As search engines have become more sophisticated, so have the tricks and fixes used to gain a high rank. Search engine optimisers are often described as falling into two camps; ‘Black Hat’ and ‘White Hat’. I don’t know where these expressions came from but broadly speaking Black Hat is the use of underhand methods for gaining a top search engine position, while White Hat involves doing things by the rules as set out by the search engine companies. But there are grey areas where these two methods overlap.
Link building is a good example. Providing incoming links to your website is essential to gaining a decent PageRank and providing credibility for your site. The White Hat method would be to build the site, submit it to the search engines and allow links to come to the site naturally, through the interesting and original site content.
The Black Hat method would be to buy a batch of instant links from a ‘Link Farm’ and get a good PageRank that way.
So the conclusion might be that buying links is a Black Hat method. But this is not the case, as at the moment it is perfectly legitimate to purchase links from directory sites like Yahoo and Business.com. There are also a number of free directories that provide excellent and highly regarded links – DMOZ being the most obvious. This seems like a double standard so why has it happened?
One reason is that the good, legitimate directories usually access link requests manually at some point. This is considered to be much better than using an automated system which is more easily spammed and abused. It’s easy to fool a webot, but humans aren’t quite so gullible.
However, if you buy all these perfectly legitimate links and a few free links at the same time you might be penalised by some search engines for spamming. This is because too many incoming links arriving in a short period of time is similar to what might happen if you had gained the links from a link farm or something similar.
So we have the classic ‘grey area’ – buying links is bad in one way, but perfectly OK in another way.
So where does that leave us as far as SEO is concerned?
It think to understand this we need to look at a bit of SEO history.
At one time it was possible to rocket a new website to the top of the search engine rankings by just doing work on title and meta tags coupled with some decent headings and content. Long established companies with websites that were top of the rankings for their main keword(s) could be demoted overnight by a new site with no track record or business credibility. This obviously was not good for the end user, and this is why we have this grey area. The end user wants quality results on a search and the search engine company’s interests involve keeping the end user happy and selling advertising on their sites. People who manipulate the system to promote a particular company disrupt the system. So we have this game of ‘cat and mouse’ played across web.
When Google introduced PageRank it was their way of legitimising the best websites. The ones that were interesting would naturally have more links and a higher PageRank so would therefore rank higher in Google than a smaller site with few links – even if it were better optimised. The democracy of the web would rule!
Naturally the SEO community reacted to this by creating link exchanges, link farms, etc, which exploited the PageRank system. Google then reacted by penalising sites which suddenly acquired a large numbers of links and began the system of grading the incoming links for relevancy and quality.
This whole scenario has been played out across a number or SEO methods over the years. Hidden text, hidden links, doorway pages, keyword stuffing, comment tags, page duplication, multiple URLs, site duplication, the list grows year by year. For a company like Google it must be like building a nice smart dam and then having to constantly plug holes where the water keeps getting in.
As SEO ‘experts’ our focus is to promote the services or products of a particular website and company. A search engine’s focus is on its credibility as a tool for providing good quality information. When we manipulate the system to promote our website above others in the rankings, the search engines see this as undermining their credibility and so they take action to stop this happening.
SEO tricks and illusions are not good for the web community as a whole. When we use a trick to gain a high ranking position on search engines we are going against the original ethos of the web for the sake of personal gain.
If you are in SEO for the long haul then you will naturally steer away from quick fix tricks if you have any sense. But part of the problem will be whether this week’s piece of SEO wizardry, which is being touted as perfectly legitimate, may be on next week’s Search Engine blacklist.