I have been known since the early days of search as a “black hat SEO”. I have always been preaching “No Limit Marketing” – do whatever it takes to reach your goals. However, in recent years I have found my limits. There are things I just won’t do anymore …
One of my all time favourite marketing books is Marketing Warfare by Al Ries and Jack Trout. This book basically takes 2000 years of military strategies and applies it to modern marketing. Marketing is a war where the enemy is the competition and the customer is the ground to be won. It’s a very good book.
My work with SEO has very much been influenced by the strategies and ideas in Marketing Warfare. If you don’t intend to win a fight – don’t fight it. There are no medals for losing a battle.
Applied to SEO this means that if the search engines want some specially optimized texts then fine – we cloak it for them. If the search engines want links – cool, we buy them or get them whatever way we can. And if the search engines value our social imprint – fine, we fake it.
As an old school Black Hat SEO you just have one thing in focus: Win the battle! Get those rankings anyway you can – as long as it is legal.
Just like in war there are rules and laws that limit what you are allowed to do. But even within those limits – and especially in the “grey” areas close to the borders of the limits, there may be things you probably should not do. I realized this after many years of practising and preaching “No Limit Marketing”.
There are no valid excuses for drive by shootings!
For me personally the change began when I first heard the stories of how private non-commercial websites got “killed” by comment spam executed by aggressive Black Hat SEO’s – as totally innocent bystanders in a drive by shooting.
Links are very important for SEO. We all know that. One of the ways to get links is by posting comments and links on sites that allows it. This can be more or less automated and applied more or less intelligently. The cheap way is to just blast comments out all over the web – like sending out millions or billions of spam-emails.
The first story that came to my attention was from a good friend Mike Grehan. He wrote about how a memorial site for a dead friend had to close down because of comment spam. Then another good friend of mine, Danny Sullivan, wrote about how his wife had to close down a small community site she had from comment spam too.
That’s just not fair! It’s not right.
We need the grass roots of the web!
You could of course argue that the two site owners could have set up proper comment spam protection. And yes, they could (if they knew how), but that’s really beside the point. Killing those sites is not fair no matter how you put it. They did not do anything wrong. They are not part of our “war” to win search engine rankings and business. They are innocent bystanders.
A lot of these small websites are driven by people with very limited technical skills and resources. And isn’t that part of what’s so great about the web? I mean, I for one really like the fact that the web has given many more people an easy and cheap way to get their thoughts out to the world and connect with like-minded people – no matter where they are, how skilled and wealthy they are. It’s a very important part of the web. The grass roots of the web.
I admit it – I was wrong!
The stories from Mike and Danny made me think …
Maybe I have been wrong. Maybe there is a limit to what you should do in marketing. Maybe “No Limit” is not the answer in all cases. Maybe marketing is not exactly like war …
I don’t mind putting up a fight with the search engines – if that’s what it takes to reach my goals. They are professional players in the game – or soldiers in the war.
The same thing can be said about all my competitors – competing for the same rankings, the same prospects and the same sales and business. They are professionals in the fight. They have chosen to go to war. If they can’t take the pain (of me beating them) then they shouldn’t play the game.
Be wealthy or smart!
Sometimes I get away with manipulating Google. Sometimes I don’t follow their guidelines. And sometimes I find ways to promote my own or clients’ websites on the expense of my competitors. I don’t have a problem with that.
The smartest marketers and the ones with most resources will always win the marketing war. Some lose and some win. Is it fair? Well, if you believe in the free market forces (within the limits of the law) I guess it is. And I do.
Sometimes the ones that are smartest win the marketing war. This is still true for a lot of organic web marketing (SEO, Social Media Marketing etc). Sometimes the ones with the biggest pockets win. This is true for some Search Engine Advertising (such as AdWords) – and a lot of offline marketing, such as TV advertising. So if you don’t have money – you need to be smarter.
If you are small business you probably can’t afford national TV advertising. If you are not as smart about SEO as I am – or can’t afford my (or other great colleagues’) help, then you probably won’t be able outrank us for your keywords.
However, many sites – like Mike’s and Danny’s, are not part of the professional game. They are not fighting for a prominent position on the web. They are just trying to be there. They are just using the web as a platform to communicate and interact. They are like innocent bystanders in a city at war.
Hackers have entered the SEO-game!
Another limit I have personally found in Black Hat SEO came after real hackers entered the SEO market big-time last year.
I am not a hacker – I am not at all smart enough for that. But over the past 1-2 years I have seen more and more evidence that hackers have found out how profitable SEO can be and how easy it is if you can hack and are ready to do it. And it’s much less risky or illegal compared to other revenue-driving activates hackers can engage in.
Hacking is not the same as Black Hat SEO. Let me make that clear! Hackers have clearly got inspired by Black Hat SEO’s but they do not respect the laws. That’s a huge difference!
Black Hat SEO’s may not respect the guidelines of search engines and they may fight competitors really hard – but they stay within the laws! Hackers break into other peoples properties, destroy and steal. That’s something totally different.
I would never do that and I will not recommend anyone doing it either – however tempting it might be. I know it sounds cool that you can buy links on prominent sites from Russian hackers but you are funding criminal activities by doing so and you are hurting others in an unfair way. Don’t do that!
Hackers entering the game has led to some confusion. Some people think hacking for marketing is just a natural extension of Black Hat SEO. I very much disagree. Being an aggressive marketer or a Black Hat SEO is absolutely not the same as being a criminal. I may be “naughty”, I may not respect standards or stupid rules – but I respect the laws and I abide by them.
Some people, such as Google’s Matt Cutts, have even suggested a new term to describe Black Hat SEO Hackers: “Craphats”. That is stupid in my mind. We don’t need a new word for hackers and criminals – we already have words for that! And we don’t need to fuel more confusion.
Of course, Google would like to see Black Hat SEO as some sort of criminal activity – but most of us know this is just a pure attempt at spinning their case. Fair enough (that they try) – but it’s not how it is.
I still reserve the right to fight – but with honour!
I reserve the right to fight really hard as a marketer and SEO to win the game. My job, as an SEO, is not to create a “better web” – certainly not the “better web” Google wants. My job is to market websites. And I do that well.
On the other hand it is not my job either to destroy the web – and especially not all those great little websites that make the web so great. I may have “enemies” that I want to “kill” in our marketing war – but just like in war, I should shoot on the other soldiers, not the innocent civilians!
So where exactly will my new borders be? What will I do and what will I not do? The correct answer is: I don’t know.
I will still think like a “Black Hat SEO”, I will still see marketing as a war – one I intend to win, and I will continue to seek new and adventurous ways of winning that war. My force is that I can be very creative – not that I have tons of money — and I intend to play that card as hard as I can.
But I will definitely think a lot more about what I do. I already do that now. I think about who will be affected by my actions and how.
I can’t give you a list of what I will and won’t do. I have to judge case by case based on my good morals and better understanding of how too-aggressive SEO can hurt innocent bystanders that just don’t deserve it.
If you hear me speak at conferences these days you will hear me defend my new standards. This may be a little different from what I said a few years back – do whatever it takes, and all that. Now its more like: Almost always do whatever it takes, but think before you act!
I hope all this makes some sense to you – especially if you, like me, have worked a lot in the “grey” areas of SEO. I hope “we Black Hats” (in spirit at least) can agree not to be assholes. Let’s show the world that there is a very clear line between good and creative Black Hat SEO’s and pure bastards, drive-by killers and hackers.