Do SEO Hats Even Matter?

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Although this may surprise you, my answer is no.

Before you let this post send you into a frenzied panic, let me explain myself.

The reason I feel that the phrases White Hat SEO, Black Hat SEO and Gray Hat SEO don’t matter is because they are too ambiguous.  What qualifies as a White Hat SEO tactic to one person may be deemed a Gray Hat SEO tactic by another individual.

In my opinion, these terms are useless and are simply used in an attempt to explain the world of SEO to outsiders or newbies.  Unfortunately, instead of informing these parties, they simply add to the confusion.  Because of the strong associations that the colors carry, when someone hears the term Black Hat SEO, their mind immediately jumps to an evil pharmacy spammer that uses a script to spam blog comments.  While there are people that engage in these types of activities, true “Black Hat SEOs” are usually individuals with a strong analytical sense and higher technical abilities than the average SEO.  When asked “what makes you a successful SEO Black Hat,” Quadszilla responded:

The one thing that you need to be able to do as a black hat is break things down to their simplest forms; to find the essence of the problem. For example, ask questions like ‘how exactly did the sites that now rank get to #1?’ and ‘if links make you rank, what can could I do to automate the process of getting millions of links?’ or maybe even ‘How can I go from making one site that makes $100 a month to automating the process of making hundreds or thousands of similar sites?’

Exactly what needs to be done to accomplish my goals? What is the essence of the problem?

While a Black Hat may use this mindset to find ways to abuse the system, as Quadszilla admits,

That’s why today black hats are looking at how to abuse things like ‘bounce rate’ or ‘feed subscription data’ to beef up factors that may already be used to rank pages and sites. Are the things that are used for quality score being used to rank sites? I looks like it – so what can we do to game those factors in our favor?

there is also the potential for a Black Hat SEO can use this approach to automate systems that do not abuse the search engine’s guidelines, but instead improve their efficiency as a SEO.

The issue of SEO hats becomes even more muddled when you look at White Hat vs. Gray Hat.  In many cases (such as paid links), when a technique that was once considered White Hat becomes so effective that it overly interferes with a search engine’s algorithm, the search engine may publicly speak out against this technique.  Whether they ban it or just discourage it, what impact does this have on the hats of SEOs.  If they used to engage in it but stopped, are they still a White Hat?  A Gray Hat?  Are they a Black Hat if they use a questionable technique from time to time?

As you can see, trying to apply these labels does nothing more than create one big mess.  For the majority of techniques, they can fall into multiple categories depending on the specific situation in which they are used.  And considering SEOs  use a countless number of techniques to accomplish their jobs, trying to pigeon hole them into a single category is an exercise in futility.

So, what’s the point of this post? Here are the three main things I want you to keep in mind:

  • Don’t be ignorant.  Even if you never use certain techniques, it’s important to understand that they exist and how they work.
  • Learning comes through trial and error, so don’t be afraid to push the envelope in the name of learning.  However, think very hard before you try to push the envelope on a client’s website or one of your main sources of income.
  • The Bottom Line: The SEO hats debate has been beaten to death in blogs, forums and conferences, so let’s all give it a rest and focus our energy on more productive activities.
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