John Andrews is a Competitive Webmaster and Search Engine Optimization Consultant in Seattle, Washington. This is John Andrews blog on issues of interest to the SEO community and competitive webmasters. Want to know more?

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January 15th, 2007 by john andrews

Wordpress Themes for SEO

A long time ago I commented about how open source projects were fodder for covert embedded “SEO” content. Back then, a few Wordpress themes included back links, but the opportunity suggested it could get much worse. It has.

I just upgraded my Wordpress to 2.0.6 because of some stupid pirate. I would have preferred to wait until the 22nd when the new Wordpress comes out, but whatever. So as always I started looking at available themes and sure enough, tons of backlinks embedded into them. Like my theme? Take it, use it, it’s free! (Oh, and if you look real close you might notice a few back links in there to my diet plan page, or my mortgage page, or my hosting affiliate page. No bother…pay no attention to that, move along and be happy). Sometimes the back links are mentioned in the comments., like “if you want to use my theme, you have to leave my links in place”. Well, actually, no I don’t.

The only sad part is that Wordpress.org distributes these themes as they are, in the Wordpress distribution. Those people understand the web. They know that off-topic embedded back links distributed in Open-Source contributed themes are LINK SPAM. Yet they still permit them and include them in the distribution. Tsk tsk tsk. Hel, why not include a trojan as well?

I’ve been hacking the NewZen theme for a while. It’s not very good. It’s a theme, yes, and it does ajaxy things with the sidebar, but it’s incomplete, not robust, and the code is not mantainable. Back links to the author? Nope. But if they actually want credit, I’d be happy to post a review of the theme.

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January 12th, 2007 by john andrews

Black Hat vs. White Hat vs. Grey Hat SEO: The Definitive Guide

Let’s face it: as long as there is a logical-sounding, convenient (useful) label floating around, it will get used and mis-used. That is the story of “Black Hat SEO” and “White Hat SEO”. They are poor quality labels, poorly-defined (in practice), yet so easily “understood” and so convenient that they persist… year after year.

Personally I believe that these labels are good for Google, and bad for SEO practitioners. I believe that by labeling SEO as “black” or “white”, Google gains an opportunity to influence the popular perception of SEO in it’s favor, where otherwise it would not have such an opportunity. Of course Google has used this to its advantage many times (such as the times it has cautioned web site owners not to trust SEOs, because they may employ Black Hat tactics…F.U.D.). As I have said before, there is only one color of SEO worthy of effort, and that’s Green SEO.
So while it is unfortunate that we have to accept these labels, we do have to accept them because our clients think they understand them. Therefore, it is also essential that we properly define them.

That’s really quite easy to do, especially when you start with the definition of “Black Hat” SEO:

Black Hat : techniques or tactics which have been defined by Google as in violation of the Google “Quality Guidelines” (see “Quality Guidelines, which outline some of the illicit practices that may lead to a site being removed entirely from the Google index”) . The Black Hat label applies to those methods specifically mentioned n the “Guidelines”, other methods and/or tactics or circumstances mentioned by Matt Cutts in his blog, in Matt’s comments on others’ blogs, or just about anywhere anyone from Google says anything that strongly suggests Google took action against a site for some specific reason. Black Hat SEOs know what they are doing is defined as BAD, and do it anyway for specific reasons (not usually including “get banned”). I like to think of Black Hat SEOs as opportunists. They see an opportunity to gain, and take it, managing the associated risk. Please don’t confuse ignorant SEOs with Black Hat SEOs… the ignorant ones are those who execute on Black Hat (evil) tactics without managing the risks (either out of ignorance or folly doesn’t matter to me here).

White Hat: techniques or tactics which can be defended as NOT being contrary to the spirit of Google’s expressed quality desires, by citing Google’s own published guidelines, Matt Cutts’ blog posts, or comments posted in other places, or just about any other Google communication. I like to refer to White Hat SEOs as “conservatives” of the SEO world… where things are viewed as BLACK or WHITE (GOOD or BAD), and the letter of the Google god is taken verbatim as TRUTH. Yes, there is a bit of a timeline problem with that approach (if Matt said it was bad in 2002, is it still bad?) but that’s just the tip of the White Hat iceburg.

Grey Hat (or Gray Hat): Since the color gray is between black and white, logically Grey Hat SEO sounds like a label for the middle ground. But it’s not. Because White is pure white and grey is a shade of black, we have confusion. Some say Grey Hat is NOT White Hat and is just a shade of Black Hat. So let’s step away from the coor wheel and define Grey Hat as the practice of tactics/techniques which remain ill-defined by all that published material coming out of Google, and for which reasonable people (not White Hat SEOs, mind you, but “reasonable people”) could disagree on how the tactics support or contrast with the “spirit” of Google’s published guidelines.

Updated 06/2007: In response to comments, and recent emphasis by Google on webmaster intent,  I would say Gray Hat includes all areas where you feel you need to have some plausible deniability in place for your actions. Personaly I don’t believe in gray hats… but for the Definitive Guide, let it be defined.
So here we have the Definitive Definition of Black Hat vs. White Hat vs. Grey Hat. In summary, Black Hats know they are taking risks, defying some of Google’s expressed behavior guidelines. White Hats will only do what Google says is ok, and Grey Hats will try things which they believe are ill-defined by Google, without first asking permission.

According to Google, White Hat SEO is good, Black Hat SEO is bad, and most Grey Hat SEO is risky (ill-advised — see note below).

To the Black Hat SEO, White Hat SEO is non-competitive, Grey Hat SEO is a safe bet, and Black Hat SEO is the only thing that will beat good Grey Hat SEO.

