Black Hat versus White Hat or New Hat versus Old Hat?

At SES London 2010, there was an unconventional session held at the bar of the Hilton London Islington Hotel entitled “Black Hat/White Hat Unconferenced.” As you can see from the photo below, more than 200 people crammed into a space that could comfortably accommodate about 20.

The soapbox was available for a few select speakers on either side to make their case, but then the audience took over. All with a glass of their favorite beverage in their hand, of course!

Initially, the debate followed a well trodden path: Search engines provide rules to protect their algorithms and the integrity of their results. But as Captain Barbossa notes in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, “The code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.”

So, do you really have to stick to them? What if you find a loophole or two and can get better results if you go under the wire?

Of course, that would mean only some marketers would be playing by the perceived rules. And the result is that, in all likelihood, the white hat practitioners may find the black hats standing on their shoulders and ranking ahead of them in the search engine result pages (SERPs).

However, with search and social increasingly tied together, there are new, more creative ways to circumnavigate the old guidelines. Should anyone care anymore whether it’s black hat or white hat to get results?

Or, are we entering a new era where Black Hat versus White Hat is just one dimension. Call it the X axis in a chart. Has a new dimension been added — a Y axis — that runs from old hat to new hat?

Black Hat White Hat Unconferenced session at SES London 2010.jpg All of us know examples of IT departments in big companies who are still optimizing the meta keywords tag. Or, they’re focused on how often a word appears on a web page. Well, these factors mattered 10 years ago — when AltaVista was still the leading search engine. But, is anyone still trying to get a high ranking is AltaVista anymore?

So, what’s going on? Well, some webmasters who learned search engine optimization back in 2000, mistakenly think that they are still SEO experts even though they haven’t updated their skills since Google emerged as the leading search engine from 2001 to 2002. And they don’t think they’re responsible for content that isn’t on their website, so they aren’t doing anything to optimize the content on other websites that appears in Google universal search results, even though that’s been happening since May 2007. Oh, and don’t even ask them what they’re doing about Google Caffeine, even though that was unveiled in August 2009.

But, SEO isn’t something you can “set and forget.” And neither is keyword research.

Just because you did some keyword research before optimizing your website back in 2000 or in early 2009, doesn’t mean that search terms haven’t changed since then. The best UK example that I’ve seen about this occurred in the spring of 2009.

As Robin Goad, Research Director of Hitwise UK, pointed out in “Car scrappage scheme online,” which was posted to his Analyst Weblog on August 25, 2009, the search terms “scrappage scheme”, “car scrappage scheme”, and “government scrappage scheme” came out of nowhere and starting having an impact on new car sales in the UK. (Americans saw a similar phenomenon, only we called it “cash for clunkers” on our side of the pond.)

So, how took advantage of this unexpected opportunity? As Goad notes, “The biggest recipient of traffic from the term is UK Car Scrappage Scheme, an affiliate site that has clearly done a good SEO job (the vast majority of its traffic comes via organic search).”

So, was this an example of a Black Hat finding a loophole and pushing the White Hats at Automotive Manufacturers and Automotive Dealerships down the charts? Or, is it an example of a New Hat responding more quickly than the Old Hats, who were still hunkered down hoping to survive the catastrophic impact of the recession on the car industry?

That’s how I saw the debate at the hotel bar take a turn in a new direction. Maybe the issue isn’t one dimensional — with Black Hats on one end and White Hats and Grey Hats in between. Maybe there’s a second dimension — with New Hats taking advantage of changes in the marketplace and changes at the search engines, while Old Hats are left wondering what hit them.

So, the debate isn’t over. It will continue at the upcoming White Hat Black Hat: Unconferenced session at SES New York 2010. But the debate has gotten much more interesting. You won’t want to miss it.

And if you demand equal time for opposing views, check out the Best Black Hat SEO across the whole of the web?

The video above is a remix of 50 SEOs, 1 Question – SES London, which Jonathan Allen put together last year before becoming the newly appointed Director, Search Engine Watch. The original below is also worth checking out, in my humble opinion.

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