The difference between black hat and white hat in social media marketing has more to do with intent than actual practice.
Social media has a well-established role in driving conversations that reference your brand, product, or service. Perhaps less obvious -- but of significant value -- is the role that same "social content" has in driving search rankings that lead people to what you sell. Along with conversational aspects of social media, intricately connected and keyword-rich social media can help elevate the visibility of an online offer or property.
Some quick background: The display position of your site in a set of returned search results is generally based on some combination of the relevance of your site given the searched-for terms, the number of inbound links pointing to your site, and the number of links that point to the sites that themselves point to your site.
In other words, it's a combination of the degree to which your site "matches" what is being searched for and the site's "authority" as evidenced by the number of other properties that reference your site along with the sites pointing to them. Optimizing a Web site, a skill in itself, is a well-practiced craft.
Enter social media. Around the content itself is a ring of linking, voting, and popularity tools: Digg, StumbleUpon, Delicious, the blogosphere, and more. A lot more.
As content items become popular -- as your crazy picture or heart-felt customer testimonial get passed around -- these Diggs, Stumbles, votes, bookmarks, and references make your content more visible by virtue of the additional connections and make it appear more "authoritative" to search engines. After all, if a lot of people from well-connected, popular sites like Digg are pointing to your content, it must be worth looking at. So, it's no surprise that social media is the newest front in search engine ranking programs.
Applications include the genuine, such as picking up on related content and referencing it in your own blog or "digging" things that you personally like. Applications also include the outright devious: Creating a collection of blogs, for example, filled with keyword-rich and unique (even nonsensical) content and building the search ranking of each individual blog purely so that it can appear as an "authoritative" site and be used -- for a fee -- to boost the ratings of an unrelated product or service marketing site. If interested, search Google for "blog farm seo" for a crash course: it's a serious issue that should be of interest to you as a marketer, even if only from an educational point of view.
On the social media content side, you've got even more choices. I've written before about the best practice of "active listening" -- using the social Web as a resource through which you learn about and take into account the wishes of your current and prospective customers.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi have both created a viable presence on Facebook, for example, and used this to build a strong fan base to gather information, refine their products and marketing strategies, and other initiatives. Coca-Cola gained favorable press recently for its adoption and support of its Facebook community -- started not by Coke -- but by fans who saw a need early on for it.
Compare this press with the questioning responses as Coke was seen as having "missed" the opportunity to capitalize on the Diet Coke/Mentos videos of a few years back. If nothing else, the social Web will make you smarter. Meanwhile, Pepsi has pushed further into its social efforts, building "The Juice" in support of its healthy-lifestyle Tropicana Trop 50 juice brand.
These kinds of solid efforts make it all the more troubling when others resort to trickery and deception on the social Web. Operating under false pretense, paying for content, paying for exposure, and creating outright fake sites intended to pass as independent reviews are all popular techniques. These are techniques that might collectively be termed "black hat" social media versus the openly disclosed -- even if purely marketing intentioned practices -- that would be considered "white hat" in comparison.
As an example of the silliness that some firms evidently resort to in their desire to appear "social" through "black hat" techniques that confuse consumers, consider Top-Teeth-Whitening-Reviews.com. It's a site that offers a "comparison" of five teeth whiteners; Vibrant White is the ranked as the top product here. Now compare this "review" site with another "review" site that has a striking resemblance to Top-Teeth-Whitening-Reviews.com. But this time Shimmering White is listed as the top product. While you're at it, compare the Shimmering White "review site" with the Shimmering White Web site. Warning: You will not be able to leave this page easily, for example, without being forced to close your browser. Nice touch, eh?
These practices make it tough on marketers who aren't familiar with the social tools and best practices. "Don't be evil" is great mantra, but it will only get you so far without additional specifics supporting and clarifying its actual-as-applied meaning.
Instead, the difference between black hat and white hat likely has much more to do with intent than actual practice. Consider this question: "Is this particular marketing technique -- in this particular application or used in this particular way -- beneficial to someone other than me?" If the answer is "no" then it's probably an ill-advised social practice, where the keyword in that sentence is "social." If it's not genuinely benefiting the collective, it's probably black hat.
Fortunately, the collective intelligence is pretty good at spotting content that crosses the line. So, the less well-thought-through campaigns tend to get stopped early.
To get up to speed on all of this, try the following:
One way or another, get connected, educate yourself on the different practices around social media -- and the differences in intent that separate them -- and put the social Web to work.
If you can, join us in August at Search Engine Strategies San Jose, where I'll moderate a "Social Media: White Hat vs. Black Hat" panel. I promise you this will be great. If you can't make it, not to worry: You've got the whole social Web to learn from. As a marketer, it's your new best friend.
Dave is the VP of social strategy at Lithium. Based in Austin, Dave is also the author of best-selling "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day," as well as "Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement." Dave is a regular columnist for ClickZ, a frequent keynoter, and leads social technology and measurement workshops with the American Marketing Association as well as Social Media Executive Seminars, a C-level business training provider.
Dave has worked in social technology consulting and development around the world: with India's Publicis|2020media and its clients including the Bengaluru International Airport, Intel, Dell, United Brands, and Pepsico and with Austin's FG SQUARED and GSD&M| IdeaCity and clients including PGi, Southwest Airlines, AARP, Wal-Mart, and the PGA TOUR. Dave serves on the advisory boards for social technology startups including Palo Alto-based Friend2Friend and Mountain View-based Netbase and iGoals.
Prior, Dave was a co-founder of social customer care technology provider Social Dynamx, a product manager with Progressive Insurance, and a systems analyst with NASA| Jet Propulsion Labs. Dave co-founded Digital Voodoo, a web technology consultancy, in 1994. Dave holds a BS in physics and mathematics from the State University of New York/ Brockport and has served on the Advisory Board for ad:tech and the Measurement and Metrics Council with WOMMA.
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