Black Hat vs. White Hat
As mentioned in the previous blog post ?Google Helps the Good Guys?, search engine optimization can attract many unsavory businesses that are trying to make a quick buck through gaming the system. As with anything, in SEO there can be shades of gray as to what is considered ethical. And while the methods used in the DecorMyEyes.com story were definitively not ethical (criminal actually), there are certain practices that are not necessarily de jure illegal, but are certainly considered de facto illegal in terms of the acceptable behavior agreed upon by search engines and Google especially.
In terms of SEO, ?White Hat? and ?Black Hat? have become the popular terminology for separating those practices that are ethical and best for long-term effectiveness, and those that attempt any number of unethical, short-term strategies that risk penalties, respectively. There are several black hat methods that have evolved throughout the history of the SEO, but in terms of David Segal's excellent NY Times article The Dirty Little Secrets of Search, link schemes are the poster child at the moment.
The crux of the story is that late last year, during the holiday shopping season, JC Penney saw its Google organic search rank rocket to number one when searching for any of the hundreds of its products. Of course, the issue was that while it may be one the largest retailers in the US, it was not the most relevant site for most of these products (it even outranked Samsonite.com itself when searching for ?Samsonite carry on luggage?). Not to get into the specifics of what ranking number one on Google throughout the months of November and December did to JC Penney's bottom line, but it was likely quite lucrative. And while Google did take minor action during this period, it did not follow up and notice that the rankings were still inordinate.
What caused the high rankings? According to the story, it was irrelevant links back to the JC Penney site. Most of these links were on pages that had either no relevancy whatsoever to the product they linked to at JCPenney.com, or were merely sites with hundreds of links on them maintained for the sole purpose of increasing the PageRank for other sites. Before the story broke, Google was already initiating a change to their search algorithm to account for low PageRanked, spammy sites. As a result, JC Penney results began to drop slightly in early February; however, once their black hat campaign was revealed by the Times, Google manually dropped the average JC Penney position for search terms to 52 by February 10th. None too happy about the bad publicity, to say nothing of practically disappearing from search results, Penney's also fired its SEO firm SearchDex.
An effective, on-going link building campaign is an essential part of search engine optimization. But it takes dedication to the rules and ethics, as well as a substantial amount of hard work to be done properly. In previous dealings, we've observed several link building services in India doing the exact same things that SearchDex was doing for JC Penney, and there are no doubt hundreds all over the world. While they certainly work in the short-term, link schemes and black hat practices aren't worth the loss of reputation, loss of business, or even the outright banishment from search results as punishment. Proper link building is done over time by connecting to relevant sites, directories, and social networks, and though it takes dedication and patience, attaining a higher PageRank accomplished through white hat methods is much more ethical, effective, and satisfying.