Why I’m a White Hat Now

In yet another parallel between the world of intelligence collection and SEO, Bob Rains is sort of like a spy who realized the good guys were actually doing good, switched sides, and is now explaining why. If you’re at that crossroads, maybe Bob’s experience will help you decide which way to go. Let’s get to it!

Bob starts out with an elevator hack. Yup, you heard that right. If you don’t want to have to stop on every single floor on your way down to the lobby, picking up a bunch of people on the way, when you get into an elevator, push your floor button, and the hold down the door close button, and the elevator will go straight to the floor you chose without stopping. [Apparently, you can hack pretty much anything!]

Bob says, back in the day, the Internet was easy to push around. You could tell it what to do, and make it give you money, in more ways than one. More ways than anyone could even imagine. He makes a reference to Bobcat Goldthwait in Shakes the Clown. [Maybe you'll get that? I've never seen it.]

Anyway, there wasn’t just one main search engine then. We didn’t know who to believe. If you went to conferences, you couldn’t be sure whether the speakers were giving you accurate information, or they were just trying to mess you up because you were in the same space they were. [See? Counterintelligence!]

Bob says back then, if something worked really well, your first instinct was that it must be black hat. The search engines were almost begging you to spam them. He asks how many people remember the Yahoo publisher parties. Paid search was so important, they would actually fly you out to Vegas, buy you drinks, because they wanted you to send more traffic to their engines. And the incentive worked. It brought more people into the “black hat space.”

Google circa 2000 was a beautiful thing. We were all very pro-Google because our other options at the time were horrible (screenshots of Yahoo and msn—ugh). So when you found something that worked on all three engines, you did it, regardless of whether it was right or not.

He says you could also sign up for affiliate programs, and send traffic to your own paid links. Then, you could just sell the clicks. The next step was the cookie stuffing, remember that? Everyone was getting paid by vendors and affiliate programs. People thought, what if I were involved in a lot of affiliate programs? If I just get as many cookies as possible and stuff them on my sites… This is “illegal” now, but at the time, was a very common thing.

Then we had black hat cloaking. You could hide pages from Google. Show them the good page that shouldn’t be penalized, then show the users/customers another page that converted. Because one page was hidden, you could copy all the content from one site to the other without any penalty.

Businesses even did some black hat stuff. They would create sites with one digit different, or one letter different from their regular site. They’d optimize it, get traffic, and then show the user the real page. Now, it’s black hat, but back then, it was just how everyone did things.

Because this was so common with no consequence, it all seemed like a joke. If you wanted to be a good marketer back then, the goal was to find the next black hat method. The result was, people made a lot of money, some in the range of $250K per month. But if you’re pushing something hard enough to make that much money, there’s also a lot of fear involved.

Because of all this, we now have a personality who has been created to sort of watch over everyone (he shows a very odd photo of Matt Cutts, bald and with a biker mustache—where did that come from?!). When Matt showed up, there was a lot of fear for a while, and it pushed black hat into a darker corner. But it also became more of a challenge.

A lot of black hat stuff still works really well. It’s easier than ever to think maybe you should go black hat. And that brings him to why he’s white hat now. It’s tempting because you can get paid more, and faster. But the reality is, when you have to make those decisions, it forces you to really think about what you’re doing. He gives an example of a possible client. They have lots of money, but no presence in search. They want results immediately, and will pay whatever for it.

He says when he was black hat, this was perfect. He’d take that on. But back then, there wasn’t the issue of hey, Matt Cutts knows who I am. Now, you can’t have a company to set up the links for the client, and you can’t have a bunch of expired links under one company. So you’d need a third party for that, which you’d set up. It just becomes too complicated.

Now, you don’t want to do any linkbuilding until a site is ready for it. You get to know your clients, what their goals are, what they want, what their plans are, and that’s all before you’re even involved in marketing. Once that’s ready, you sit down with the PR people and talk about their plans and goals. It’s pretty much the same as when you could do black hat stuff, but now because you’re working directly with the company, it all has a greater impact and is more successful. Every piece of the pie is legitimate and will stick.

And he says that’s the biggest reason he’s white hat now—the stick. You get to see the progress, the success, and be a part of it, and know that six months of work meant something rather than seeing that six months of work has to be maintained forever.

It’s like maintaining a lie. Once you tell it, you have to maintain it, and keep up with it forever or you risk being found out. It took him a couple of years, but he got his stuff cleaned up and became white hat.

Bob says it doesn’t really matter what hat you wear. It’s about the type of work you want to do, and the results you want to see. When he thinks about the amount of energy and work expended to do all those things versus the actual monetary reward. He felt okay about what he was doing, but it wasn’t the life he wanted to lead. He’s talking about work you can do and show your kids, work you can feel good about. He doesn’t want to tell his kids the story about how he broke through the Chinese firewall. That’s not exactly the “my dad was a firefighter” type of story, is it?

When you do too much of the dark stuff, you’re adding to the crappy stuff. Your client’s competitors will have to change the way they do things to counteract what you’re doing. It’s no longer creative problem solving. Now it’s really crapping on things. There is some reward to some black hat things, like picking up expired domains. Ok, you’re just picking them up for the pagerank, but you’re putting all the content back, so it can be considered actually doing a good thing.

There’s total black hat—hijacking, phishing, stealing. The biggest problem with the black hat mindset is you have to constantly think up the next new thing. That’s true of white hat, but it’s different. Now it’s what’s the next new infographic, link bait, etc.

He mentions something Noah of Appsumo has said: Sometimes it’s just better to buy the whole site than try to get the link. He says he doesn’t even know what color hat that is. That’s the 1% hat. [That got a good laugh!]

So yes, black hat still works. It’s tempting when those doing black hat pass you by. But is it worth it? What do you want to do with the time you’re spending. The goal of being white hat is being the guy [or gal] who creates the “OH MY GOSH BEST THING EVER!”

That’s the mission of becoming white hat again, and it’s the mission of Internet marketers in 2011 and beyond whether it’s for ourselves or our clients. This is the time when new things are emerging. Get in on it.

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About the Author

Michelle Lowery

Michelle Lowery is an ardent word nerd, but is also known to say "y'all" from time to time.

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4 thoughts on “Why I’m a White Hat Now

  1. Michelle, I feel like I’ve been telling this story to clients all week.
    “Yes, you can buy into those black hat SEO schemes” etc etc… BUT, those who take the high road will always succeed. Black hats will rise and fall, but white hat SEO will take the steady, and often more strenuous road, to the top.

    It might be frustrating at first (watching those who have crappy content and black hat SEO finish up top), but when they are black listed in 3 months and you’re untouchable as the authority in your niche, life will be good!

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