Blackhat vs. Whitehat SEO – My Opinion

Should you use link building techiques that are outside of Google guidelines?

Before we get too deep into this, the definition of Blackhat SEO can vary. As I mentioned in this article, I tend to think of blackhat as activity that is illegal or bordering on illegal. But for the purposes of this article, let’s say that blackhat is anything that is outside Google (or other search engine) guidelines.

Here is the summary of where I stand:

  • I don’t have a problem with blackhat SEOs in most circumstances
  • If you do blackhat SEO for someone else’s website – you must be clear about the risks to their business
  • If you do blackhat SEO for yourself, you need to be comfortable with the idea that Google can switch off your income overnight
  • I’m not comfortable building someone else’s business on blackhat SEO techniques, but that’s just me and why I don’t practice it for clients
  • I don’t want to come into work every day and think is this the day of the Google update that will affect my client

Few SEOs would argue that techniques such as buying links can give you a big boost in traffic as a result of higher rankings, the fact is that right now, a range of link building techniques that are outside of Google guidelines can work. Buying links is one of them. Link building can also be very hard, so it is little wonder that SEOs take the easy route and put budget into buying links in order to get results. Part of me doesn’t blame them.

But should you do it?

I’m sharing my own experience to try and explain my thinking here.

I learnt SEO via black / greyhat tactics

I first got into SEO at University when I was meant to be studying for my law degree, I was short of cash and eventually found my way to Google Adsense and a bit of CPA / affiliate marketing. I built some websites and wanted to get them to rank so I could make some money (mainly for beer) and I didn’t really care whether what I did was inside Google guidelines or not. I messed about with a bunch of techniques that, looking back, were pretty spammy and shouldn’t have worked, but they did. I didn’t make a fortune but I made enough to go for a few good nights out every month with my mates and not worry about buying a round of beers.

I was far from being a blackhat, but I wasn’t whiter than white either. Mainly because I didn’t even consider what I was doing to be that wrong, loads of other people were doing it and it worked. I knew it wasn’t illegal so where was the problem?

After a while, I started learning more, reading more and become more aware of this thing called web spam and that apparently, Google had a team of people dedicated to fighting it. So I started to look into the techniques they were fighting and low and behold, it was pretty much the kind of stuff I had been doing.

Meh. I still didn’t care. What’s the worst that was going to happen? If I got caught, I’d lose a bit of beer money. I wouldn’t be in the position of not being able to pay bills or lose my home or my car. I knew it was risky but I was fine with it, it was only me that would get “hurt” if Google caught me.

This is the key thing you need to consider when deciding the level of risk you’re willing to take.

Let me be clear:

I was taking risks with my own websites and my own income, 100% my decision.

If you are comfortable with the idea that your income could be pretty much switched off overnight, then why worry? I was comfortable with this and knew what I was doing. I know that many may not agree with this but it is your choice, if you want to get in, make some cash then get out, that is up to you.

Irish Wonder published a very timely post showing how a certain group of spammy websites were ranking for a very competitive gambling related keyword. The techniques used to rank this site (not just those pointed out in the post) are very spammy and I’m positive they will be caught by Google. However for such a competitive keyword, you only need to rank for a short amount of time before you’ve made a profit. It’s a case of get in, make enough to profit, get out. Rinse, repeat and scale.

I know some blackhat SEOs who have made a fortune through spam, they have then taken that money and invested it offline. Part of me can’t blame them for doing this, I think I actually admire them! They’ve found a way to make money, done it, then got out and done something smart with what they earned. They haven’t broken the law to earn what they have, you could argue that what they have done is unehtical, but I’m not getting into that here because it’s too subjective.

The bottom line for me, is that if you’re comfortable with the churn and burn approach, fully aware that any day, your income could be turned off, then go for it.

When this changes

I will say this though – this is NOT an acceptable approach if you’re employed to do SEO for another company or individual. This, for me, is where the line gets drawn. If you’re doing SEO for a small business that has been offline for 30 years and are just moving online, you should not be risking their online business and growth by using churn and burn tactics. That is not your decision to take.

As an SEO company, you’re paid to get results for your client, but all too often I read and hear “it works and gets results so what’s the problem?”

The problem is that the duty to get results doesn’t give you license to take risks with your client’s business. But what if the client demands results right now?

I feel like you have two choices here:

1 – Full disclosure

Full disclosure to the client of what tactics are outside Google guidelines and the consequences of getting caught using those tactics. They could do very well in the short term but you can’t guarantee that they will never get caught. Showing them something like this can probably help demonstrate what could happen if things goe wrong:


If the client is comfortable with this and happy with the risks, then you may decide to go for it. This sits better with me because the client is deciding to take the risk with their company in the full knowledge of what may happen. This is very different to the SEO company who offer the moon on a stick and don’t give a shit what tactics they use.

2 – Don’t compromise

The second option is to not compromise on your tactics because of the risks involved and walk away from the client project. If you do this, I bet that at least once in a while, they will come back 12 months later saying you were right. At which point they’ll be paying you to take links down rather than build them!

