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Search engine optimizers typically label themselves as "white hat" or "black hat" to identify their basic philosophy, approach and methodology for SEO.

As with most things in life, SEO probably isn't as much "black" and "white" as a spectrum of gray. And, more importantly to marketers, the question isn't so much what's black and what's white but what impact can each approach have on your brand?

With that question in mind, let's explore several ways the opposite ends of the SEO spectrum can be defined in relation to each other, and how each of these practices can affect a Web site's resources and rankings in the search engines.

SEO Criteria White Hat Black Hat
Rules Play by the rules There are no rules
Text/technology Focus on text Heavily leverage technology
Strengths of Optimizer Marketing IT/Programming
Speed Take time/invest Get it done NOW

Rules/No Rules

One of the more popular ways to distinguish between the two is how they observe "the rules" set out by the search engines. White hats tend to see themselves as the "good guys," playing by the rules published by the search engines. Black hats take pride in their "there are no rules" approach to SEO—all's fair in love and war... and SEO.

Black hat optimizers say that as long as they're not doing anything literally illegal, just because the search engines don't like it doesn't mean they can't or shouldn't do it.

The question here becomes how to interpret the "rules." Black hat and white hat quickly blend to gray as soon as interpretation enters the discussion.

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Veronica "Niki" Fielding is a 20-year marketing industry veteran. Digital Brand Expressions (www.digitalbrandexpressions.com), which Niki launched in 2002, is her third consecutive new media services/interactive marketing venture.