This is the big debate in the SEO community. Is it worth risking your brand and your search positions to violate search engine guidelines? Is it possible to rank well in the search results without at least getting your hands a little dirty?
For those who are new to the game, SEO generally falls into one of three categories:
Whitehat: This is all about immunity. Whitehat methods are indistinguishable from good marketing. These strategies always have the search engines in mind, of course. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be SEO. The key difference from the other methods is that you can justify every move by saying it truly makes the web a better place and that you’d probably be doing things very similarly if there were no search engines to speak of.
Greyhat: This is your strategy if you like to hedge you bets. For the most part, you believe that making the web a better place is ideal for the long term future of your business, but you have your doubts that it’s possible to compete without doing a few things that, admittedly, just add to the junk on the web. Even so, you’re opposed to automation in most circumstances. If you use automation, you still emphasize quality over quantity.
Blackhat: This is a strategy for the cynics, who may prefer to think of themselves as the realists. They believe it’s almost impossible to compete without doing a few manipulative things, and that if you want to win you shouldn’t have any reservations. They’re willing to risk their site’s rankings because they have no branding and will just put up another site tomorrow.
Putting aside the ethical questions, how effective are these strategies? All of them can be effective, but in different ways.
Whitehat: The primary disadvantage of whitehat methods is that they tend to work slower than the other methods. There are notable exceptions, of course, such as when a piece of content goes viral. Non-technical skills such as creativity, networking, and investigative research are extremely helpful if you want to succeed with this method. The biggest advantage is that most whitehat strategies are also great marketing strategies that help develop a brand for long term success. These sites are likely to stay high in the search results for the foreseeable future, and the skills that you learn in developing a whitehat site will always be useful.
Greyhat: Greyhat methods, like submitting to low quality article directories or using paid services to obtain links, can make it easier to rank a site more quickly. Leaving repetitive blog comments that don’t really offer any value probably falls under this category as well. Google is constantly updating its algorithms, however, and it’s a guessing game whether any tactic will continue to work, or even if it’s currently working.
Blackhat: Spinning articles, outright buying links, auto-commenting on blogs, and similar tactics can sometimes put a site at the top of the search results virtually overnight. Only the extremely technically skilled are capable of pulling this off consistently, however, and your sites will be under the constant threat of being taken down. All search engine benefit is temporary at best, and you must keep changing your strategy to survive.
Some businesses might not feel bad about violating Google’s terms of service. After all they are just another business and they have even bought links themselves. There are other ethical concerns, however, such as whether it’s right to pump out low quality, possibly false, information all over the web simply for the links that it can bring.
At the very least, businesses should have legal advisers to ensure that they are within the bounds of the law whenever attempting any grey or black hat tactics.
Whitehat is tough but it’s good for the long haul. Blackhat works fast but each Google update makes it increasingly difficult and the uncertainty levels are much higher.
What do you think? Is Google doing enough to fight spam, or could they do more? Do you believe the search results are getting cleaner?