16 Dec 2008

Black Hat SEO Isn’t Employable

I’ve been hearing lots of good things coming out of Chicago after last week’s big Search Engine Strategies show. Of course, one of the most talked about events was the Black Hat, White Hat & The Best Kept Secrets to Search panel that brought the infamous Doug Heil out from the I Help You forums and into the public eye.

The talk continues today over at Search Engine Roundtable where Barry Schwartz picks out an IHY forum thread by Doug where he recounts his experience at SES and tells us that some of our favorite SEO bad boys really aren’t as bad as they want us to think they are.

I actually knew that already.  I’ve met the SEO Angels.

Black hat SEO is sexy. It’s exciting. It’s risky. It’s daring. There’s that whole thrill of the chase thing. If black hat SEO was a guy, high school girls everywhere would be throwing themselves at it and making out with its wall posters.

But here’s the thing — black hat SEO is also incredibly stupid to use on a paying client.

The panels on link buying and black hat techniques are always among the most attended at shows. People like hearing about the war stories and the fables and the heroes.   The truth is, though, 90 percent of what you’re hearing would never be performed on paying clients.  The big name SEOs aren’t that stupid. You’re hearing about tactics that SEOs are trying on their own sites (or thrill-seeking clients who have sign off on it) to test the system. They want to see how far to the left the line is before they get burned. They’re trying to assess the risk involved to decide if they can try this for real. And that’s great. It’s necessary. But that’s the part that often fails to get mentioned at shows —  the “Don’t Try This At Home”  or “This Will Get You Banned” clause.

As Doug knows, Dave Naylor is not as dark as he’d like you to think. Todd Friesen has been a reformed black hat for years. And that Greg Boser guy who once terrified me as an SEO newbie is actually as gentle as a kitty cat (though he has mad skillz and can burn personal sites with the best of €˜em).

We Build Pages used to dance on the dark side. We sold links and made a killing. But the engines are smarter now.  You can’t hold on to big clients if you’re burning sites. No one is going to pay you to get them banned; they’re paying you to get them results.

People often say that SEO hats is about managing risk and I very much believe that.  If we kept with our old model and continued to put clients at risk, one of these days we’d find ourselves out of business and homeless in historic Troy. We chose not to let it get to that point (I like my apartment) and other black hats have done the same. They had to. Black hat SEO is not employable.  It may have been in the past, but it’s not now.

If you’re [insert major brand name here] who are you going to hire: The SEO company that’s going to keep you safe and ranking, or the SEO company who’s going to use your site to ‘experiment’, even if that means getting you banned?

It’s not so much that black hats are going white; it’s that black hats have clients, too. As much as it may kill them to play within Google’s guidelines, they have to, at least during work hours.  I don’t know about you but I’d rather be a €˜black hat gone white’ than a €˜black hat gone unemployed’.

[And to Mr. Heil, I’m sorry I wasn’t in Chicago. I hope we get a chance to chat in person one day. I think we’d have a lot to talk about. 😉 ]


  1. Barry Schwartz December 16, 2008 at 11:06 AM

    Ah, the good old SEOAngels.com 🙂

  2. Lisa Barone December 16, 2008 at 11:12 AM

    I used to have it printed out and up on the wall at Bruce Clay. 🙂

  3. Barry Schwartz December 16, 2008 at 11:15 AM

    That is funny. Wonder if my Gravatar will now work.

  4. QualityGal December 16, 2008 at 11:53 AM

    What’s this about black hats?

    *checks her Gravatar*

    Hrm… I just don’t look good in white. I’m too pale, and it washes me out.

  5. Barry Schwartz December 16, 2008 at 11:55 AM

    Yea! I see my “black hat” in my gravatar! Sweet!

  6. Andy Beard December 16, 2008 at 12:25 PM

    I like playing in the realm of “well Amazon, ABC and XYZ” get away with it. Still risk.

    I don’t think of it as white, black or grey, it is more like “The Twilight Zone”

  7. Peter Young December 16, 2008 at 1:10 PM

    Think your line

    “You can’t hold on to big clients if you’re burning sites. No one is going to pay you to get them banned; they’re paying you to get them results.”

    Spot on

  8. Lily December 17, 2008 at 1:16 AM

    White makes me look fat! Kidding. I am white as snow 😉

  9. Dan Kramer December 17, 2008 at 6:40 AM

    This from an original black hat: my commercial sites are all white hat now. And doing well in the SE’s.

  10. Lisa Barone December 17, 2008 at 7:17 AM

    Andy: If you have a site as massive, trusted and needed in the SERPs as Amazon, okay. If not, well, good luck with that. 🙂

  11. Terry Van Horne December 17, 2008 at 10:37 AM

    Lisa, with all due respect at no time was We Build Pages doing anything blackhat. Buying links has always been on the table and always should be, regardless of what Google says. IMO, WBP were doing what an overweighted link algo told you could enable you to provide sustainable rankings with the lowest risk. I and others reviewed WBP and we didn’t see schemes. Even the paid links were not of the variety reviewers believed could hurt clients. There were questions about how they were obtained but… at that time there was no one trying to tell promoters how to promote their site.

    Personally I wasn’t comfortable determining the intent of WBP when they did it. Likely because I don’t come to a review believing I can read minds and intent. What I saw could easily be just someone buying targeted links for traffic. Which in the 15 years I’ve been doing this is neither bad or anything but Web Marketing 101!

    Plaease, Jim, etal don’t validate the assinine thought that buying links was blackhat when you were doing it! It wasn’t!

  12. Lisa Barone December 17, 2008 at 2:14 PM

    Terry: No, you’re absolutely right. We Build Pages has never been black hat and I shouldn’t have lumped us into that category. That said, I personally think we were a little darker than we should have been, which is why we’ve stopped buying links. But that’s the extend of our ‘evil’ ways. 🙂 I appreciate you taking the time to correct me. Thanks.

  13. Andy Beard December 18, 2008 at 3:41 AM

    From what I still define as the “Twilight Zone” WBP might also be working in it.

    Affiliate programs with clean links or redirects
    Widget SEO
    Creative mashups of 3rd party content
    Blog networks as opposed to link farms

    It is the area where a Google engineer, if pushed for an answer, would start his reply with “It depends…”

  14. Lisa Barone December 18, 2008 at 6:59 AM

    Andy: There’s no twilight zone happening at We Build Pages. Obviously there’s a white hat and black hat way to do everything, and we’re sticking to the clean, Google-approved way. I think it’s natural we have some folks doubting that we’ve cleaned up our act, but all I can say is that you’ll see in time, Andy, you’ll see. 🙂

  15. Doug Heil December 18, 2008 at 6:59 AM

    Hi Lisa, Oh yes, I hope we can meet and talk face to face as well.

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