To the Grey Hat SEO, White Hat SEO is effective only for SERPs where there are no Grey Hat or Black Hat SEOs, Black Hat SEO is for high-risk, high-yield opportunities, and in most cases, the term “SEO” means either Black Hat SEO or Gray Hat SEO. The rest is just good web mastering.

To the White Hat SEO, Black Hat SEOs are cheaters who need to be reported to Google, Gray Hat SEOs are quitters who need to be reported to Google (just in case it might get them penalized and dropped from the SERPs), and White Hat SEOs are good people worthy of reciprocal link exchanges (especially third-party exchanges), raving blind testimonials, and unconditional support.

I hope that helps clear up some of the confusion, and we can all move on from here. I suppose a good first step would be to gather every word ever uttered by Google on SEO, and update each item for the today tomorrow today (every day?), so we can know exactly what is Black or White. Then we can write down every other possible approach to web design, including those not yet invented, and make a big comprehensive list. We can then set up a meeting with Matt Cutts to label them as either Black or White. Whenever he has to “ask the right people at Google and get back to us”, we will label the item as Grey. That way we, as an industry, can use these new definitive definitions of Black/White/Grey to our advantage and clear up the confusion once and for all. If we are successful, we can publish an book, listing the Black Hat, White Hat, and Grey Hat SEO tactics everyone can use. Or better yet, just list the White Ones (since by definition, non-White tactics will be ill-defined or ill-advised).

We can call is the SESO Book, for Search Engine Sub-Optimization Book. Possibly we can do away with SEO altogether, in favor of SESO. We might even be able to get Google to pony up some of that AdWords/AdSense profit to support an Association. Maybe an Association for Sub-optimal Search Engine Services?

I may be projecting a bit far ahead here, but even with such an excellent industry catalog of tactics and techniques, I suppose there will still be an item or two that eludes a static assignment of risk as pertains to Google’s SERP-busting sledgehammer of Justice. Perhaps something that changes, or an item which isn’t easily labeled outside of its context. It could happen. So for those who really need to work with those edge circumstances, we can simply lump them together into a category called competitive webmastering.

Note: Google includes a threat statement in it’s Webmaster Guidelines that alludes to Grey Hat SEO as ill-advised, and indirectly calls it “spam” : “It’s not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn’t included on this page, Google approves of it. Webmasters who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes they can exploit…If you believe that another site is abusing Google’s quality guidelines, please report that site… spam reports we receive are used to create scalable algorithms that recognize and block future spam attempts.” — emphasis added.

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January 10th, 2007 by john andrews

So There: I posted about Shoemoney. Pfffft.

Until now, I have never had a reason to post about Jeremy over at Shoemoney.com. I poked some fun early on, of course, on the SEO Secrets page, but nothing Jermey posted every caused me to write. I even had a conversation with an “SEO Loser” about meeting people at PubCon, where I said I had plenty of opportunity to introduce myself to Jeremy especially this year (he was generously accessible) but I had absolutely nothing I wanted to speak to him about. Lots of “fans” flock to these guys, but I am not a fan.
But now Jeremy posted this:

Anyway if you want a real SEO ask them how many blackhat forums or sites they read. If they tell you none then move on. They at least need to be educated in the dark arts even if not practicing.

Now I have something to say. I have read Shoemoney here and there since he arrived on the scene, and I listened to him before and after he attended his first DEFCON. Now he’s saying the Black Hat forums are where the real info is, like the real security info is at black hat security meetings like DEFCON.

Well, that’s okay in spirit but not accurate in practice. I am no security guru but I have been to a few DEFCONs *before* Dark Tangent et al discovered it was a moneymaker. Before they began to actually market it to corporate and government customers as Black Hat whatever. Back when it was just a bunch of less than fit or extremely fit, overly fair-skinned geeks wearing black T’s and cargo pants in the Nevada desert (in August), spending the entire first day on the cash-only registration line. Yes, that was the place to learn the shit on security. But today? By the time it is presented at DEFCON (or Black Hat), it’s been talked about behind the scenes for a long time. Yes guys like Dan Kaminsky are now sought after speakers and consultants, but guys like Dan have been smart, outgoing, hard-working guys with real jobs and positive outlooks all along. They push the envelope and always have. This is news?

Now are the “Black Hat SEO Forums” the place for real SEO knowledge? I think not. I think so-called Black Hat forums are, like Black Hat Briefings and other security conferences, marketing vehicles: mechanisms for trading knowledge for coin, exploiting audiences that have coin and want knowledge. WhomperNet for $800 month looks like a ticket to participate in a forum of your peers, with some guidance. Why do I need top pay those guys to do that? I can sponsor a lot of beer for $800/month. Shoemoney’s own CantBeatRetreat looks like a… you guessed it… a very expensive opportunity to congregate with your peers (ok..with some guidance) for that hefty $5000 plus price tag. At leasts Quadzilla kept things reasonable with Black Hat SEO forum at what, a hundred or so bucks a month? No matter how you slice it, these so-called “black hat forums” are basically a shrewd marketer’s version of USER GENERATED CONTENT.

It’s not whats inside that’s good, it’s the packaging. And as a producer of CantBeatRetreat Jeremy is guilty of the same thing, although he may believe his own scriptures. I am an competitive aggressive SEO but I don’t belong to any Black Hat SEO forums. That doesn’t make me a White Hat Evangelist (puhleeeze!) and it certainly doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s up with state of the art SEO. Trust me, Jeremy, you don’t need to pay the Black Hat Forum hawkers to get the low-down on aggressive SEO tactics. I check in once in a while (via friends) and it’s pretty clear I know that of which I speak.

What you really want to know but don’t know, is expensive. But zero day knowledge is not expensive; it’s priceless.

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John Andrews is a mobile web professional and competitive search engine optimzer (SEO). He's been quietly earning top rank for websites since 1997. About John

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