Competitive SEO: How Far Will You Go?


What lengths do both black-hat and white-hat SEO (define) experts go through to achieve top search engine positions? As I’ve chosen to be a white-hat SEO expert for over 10 years now, I admit I don’t understand the algorithm-chasing mentality of my black-hat colleagues.

I must understand search algorithms on an intimate level since I regularly build and maintain a wide variety of search interfaces. My goal is to make the search interface match my target audience’s mental models. This makes me wonder: do black-hat SEO experts really understand how their strategies and implementation affect users?

Black-Hat vs. White-Hat Optimization Strategies

I’m amazed at the amount of work it takes to achieve top search engine positions through black-hat techniques, including:

  • IP delivery
  • Artificial or free-for-all (FFA) link farms to achieve instant link popularity
  • Doorway page generation
  • Position checking and monitoring
  • Domain registration and abandonment
  • Server maintenance and distribution

A former client, a major ticket broker, went to great lengths to hide all his domains from staff at both the spider- and human-based search engines. He actually asked family members to register domains for him, using their own credit cards, so the domain names couldn’t be easily traced back to him or his business. Additionally, he made sure each domain was parked on a different server and the sites were on different types of Web servers. Heck, I know plenty of businesses that change Web servers on a regular basis.

I understand business owners often purchase multiple domains for a variety of reasons. It’s quite common, for example, to use one domain for search engine advertising purposes, one for news optimization purposes, and one for the main Web site. The domain that serves as the main Web site is used for SEO.

Some firms have separate business and e-commerce sites, especially when both are sizable and contain considerably different content. Shoppers tend to visit the commerce site whereas journalists, investors, and the like visit the corporate site. Sometimes, businesses purchase domain names just so their competitors can’t use them.

In this example, the purpose of multiple domains was clearly to exploit the search engines for top positioning. Because our firm doesn’t retain clients who knowingly and willingly spam the search engines, we dropped this client.

Search Usability

At Search Engine Strategies in Chicago, Danny Sullivan gave a presentation in which he highlighted the stereotypical characteristics of the different types of search engine marketers. White-hat search marketers were characterized as “goody two-shoes ,” which can be accurate at times. However, I honestly believe many people don’t understand why some choose to be white-hat SEO experts.

My reason for being a white-hat SEO expert can be summed up in one word: usability. A week doesn’t go by without my discovering some sort of search usability issue with a Web site. Not just on the Web search engines, either. I often evaluate and build search interfaces for client sites.

Whenever I do a search usability test or analysis on a site search engine, nothing irritates usability testers (participants) more than seeing redundant content in search results. Users want to click on the result they believe will lead to the information they’re searching for.

Many companies don’t write unique title-tag content for every site page, either. Identical titles in the search result pages confuse people. They don’t know which result to click on and are forced to read the search results in more detail rather than scan. Ever hear of abandonment rates in the shopping cart process? There are abandonment rates in the querying process, as well.

Further, if a keyword-stuffed meta-tag description is used as the description in the search results, users become extra irritated. If a services page and corresponding FAQs page show up at the top of the site search results, pages with identical title tags and keyword-stuffed meta tags, users have no idea which result will deliver them to the content they want.

I wish I could show every black-hat SEO expert the videos of every user who gets irritated when viewing search results. I wish I could show business owners how irritated shoppers get when they view affiliate site after affiliate site after affiliate site in Google, Yahoo, and MSN Search. The users’ attitude is, “I saw this product on this site. It’s the exact same product on this other site. I don’t want this product. Why is this happening?” Sure, we can all blame the search engines for not filtering out duplicate (or near duplicate) content in a timely manner. However, search engines don’t control who puts content on the Web.

Black-hat SEO techniques might get clients top search engine positions, but end users aren’t provided with a positive branding experience. They don’t get a positive user experience. Usability professionals ask users for their perspective and measure task completion. In my opinion, top search engine positions are useless if the target audience doesn’t take the desired calls to action and leave with a positive brand and user experience. White-hat SEO techniques, done properly, provide users, business owners, and Web search engines with the desired results. That’s why I’m a white-hat SEO expert.


I read somewhere some black-hat SEO experts are irritated with me because I turn spam sites in to the search engines. I don’t understand their irritation. Their way of beating the competition is to implement some or all of the strategies mentioned above. Changing Web servers on a regular basis? That’s pretty competitive.

My way of competing is to follow all the search engine rules and eliminate the competition through regular spam reporting. It’s handy that I’m a developer and can show search engine software engineers how the spam strategies are implemented. So, how come my way of being competitive irritates black-hat, even gray-hat, SEO experts, when they’re just as competitive as I am?

Just a thought until my next column.

Meet Shari at Search Engine Strategies in New York City, February 27-March 2.

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