SEO, Colored Hats & The Pollyanna Pissing Match

Posted in SEM

search-angel

SEM industry writers, conference organizers and attendees are passionately defending, disparaging and debating ethics surrounding so-called “gray/black hat tactics” presented @ SMX Advanced Seattle. I was surprised to find such virulent threads in BruceClay Blog and Sphinn. The contrast of post-show buzz caught me off guard and now over initial reactions, I have a few reflections.

Rose Colored Glasses
Do these people who supposedly only use white hat not take any tax deductions because that may be exploiting a loophole? Isn’t that what gray hat is — finding the loopholes (which means by definition they arguably aren’t illegal) and using them to your client’s advantage?

I sure can see not publicly flaunting disregard of generally accepted conventions and/or TOS, but the rest of this flap seems like some 60s hippy throwbacks still want to live in Utopia while the rest of the world deals with the dirt and grime of reality.

People have been telling untruths in various degrees since the Internet was nascent…to sell things, to get laid and sometimes to fame and success regardless of one’s moral opinion. That’s between liars and their G_d. I’m not one to judge others.

Pollyanna Tunnel Vision
Take off the rose colored glasses baby! SEO is like paying taxes. There are hard rules, gray areas and outright renegade law-breakers who should go to jail. Attorneys, accountants and SEOs are well paid to responsibly mine gray areas, making sure that tacks taken are “defensible,” within the law, cannons and ethics of their professions.

Gray area risk assessment is not a new concept in business. Good SEO professionals apprise their clients of risk levels associated with various colored behavior and subtly traverse between the lines. At very least it deserves to be discussed in public.

Let’s call it the way it is: Google changes the rules whenever they like to remove the SEO consultant’s power past “content SEO,” usability and buttoned down best-practices site architecture. Then as some SEOs have the audacity to explore boundaries of what might work to get an edge, blogger-peers seem to decry any public airing of even reasonable expressions of gray.

BUZZER! some attendees did in fact come to this “advanced SEO conference” trying to figure what to heck to do in light of Google’s authority. One next-gen-genius SMX speaker-pal of mine who handles hundreds of millions in PPC and as squeaky clean as they get (or so she would like you think) told me “Finally an SEM conference that’s actually advanced.”

Hey Hey We’re the Monkeys
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing several SEO “rock stars” (known & unknown) and usually we continue to chat after the recorder is turned off. Gray hat aint new and off color tactics have been published over the years by venerable SEOs whose names you would absolutely recognize. It’s just that such matters have not been discussed openly at SEM conferences much before now.

So why are edgy techniques, historically the stuff of smoke filled rooms, bubbling to the surface of mainstream awareness?

The difference is that now Google gives SEOs little discretion after allowing us only to practice SEO secretarial work. Google changed the linking universe and now conducts pograms (door to door inquisitions) to cleanse the linking universe.

I don’t mean to fully denigrate Google’s new SEO job description. USABILITY+SANE CRAWLABILITY= DISCOVERABLITY and this fundamental ethic should certainly be the primary objective of every good consultant in every engagement.

However If left up to Google, after we complete our happy content/architecture magic, rankings would be left up to the sweaty socialist link-masses (users) to decide what content is important without undue influence from SEO weasels. No artificially inspired link is good for Google because it corrupts Google’s intent, that the linking universe truly be organic and uninfluenced by those nasty marketers. They want clients to be left with paid search as the only predictable option.

Lines Were Crossed
Look, some lines were crossed @ SMX Advanced. Still if I were Danny Sullivan I’d be proud for hosting such a robust dialog. It’s clear as an industry we need to take hard look at exactly what “black” or “gray” hat really means.

Google is not G_d and will have a limited run in the scope of human civilization if they continue to demand that the linking universe (read “profit”) be fully subject to the mob’s wisdom and Google’s editorial discretion. Reciprocally, some SEOs may be getting a little cocky.

