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Black Hat SEO: Friend or Foe?

Mike Essex

by Mike Essex on 22nd March 2011

The Distilled link building seminar may be over in the UK, but a debate continued after the last presentation slide ended. Two of the presenters – Russ Jones and Martin Macdonald – predominantly discussed black hat SEO tactics on ways to manipulate Google. Although these were pitched in a way that encouraged positive learnings for white hat SEOs it caused a controversy that even Matt Cutts of Google got involved in.

Matt Cutts QuoteSo just what was the issue? Well several twitter posters (led by Chris Applegate) who had read various accounts of the day saw the black hat suggestions and felt they painted the industry in a negative light. This led to them venting their frustrations online, which were then commented on by Matt Cutts, also looking at the suggestions without the backing of the original slides.

All of this led to one big question, should we as an industry talk about black hat tactics? Or should we leave them in the shadowy corners of the internet hidden away?

I personally found the revelation of the black hats tactics interesting, I won’t be using any of them for client work, and will look for the good core concepts at the heart of them. In addition I feel talking about Black SEO is generally a positive trend for the industry. Here are my thoughts:

It helps you learn what you are up against

Every time someone in the black hat community talks about how they placed a page in to a certain position, it allows people who use white hat SEO to get an insight in to exact what trends they have to work against. If you find social media is being manipulated on a grand scale through spammers, then it tells you that you need to be involved in those arenas. It doesn’t mean you then have to create 100 fake accounts and spam the world. You can still take a high ground and come away with a positive variation.

It can evolve in to white hat

This might seem crazy, but there have been occasions where the black hat SEO tactics of years ago have become the standard for normal SEO. For example, anchor text links were first detected by the black hat community who found text within links could help show the relevancy for a page. They took this to extremes, creating ridiculous site wide links, footer links and forum signatures that just hammered the anchor text. This proved the concept worked. Then any clever white hat SEOs who observed this behaviour were able to take the concept, scale it back and focus on getting high quality relevant links with the occasional use of anchor text as an added bonus.

It tells you what you shouldn’t be doing

If your entire SEO strategy is based around one single idea then you need to know the correct time to move away from that strategy. Back when everyone used reciprocal linking, link farms and stuffed Meta keywords, by analysing the black hat community it was possible to see the forthcoming implosion. If people in the black hat community are continually talking about manipulating a tactic you know to stay well away. A good SEO strategy incorporates many items, so just make sure you are aware if anything that used to work is about to be penalised.

It pushes you to scale

One thing that black hats can do well is scale their efforts. They discover ways to get links quickly and find new ways to get a lot of results in a short time frame. A lot of this is bad such as with fully automated software, but occasionally there are really useful time saving solutions that can be used in the white hat community. For example software that auto fills the fields on link submission forms is a useful way to save time that is still white hat if you hand pick the directories you want to be included in.

It makes you do the opposite

The more people engage in black hat activities, the easier it is to see ways to combat their efforts. When black hat SEOs generated content of low quality and flooded the Internet, the smart white hat SEO’s looked at this and then wrote unique and compelling content. This is ultimately what the search engines wanted, which led to better content for readers from those dedicated sites. As for the bad content…

It tells search engines what to penalise and how to improve their engines

Without an open dialogue between the black hat and white hat community, it is so much harder for the search engines to see the ways people are trying to gain rankings. As is shown by the tweet from Matt Cutts, Google are listening, and this means every black hat comment, or article can be read and passed on to their anti spam team. This pushes search engines to work better, and to provide better results.


The black hat community is not filled entirely with people of ill intent. The presentations at the Distilled seminar had disclaimers and no one was encouraged to try the results on client sites. Sure there will be people who read the notes online, or were there on the day that will now feel they can ‘game’ the system, but if they do this on important websites they will be penalised. On the flip side in his presentation Martin stated that as SEOs we should try to push the boundaries and test what we have read on demo sites. By having a test site to try black hat ideas you can learn interesting take-aways for positive white hat SEO.

