There has been a raging debate among SEO experts over the past 15 years about the color of their professional hats. The “bad guys” – the folks who are considered to be unethical – have been assigned black hats to signify their evil ways. The “good guys” – the shining lights of the industry – wear white hats. And as you can tell, people tend to oversimplify things.

If you’ve been using search engine optimization for awhile, you’re probably familiar with the “black versus white” paradigm. You may even be avoiding some questionable SEO tactics for fear of dipping your toes into unknown waters. And that may be hurting your site’s rankings.

Today, I’m going to turn this debate on its head and explain why the color of a search marketing expert’s hat is irrelevant and silly. I’ll then explain what you should be focusing on to get your site to the top of your niche’s listings in Google, and keep it there.

SEO Tactics Used By Black Hats And White Hats

It’s worth reviewing some of the SEO strategies used by black hats and white hats in the past to rank their sites. Let’s start with the black hat stuff.

Black hat SEO has traditionally been made up of aggressive tactics designed to trick the search engines’ algorithms. The vintage stuff in this category includes hidden text, keyword stuffing, and cloaking. These methods were eventually joined by blog spam, link rings (or farms), and doorway pages. A lot of “black hatters” also purchased links, a big no-no in Google’s eyes.

White hat SEO (the “ethical” stuff) includes tactics designed to stick closely to Google’s guidelines. In this category, you’ll find link bait content, on-site SEO, guest blogging, and creating top-notch content. The idea is that by sticking to what Google recommends, you’re more likely to enjoy better rankings that last longer.

Here’s why the entire debate between black and white tactics is foolish…

Why The Debate Is Foolish And Silly

As a marketer, you’re a business person. It doesn’t matter whether you run affiliate sites, are a product creator, or the author of a growing empire of books on Amazon. Your job is to generate sales. That means getting targeted traffic. Search continues to be a fantastic way to get that traffic.

When it comes a particular SEO tactic, the only things that matter are the following:

1. Is it effective?

2. How long will it give me a ranking boost?

3. How much work is involved in executing the tactic?

4. What happens when an algorithm change makes it useless?

5. Are there any long-term repercussions to using it?

Notice there are no ethical points to consider. There’s no “black” or “white.” There are no laws being broken. There is only a matter of how a particular method will affect your business in the short run and long run. That’s a good foundation for thinking about search engine optimization in the context of risk versus reward.

Risk Versus Reward: The New SEO Paradigm

One of the most sobering lessons over the last several years of watching Google’s updates is that you can’t trust Google’s guidelines. Not entirely anyway. Recommended items published years ago by the search engine have since been removed. And sites following those removed tactics have since suffered business-shattering consequences. The Penguin update was a major wake-up call in that regard.

Given the above, SEO has become strictly a matter of risk versus reward.

In the old days, you could afford to take big risks with your search optimization efforts. First, you could get away with it for several months, ranking high and generating a ton of profit in the process. Second, penalties were relatively small. Google would either disregard the problem pages or allow you to get back into their good graces by fixing the problem. You could be up and running again within a few days.

It’s a lot different these days. If you cross the line – and note that not all of the lines are clearly marked – you could see your site blown out of Google’s index.

Forever.

It doesn’t matter if you spent years building your site. Google has become implacable.

So, here’s what we know. There are enormous risks to using aggressive SEO tactics designed to game the algorithm. There are also huge risks to using what are considered to be “white hat” tactics, even those previously endorsed by Google. (Just ask Tim Carter of AskTheBuilder.com.). Given that, how should you move forward?

What Google Wants Versus What Google Gets

Don’t let anyone tell you the “right way” to approach search engine optimization. When it comes to your business, they have no skin in the game, and therefore their risks are not the same as your own. Besides, more than one “guru” promoting white hat techniques has watched his rankings crumble with the most recent Google updates.

Instead, do some competitive analysis for your niche. Who is ranking high on Google? Were they ranking high prior to the Penguin update? If so, what are they doing to make those rankings happen? Copying their tactics is no guarantee that you’ll sidestep disaster, but it could reduce your risk.

Also, start insulating your site by diversifying your link strategies. Get listed in a few relevant directories. Ask a couple friends to add you to their blog rolls. Write two or three guest blog posts each month.

If you’re going to build low-value links, point them at 2nd tier sites like Hubpages rather than directly to your main site. Then, point the Hubpage links to your site as well as to other authorities (for example, wikipedia). That puts a buffer between your site and the low-value links.

Above all, realize that search engine optimization is no longer about black and white hats, if it ever was. It’s about identifying the risks that accompany each tactic and deciding whether the rewards justify taking them for your business.

Your Turn!

What steps have you taken to protect yourself from disaster in the search engines? Have you changed your SEO tactics over the last couple of years? If so, let us know how they’ve been working out by sharing your thoughts in the comments!

photo credit: 23.4.16 2 York JMO at Minster Piazza 346 via photopin (license)