‘Black Hat SEO‘ is essentially any technique or strategy that attempts to manipulate Google to get higher rankings rather than earning those rankings by following the search engine guidelines and creating high quality and useful websites, known as White Hat SEO.
So, is Black Hat unethical? In some situations it can be, I’ll address those below, but in general I would say ‘no.’ In this article I will explore this question in more detail and make the case for why I think small businesses should still be using a white hat strategy.
What is Black Hat SEO?
The term covers all aspects of SEO but is most applicable to link building as this is where the most gains are to be made and where detection by Google (and other search engines) is hardest. Black Hat links are any links that have been acquired by giving something of value in exchange for the link. At one end of the spectrum are the straight forward paid links, including sponsorships and sponsored posts, where you are giving money and getting a link. On the other end of the spectrum, however, things aren’t so straightforward.
Guest Posting has been a popular link building technique over the past few years. The basic idea is that you write an awesome article for someone else’s blog and down the bottom of the article you get a little author bio with some information about yourself and a link back to your website. On the face of it, this might seem like a high quality way to get links but, actually, this is could be considered black hat because you are giving content in exchange for the link. You wouldn’t be getting that link if it wasn’t for the free content you are contributing for that guest post, right? Actually its more complicated than that as I explain in detail in this post.
Under some definitions, the term ‘black hat’ also encompasses illegal activities such as negative SEO, hacking sites and stealing content. I want to be clear that I don’t include these types of techniques in my definition and do consider them to be unethical.
What is White Hat SEO? (ie. not Black Hat)
Again, the term covers all aspects of SEO but is mostly applicable to link building. White Hat links are those that have been earned and are editorial, that is the person who put the link in place was not obligated in any way to do so, had a completely free choice and was not compensated in any way.
Google is Not God
When we are trying rank sites higher in Google and reap the benefits we are playing in their universe and are subject to their rules and must bear the consequences of breaking those rules. However, Google is not a moral arbiter and their guidelines shouldn’t be confused for a guide to morality and business ethics.
Some people try to make the argument that by manipulating Google you are reducing the quality of the search results and preventing people from finding the information and websites they are looking for, which could be considered unethical.
If Google’s algorithm always ranked the best sites at the top then this argument would have more merit but that’s simply not the case. Great sites often go unnoticed while crappy sites rank well.
This line of thought definitely has merit but with the current state of search quality I don’t think its convincing enough (yet). However, if the site being artificially ranked is particularly low quality and/or malicious then I could be swayed by this argument.
Using Black Hat SEO on Client Sites
When an SEO provider uses black hat SEO techniques on a client’s site without clearly explaining the risks, I think this IS highly unethical. Unfortunately this is a widespread practice in the industry.
Black hat techniques are attractive to many SEO providers because they are effective, efficient and easily repeatable. There are significant risks of course but the problem is that these risks are difficult to quantify and hard to accurately communicate to the client so many SEOs simply skip this step which makes for a slicker proposal and fewer pesky questions.
Personally I think that if the client doesn’t understand the risks then the provider shouldn’t be exposing them to those risks because they really are putting the business’s life on the line.
White Hat is the Way
Update 22/10/2016: White hat link building is now too expensive for most small business owners to outsource which is why we’re now using an affordable, low risk technique that still gets good results in our campaigns. This change is discussed in more detail here.
In my experience, most small businesses are looking to build a long term business which is why I always recommend a white hat strategy. For these businesses, their website is part of their brand so they want to protect that website as much as possible.
Those that want to pursue a high risk black hat strategy (this is not what we’re doing) must take up a ‘churn and burn’ approach when it comes to their website. This means they set up a website and use it for a while until Google gets weary of their manipulative techniques and penalises them so they get rid of that website and start again from scratch with a new website. Its not always as bad as this as the least risky black hat tactics might allow you to fly under the radar for quite some time, or forever, but you must always be ready for the possibility that you will be taken down.
If you feel compelled to dabble in the dark arts (black hat SEO) then I’d suggest creating a separate site to build alongside your main site so if something goes wrong down the track you don’t lose everything.
When choosing an SEO strategy its important to consider risk but you can’t ignore costs and potential benefits. Its not much use having a low risk strategy if your website doesn’t rank anywhere anyway.
Counter Arguments (to a White Hat Strategy)
There’s a couple of strong counter points to the argument that you should stick with a white hat strategy;
- The least risky black hat tactics will allow you to gain pretty solid rankings whilst flying under the radar for the most part and avoid retribution from Google
- In general, black hat SEO is much easier and somewhat cheaper than white hat SEO
- Past experience shows that even sites that have been found out by Google to be using black hat techniques have been able to recover after they undo what they’ve done and sit in the naughty corner for a little while (on the other hand, some sites never do recover)
Black Hat SEO is not unethical and it can work for your business but you need to be willing to take risks including the possibility you could lose your website (in extreme cases).
We suggest considering all of the aspects of risk, cost and return for each SEO strategy you are considering so you can choose the best option for your business.