Engine Showdown: Black Hats vs. White Hats at SES
- Search Engine Watch (www.searchenginewatch.com)
does a "hardcore search engine optimizer"
look like? Does he wear a black hat? With little holes
cut out in the top to allow for horns? Attendees at
the "Black Hat, White Hat, & Lots of Gray"
session at Search Engine Strategies Chicago got to find
special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference,
December 13-16, 2004, Chicago, IL.
For a new session that could have been content to trade
in stereotypes, this turned out to be one of the most
entertaining and illuminating panels of the week. The
labels "white hat" and "black hat"
have been used to describe different degrees of risk-taking
in optimizing a website in the hopes of maximizing search
engine traffic. Yet so many unspoken assumptions attached
to each "camp" have threatened to distort
the reality on the ground, much like the intense focus
on "red states vs. blue states" in recent
In the early going, it was no easy feat to look beyond
the costumes and the mirthmaking. Designated White Hat
Jill Whalen sported a mesmerizing 10-gallon number,
while purported gray-hatter Mikkel Svendsen sported
a bright orange suit which might make dark glasses a
must-have item for all attendees at future panels. Representatives
of the black-hat camp, Todd Friesen and Greg Boser (who
just as often go by their aliases, oilman and WebGuerrilla),
were attired blandly, like wolves in sheep's clothing.
Moderator Danny Sullivan's tan hat was suitably neutral.
The white hats make their case
Whalen's position might be considered the default here.
As the best-known proponent of basic SEO techniques
(sound knowledge of the current state of search engines,
quality content creation, and 'lite' keyword optimization,
mostly), Whalen's stereotypical white hat view offered
a straw figure of sorts for the harder-core SEO's to
take shots at, which they proceeded to do. Those familiar
to forum debates on these matters will know that Whalen
has sometimes chosen not to address certain details
of critics' arguments, but also that she has never wavered
from her stance that webmasters should follow the search
engines' rules and not try deceptive tactics.
Alan Perkins, apparently a white-hatter, began by politely
disavowing these polarized categories before launching
into the most systematic description of them we've seen
thus far. He compared the two camps head-to-head on
a number of dimensions. Black hat SEO's use hidden text
and hidden links, for example, whereas white hats keep
everything out in the open, just as the search engines
request. Furthermore, in Perkins' view, black hats view
search engines as enemies whereas white hats either
deploy sound website-building tactics as if search engines
don't exist, or view them as friends.
Perhaps the most damning dichotomy was Perkins' note
that white hat SEO's deal with "cherished, primary
domains," whereas black hat SEO's deal in domains
and brands that are "disposable." This may
have been a more powerful argument than Perkins realized.
One can think of other examples of business practices
whereby lands, the environment, residents, etc., are
viewed as "disposable," where there may be
incentives to build cheaply, make a quick profit, and
abandon. It's not a comforting image especially in light
of Boser's subsequent argument that large corporations
have become increasingly interested in black hat tactics.
Svendsen's presentation was a relatively dark shade
of gray, perhaps reflecting his long experience in SEM
and impatience with oversimplified concepts. After our
massive stomach pains from his initial montage of hat
jokes had subsided, the audience was told that marketing
is aptly compared with warfare.
But what kind of war is it? Vietnam? Should respected
brands really love the smell of napalm in the morning,
or should they understand that a strong moral core is
not only central to what makes us fully human, but as
things usually turn out, also a practical means of ensuring
long-term success, as moral philosophers from Aristotle
to Adam Smith have always argued? Isn't it plausible
to expect, for example, that the common consumer conviction
that "I won't buy from anyone who sends me email
spam, on principle," might spill over to those
who appear to be attempting to reach them online with
throwaway domains, redirects, gibberish pages, and hardcore
AOL, for example, carpet-bombed the planet with annoying
CD's for years. As long as the company's stock price
was rising, there was some kind of consensus that the
hard-nosed tactics, while distasteful, were "working."
To be sure, even after the accounting got fixed, the
final score is arguably something like "AOL grew
rapidly to momentarily lead the world as an Internet
brand, and this made insiders wealthy."
But this wasn't the final score, as it turns out. It
was the halftime score. What lasting legacy has this
aggressive marketing left the company? What taste has
it left in the public's mouth? AOL's business practices
are part of the reason why it's been in decline. Other
companies have apparently pollyanish credos—Google,
with its "don't be evil," and Yahoo, which
employs a high-ranking gadfly who encourages people
to be "Lovecats" in their business dealings—and
they've done just fine.
The black hats counter-punch
Black hat representatives Todd Friesen and Greg Boser
were impressive in their knowledge, and scored a number
of points off their less-precise white-hat adversaries.
While many of their arguments were difficult to dispute,
ultimately they didn't convince me as to what general
marketing methodology and "style" is most
suitable for most clients. In the end, they did succeed
in proving that doing hardcore SEO is something they
enjoy doing—for the image, for the pay scale, and as
a kind of cultural activity—and that they intend to
go right on doing it as long as they feel like it and
as long as the demand is there. That's undoubtedly true.
