Chad and I have been having spirited debates of late around the definitions of white hat SEO and black hat SEO. We reviewed many web sites looking for definitions as well as a thorough review of everything Google has to offer on the topic of white hat SEO. One of the best articles we could find about white and black hat SEO is here. Although we laughed out loud when we read the following quote:

"White hat SEO is more and more becoming almost nothing."

How funny? How is it that an entire industry is using a term that really at it's core means very little? I have my theories for this, but won't go into them here. What's more important is that we are all clear on the definition of black hat. The term black hat is a hacker term that used to mean someone who breaks into (cracks) a computer or network with seriously malicious intent. The movie War Games comes to mind. We all knew what happened to black hat guys in the end ("Want to play a game?"). Well, somewhere along the line the terms white hat and black hat have been applied to search engine optimization experts, and the entire SEO industry. There are now numerous web pages devoted to the topic of white hat seo. I don't find this remotely appropriate, equating the process of optimizing your web site for search engine performance with someone breaking into a computer with malicious and destructive intent. They are extremely different things. But as Chad reminds me, this is the reality of our industry, so it must be addressed.

As such, we did thorough research to ensure nothing we do for our clients could even be remotely considered as black hat. And, of course, nothing was. Black hat SEO includes the very things that the Google web site tells us nobody should be doing. This includes things such as:

* Cloaking

* Automated link spamming (as in auto comment posting to blogs or forums)

* Anything hidden on your web site (including both texts and links)

* Deceptive redirections

* Copyright infringement (copy and pasting content from another site)

* Any automated scraping and republishing (also a copyright issue)

* Intrusive and deceptive pop-ups

Pretty much anything that tricks and deceives the end user is black hat in my opinion. So don't do these things.

So here is an interesting question: Is paid blogging (ala PayPerPost) black hat? You could argue that the blogger is tricking the end user if they are discussing a product that they've been paid to review. I'd say it is white hat if they disclose the sponsorship relationship on their blog. I can't find any other logical conclusion. Otherwise you would have to label television or magazine advertisements as black hat. Certainly no one thinks that. Even those full-page spreads that look like real articles but say "Paid Advertisement" at the bottom are not black hat. Annoying, but not black hat. But again, how odd to be applying a term like white hat and black hat to the advertising industry.

In my final conclusion, I believe that SEO industry is so new that terms like white hat SEO have not found their final resting point. Nor do I think we are using the right terms to discuss the issue. The real point here is ethics in advertising. However, the Internet is no new and computer based, it has borrowed terms from yesteryear out of convenience. In fact, ethics have long be debated in both the public relations and advertising fields. Sooner or later those scholars will lend us a helpful framework for the issues we're facing and things will become much clearer (I hope).

Until that point, I clearly see Internet marketing tactics that are undoubtedly BAD (see the above list) and should be avoided for both practical and ethical reasons. Beyond this, I see the rest of the conversation revolving around what you are comfortable with for your site. As in all business decisions, do your research thoroughly and make an informed decision with a full understanding of the risks and rewards.