What’s with All the Hats?
The “hat” terminology, as just alluded to, has been borrowed from the lexicon of hackers. “White hat”
search engine marketers play by the rules, following every rule in a search engine’s terms of service to
the letter. They will never exploit the work of others. “Black hats,” on the other hand, to varying degrees,
do not follow the rules of a search engine, and may also exploit the work or property of others. In prac-
tice, few search engine marketers fit exactly in either “hat” classification. Rather, it is a spectrum, giving
rise to a further confusing “gray hat” classification for people on neither side of the fence exclusively.
The black hat versus white hat hacker terminology derives, in turn, from the practice in early Western
movies of dressing the bad cowboys in black hats, and the good cowboys in white hats. Hollywood has
since matured and no longer uses such simplistic symbolism, but its embarrassing memory lives on in
the search engine marketing community.
Dan Thies sums it up well in
The Search Engine Marketing Kit
. He states that it
“… boils down to whether
you, as an SEO consultant, see yourself as a lawyer or an accountant.”
A lawyer, according to Mr. Thies, must put a client’s interests first. Lawyers do the best they can for a
client, and view the search engine as an adversary. A “black hat” search engine marketer is a lawyer. He
or she will do anything within reason to conquer the adversary — the search engines. The definition of
“within reason” varies by the individual’s ethical compass. Some of the various methods employed by
the “black hat” are discussed in this chapter.
An accountant, on the other hand, has a strict set of rules that are followed by rote. His rules are some-
what arbitrarily defined by a governmental agency. A search engine typically also publishes such rules.
And a “white hat” search engine marketer follows them just as an accountant does. He or she is dog-
matic about it. A site that does not rank well is assumed to be inadequate. And to fix it, only solutions
recommended by a search engine’s terms of service are employed.
The distinctions aren’t as black and white as the terminology seems to indicate. However, at least being
aware of “black hat” agenda and techniques is helpful to any search engine marketer, regardless of “hat
color” for many reasons. Despite the fact that this book primarily addresses the “accountants,” there may
be times when bending the rules is necessary due to technical or time constraints (though it usually entails
risk). At the same time, it is wise to know and understand your opponents’ search marketing strategies so
they can be analyzed.
Please be aware that this chapter is by no means a comprehensive manual on “black hat” techniques.
We have taken the approach of highlighting those areas that contain pertinent information for a web
developer. A printed reference on the topic would become stale rather quickly anyway because the meth-
ods change rapidly as the search engines and the cowboys in black hats duke it out on a perpetual basis.
And though it is possible to read this chapter cynically, it aims mostly to educate the web developer
with what he needs to do to beat the black hat cowboy in a duel. Some resources on “black hat” SEO
are SEO Black Hat
, and David Naylor’s blog
Lastly, because many black hat practices exploit other sites’ security vulnerabilities, it is useful to know
some common vectors, because they typically improve the rankings of another (spam) web site at the
potential expense of
web site’s rankings. For that reason alone, a basic understanding of black hat
techniques is important to any search engine marketer.
Chapter 8: Black Hat SEO
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