The least convincing—although troubling—parts of Boser's
and Friesen's exposes related to the nasty things major
advertisers and major search engines are often found
doing. In keeping with the search engines as enemies
theme, any example of Google or other search engines
acting in their own self-interest was used as a reason
to spam them. But if my neighbor runs an illegal grow
operation in his basement, I don't take the law into
my own hands and poison him (or his weed) with dioxin,
do I? Much of the black hats' rationalizing wouldn't
get past Judge Judy.
Friesen, who joked "I cut my teeth on Viagra and
Phentermine," noted that some of the tactics he
used to regularly employ now seem almost "white
hattish" in today's SEO environment. He's right.
Tactics he cited, such as "buying sites with high
PageRank and good inbound links" and "buying
off-topic links for the PageRank they'll pass"
seem less risky today because the reverence once held
for Google's PageRank has waned, and marketers are aware
that risk of serious penalty for such tactics is minimal.
These tactics are no doubt appropriate for someone building
"yet another throwaway Viagra site," since
the only goal is short-term cash flow, and hiding in
the shadows doesn't hurt business. Yet some of the other
tactics Friesen describes are annoying in the extreme
from the standpoint of anyone who comes into contact
with them: referral log spamming and auto-generated
gibberish pages, for example. Clearly, black hats are
willing to try anything, but in some of these areas
it pays to ask whether the profit is worth the effort,
or if the dangerous image is the main attraction.
Boser, even more than Friesen and Svendsen, was deeply
knowledgeable about the technical workings of search
engines, and made at least a dozen impressive points.
But by packaging what might be a sensible re-examination
of certain SEO tactics in a deeply amoral wrapper—he
actually began this very public speech by claiming to
find "the concepts of good and bad disingenuous"—Boser
undermined his own credibility. As clever and nuanced
as this moral stance probably is, one's religious beliefs
(or crises) are probably best kept off the podium at
a business conference. At some point, all businesspeople
need to form alliances, and entire industries (like
SEM) can find themselves coming under fire by confused
outsiders. Why throw fuel on that fire with inflammatory
Boser didn't need to champion the black hat role so
fervently, given that he professed to select mostly
"gray hat" (improving indexability) tactics
for corporate clients. (These seem more white than gray,
though, so why the fuss?) But it did make for a more
Boser's core points about the ethics of actually running
a consulting business and dealing with clients revealed
him to be more thoughtful than the majority of the hundreds
of SEO firms out there who lurch unreflectively from
sales pitch to crisis. Because Boser is acquainted with
the full range of SEO techniques, he stressed the importance
of a structured process of sitting down with a client
and apprising them fully of risks associated with different
SEO tactics, and having them sign off on any riskier
ones chosen. Choosing the tactics that are most appropriate
to clients' needs is the mark of an effective consultant;
an ethical one, even. (It remains an open question,
though, whether some of the blacker-hat tactics are
ever appropriate or absolutely necessary.)
Boser's choice of words—"be a man and cloak,"
eBay has an "army" of affiliates who "rape
and pillage" on their behalf, "full-on algorithmic
assault," and numerous others—was no doubt intended
as light humor, but lent a pro-wrestling flavor to what,
at bottom, could be boiled down to some relatively tame
key points. Pro wrestlers, like Svendsen and Whalen,
at least show up in costume.
The first key seemed to revolve around certain allowable
tactics (such as cloaking of a certain type) that have
wrongly been labeled "black hat" by some observers,
even though reps from the search engines quietly accept
them. The second (unconvincing) tack taken by Boser
was to list as many examples of improper business behavior
he could think of, implying that "everyone's doing
it, so that makes it OK."
The problem is, he's partly right. The minute you begin
"optimizing" your site for search engines,
you're aiming to manipulate the search results for pecuniary
gain. Boser argues that "SEM" should really
stand for "search engine manipulation." The
implied message is that the white hats are hypocrites.
One helpful Boser suggestion was scribbled down by numerous
attendees: "Face time with Google's Matt Cutts
or Yahoo's Tim Mayer can lead to follow-through on improperly
penalized or banned sites." Search engine representatives
are sometimes willing to take business cards from attendees
at conferences. Those who make the effort to show up
to the shows stand a greater chance of getting a problem
An audience member asked Boser about the type of upheaval
caused by re-indexing initiatives such as Google's "Florida,"
and whether he thought they'd do it again. Boser was
clear in his answer, which was another question: "Does
a search engine owe you anything? Be prepared. Have
a budget for pay-per-click in case you get torched."
Perkins, for his part, responded sweetly: "Florida
didn't make much impact on my sites."
No clear boundaries, after all
The colorful personas brought to the table by this panel
did a lot to generate solid debate about some SEO tactics
that are often glossed over and distorted by broad ethical
categories that do little to address how search engines
actually work. Is Whalen as lily-white as she lets on?
Is Boser really as poorly-acquainted with basic right
and wrong as he wants us to think? Does Svendsen plan
to run a short film about hats at the next meeting of
No, no, and (hopefully) no. But by packaging their approaches
in black, white, gray, and bright orange, these panelists
achieved what any good marketer aspires to: brand recall.
The only remaining question is which of them will someday
go on to become governor of California. Surely not Whalen