SEO Hats Are Dead - It's All About Risk


SEO Hats Are Dead – It’s All About Risk

In the past few years, archetypes for search engine optimizers have emerged. They include a three point spectrum that includes “White Hat,” “Gray Hat” and “Black Hat.” SEO hats, like most labels, were designed to pigeonhole and simplify what a person does. However, as the practice of SEO had matured and search engines like Google continue to arbitrarily write the rules of the Internet, these labels are quickly becoming insufficient and irrelevant.

Most seasoned search engine optimizers use an eclectic approach to SEO. In fact, the techniques they use can vary in degree and can also be intensely debated based on differing ideologies. Buying links is a good example of a technique that is too diverse to gain industry consensus — something I’ll talk about more in this article.

Like most oversimplified labels, SEO Hats are also used and exaggerated for personal gain. One prominent SEO firm uses the term White Hat anytime they get the chance to speak. However, they’ve simultaneously attempted to subtly reverse-engineer Google’s algorithm and also out competitors in the public space. In this instance, the line is blurred as to whether or not that firm is White Hat, especially if their actions on and offline are anything but that.

John Andrews recently brought the issue of White Hat to a head with his recent article, “Just Make Good Content” is Bullsh*t. In it, he discusses the absurdity of White Hat SEO and calls them out as scammers. He uses the “quality content” approach as an example, and discusses how that practice can do more harm than good — or at the very least is insincere. He goes on to say:

Some might think this post is harsh…calling Google and White Hat SEOs “scammers”. Those same people will probably cite this post as “BlackHat” or supportive of Black Hat SEO. Whatever. They miss the point. I fully expect that one day, after Google has executed enough of these “contracts” that try and bind whole classes of rights holders, she will promote some seemingly grass roots effort to revise copyright laws, using something like that stupid “you have no privacy – get over it” argument. Everything else is part of the setup. The Black Hat SEOs I know understand fully that they are exploiting time-limited opportunities, just like Google does. They are far more realistic than the White Hat SEOs, who seem to think the search engines are paving a golden road to a bright new media world. They are (paving a new road), but it’s not (bright).

While John’s beef is with the invalid equation of White Hat + Quality Content = A Better Online World, my argument against SEO hats primarily lays with the concept and practice of paid links.

Why “Paid Links” Blows Hats Out of the Water

In the SEO industry, you would have to be dead or on a very long vacation to not know that Matt Cutts considers buying links almost as bad as marrying your sister and eating your dog. He even recently referenced FTC guidelines that he feels provides unambiguous guidelines for paid links (now we’re getting serious!).

The paid link war was started about a year and a half ago and came to a head (at least for me) at last year’s PubCon session on link buying. I remember vividly that Jim Boykin, of We Build Pages, stood up to present, made a statement about certain people being in the room (hint: Matt Cutts), and then said he didn’t have much to say. He then sat down after saying basically nothing. This was the same Jim that dished a few years ago at a Boston PubCon to a small group of eager attendees, but it was obvious he was nervous about the changing climate surrounding paid links.

This year at PubCon, Jim was nowhere to be found at the link buying session. In fact, he’s no longer buying links! The panel was small and consisted of John Lessnau, Rand Fishkin and Aaron Wall. John was the only person to provide any degree of substance, while Rand and Aaron’s presentations contained what seemed to be identical, watered down regurgitations of past blog entries and presentations (no offense to Rand or Aaron, because they know their stuff, but it was lackluster for sure). Matt Cutts was of course there and set the tone (in a funny way) with cracking his knuckles and pulling out his notebook at the beginning of the session.

One of the key things that was discussed by all of the panelist, especially Rand, was the concept of sponsoring. If you can sponsor a site, then they will often put your logo and a link to your website on their website. And if you play your cards right, they’ll even do an editorial about you and you’ll get even more links. This of course is a paid link. Especially since the intention was not pure goodwill, but to actually get a “dofollow” link.

The “sponsorship” technique is really no different than one of the modern techniques that most SEO specialists use already. A typical scenario involves a message to an editor, webmaster or sales contact that requests information about site sponsorship and/or advertising. After contact is established, a deal is negotiated that involves editorial content which includes “dofollow” links. Again, that’s buying links for the sole purpose of getting exposure for a website and passing link juice.

If we’re sticking to strict archetypes, then there was nothing White Hat about the sponsorship technique that Rand gave at all. If the intention is there, and it’s being given as an example of how to get a good “dofollow” link where money is exchanged, then it’s not White Hat.

SEO Is About Risk Assessment, Not Hats

SEO and related online marketing practices are about risk. For example, buying links can be very low risk to very high risk, not White Hat or Black Hat. Lower risk paid links might involve the sponsorship techniques discussed by Rand and Aaron or an offline transactions that results in a blog entry. A riskier approach may include contacting bloggers blindly about paying for links in editorial content. While a high risk approach might include using a broker that lumps paid links together in obvious “paid link” blocks.

Onsite SEO contains risks too, which is completely unrelated to hats. Modifying attributes and copy on pages can be very risky to search engine performance. Making certain changes to pages can easily trigger unknown filters (and sometimes penalties) in Google’s algorithm, resulting in devastating SERP changes.

Building links — unrelated to paid links — through the use of social networks, directories and other sites contain risks too. For example, building links on directories can be very risky, because you don’t know which directories Google likes and doesn’t like. And trust me, you don’t want to be on the ones they don’t like. How your links look and the links that surround it also place a crucial role in how Google will see them, so there is risk involved with that too. In general, low risk link building takes more time and high risk link building is more efficient.

It’s time for search engine optimizers to bury the hat. It’s irrelevant to our practice and doesn’t fit into an eclectic and ever changing field. I encourage you to focus less on the labels and more on the risk. The question should be, “how risky are you?” White Hat simply doesn’t cut it anymore and is misleading and exclusionary. In most cases, SEO specialists will find that their practice includes various degrees of risk and that ultimately, they can’t and shouldn’t be labeled.


Based on tweets by Sugarae, I’m apparently rehashing a very old idea. Examples being the article No More Hats: High Risk vs. Low Risk SEO and her own quote from four years ago on a WebmasterWorld thread:

I see a lot of people turning this into a moral debate so here is the bottomline without all the opinions of ethics: It may work, but it’s a risky technique. Google won’t like it. If they figure out you’re doing it. and it could get you banned. Now you know the risk – it is up to you whether or not to decide to take it. everyone has their own “risk comfort level” – you have to decide what yours is and work within it.

So I’m late to the no hat party, but the party still doesn’t seem to be over — as exhibited by consistent references and persuasive communication to customers and the mainstream media by leaders in the industry.

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