We've all heard stories about Google punishing businesses that use illegal, or "black hat", search engine optimization techniques to gain an edge over their competitors. Look no further than BMW or JP Penney to see what happens when you use methods that are clearly identified as bad form. But to write this off as a simple cautionary tale would be a mistake, because there is plenty more to be learned from this. And no time like the present, because Google recently stacked the cards against smaller businesses trying to get their blip on the organic search radar, which we will talk about a little later.
White Hat, Panda Slapping and the Changing State of Affairs
White hat seo techniques are, in a nut shell, methods sanctioned by Google or whatever search engine you are hammering away at. This is the starting point for all businesses, and these approved actions can build your organic rankings over time, and are vital to long term success. But the road is incredibly steep for some. The number of web pages vying for certain keywords sets is absolutely immense, and makes it unrealistic for any but the largest companies to expect a shot at appearing on the first page of search results. What if these keywords are the only ones that matter to the economic success of your business? Are there then other methods we can look at? Is Adwords the only answer? Let's hope not, because organic search traffic is big business.
Complicating matters is the recent roll out of Panda for Google, which was essentially a set of updates they made to their search engine ranking formula. Panda did correct some search engine ranking problems by expanding the definition of a link farm, and Searchmetrics has been kind enough to show top examples of who were pounded for being some of the worst offenders. Looking behind the scenes, however, reveals that some of the the changes weren't for the better. Mega publishers threw a hissy-fit because they were being soundly beaten by competing alternative media and blogs. Rather than improve their product, they leaned on Google to bend the rules in their favor, and these changes were rolled into Panda. The secret sauce that Google now uses to determine search worthiness is slanted decidedly in the favor of bloated corporations and anyone that can score back linking from huge businesses. Why, you ask? What happened to “do no evil”? One could argue that Google has to answer to shareholders since going IPO, so by rewarding their biggest patrons they keep the people that matter the most to their bottom happy.
So the uphill battle for those who walk the straight and narrow is now decidedly steeper. Regardless of the slapping that Panda is handing out here and there, tried and true white hat methods should still be the cornerstone of your seo. But still, after mulling all this over, that Google isn't exactly your best friend...isn't it worth crossing the street just for a moment, swinging over to the other end of the pendulum to see what's up with the cloudier shades of seo? Knowledge is power after all. Great, I knew you'd say yes. We'll start rock bottom, just to get the bigger picture mind you, and then work our way up to something that doesn't require a getaway car.
The Lure of the Black Hat
Grab your favorite black ski mask everybody, because we are going black hat! On second thought, grab a wizard hat or something a little less creepy. Anyhow, techniques like link farming, duplicate content and cyber squatting are designated as capital offenses by the Google overlord. If caught, you will be publicly reprimanded, tarred and feathered, and then hurled into a black chasm of doom, screaming all the way down, never to be seen again by the search community. Do I have that right? Not really. It's more like you've been thrown in solitary confinement and no visitors are allowed. We're really talking only about Google's organic searches here, so perhaps not the perfect analogy, bet let's roll with it. Your imprisonment is a temporary one; BMW eventually got of the dog house and once again became a front runner. Not sure if a small potato would be redeemed as quickly, as I imagine anyone with a sizable Adwords campaign might get sprung quicker. Conflict of interest anyone? Don't even get me started. But seriously, Google cannot leave a company as large as BMW off the list because there are consumers genuinely googling to find said company. A smaller outfit isn't going to have the same impact, and can't expect the VIP treatment. That said, let's peel this heavily layered onion another day, because there is plenty to consider. Instead, let's take the marketplace for what it is, an imperfect environment that we want to succeed in.
How long did JC Penney fly under the radar before they were caught red handed? Was it enough time to see a return on their investment? Setting up that many derelict sites in order to a build such a large array of back links must have required a trip to the war chest. We can only speculate. My guess is that they feel it was worth it. They were beating out Walmart and Target in scores of results, which is no small feat. Their sneaky tactics would have gone undetected for much longer had it not been accidentally discovered by a well respected and curious journalist doing a piece on the subject. So undiscovered black hat activities can prove quite fruitful, but it is a high risk game, and the downside is probably pretty steep if you are not a Fortune 1000 company.
The Fat Grey Line
Keyword stuffing and using page redirects were at one time acceptable techniques. The early crowd that initially found and then ran with these techniques were made out like, well, bandits. These loopholes were never given a verbal green light by Google, but neither were they outlawed, until they became epidemic and seriously threatened the effectiveness of Google's search results. The late comers inevitably piled in and Google put the kibosh on it, and anyone really late to the party missed the rules change and fell victim to their own foot dragging. What we can take away from this is that a businesses who avoids relatively novel gray hat techniques – new methods that are neither sanctioned or outlawed by Google, might be missing out on serious opportunities.
Waiting for consensus, waiting for the herd to agree there is value in uncharted waters is exactly what we want to avoid, because once they pile in Google has no choice but to put an end to the party. Keep in mind some gray hat does not become illegal when Google is forced to respond – meta tags were so easily exploited that they simply stopped using them as a ranking tool altogether. And really, Google is not being the bad guy here, because if a majority of the web population are using a loophole, the benefits of it become seriously diluted as the number grows.
Conclusion? Tip Your Hat to the Trail Blazer
So what can we take away from all of this? Recognize the value of the gray hat. Google actually rewards agility and courage, and punishes the timid. They also mete out punishment to businesses who do not keep up with the latest seo faux pas, so feel free to stay white hat if you or your seo consultant can't keep up with recent seo trends. Adwords is a perfectly respectable solution to difficult organic search challenges. But if you have what it takes, if you have a clever new angle that passes proof of concept, and if you are willing to accept a certain amount of risk, then carpe diem.