October 17, 2016 [cresta-social-share]

White, Black And Grey Hats. The Good, The Bad And The Ugly Of SEO Cowboys

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It’s not uncommon in the industry to hear “SEO cowboy” bandied about as a term of derision for irresponsible Search Engine Optimizers. The descriptor is meant to imply a professional habit of recklessness but the thing is, we’ve watched The Good, The Bad And The Ugly about a thousand times, and let’s be honest – cowboys are awesome.

Calling someone ‘cowboy’ as if it was a bad thing is kind of stupid – even if there is an element of accuracy to the description.

You see, before Google started providing their webmaster guidelines, and cracking down on suspect SEO practices with quality-focused algorithmic updates like Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird, the field really was a bit of a no-holds-barred, Wild West mess of trial and error.

And, much like the heroes of old spaghetti westerns, pioneering SEOs saw opportunities galore in what was still very much an untapped and esoteric landscape.

These were the digital cowboys of online marketing – and just like in the aforementioned iconic Clint Eastwood flick, not all cowboys are bad (or good) guys.

The Good…

The good guys – what we call white hat SEOs – were, and are, the professionals playing the long game; building sustainable results on sound practises. White hat SEO is all about satisfying the end user – the searcher, the consumer, and the potential lead.

The white hat understands that search engines are a means to an end, and so theirs is a human-first approach to optimisation.

Ease of site navigation, insightful content, solid keyword research (without keyword stuffing), internal linking, quality external links, long-term strategies, and integrated marketing – these are some of the tools the white hat employs in his SEO.

Yes, you have to satisfy the search engines in order to get your website out in front of potential leads at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs). To the white hat though, it doesn’t matter if you’re at the top of the SERPs if your website offers an unpleasant experience that sees the user bouncing almost as soon as he’s arrived.

To the law-abiding white hat, the best way to satisfy the search engines is to satisfy the visitors they send to your website.

The white hat SEO knows the risky shortcuts and dirty tricks that can put a site on the fast track to top Google rankings, but he only keeps informed about these tactics so that he can avoid them.

Much like Clint Eastwood’s iconic Man With No Name, the white hat has seen the disastrous results of irresponsible greed run rampant, and so he determinedly works hard, stands by his code (Google’s best practise guidelines) and looks for lasting results more than the short-lived thrill of immediate gratification.

“I’ve never seen so many [marketing Rands] wasted so badly.”

– Blondie, AKA The Man With No Name

…The Bad…

The black hat SEOs.

Where the white hat SEO is diligent, informed, and always thinking of the next step in a long-term strategy, the black hat doesn’t have time for any of that noise. He wants results, he wants them now, and he doesn’t much care about the rules he has to break to get them.

If he sounds like a rouge-ish rapscallion… well, maybe he is, but that’s not necessarily a good thing, and he also happens to be a danger to himself as well as to the business that invests in him.

Whether he’s trying to game the system just to see if he can, or he’s trying to scam and spam his way to good results, the black hat SEO uses tactics that quickly get the results he wants (traffic and profit) at the cost of results he probably doesn’t (a Google blacklist and a bad reputation).

Short-term thinking is a mark of the black hat.

In the iconic The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the titular bad guy – the literal black hat-wearing Angel Eyes – betrays and murders his employer because the man his employer hired him to kill paid him to return the favour.

Business owners would do well to consider that scene when they’re hearing promises of the impossible come from the mouths of SEOs.

SEO has limits in the results it can legitimately achieve, and how quickly it can achieve them. A black hat may be able to do what a white hat says is impossible, but there’s always a cost, and it might end up being a lot more than just your marketing budget.

“Oh, I almost forgot. He gave me a thousand. I think his idea was that I [blacklist your website].”

– Angel Eyes to his ill-fated employer

…And The Ugly

As their title might imply, grey hat SEOs straddle the ethical line dividing the white from the black. They exist and take their chances in the messy grey area of tactics and techniques that Google hasn’t outright condemned, but frowns upon.

Much as with the black hat, the men and women in grey hats put search engine satisfaction at the top of their list, ahead of the human user. The difference is that the grey hat wearer knows that the search engines themselves prioritise the searcher, and, being more cognizant of sustainability, tempers his marketing aggression with this awareness.

The grey hat SEO will put consideration for the visitor’s experience at the forefront of his efforts, but he’ll use that fact to justify employing any tactics that help to push traffic to his client’s site without ruining the experience once they’re there.

The problem is that some such tactics (link spamming, cloaking, etc) are still frowned upon by search engines, and if the grey hat is reckless he might find himself with the Sheriff’s rope tightening around his neck.

In this analogy, of course, Google is the Sheriff.

Tuco Ramirez, The Ugly, is a charming bounder – charming enough that it’s easy to forget that he’s not a good guy; he’s a bandit with a penchant for making you smile while he’s flaunting the rules.

A great grey hat might get the sorts of results a black hat SEO could achieve, while keeping a step ahead of the negative attention of Google but in SEO, as in a good spaghetti Western, the sheriff always gets his man in the end.

“You never had a rope around your neck. Well, I’m going to tell you something. When that rope starts to pull tight, you can feel [Google] bite your @$$.”

– Tuco Ramirez to a white hat, after a close call with the Sheriff’s law

Wetpaint’s White Hat SEO

Search engine optimisation is only a piece of the marketing puzzle at Wetpaint. As such, it’s never been an all-or-nothing, do-or-die thing for us. At Wetpaint, our SEO is of the white hat variety. It supports, and is supported by integrated branding efforts which work to cover for its weaknesses without straying into ethically-questionable practices. We only make promises we know we can keep, and if SEO isn’t enough on its own, we’ll tailor the marketing mix that best meets the client’s needs. We do the job we’re contracted to do, we keep our clients’ best interests in mind, and we never ride off into the sunset until we’ve achieved what we set out to achieve.

For more information on how we do SEO (or any other facet of our service offering) contact Wetpaint today.



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