Whichever you choose, is clearly your choice and I wouldn’t judge anyone on what they do. But as stated above, there is a line that should be drawn and if you’re doing blackhat SEO for a website without being clear about the risks, then I don’t think that is right.

What I do now

In terms of my agency life, I can’t recommend blackhat SEO to clients, even if they understand the risks. I don’t want to live a life where with each Google update I have to log into analytics and see if my client has been hit.

Having said that, I do experiment and test stuff with my own websites. I think all SEOs should test for themselves and not blindly take the word of others. This is an old post from Rishi but it is still relevant today and to this discussion.

I don’t earn money from Adsense or affiliate sites anymore, those sites were burnt a long time ago. Plus, it was a LOT easier back then. Now, you have to actually work hard to even make spam work enough to make a good income 🙂

8 thoughts on “Blackhat vs. Whitehat SEO – My Opinion”

  1. Great read paddy! In response to this post, I only got in to SEO after the penguin update last year so everything I have done so far is above board from a linkbuilding point of view. It is quite Interesting from my perspective to see techniques that used to work and work well now being “unethical” though

  2. Nice to hear your views on this Paddy and I agree with you pretty much all the way through. Using blackhat tactics on your site is one thing, using it on a clients is another. Another thing with “blackhat” tactics is most people often use them and don’t succeed because they are drawn into the sales of “blackhat” techniques and the “results” they could produce. Some people are still buying xrumer blasts for god’s sake… that’s all down to the sales an the people buying them don’t know anything about SEO.

  3. I think, as we all know there is a very fine line between what’s technically “right” and “wrong” – cross that with what’s in Google’s guidelines.

    However, it depends on the way you look into it, why is it not ok to pay for an advertorial? You’re paying for good content to be written, to advertise your products (potentially), and to be placed infront of your audience – what right does Google have to be the judge and jury of those? Because they have a link!?

    On the other hand, you could say that if the sole reason for it wasn’t the link – it doesn’t matter if it’s discounted and doesn’t help your rank. Though, again on the flipside the site which hosts the advertorial do not deserve to be punished!?

    Google are smart, but they are trying to govern the way inbound marketing is conducted based around links. They need to fix up quick time, as the way things are going everything you do can be considered blackhat if the smallest detail is out of line…

    I recently saw an advert for a family get away, whilst watching the poker live on TV. Is the advert “blackhat” because it’s not being put in front of the right audience?

  4. Nice post, Paddy! I’m always interested to hear about people’s opinions on blackhats and the shades of SEO grey. I think this video from 2009 SES London is still particularly relevant, and shows the variety of attitudes toward those imfamous blackhats – “What should we do with the Black Hats?”

    When I first started out in the industry, I was interested by all the polarised views. It seems to me, whether you like it or not, blackhats have historically helped the SEO industry in defining algorithmic boundaries and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Ok, it might not be morally “right”, but does the end (beer money in this instance) justify the means?

    The definition of what “blackhat SEO” practices are has jumped a fair bit over the years, triggered mostly by algorithm changes and penalisations. Just look at Interflora and now everyone questioning linkbuilding ethics from advertorials to blogger outreach with freebies!

    As a science graduate, I think the research, trial and testing in SEO has similarities with the scientific method – gathering as much data, experimenting, learning and being objective with the results, i.e. identifying what works and what doesn’t. Blackhats have been the ones pushing the limits as far as they can go! But just like in science, there are ethical boundaries, and these are being enforced in SEO now more than ever. I don’t want to delve too much into ethics, but I agree with you totally that blackhat tactics should never be implemented without full knowledge to all parties about the risks. I’ll do a big disclaimer here and say I don’t use or recommendation such practices. But I admire inquisitiveness and tenacity, which are traits I’m sure most blackhats (and any passionate SEOs – white, grey, whatever) possess.

    1. Thanks for the comment Briony!

      There are definitely lots of differing opinions out there, I was in two minds about even publishing this post and was quite careful with some of my wording as I know that a lot of this stuff is open to interpretation.

      I agree with you about testing, I actually wish that more SEOs would test stuff and share what they’ve done. I think that it can be a bit easy to make claims about what works and what doesn’t without backing it up with anything.

  5. Awesome post. What people think ethical (workaround / loophole)at one point becomes unethical after a series of Google updates. So do you think there would be any particular ‘Current Practice’ that would be termed unethical in the future.

  6. Thanks for discussing this Paddy and it looks like it inspired a good post from Dr. Pete over on SEOMoz too. There’s too many people just saying Black Hat is evil these days without acknowledging the fact that it is still very prevalent and successful (churn and burn Black Hat) in some competitive niches. I absolutely agree this should never be done without a client being aware of the full implications and risks. Let’s face it, aside from the risks of Google slam dunking you, you are also associating the brand with lots of low quality sites and potentially questionable content. How does that look if a potential client of the business sees that?!

    That being said if you are trying to SEO in a competitive and historically spammy niche it makes for some tough client discussions and tough decisions.

  7. You say very clearly. I take risks ONLY with my sites and my income, not with client sites and money.

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