White Hat vs Black Hat Social Media Optimization

by Brian Carter October 15th, 2008 

The whole white hat vs black hat distinction is huge in SEO.

  • Which techniques are unethical? (Black Hat)
  • Which are controversial? (Gray Hat)
  • Which tactics are too risky?

Every SEO has to answer those questions for themselves. Most black hats feel they have iron-clad reasons why what they do is ok. Google outlines some clear good and bad practices in their Webmaster Guidelines.

I choose to be white hat. I disagree with those that say that white hat SEO's are ineffective. But this blog post is not about that. This post is about: What can White Hat and Black Hat SEO teach us about social media optimization?

What is Social Media Optimization?

Says Wikipedia: "Social media optimization (SMO) is a set of methods for generating publicity through social media, online communities and community websites. Methods of SMO include adding RSS feeds, adding a "Digg This" button, blogging and incorporating third party community functionalities like Flickr photo slides and galleries or YouTube videos. Social media optimization is related to search engine marketing, but differs in several ways, primarily the focus on driving traffic from sources other than search engines, though improved search ranking is also a benefit of successful SMO."

I take issue with the last sentence. Knowing that social media profiles might help you dominate top ten rankings for your brand name, you might engage in social media for many of its direct goals, including traffic from social media sites, but your primary goal could still be the search rankings you receive for these efforts. Keep in mind, however, that keyword-heavy social media profile names may not be as well received by those who are wary of keyword spam.

Social Media Optimization and Online Reputation

Through a combination of efforts on several websites, numerous blogs, and social networks, I currently have six of the top ten rankings for my name. And ten of the top twenty. This is no small deal, since Brian Carter is relatively common name in the world. For search result space, I compete with a wine-seller, a football player, an engineer, and a hippie musician.

In my opinion, it would be black hat of me to try to get all ten rankings. To be fair, if you search for Brian Carter, most people should get the most popular and relevant Brian Carter. Of course I think that's me, and I'm offended not tobe number one, but I think that six rankings on the top ten makes up for that.

What you get is:

It helps that I have a lot of different interests, businesses, etc. And that I've invested a lot of work into multiple sites, blogs, and social profiles. I believe these search results are earned. It's no coincidence that the Brian Carter with the most search results is in the Social Media industry.

What is Black Hat Social Media Optimization?

First let's look at types of spam throughout internet history:

1. Search Engine Submission
2. Keyword Spamming
3. Doorway Pages/Cloaking
4. Link Spamming, Reciprocals, Buying
5. Wikispam (Knolspam)
6. Social Media Spam

Suffice it to say, if there's a way to do something online, black hat spammers have found ways to exploit it. And Google has caught up to most of it.

Here are the white hat counterparts to the previous list:

1. (Search Engine Submission: outdated, use sitemaps)
2. Appropriate Keyword Usage + LSI
3. Appropriate 301 redirects: Redesigns, Canonicalization
4. Link & Relationship Building
5. Third-party Content Relationships: Wikis, Forums, Guest Blogging, Commenting
6. Social Media Authentic Participation

To succeed at white hat, you have to produce quality and create and maintain a good reputation.

Are These Social Media Tactics Ethical?

  • Fake profiles = Dishonest via Demographics?
  • Redundant profiles = Duplicate Content
  • Keyword spam profiles = Keyword Spamming
  • Aggregator endless loops = Programmatic Content Rearrangement
  • Social Media for link building only = Disingenuous link spamming

Obvious from the equivalencies, my answer is no.

To me, the fundamental issue is your approach. You choose to game the system or take the high road.

Basement Plan Hatching vs. Real World Relationship Building

My experiences has been that if you spend more time with real people, you're less likely to sit around coming up with crazy schemes.

Scheming Tactics

  • Reverse Engineering
  • Secrets
  • Spam App Programming
  • Rationalization

Honest Work

  • Building Valuable Sites
  • Authentic Participation
  • Building Real Relationships
  • Living by Principle

In my opinion, though black hat tactics might create temporary wins, they're overall the loser way to live. Maybe I have an overactive conscience... I'm happier and sleep better when I do the right thing. How about you?

