Over the years, I've noticed that the biggest area of misinformation and contention amongst supposed "experts" in the SEO field resides on the borderlines of white hat vs. black hat.
To those of you that don't recognize these two terms, I'm speaking of two very loose definitions of what's considered safe, ethical, and/or following search engine guidelines, as compared to basically everything else.
The real issue appears to be this: too many SEO professionals, especially those that regularly read what I'd consider to be "white hat only" SEO publications (that is, the majority of popular SEO publications), have a lesser understanding of certain topics when compared to their black hat counterparts. This seems to be because there are too many individuals in the mainstream SEO community that write with their top priority being a photo op with Matt Cutts (or some other search engine employee) at the next big conference, keeping a pristine relationship with everyone on Google's developer support team, or convincing another corporate client that their methodologies are safer and more ethical than those scary competitors.
Now, before I get too far along, I'd like to set one thing straight, as I'm sure that I already have the attention of someone that's ready to tear me a new one (also, I'd still love a photo op with Matt Cutts!).
I am not saying that you should embrace anything that is unethical, or otherwise "black hat" in practice.
I am instead writing to give some a better understanding of black hat's place in the grand scheme of things, and how black hat can (and should) fit into a smart, white hat SEO professional's work. Here are 3 seldom-mentioned facts that you must know.
1.) Black hat SEO's are studying things that you aren't
It's that old white hat, traditional marketing mantra:
Test everything, test often, and act on the results.
But here's the problem: while white hat SEO's preach this in a thousand blog posts daily, they're not doing it. Not most of them, if you take everything that that's posted on the big SEO blogs to heart. Here's a prime example: how does Google react when you spam 100,000 forum links in 24 hours? One would assume not all that positively, but how long does it take for your black hat competitors to drop out after they do this? What if they don't? Should you report them? I've heard this exact line of questions surely thousands now amongst white hats, many that would consider themselves "experts", and I have never heard an experienced black hat ask anything of the sort, because they're doing the legwork that white hats won't.
Here are more examples of questions that an experienced black hat's studies will show you objectively, but where a white hat will usually throw out a load of wildly inaccurate assumptions: is it helpful to unbuild bad links if a site has them? If yes, can I knock my competitors out using bad links (aka. Googlebowling)? What are the various types of on-page penalties and link devaluations seen by Google? What if, instead of doing an SEO experiment with a data set of 1 or 2 sites, I test it with 1,000 microsites at once? How will search engines react if the owner has similar domain registration info, hosting, IP addresses, or site designs, or they interlink in various ways? These aren't as subjective of topics as most corporate-friendly publications would have you believe, and if you don't know the answers to these questions, you've been studying the wrong practitioners' case studies.
2.) Black hat's speak more openly (and build better lists)
I learned long ago that white hat SEO blogs are no place to learn about most types of link building that people are doing (especially anything that can be done in bulk). Now, whether you choose to take part in certain maneuvers or not, it's somewhat irrelevant, the important fact to consider here is simply that the black hat community is not afraid of how an outsider might perceive their methods and shameless list building, and tend to always speak pretty openly where that might come into question. And, while there may be two schools of SEO, you are still competing in the same search engines.
Here's an example: on one of the top few SEO sites, if you pay $XXX/month for a paid membership, you can get a list of roughly 100 directories. And, a good number of them it seems aren't even directories. On one black hat forum, I've found lists of 15,000 of them, spidered regularly by someone to verify that they are active and where their submission page is located. Similarly, I've found lists of 13,000 other sites that accept freeware software submissions via PAD File, including backlinks.
Now, this could be fodder for a new debate: how many of those link opportunities are actually worthwhile, and what methods are ethical. In just two examples, however, I believe that I've identified 28,000 link opportunities from people that actually want your link, and what your competitors are most likely doing to get what you'll otherwise only find samples of in Open Site Explorer. This is far more actionable data than I have seen on any mainstream SEO blog no matter how you slice it (not to mention, free). I've also found large lists of blogs susceptible to bot spam and other less scrupulous data that I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole, but the point is this: there's an enormity of free data out there that you aren't going to find elsewhere, and every now and again, it IS going to benefit even the most "white hat" of campaigns.
3.) Black hat is a short-term game, so plan your white hat SEO accordingly
Too many SEO consultants worry too much about how they'll never beat a certain spammer for a client. Having spent a little time on the various black hat forums, and studying much of what's above, you'll likely end up at the same conclusion: black hat is a short-term game. Not only is it's exploitive nature not "future proof", the results often don't last even to the end of the month. And in many cases, you'll find that the people setting up these black hat sites, these microsites and farms of affiliate links, don't intend for them to last. If you can accept that these sites are not going to totally leave the search engines anytime soon, and develop a full understanding of how the black hat community operates, you will be a better SEO analyst for it.