SMX Advanced: Black and White

I’m looking forward to SMX Advanced in Seattle next month. Last year’s conference went a bit off course, IMO, with an over-focus on “Black Hat” SEO. I’m not an expert, but I nonetheless need to attack two myths:

Myth 1: There’s No Room for Morality in SEO

SEO expert Todd Mallicoat wrote the following post: There Are No Hats – Only Goals. He essentially argues that the only real ethics are to not rat on your friends, and that discussing black vs white is only for people who are more interested in philosophy than in working.

At the conference last year one of the presenters said “You’re not moralists, you’re marketers. You gave that up when you came into the business. Do what it takes to get links.”

Here’s one of the stories from the conference:

“There was a blog that outranked me on a term that I wanted. And the blog hadn’t been updated in years. I found the About page. It had a Hotmail account. Hotmail recycles dead e-mail accounts, if his blog was dead, maybe his Hotmail account was too. Sure enough, I was able to get the Hotmail account, then go back to BlogSpot and claim that I was the blog’s owner but had lost my password. Now I have full control of the blog and I redirect its link power to my site.”

We all thought this was quite clever. And it was an abandoned site, so the morality isn’t so black and white. But what if it weren’t an abandoned site? I mean, if there’s no morality in SEO, then clever guys like this can take over (or take down) any site that will help them build up their own sites.

The ideological beliefs that we were beyond good and evil here scared the hell out of me.

Note: I am NOT saying that Google’s rules should be treated as gospel, or that Google is the almighty moral light of the universe. I’m not discussing “Black Hat” SEO consultants that take aggressive actions that violate Google’s guidelines, but are not immoral. I’m glad to see morality discussions on Black Hat sites about being honest with your customers. We had a consultant who told us we had nothing to lose by giving him a percentage of the extra revenue he got us by giving us more SEO traffic to our homepage. Fortunately we knew that we had plenty to lose. There are plenty of things he could have done that likely would have made us more money in the short term, but might have gotten us penalized in the long term. I guess he had nothing to lose, unless we negotiated the contract so that he’d owe us money if our SEO dropped as a result of his actions.  His actions could torpedo our business, and he’d just move on to fleecing the next idiot. I’m not saying that either White or Black Hatters have a monopoly on  morality. I am saying that the attitude that “there is no morality, you’re marketers” is a scary one, and I wish I felt that more people in the room objected to it.

Myth 2: There is no Advanced White Hat

Or said differently, White Hat is just about having good content, and then doing the absolute basics, and it will all work out for you.

That’s nice. Grow up.

I came back from a conference and somebody told me “I believe that if you just pay attention to the user, the SEO will work itself out.” How nice for you. Do you have any evidence backing this belief? Have you analyzed it? Did you read studies? Did you work in the field? Or is this faith based?

Full disclosure: I’m OK with faith-based. Faith has played a large role in many of my life choices and it’s why I sometimes even try to be a good person. I’m also OK with faith-based being a reason not to do things you think are immoral, or will muck up other people’s sites, etc. I guess I just think the faith of “everything I think should be true therefore is” is dangerous (though admittedly not quite as dangerous as the belief that we should leave our morals at the door and just do what works).

Amazing how much of our day-to-day business decisions are based on our overall worldviews, and how poorly thought out most of those worldviews are. But I digress, this is for another post.

The point here is that I felt that in the conference people started feeling “well, I guess Advanced = Black Hat.” It was good to see a recent interview with Danny Sullivan that he was talking about Advanced White Hat, and about why he was looking forward to the conference (OK, the conference organizer better be able to say why he’s looking forward to his own conference, but I’ll still take him at his word).

Advanced White Hat is about social networking. It’s about building links. Researching keywords to figure out what content people want to read. Writing content that people will link to. Developing better metrics and using them optimally. Maximizing the link structure of your site. And as much as Google wants you to “do what’s right for your users,” realistically you need to understand what Google values.  And there’s plenty more. There’s an entire world out there.

I’ve gone to a half dozen SEO conferences, and I still consult our SEO expert before I do anything that I think might influence our SEO. And half the time he tells me why my common sense was wrong. Colleges are going to be giving courses in SEO (if they aren’t yet), and in social media, web analytics, etc. And those who master these skills (whether from college or from the real world) are going to find themselves in serious demand (actually, they already do). Because their expertise is essential to growing a website’s traffic.

One Final White Hat / Black Hat example:

  • White Hat is when you create accounts on Sphinn, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., fill in your profiles, interact with other people, comment on their blogs, retweet their thoughts, link out to them, etc.
  • Black Hat is when you create the same accounts for fake people that you made up. You give them impressive backstories, and then you write automated scripts for these bots to fake relationships, write tens of thousands of comments on other people’s sites, and build links back to your site. (I had to admit, the Black Hatters I met at SMX astounded me with their cleverness and resourcefulness),

To sum up:

  • SEO is an entire discipline. If your business is built around search engine traffic, then you can’t just say “I’ll do what I think is right for my users and it will all work fine.” There’s plenty to learn, and increasing your knowledge of it increases your site’s chances to succeed.
  • It would be grossly unfair to say that anybody who doesn’t follow Google’s rules is immoral. At the same time, I wish people would stop saying that there is no morality in marketing, or in SEO.
  • I’m looking forward to SMX Advanced next month. I hope to post again about SMX Advanced before the conference, and I’ll certainly post during and after. See you there!

See also: SMX Advanced 2008 vs 2009 and Best of SMX Advanced 2009