I've never made a big secret of the fact that as a commercial SEO and marketer, I am what most call a blackhat. When I change hats, it's gray at best. This is a choice that has brought up some interesting debates within my own blog, and occasionally on forums around the web. Since those conversations generally go a predictable place (but are always interesting), I thought it'd be nice to put the debate into the larger community.
I expect that most readers will not agree with what I write here and I'm fine with that; it's not for everyone. But I thought it may be good to at least put the ideas out there. I can only speak for myself here, but I believe many of these answers would be similar throughout the blackhat community. Please note that for the sake of this discussion, I'm separating hackers from blackhats. We are different, and the confusion benefits neither.
Also bear in mind that I do not take clients, so I'm not addressing that issue. Most skilled blackhats I know also do not take clients.
The "Ethics" of Blackhat (Vs. Google)
I have no qualms about "tricking" Google.
Rewind time to when search engines were a fresh idea, and many people thought they themselves were unethical. Search engines are not invited to sites. They copy/cache content, and do whatever they can to profit from this content they were never asked to access.
With this idea in mind, why would I not do the same as them, and attempt to profit from them profiting off of me? If I want to "opt out" of them crawling and not make money off of them, I'll deny by robots.txt. If they want to not make money off of me, they will "opt out" and remove my site.
Even ignoring the above statement, the double standards of SEO in the Google world make it quite difficult for someone to come in new to compete. I've mentioned YouTube Cloaking before. The New York Times apparently also gets this privilege. Well established sites with a substantial advertising budget? Those will never be banned or penalized. Many use blatant "doorway" pages, and will never have anything done against them. Any new site? Banned. So sometimes, a bit of stealth is necessary.
So from that alone, it's obvious that even if I was whitehat, Google would still not care about my business. They are handing entire control of niches over by way of green lighting (or ignoring) large and entrenched corporations who use practices I could not touch.
I can accept this; I believe no one is entitled to a rank just because they play by the rules, and Google shouldn't have to worry about each business. There's only so many rankings to go around. But at the same time, I'm going to not going to change my business to help Google's business. Rather than stagnate, I compete.
The last major point is that I'm not at all confident in the true longevity of most [competitive] sites. Rules change, especially with Google. Before they began aggressively attacking paid links, how many people felt their sites were secure? The sense I got was the vast majority. Restriction has been slowly tightening since then from everything I've seen and experienced. If I'm going to pour hours and hours of development time into building a site, I want to know it's going to rank. I don't want to worry about miscellaneous "guidelines" changes, or "special cases". I don't want to worry about some Google base or local dropdown knocking my site down 5 inches. I don't even want to worry about the possibility of negative SEO. I don't want to put my faith in one individual site. I'd rather distribute the risk.
The "Ethics" of Blackhat (Vs. Webmasters)
After the ethics vs. Google conversation subsides, normally it changes to "what about the webmasters you're ranking above? Don't you feel bad cheating?"
Once again, no. First and foremost, no one is entitled to rank just because they play by an arbitrary set of rules that no one really ever agreed to, signed, or otherwise implied was ok. If that's the lay of the land, perhaps I should be able to make some rules. Would it be unethical for random people I meet on the street to not follow those? I think not.
Beyond that, my view is that in business our success is dictated by the risks we are, or are not willing to take. Any site I end up outranking made their decision to play it safe, and that was a perfectly respectable call. I'm sure they'll enjoy their ranking for many months after the blackhat site has been reported by a disgruntled SEO and is banished from the rankings. My decision was to not play it safe, and as a result their are consequences for the action. These choices are not moral judgements and they are not indications of personality outside of business. They are business models. Longevity vs. Fast income. Neither is inherently better than the other. They are just different. There is reward for risk.
I suspect I'll take some heat for this. But in a internet landscape where Google is essentially revolting against competitive SEO with tight restrictions, "usability" additions that remove emphasis from the search results and onto maps, Google Base/Checkout, and their paid listings, I do not feel at all comfortable investing my money into a site that may or may not be alive/ranking/in a niche where ranking still matters several years from now. Google is looking out for Google, and no one else. I will do the same.
As soon as clients are added into the picture, this entire ethical beast changes direction a bit. But hey, that's for another entry someday.
As always, constructive criticism or intelligent debate is welcome. My only request is that nothing get abusive.
