In the nerdy world of SEO, there is always a seedy underbelly known as Black Hat SEO. Black Hat SEO is essentially manipulating the search results by tricking the search engines.  Black hats weave in and out of SEO circles, but rarely reveal their true identities.  It’s widely accepted as being an unacceptable practice, but is it really all that bad? Let’s dive a little deeper.

There have been two big black hat stories in the world of SEO recently: JC Penney &  JC Penney allegedly bought thousands of shady backlinks during Christmas time to rank #1 for incredibly generic terms that would rarely be associated with JCP.  And it worked. It worked really, really well. For a short amount of time, and now Google has punished their rankings.  But was this JCP gaming the system or a competitor putting out a hit on them by hiring a shady black hat company to get JCP punished?  Who knows…

Secondly, talked a bunch of college sites into writing a blurb about getting a 10% discount on and linking to them.  This is actually a pretty solid strategy – links from .edu sites carry more weight than .com or .org.  However, I think it was their execution that ended up getting them punished.  The content sounded overly optimized. It reeked of spam.

And that’s where the grey area lies.  JCP was stupid in their strategy. No doubt about it. But wasn’t.  Black hat SEO relies on finding something that works to get rankings & exploiting it.  Is it cheating?  Maybe.  But is it cheating if you realize a quarterback always throws to his left on the third down, so you put extra coverage on that side?  Was it cheating when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar perfected the sky hook that couldn’t be blocked?  Is it cheating to put Jennifer Aniston on the cover of People magazine multiple times because her covers boost sales?

If you find a weakness & exploit it for success, is that cheating or smart business?

Google punishes black hat tactics for one simple reason: it is dishonest to the algorithm that is designed to provide highly relevant results.  Manipulating a poor site as being “highly relevant” is bad for user experience, and bad for Google.  And you can get smacked down a few pages in the results that could take months to recover or you could disappear entirely and never recover.  That’s the risk.

Personally, I’m a white hat man.  But I see how tempting black hat can be. And if it gets results and happy clients (who are aware of the risk), there could easily be shades of grey in my hat.


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