Those who want to drive a wedge between the two types of SEO are missing the point. Sure there are spammers and scammers, but they’re giving their tactics away on a daily basis. Better yet, a lot of the best people who use black hat SEO – like Russ and Martin – are really just double agents.  For further evidence Martin has stated his manifesto here. They engage in the community, take the best bits, and then find unique ways to shape the Internet with positive content for those white hat SEO’s. Sure not every Black Hat SEO is our friend, but they aren’t all foes either.

What are your feelings on black hat SEO? Does it destroy the Internet or evolve in to ways to make it better?

Mike Essex

Mike Essex

Mike Essex specialises in digital marketing and everything search. A recent project of Mike’s was featured on BBC News, Radio 5Live and the Times here in the UK, whilst also featuring on USA Today and ABC News in the US. He will be writing throughout the month about digital marketing and much more...


  • Thomas Burke 22nd March 2011

    I agree completely. Black hat stuff needs to be talked about in the open and it leads to new ideas and how to achieve better results then great. I thought the day stuck the right balance and Rand’s talk was the opposite of the blackhat stuff. It was a blue print for the way in which google can improve the SERPS. Maybe Matt Cutts etc should be thinking more about that!

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  • Mike Essex

    Mike 22nd March 2011

    Thanks for the comment Thomas. Ultimately I feel that Russ and Martin were brave to talk about it, and incorrectly labelled by some as being black hat SEO’s only. Sure Russ caused controversy from calling black hat ‘awesome hat’ but he was just trying to attract link bait and to get people talking (which is working based on this article….)

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  • Sam Crocker 22nd March 2011

    Hey Mike,

    Thanks very much for your thoughts and for highlighting this. Obviously it is easy to follow a conference on Twitter and judge what you read coming out of the event- and for the speakers to be selective in their word choice to build a certain allure of secrecy- it’s quite another to be in the room and hear “don’t do this for clients”, “you need to learn to push the boundaries to know what you’re up against”, ” I would never do this anymore, but here’s what I learned”, “don’t do this, it will get you banned”, etc.

    Not one speaker was saying: run out and use this for your clients, for your brand, to achieve great sustainable results, etc.

    The fact of the matter is, these presentations helped SEOs see what they are up against (as you point out) , but also as I think Will Critchlow most importantly DID point out – it helps reclaim some blackhat tactics that have GENUINELY white hat applications. And provided a balance of pure whitehat and more provocative speakers.

    I for one am sick of going to conferences to hear about how “content is king” what is the best approach to “optimise title tags” and about how “building relationships” is the most important thing. We know all this stuff (and I don’t mean to discredit it), but I certainly wouldn’t pay to go hear it regurgitated or spun another way for the N-teenth time.

    I just wanted to say thank you to the conference organisers and to the speakers for sharing so openly, for being smart and advising AGAINST using these tactics, and for providing me with things I’ve not thought about and not heard a million times before. It would be a real shame if someone misinterpreting the event based on hearsay on Twitter meant that people stopped sharing and that we as a community stopped evolving…

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  • Mike Essex

    Mike 22nd March 2011

    Hi Sam, it’s mad how just a few comments from a presentation were spread around and became such a negative view of the industry. Anyone who was there on the day can vouch for the fact it was a balanced day. You can’t have balance without showing white hat and black hat, and by having such a wealth of topics it stopped the day becoming the same old things (as you state – anchor text, quality over quantity etc).

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  • Toby Mason 22nd March 2011

    Personally I think its a lot of fuss about nothing. The protests have originated from someone that wasn’t there. If he was there he would be in a position to see that the talks given were not advocating “black hat”, far from it. As you point out what I took away from it was how some of these tactics that used to work can now be transitioned into “White Hat”.

    So in a nutshell, yes, the community should discuss so called Black Hat as a lot of good can come form it in fact.

