At a recent Search Engine Strategies conference, many black-hat search engine optimizers (SEOs) stated some misconceptions about white-hat search optimization strategies. For those unfamiliar with the terms, a white-hat search engine marketing (SEM) firm, commonly known as an ethical SEM firm, follows all the guidelines, terms, and conditions set forth by the search engines. A black-hat SEM firm doesn't follow all the search engines' rules.
This column addresses some inaccurate comments made by black-hat SEOs about white-hat search optimization strategies.
Myth 1: White-hat SEOs don't (or can't) pursue competitive keyword phrases.
Just because a few white-hat SEOs may not go after competitive keywords or a single keyword ("software," for example) doesn't mean all white-hat SEOs are unable to compete or succeed at getting sites ranked for competitive keyword phrases. Many white-hat SEOs certainly do optimize sites for competitive keyword phrases -- and succeed. And they succeed without resorting to spam tactics.
The reason for not optimizing for competitive keyword phrases has nothing to do with a white-hat SEO's skill level. All too often, small to medium-sized businesses don't have the time or budget to participate in a full optimization campaign.
One corollary of this myth is white-hat SEOs won't optimize adult or gambling sites for the same reason; these industries' keyword phrases are too competitive. I find this statement like comparing apples and kumquats. Many white-hat, even black-hat, SEOs don't market gambling or adult sites for reasons that have nothing to do with skill or experience.
Do I believe a white-hat SEO can successfully optimize an adult or a gambling site? Absolutely. Will it take a generous budget, careful planning, and time? Absolutely. Will it be difficult to compete with adult and gambling sites that use black-hat SEO tactics to get search engine traffic? Sure. But it's no more difficult than competing for travel, software, and shopping phrases.
Don't confuse personal choice with lack of skill or experience. Many skilled, talented SEOs choose not to optimize adult or gambling sites for their own, personal reasons.
Myth 2: If you write Web page copy that doesn't sound like it came from your mouth, it's search engine manipulation.
White-hat SEOs make this statement almost as frequently as black-hat SEOs do. I have two issues with this statement.
First, "search engine manipulation" is wholly inaccurate. Neither black- nor white-hat SEOs can manipulate search results. SEOs and site owners control Web page content, but they don't control search engines. As I stated in a previous column, only one group has final control over what ranks and what doesn't: search engine software engineers. Each major search engine has some sort of disclaimer stating they ultimately decide which Web pages are included in the index.
The more accurate phrase is "content manipulation," as site owners ultimately decide what content (text, links, graphic images, etc.) goes on their Web pages. Make no mistake; no SEO controls search results.
Second, Web page content isn't a speech. I'll repeat this because it's not a concept many white- and black-hat SEOs comprehend or accept: Web page content is not a speech.
Different types of copywriting exist for different types of media. As a designer and developer, I never write Web page content the same way I write brochure content. I don't read Web page content aloud when I teach a class or give a presentation. Copywriters don't write content for a technical manual the same way they write content for a brochure.
Web copywriting is a form of technical writing. Copywriters repeat keyword phrases for usability reasons as well as for search reasons. Usability expert Jared Spool often talks about the need for pages to contain "trigger words." Sales and marketing professionals place call-to-action words ("add to cart," "enroll," submit," etc.) on a page to encourage visitors to take the desired call to action, often using keyword phrases. Using the word "search" on a page instead of "find" because I've determined my target audience responds better to "search" isn't "search engine manipulation."
Both white- and black-hat SEOs compare Web copy to a speech, a weak and inaccurate analogy. White-hat SEOs don't exploit the loopholes in the search engines' guidelines; black-hat SEOs do.
Myth 3: White-hat SEOs lack technical skills.
Surprisingly, I actually agree with this myth. I don't believe an SEO professional is truly qualified unless she has technical skills in the design/development arena. Reason?
As I stated previously, keyword phrases are useless if search engines and site visitors don't have easy access to the text. Therefore, design and site architecture are critical for an SEO campaign's success.
A qualified, professional SEO needs coding, scripting, and programming skills to troubleshoot all types of sites. Is the URL structure problematic? An ASP, PHP (define), or ColdFusion programmer can help you with a workaround. Is the cross linking and page layout problematic? An SEO who's also a Web developer or usability professional can help with any layout issues.
What I find very interesting about this myth is no black-hat SEO really defines technical skills. There's a vast array of technical skills when it comes to the Web.
Server maintenance is one skill. Site design/layout is another. Usability analysis and application is another. Would you trust your Web server maintenance to a usability professional? Probably not. Some Web professionals have multiple talents. It wouldn't surprise me to met a usability professional with Web server skills.
I suspect when black-hat SEOs refer to limited or a lack of technical skills, they're referring to:
Black-hat SEOs often have different technical skills than white-hat SEOs. Some white-hat SEOs are actually Web developers (like myself). We create database-driven sites, write our own code and scripts, and have usability training and experience (for better sales conversions).
On the flip side, many black-hat SEOs have server maintenance, cloaking, and coding skills. Would you want a person with these skills to design a Web site? No, because this group probably lacks the artistic/design skills to make the best color selections and page layouts. Programmers tend to think like programmers, not like your target audience, meaning many black-hat SEOs have limited sales, marketing, and usability skills.
Though some white-hat SEOs have little or no technical skills, plenty of them have exceptional technical skills. Black-hat SEOs shouldn't make blanket statements about the skill levels of white-hat SEOs, and vice versa.
In the world of SEM, you encounter professionals with a wide variety of skills: design, development, copywriting, usability, programming, and so forth. Successful search engine optimization requires many skills. Make sure you hire a firm whose staff has all these skills. You never know what type of service your site will need.
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Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine marketing, Web, and graphic design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," published through Peachpit Press. Shari's areas of expertise include site design, search engine optimization, and usability.
March 19, 2014