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Is Blackhat SEO Wrong?

November 2nd, 2007 by shawn · 18 Comments

You have got to see the humor in the whole blackhat vs. whitehat (vs. grayhat) argument. Whether you label yourself BH or WH, I want to do a sanity check here and I want to present to you a new way of looking at this whole panorama of SEO if I may. I will try to be fair and balanced, but there’s no guarantee I’m going to be kind.

So, first off – a summation of the SEO “camps” that exist.

The Whitehat View

You believe in the Google TOS. You follow the Google TOS. You want others to obey the Google TOS as well. Good SEO is as simple as providing a good user experience, correctly building your site to include the proper formatting for tags, meta tags, and content. Plus, you are happy to exchange links and occasionally post a comment somewhere with a link in it. But even that might be a little on the edge. You play it safe and you simply cannot fathom anyone doing anything “pushy” in order to gain position in the SERPs. To you, anything off-color = illegal activity, immoral activity, or unethical activity.

The Blackhat View

You want to make money, so you are willing to do anything it takes to make money as far as SEO is concerned.  The Google TOS, to you, is simply a starting point that allows you to see where you need to fly under the Google radar crossed with a smokescreen crossed with some counterintelligence-style misinformation with a bit of propaganda thrown in. (That is to say, you don’t take it at face value to say the least.) Google/the entire internet is one huge resource that allows you to connect consumers with products and you constantly engage in activities that best allow you to connect those two.

The Grayhat View

You don’t like being called names and don’t want to be the “bad guy”, so you say you’re grayhat. You want to be looked at as legitimate and a rule-follower but you have too much of an edge to say you’re strictly whitehat. You basically are a blackhat who has some whitehat sites – admit it. (Every BH also has some WH sites, by the way.)

OK so now that you get the gist of the three “hats”, here’s some points for everyone to consider:

  • This is JUST SEO. This is not putting out forest fires. This is not rescuing baby pandas. This is not curing cancer. This is just SEO.
  • Google is not God. Yeah, I know there is a church of Google but they are not God. Yes I also know that their search engine matters more than the others right now, but they aren’t God. I also am aware that they are bigger than the Beatles (who thought they were bigger than Jesus), but no – Google isn’t God. They aren’t even a law-enforcing or law-creating entity. Sure, they make their own rules – but “they” are a bunch of guys who thought up the rules they would like people to go by and that doesn’t mean anyone has to.
  • Defying Google does not equal lawbreaking. This is a logical thought that follows the previous point. Really, I mean it. Get this. If you do something Google doesn’t like you doing or if you do something that sneaks past Google or if you do something that would make Google mad if they found out doesn’t mean you did something illegal. (Yet, I often see people discussing violation of Google policies as if it’s actually illegal.)
  • People give Google too much assumed credit that they don’t deserve. You want a reality check? You probably need one if you view Google as the lord and you as the serf. Stop seeing Google as the one you need to conform to in every little matter. Stop feeling sorry for Google when someone does something smart that allows them to rank higher than the other sites. Why?? Google is a big web scraper. They take MY content off of MY site after they themselves willingly SEND their bots TO ME. Do you see my whole point? Google is always talked about as being abused by BHs. The real perspective people need to have is that Google invades servers with bots, spiders the content, scrapes the content, analyzes the content, and then what they do with it is their business. (Hypothetical situation: If they end up coming to my server that I pay for and end up indexing 10,000 autogenerated pages then that’s fine. If I end up ranking on the first page of their SERPs, why is anyone complaining? They came to me. They decided where to rank my site.)

Look, everyone can argue about it all day long but it comes down to the fact that they guys who build the best site or have the best content don’t always get ranked highest. Plenty of times, about.com will outrank actual good websites for a given topic. So will wikipedia. Plenty of times, the wikipedia site is NOT the best place to go when searching so something. And who put them there? Google. Why? Who knows. So please, everyone, stop talking like Google really does no evil. It’s a big scraper and just because they’re the biggest and have tons of money doesn’t mean they’re “right”.

So all you whitehats: realize that you’re defending the wrong entity. I’m not saying you should get on the side of the spammers. What I’m saying is that you need to have a more realistic view of things and you need to stop looking at Google as the one who needs to get their ends (to borrow a slightly ghetto term I like) … you need to get your ends.

Remember this, as well: many of the BH methods of today will be the WH methods of tomorrow. If you’ve seen the evolution of SEO over the years you know this is true. So to look at certain BH techniques and say “that is wrong!” could make you into a hypocrite one day. Don’t be so closed minded.

So, is blackhat SEO actually wrong? Is it evil? Is it wicked? Is it illegal and immoral? While I have seen some things done that I would say indeed are actually wrong, the vast majority of BH methods I have seen just don’t qualify as wrong. Sneaky? Sure. Clever? Yeah. Creative? All the time. But not “wrong”.