Nothing Ventured Nothing Gained
I’m sad that Danny Sullivan felt the need to be publicly apologetic in reference to such a brilliant conference. In many ways Advanced was a crowning achievement and a notable pivot point for the SEM trade. I’m bummed that he used the word “embarrassed.”

Much of what I personally harvested from SMX advanced will be turned into pure shining gold for our clients… terrific actionable insight. That’s why I’ve been seeking out Danny Sullivan/Chris Sherman conferences for years. I go to lots of these gatherings and SMX Advanced 2008 will go down as one of my favorites of all time. Long live SEO.

  • Todd Mintz

    Amen, brother.

  • Linkbait Cowboy

    To create something exceptional you have to be prepared to break generally accepted conventions.

    Rules are for the guidance of the wise and for the keeping of fools.

    I don’t know about you guys, but I am always going to go for the exceptional.

    Great post Marty.

  • scott clark

    True dat. I’m just wondering if in-house seos would agree with you or if it’s more applicable to agencies’ mad geniuses who have room and permission to test the edges? If so what will happen to smx since in-house seos make up more and more of the attendees.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @scott clark: I would think in-houses want to understand and be advised.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Marty, I did comment later in the same thread that I was also very proud of the speakers that stepped up and performed so well — and I have to apologize again to any of the speakers that very dissed or abandoned by my “embarrassed” comment. I tried to explain later that it is embarrassing if you have a newbie think you’re expecting them to do some of the things that were described. I wasn’t expecting newbies at the show at all; I certainly wasn’t expecting that I needed to help people understand the different between opinions and making their own educated choices, not for this particular show. But clearly I need to do more on that front and will.

  • Daria Goetsch

    Marty, great post. I wasn’t at SMX (wish I could have been) but have been to enough conferences to know how important it is to have a wide variety of information available to our industry. If the session speakers stated ahead that some tactics might be grey/black hat then I don’t see a problem with it. I’m pretty white hat overall having been an in-house SEO and also running my own SEO company. In both situations any information I had available as to what techniques to use or *not use* was helpful. If your competitor is using advanced grey/black hat tactics against you I would think you would want to know how to identify and deal with it. If you are talking advanced SEO then it only stands to reason both sides of the coin should be presented with disclaimers as needed and attendees deciding what works and doesn’t work for them.

  • Andy Beard

    Marty good to see some fighting spirit.

    I must admit the coverage I have read so far didn’t seem as “advanced” as I expected – looking forward to the content under embargo

  • evilgreenmonkey

    Excellent points and I fully agree, SMX Advanced wouldn’t we Advanced without Grey/Black Hat techniques at least being discussed.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Danny: Thanks for that. Now I understand. You’re saying that you would find it embarrassing if someone new to our industry encountered the gray/black discussion with no prior knowledge of the overall integrity of the community, which most would agree is quite high.

    In snapshot, SMX might not have been fully representative…just like your “embarrassing” comment on Bruce Clay might may been taken out of context by some. :)

    @Daria Goetsch: Thank you for stopping by and lending perspective regarding understanding competitors.

    @Andy: It may not have been advanced for you :). It would be fun to see you speak. Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @evilgreenmonkey: Now we know your evilGreenSecrets :). For our readers, look for coverage of Rob’s “Give it Up” session coming on July 4th/5th.

  • Chadwyck

    Really excellent points and an amazing vocabulary :)

  • Lee

    Well done Marty and I still think the tendency for people to blurt tactics to get attention at events or online is still nothing more than the fallacy of SEO celebrity. Blurt, whine, and pontificate publicly while others are laughing (with clients) all the way to the bank.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Lee: I was thinking about your SEO Celebrity post LITERALLY while I was on the podium. (Not that I think of myself that way). The only problem with SMX Advanced was for those who didn’t go and missed out on so many wonderful speakers. Thanks for stopping by.

  • tyler

    great post. saw you at the blogworld conference.
    things have changed much since then.