Consequences of Black Hat and White Hat SEO/SMO

Scheming Tactics

  • Penalties, moving target
  • Lying reduces other abilities
  • Apps break
  • Wrong living requires psych meds

Honest Work

  • People need quality
  • People respond to authenticity
  • People control links, jobs, relationships, algorithms
  • Better sleep, more energy, better quality of life

Pithy Sayings:

Here are a few statements that came to mind while pondering the choice between black hat and white hat SMO:

  • The ironic thing is that its black hat SEOs themselvesthat have convinced me black hat SEO isnt worth the effort.
  • SEOs should spend more time with real human beings... and less time in their heads hatching crazy schemes.
  • Is there really any difference between a GET RICH QUICK schemeand a GET RANKED QUICK scheme?

White and Black Hat SMO Scaling Tactics

So how do you increase in authority and popularity in social media? What are the black hat and white hat methods?

Scheming Tactics

  • Fake profiles
  • Keyword spam profiles
  • Interlocking profiles
  • Leveraging programming for disingenuous tactics

Honest Tactics

  • Real people profiles
  • Keyword usage
  • Natural networking
  • Leveraging people and communities

I hope at least I've created some useful dichotomies for discussion. Enjoy!

Brian Carter optimizes everything except his wife. He directs PPC, SEO, and Social Media for Fuel Interactive. Brian is a frequent blogger, conference presenter and keynote speaker. Most importantly: he's kid-approved and dolphin-safe. Disclosure: Brian is a cofounder of the pay per tweet twitter marketing service, TweetROI.

Brian Carter

CEO of FanReach, Brian Carter has been an Internet Marketer, speaker, and social media trainer since 1999. Brian has been quoted and profiled by Information Week, US News & World Report, The Wall Street Journal, and Entrepreneur Magazine. He is the author of the book How To Get More Facebook fans. He is both an adwords consultant and a facebook consultant. Check out his his free Facebook Marketing 101 course, and the full FanReach Facebook Marketing and Advertising course.

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27 Responses to “White Hat vs Black Hat Social Media Optimization”

  1. Utah SEO says:

    You should compare pay salaries of the average white hat vs the average black hat :)

  2. I've been confused by those terms myself. Thanks for breaking it down. I'm coming back when I have more time to read more in depth also.

  3. Blake Raab says:

    Thanks. This is good information. Question: Where do you draw the line of duplicate content? I'm on many social networking sites, and my profile is basically the same on many/most of them. This isn't intentionally duplicating content on my part. It's just that I want to share the same info in those places. Is it still looked on unfavorably?

  4. Very nice set of opinions and depth to your research. Just one question, what color is your hat when you have 2 faces?

  5. Great post I have always wondered about white and black hat I have been doing my best to stay as white hat as posible with my sites to affraid to get delisted by google if I don't

  6. paisley says:

    this may be just a frame of reference waypoint.. but… maybe it will help..

    types of spam throughout internet history:

    1. UseNet Spam
    2. AOL Bulletin Spam
    3. Keyword stuffing
    4. Doorway Pages/Cloaking
    5. Link Spamming, Reciprocals, Buying
    6. Wikispam (Knolspam)
    7. Social Media Spam

    submisssion wasn't really spam, because each engine had a "record" or file attributed to a URL. So when people would submit a URL to DMOZ or Yahoo! Dir, the editor dashboard would show all the other categories/times they submitted, so you picked the best first, edited the description and moved on.. yes it was spam, but not really effective.


  7. Utah – I would wager that many blackhats aren't actually on "salary", and it's not because they don't know how to make money…

  8. Doug Heil says:

    Very good stuff Brian. Although; I would make a better distinction between SMO and SEO as you may have used one as the other by mistake a few times. :-) They are soooo very different in many obvious ways.

    Bottom line; no matter which one; There are those who always try to beat the system, and those who do their thing within the system's rules. This applies to every single industry/market online and offline. Blackhats in ANY industry try to beat the system. Whitehats succeed within the rules of that system. Social media stuff is no different in this respect.