Maybe the real problem is that it just works better, and you don’t like that.

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    Comment by Andy
    2007-11-04 01:14:31

    Good post. Your comments about how Google operates are so right. It really is a case of one rule for us and another for everyone else. Trouble is, when you start out you really do need them as your friend so going against what they say is not really an attractive option.

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    Comment by Darrell
    2007-11-06 19:42:59

    Hi I came across your blog and have to say I found this article really interesting ie an unbiased view of both sides as opposed to the usual take one side or the other. well done great article.


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    Comment by shawn
    2007-11-07 02:27:05

    Thanks for the nice comments. You did pick up on the fact that I am totally in sympathy with the blackhat philosophy though right? :)

    Comment by Darrell
    2007-11-07 22:58:45

    Yes of course shawn, but still good to read!

    Comment by fm1234
    2007-11-07 22:31:31

    You are well off base here. Respect for ToS agreements is not cult-like behaviour. Please consider:

    1-Google doesn’t exist to make you money. It exists to make itself money.

    2-People trying to make money using Google as a leverage tool would be well-informed to recognise what policies and practice Google wishes its partners to observe.

    3-The millions of sites indexed by Google generally _want_ to be there; comparing Google to a blackhat bot network is like comparing a taxi service, which takes people from Point A to Point B as part of its business model, with a kidnapper, who after all also takes people from Point A to Point B. Note that it is exceedingly easy to keep your site out of the Google index entirely or have it removed from there.

    4-BH and other genrally exploitative practices do nothing but dilute and ultimately ruin a medium for both commercial and non-commercial purposes. Try Googling some seriously hot keyphrases and you might be suprised how many top result slots are already clogged with crap depite Google’s best efforts to provide relevant results to searchers (which btw is how it powers its business model, so it has every incentive and right to protect this relevancy quality — a no brainer really.)

    At the end of the day, it’s not about moralising or legality or fawning over Google. You name the medium — Google, eBay, CL, any given CPA network, whatever — and the blackhats will eventually screw it up for everyone, both marketers and end user alike. Giving them any sort of points for originality or persistence is lending an unearned legitimacy to the very people who make it hardest to make any money online.


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    Comment by shawn
    2007-11-07 22:58:42

    Ah, I don’t know about being well off base and all that. The kidnapper allegory doesn’t even make sense here.

    See, Google IS basically a “scraper” and they ARE a bot network. They just happen to be a big one. Oh, but maybe you haven’t heard of any of the copyright infringement lawsuits against them, have you? Maybe you missed the news. (And this goes for about.com as well…)

    I wouldn’t go condemning all BH as diluting/ruining things. You just don’t know. Not only are some of the nicest guys I know blackhatters, but if you viewed a few of their sites you wouldn’t even realize they weren’t whitehat…Not all BH’ers are Russian spammers, ya know.

    Respect for ToS isn’t cult-like, though. I agree. But whatever you call them (Webmaster Guidelines, ToS), no one has to follow them. Google still isn’t the law.

    If someone makes a site that competes with your business with 20,000 pages all redirecting to a CPA offer and Google indexes them and people click on the links and the guy makes money…well, don’t cry about it. Blame the guy if you want (for doing something more effective than you), but blame Google as well (for indexing the guys pages and ranking him right up there with your by-the-rules 30-page website).

    Oh yeah – is this actually you they were talking about?: http://privacy.li/forum/viewtopic.php?p=376&sid=e108ec33a2b893cfafa1c4e4da10f4d4

    What’s up with that?

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    2007-11-08 16:35:34

    [...] Is Blackhat SEO Wrong? | diydollars.com [...]

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    Comment by fm1234
    2007-11-08 18:30:14

    The kidnapper allegory doesn’t even make sense here.

    See, Google IS basically a “scraper” and they ARE a bot network. They just happen to be a big one. Oh, but maybe you haven’t heard of any of the copyright infringement lawsuits against them, have you? Maybe you missed the news. (And this goes for about.com as well…)

    The kidnapper vs. taxi comparison might be an absurd extremity, but it is very much relevant: there are many technical similiarities between between kidnapping and taxiing. No one would say they are the same thing, or even remotely similar though. Likewise the technical similarities between BH scraper sites and Google. That Google has the odd legal issue is irrelevant — all market dominators have legal issues as an ongoing fact of life.

    The difference between the taxi and kidnapper is precisely the same as that between Google and a BH scraper site: the former is providing a service which the recipients geenrally want and which prospective recipients are free to decline.

    I wouldn’t go condemning all BH as diluting/ruining things. You just don’t know.

    But I do. I’ve been in IM for a long, long time and people working their way around general guidelines, ToS, basic common courtesy and ultimately the law eventually screw up everything they touch for those of us who were enjoying the market.

