some money.

I can’t help but laugh when someone claims to be a white hat SEO. Because a truly pure white hat SEO does nothing to manipulate the ranking in search results, and if you do nothing, then what do you get paid for? We all work to manipulate search results that is literally the definition of our jobs: search engine optimizers – we must manipulate in order to optimize.

We are all Black Hat SEO’s.
Think about that and share your thoughts in the comments below.