    However; I find it sleazy how SEO people have bombarded social sites that were designed for teenagers to hang out with their friends, and do so only because of search engines like Google who seem to think it's ok to link drop on "other" websites other than their own,,,… and google rewards SEO's for this? Funny stuff. Not for long though….

  9. lauren says:

    i was hoping the article would be a bit more descriptive on the grey area…

    what i find the most interesting are the idiots who *try* to be black hat, and post their links with anchor text within the bodies of comments despite the nofollow…. etc.

  10. I think it all really boils down to what people regard as white/grey/black "hat". Of course to add to the issue are the other colors of "hats" entering into the mix. Anyone see the new "blue hat seo" taking off? Its a very popular blog.

  11. kouji says:

    good point there. part of the question is more personal, are you comfortable with what you're doing? i think that many times, despite assertions to the contrary, a person can tell whether a certain action goes beyond white hat.

  12. Downloadic says:


    Why did you supposed Usenext into the spam ?

  13. Great Post, I consider myself to be more ofr a blackhat SEO guy, probably not something to brag about thought lol!

  14. Metaspring says:

    I do agree with you that ultimately Black Hat SEO is not worth the effort. Also there is a lot of effort expended in evading detection when one is doing something unethical, which is counter productive.

  15. Proxy says:

    Reciprocal linking is black hat method ??

    i never heard about it just i am planning to increase the reciprocal links

  16. paisley says:


    because usenet cross-posting was one of the earliest forms of spam..

  17. Reciprocal linking IS black hat. Any pay-to-play is. I mean, ethics is a different conversation, but it's black hat.

  18. I’ve been confused by those terms myself. Thanks for breaking it down.

  19. yes i'm agree with @Breeders Cup Picks

  20. oh, i don't know if reciprocal linking is blackhat seo.

  21. jim says:

    Basically, there’s no black and white to social media marketing. Sure, there’s “blatant spam” and “not spam” (or maybe “not so blatant spam”), but a lot of it boils down to common sense and figuring out what your client is comfortable doing and how aggressive they want you to be. If they’re cool with you managing their Twitter account and crafting content for their blog and you can do it successfully, great, do it. If they’d rather handle the branding and just get some guidance on how to best go about doing it, awesome, that works too.

  22. Rachel says:

    It's just that I want to share the same info in those places. t a lot of it boils down to common sense and figuring out what your client is comfortable doing and how aggressive they want you to be. If they’re cool with you managing their Twitter account.

  23. […] You might have spotted a few more. […]

  24. […] You might have spotted a few more. […]

  25. chris says:

    White Hat SEO and Black Hat SEO also differ in the way they handle content, with the former being more concerned with providing quality content that readers will find useful and relevant and will possibly cause the reader to want to come back to the site again and again.
    As for Black Hat SEO, it is no less devious in the way it handles content, which in most cases it attempts to hide or disguise in some way. Comment tags are also often used in order to hide illegitimate keyword usage.

  26. […] You might have spotted a few more. […]

  27. Samuel Symes says:

    Most link building by most SEO firms is not "natural" and is in fact blackhat according to Google. If you have to pay for it, ask for it, comment for it or insert a link in your article to gain it, then you are manipulating Google search results and Google terms that as blackhat. You just need to view the many video's by Matt Cutts to realize that if you are doing any of the above, then you are creating links manually and you violating Google's TOS.

    It simply baffles me how many SEO experts will quickly denounce Cloaking as "unethical" or against Google's TOS or even label it as spam which manipulates search results but then on a daily basis create artificial, manual or software generated backlinks for clients.

    If you are distributing countless articles with links or posting on blogs/forums to obtain backlinks or using automated backlinking software, isn't that also spamming to manipulate search engine results?

    What is the difference? It all violates Google's TOS.

    So does "blackhat" or being "unethical" really exist anymore? Isn't this really about traffic, conversions and surviving within an ever tightening monopoly created by Google for which we now are left with few other options, unless to line the pockets of Google shareholders.