Mike Essex

Black Hat SEO: Friend or Foe?

22nd Mar 2011 SEO Blog 5 minutes to read

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?

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