    Not only are some of the nicest guys I know blackhatters, but if you viewed a few of their sites you wouldn’t even realize they weren’t whitehat…Not all BH’ers are Russian spammers, ya know.

    I don’t mean to condemn them as people — that’s a whole different thing. I’m talking about business, and merely making an observation of the facts.

    Respect for ToS isn’t cult-like, though. I agree. But whatever you call them (Webmaster Guidelines, ToS), no one has to follow them. Google still isn’t the law.

    I bet you expect Google, your CPA companies etc. to follow their end of the ToS (ie. the part where you get your work tracked and compensated) and would raise holy hell if one didn’t, and then told you “Hey, relax, it’s not the law.” Wouldn’t you?

    Terms of Service agreements are laid out for the purpose of establishing guidelines by which both parties voluntarily agree to act as conditional to the partnership. Respect for contract/your word/etc. is the foundation of commerce and trade. It’s how you get wealthy in the long run too. I don’t actually mind BH operators per se a I am unconcerned with who is picking up the quick buck — you just move on to the new market when the old one dries up. I just think that the comparison between Google and BH is weak, and the idea that ToS agreements somehow don’t matter disingenuous, since it can be presumed obvious that you insist that Google et al. follow any terms of their agreements that puts money in your pocket.

    I’m a longtime reader of DIY and enjoy it very much. Hate to seem like I’m trying to stir up the pot here, because I’m not.


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    Comment by shawn
    2007-11-09 14:44:13

    Well…I think we all know that the one stirring up the pot was me to begin with. :)

    You points make a lot of sense and I see where you’re coming from totally. But maybe I have a bit of prejudice against “the big guy” (as opposed to the underdog). Maybe I look at Google as “the new Microsoft”. I dunno.

    But, to comment on what you said: I have to admit if I entered into a contract with someone and they violated the agreed-upon ToS I would declare outright war. Now, I am going to stick with what I said about scrapers (like Google) because me and Google never agreed on any sort of contract. They just came along one day and made up the rules.

    But hell yeah I want to be indexed by their Gigantuous Scraper Bot. They’re welcome to index all the pages I put on my servers. I don’t presume any sort of agreement with them at all though.

    On the particulars of what is legal and what isn’t, I think we would have to discuss certain specific activities. There are varying degrees of BH that, at some point, everyone would have a different opinion of as far as whether they are illegal, unethical, totally OK, dastardly, etc.

    This is even evident with IM. I could probably think of a few things that Aff companies wouldn’t object to that Google would object to.

    And there are things that everyone would object to with the exception of the most uncaring spammer.

    So I am curious what your answer is to the question of the post. Do you think that all blackhat SEO activities are wrong? Or is there a certain degree to which they can be OK? “Where do you draw the line,” I guess is what I’m wondering.

    Comment by fm1234
    2007-11-10 00:27:30

    No, I don’t think that they are wrong in a moral sense — just not good business. Most of the BH operators I know can’t even get a good *recurring* income out of their operations, and of course there is zero retained value in the event that they ever want to retire. So they shoot themselves in the feet ultimately as well, not just non-BH marketers, for the sake of the quick buck and (in some cases) for the juvenile thrill of “screwing the big guys.” Are they wrong in the way eg. rapists are wrong? No, of course not. Just short-sighted and annoying.


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    Comment by Charlie
    2007-11-11 21:10:20

    I have to agree. Good article. Keep it up ;)

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    Comment by Ed
    2007-11-15 18:31:35

    awesome article.

    lol the kidnapper vs taxi is the funniest thing i’ve read today.

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    Comment by Silki Garg
    2007-11-18 13:13:17

    Nice thought provoking post.
    Definitely aloof from the common belief.

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    Comment by SlightlyShadySEO
    2007-11-19 07:07:00

    Way to tell it like it is.
    Blackhats see it as business. It’s about making money, not bonding with the e-community. Glad to see someone who understands that.

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    2007-11-22 16:57:08

    I agree… Google has been acting as the BIG DADDY all these years… as the other competitors are all way behind Google in reach and penetration

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    Comment by Blogerita
    2007-12-08 10:37:52

    Look at it the other way. Let’s forget about Google ToS since Google is not God. What if you comply with another search engine that permits what is termed as BH to be perfectly OK. Does this make you a BH or WH?

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    Comment by Funny T-Shirts
    2007-12-27 17:47:41

    Excellent post! Nice perspectives as well!

    Blackhat SEO is really necessary today – there’s no way to level the playing field, especially if you’re new to a market such as t-shirts where so many people have already established sites.

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    Comment by buyvinlys
    2008-08-05 12:09:09

    Black Hats will always be there no matter what Google does or anybody does.

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