If you liked this post(or just feel the need to spy on us evil types), feel free to drop by. I write regularly at Slightly Shady SEO covering whichever topics I feel like (typically PPC/SEO) and always enjoy a lively debate 😉
Images courtesy of Charl22, stephenccwu and Jana Mills
62 thoughts on “Blackhat Ethics: Whose Rules Are They Anyway?”
@Chris: I’m not asking for a guarantee. I’m fine with site bans. I was explaining how it’s not unethical to mess with Google, not saying “my cloaked sites should be indexed”
“if you don’t want Goolge traffic, just use robots.txt to noindex”
That’s an opt-out system, and it’s BS. I have to opt out of a company copying and profiting off my data?
How about this “If Google doesn’t want the ad impressions my site gives the, just ban the site”
See? They can opt out too. And considering they’re the ones that initiated the entire “transaction”, I see no reason to mess with my robots.txt for their sake.
This write up give me a new perspective. Very enlightening. I agree there’s nothing permanent, popular today might be a loser tomorrow.
Black, white, grey….we’re all under the same umbrella here. Make money via Google. I think if more whitehats knew blackhat better their “ethics” would quickly disintegrate.
An interesting article. And there is a black hatted girl.
Great post. I think there are a lot of tactics out there that are way too black hat, but as far as some basic techniques I do not think anyone should feel bad about using them. As long as you aren’t ripping someone off who cares. Anyways I think grey hat is the way to go, nothing too bad but enough to help you in the SERPS.
This is a fairly interesting perspective on things – I’ve never thought of blackhat this way. Your thoughts on Google are enlightening, I must say.
First of all, nice picture… but secondly, there will always be the good and the bad, the right from the wrong but you can’t have one without the other, right? I mean, if there wasn’t blackhat then would there really be whitehat?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t do blackhat stuff (well, I don’t think lol) but you do bring up a very good point on it.
The fact that google is so obscure with its requirements gives the most credence to your argument. We all make choices regarding how we choose to build and operate our sites, and your point that it is a business decision, not an ethical one, makes a great deal of sense. Of course, go back 50 years and tell someone that littering is “wrong” and you’d look like an idiot. Maybe we should all be prepared for the way we are judged to be constantly changing over time.
I don’t really side with anyone here as I can see the perspectives of both.
The argument that a blackhat arguably provides a better user experience because they have commercial incentive only applies to those searchers that are looking for a commercial transaction. For those searchers that are looking for answers, commercial sites (or at least blackhat ones) usually require some sort of conversion to provide those answers.
However, the idea that as webmasters or SEO people should just agree to do whatever Google asks of us so we can all work together to make the web a better place is just naive. There’s no partnership here. Google’s (and any search engine’s) bread an butter is user experience but they’re not sharing any of the money they make as a result with you. When’s the last time you flew with Larry and Sergey on the Google jet?
My personal take is that Google is just another source of traffic to my sites. Yes it’s a big source but still, just a source. I will do whatever I have to do to get high rankings. I’m not wearing any hats, I’m just trying to run my business to the best of my ability and not leave my fate in the hands of others.
One last thing… Doug, you keep using the “you’re young and inexperienced” card. Let’s look at it from another angle. Perhaps you’re just old and out of touch with the way things are today.
*Following up with the obligatory “I’ve been doing this for over 10 years now and am in my late 30’s.”
@Doug Heil: It is interesting that you continue to throw around the young phrase, like you are so much older and wiser, but you don’t even remember what it was like before search engines. Why don’t you try addressing the issues instead of relying on Ad Hominem?
@shady: I enjoyed your post.
google owns the web its their rules from now on
I totally agree, i read a similar thing over at http://www.whatsyourview.net who outlined the same arguement
Black hat make everybody hate you, but when use White hat, its only can get a few visitors. Maybe I must learn gray hat 😉
The scary bit for me is the “Big Brother” aspect of Google – I mean they have got to the place of power and influence that they make their own rules with (apparently) little regard for the rest of the world, and I find it quite unnerving living in a WWWorld where the goal posts keep galloping around.
It is naive of G to expect that webmasters will conform to their expectation of putting up only “content rich” sites, when most real sites HAVE to justify their existence commercially of fall off the web.
Imagine a large daily paper that ‘required’ its advertisers to put up only socially helpful ads – how long would that last, if it didn’t have a virtual monopoly?????
It seems that nowadays any pure white-hat strategy will not get you anywhere…
Gosh, I just know about what is the black hat ethics, thanks for bringing it up here. And like any other said, people should stop doing that as it may causing your site to get deletion result
Black and grey hat is the way to go..unless you have a huge budget for white hat.
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