Black Hat/White Hat SEO

Great description by Andrew Goodman of the Black Hat/White Hat panel at Search Engine Strategies Chicago. (I attended the panel and Andrew captures the event perfectly). You should also read Alan Perkins’ follow-up “Ethical Search Engine Optimization Explained,” where he makes a number of interesting points.

Personally, I find the Black Hat/White Hat debate fascinating but misdirected. I think the debate should focus on who bears ultimate responsibility for delivering what searchers want. I would hold search engines solely responsible for search quality, because they have full market incentives to maximize relevancy, and they can control the technology and rules/practices that determines what a searcher sees. Because I put the responsibility on search engines, I don’t think publishers or SEOs have any ethical responsibilities to help the search engines deliver relevant results. This is not to say that publishers can do what they want without consequence; there may be legal limits (like false advertising), and there may be private rules promulgated by the search engines. However, I’m not troubled by the tricks publishers use to game the search engines; if those tricks succeed, I view that as the search engine’s failing.

The moralistic wing of the SEO/SEM community would hold publishers liable for bad behavior, although there remains deep divisions over what constitutes bad behavior. I think pointing the fingers at publishers is counter-productive. Either traffic converts or it doesn’t. If it converts, didn’t the searchers have a successful search? We want publishers to reach this result. If traffic doesn’t convert, then why is the publisher/SEO wasting its time? So long as publishers don’t engage in false advertising, searchers will make the ultimate call of whether publisher content is relevant or not.

Alan Perkins’ ethical guidelines go even further, putting some ethical responsibilities on searchers. While this sounds noble in spirit, it is too idealistic to be useful. Until searchers are adequately taught how to search, we must treat searchers based on how they actually behave, not as we wish they would behave.