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  • Sam Crocker 22nd March 2011

    Let’s be fair, there’s already a very negative view of the industry – these things only serve to further those views. However, it’s a shame that people’s presumptions lead them to immediately think the worst. It is a bit of a tough one.

    Sadly it seems like the only thing that would help those without context from jumping to conclusions/assuming the worst would be to have a strictly no tweeting/no blogging rule at conferences where anything contentious was to be discussed. A bit weird that, to be open, we would have to be closed. Seems unlikely that people will move beyond black hat without open discussions about the risks and rewards, but oh well!

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  • MOGmartin 22nd March 2011

    Hi Mike,

    just a quick comment – I originally started writing quite a long one but it ended up growing into a post of its own, so I put it on my blog here:




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  • Peter Handley 22nd March 2011

    If its any consolation guys, I didnt see any of this negative stuff flying around.

    I’m always interested in “black” (er) stuff – not because I am going to use it, but because I can learn from it.

    As Sam says, there is a negative perception on our industry, and we dont want to make things worse for ourselves here!

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  • Chris Applegate 22nd March 2011

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for taking the time to put together an interesting post. Out of interest, was anyone from Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. attend or speak at this conference? The defence that “it helps you learn what you are up against” only really works if the conference involves all parties involved have come together. From what I’ve seen the conference has primarily catered to the SEO side of the industry; if the interest is in making demarcations between whitehat and blackhat, educating about what practices are frowned upon, and helping search providers improve, you need to have them round the table as well.

    Instead, the slides and summaries of the day’s events present a far less distinct picture. Headlining slides about creating 301 redirect bait & switches, or sneaky rel=canonical links, under “cool stuff” or the morally ambiguous “sneaky” (is that condemnation or admiration?) creates a bad impression. Imploring people not to share links about blackhat practices makes you look shady and resistant to transparency. The argument is that these have been taken out of context; unfortunately, this just goes to show you haven’t realised how your industry can look, outside of a conference room, to the wider world.

    If I were you, I’d take a tip from the security industry (the one that pioneered the term “blackhat”). Whitehats in that industry are transparent about the techniques they use, they work with all stakeholders in the industry not just amongst themselves, and they make much clearer the distinctions between what is acceptable and isn’t much clearer. That way you can provide the context the rest of us need to understand your philosophy and techniques.

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  • Russ Jones 22nd March 2011

    Hey guys, I posted on the issue as well http://bit.ly/golU42

    That being said, everyone here needs to know the the overall perspective of SEOs is one of two things – you are either a spammer or a charlatan. They see white hat seo as title tags and meta descriptions, and black hat seo as forum links and keyword stuffing.

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  • Paul Gailey 22nd March 2011

    The hats that SEOs really use at these seminars are Edward de Bono’s six hat thinking. It’s what allows for a mature debate of the issues that determine successful SEO and user experience.

    The speakers presented from the perspective of what is effective and what is not effective for SEO and business. It so happens black hat is, long term, ineffective for business. I think the room understood that. So the speakers utilised slidedecks with language that is designed to gain attention, yes. What’s new?

    The information makes it way to the public domain in time, it so happens that attendees are happy to respect the organisers wish to allow the upcoming sister event in USA to run it’s course before making the information fully available.

    Irksome is the after event comment that purports the misunderstanding of SEO:


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  • Ian 23rd March 2011

    I just basically think of the phrase ‘know your enemy’ in this situation. Knowing the tactics that Black Hat SEOs use is the best way to understand the best practices of White Hat SEO.

    Ultimately though, particularly with linkbuilding, I’d assert that it is very hard to draw a real line between white and black hat practice. There are more shades of grey here than people might think.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 23rd March 2011

    Thanks for the excellent comments and to Russ, Chris and Martin especially for elaborating their views. Distilled have now made an official announcement regarding this – http://www.distilled.co.uk/blog/seo/clarifying-our-position-on-hats-in-seo

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