This article was originally published on the Spectrum blog.
Ultimately, whether or not you should cheat your way to the top of a search engine results page depends on several factors. However, before we take each of those determinants into consideration, it's important to note that cheating theGoogle algorithm isn't illegal (in the traditional sense). If you intentionally violate Google's SEO rules you won't go to jail. You may face other varying repercussions, but unless you do something that's blatantly against the law (like hack a website), you'll live to surf the web another day.
Basically, SEO techniques fall under two broad categories: "white hat" and "black hat". SEO practices that conform to a search engine's rules are called white hat, while those that are deceitful are known as black hat and can come with some hefty penalties if found out. Now, whether your business would benefit more from white or black hat SEO practices is completely dependent on your end-goal. What are you trying to accomplish? What are you willing to risk? How much effort are you willing to apply?
While it may come down to fundamental morality for some people, this article is not meant to analyze the ethics of search engine optimization. Even though Spectrum is an exclusively white hat shop, I'd like to approach this topic neutrally -- breaking down black hat and white hat techniques to unveil the choices people are faced with when it comes to SEO.
1) A question of risk.
With every new Penguin update, Google becomes smarter and more proficient at preventing dishonest tactics on their search engine. Whether your black hat method of choice is keyword stuffing, meta keyword stuffing, link farming or applying hidden content to the code of your site, it's becoming increasingly difficult to get away with any of it.
Ten or fifteen years ago, when the Internet was less regulated, practicing black hat SEO would get you in some trouble. Maybe you'd get a warning; a stern finger in your face accompanied by a termination notification. So, you'd start over. Of course, by that point it didn't matter because you made a lot of money before you were finally caught. Maybe it wasn't right to do, but people certainly did it.
Come 2013 and the game's changed dramatically. Google is catching on to anything that isn't white hat with incredible speed and efficiency, making it increasingly more difficult to make a quick buck. The penalties are harsher, too. A couple years ago, keyword stuffing may have resulting in Google simply ignoring those pages -- costing you some time and effort. Now, these types of algorithmic infractions can cost you your site and all the sweat, blood and tears you've ever put into it.
Therefore, legitimate businesses that have a stake in the service Google provides must be ready to assume the risks associated with black hat tactics. If you're interested in building a strong, secure, reliable web presence for your company, white hat SEO is the only sure way that will ever happen.
2) Are you in it for the long haul?
Let's say you're presented with an opportunity to sell the hottest lap top on the market and you take it. After a wholesale purchase, however, you're not left with a great deal of money to invest in your Internet marketing. You also need to start making sales quickly, as your peak profit opportunity will only last several months (if that). In other words, you need a smash-and-grab Internet strategy -- one that will get you found quickly by a lot of people on the web.
This type of opportunity does not leave you with a lot of white hat options to play around with. If you don't have the time to build quality content on pages with proper titles, meta data, keyword usage, inbound links and everything else associated with effective and acceptable SEO, then you're not in it for the long haul. As I mentioned earlier, the consequences for quick Internet marketing fixes are steep these days. However, it may be the case that by the time your black hat tactics are discovered, you've already made a profit on the exposure and the consequences you face are now relatively insignificant. The point being that people who recognize their business opportunity as being short-term, from a strictly practical perspective, may have no problem employing some black hat tricks to make a quick buck.
Conversely, established businesses that are seeking long-term results may see some short-lived search engine gains but ultimately, will find that black hat tactics are a losing proposition that can really burn a reputable business. And while the thought of instant gratification may be thrilling at first, is it really worth tarnishing (or even losing) the Internet presence you've worked so hard to achieve?