Search engine optimization (SEO) from black to white

In one of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits, “Tom Ridge” explains the U.S. terrorist-threat color codes:

Tonight, I’m proud to unveil my agency’s new weapon in the War on Terror: the Homeland Security advisory system. It’s a simple five level system, which uses color codes to indicate varying levels of terrorist threat. The lowest level of threat is condition OFF-WHITE, followed by CREAM, PUTTY, BONE and finally NATURAL. It is essential that every American learns to recognize and distinguish these colors! Failure to do so could cost you your life. For those who may have questions, an excellent guide will be found on page 74 of the spring J. Crew catalogue.

Now, what precisely do these threat levels indicate? Condition OFF-WHITE, the lowest level, indicates a huge risk of terrorist attack. Next highest, condition CREAM: an immense risk of terrorist attack. Condition PUTTY: an enormous risk of terrorist attack. Condition BONE: a gigantic risk of terrorist attack. And finally, the most serious, condition NATURAL: an enormous risk of terrorist attack.

Here’s my attempt to give SEO’s more than just two or three colors.

Background: A naive (non-SEO) webmaster or content producer simply makes a site, without a thought or a care to the world of search engines. Or if there’s a thought it’s a thought of hopeful trust: if I make a useful interesting site on topic X, then the search engine will figure that out and deliver users who care about X to my site. SEOs and SEO-aware content creators construct sites instead with an eye to how search engines work, and make content that is designed to be retrieved. The white-hat/black-hat continuum is about the extent to which SEOs are working with search engines or against them. Black-hat SEOs are also known as search-engine spammers.

Dark inky black: The SEO’s (or in this case the spammer’s) interests are totally divergent from both the engines and the users – the SEO wants to trick the search engine into handing over users who are ripe to be tricked themselves into a situation of malicious harm. For example, the SEO might name his domain just one typo-character away from a famous domain name, then install spyware on the computer of any user careless enough to visit, or attempt to impersonate a major portal’s login page to collect logins and passwords.

Charcoal: The SEO tries to trick the engine into showing the user something totally unrelated to the query, and possibly offensive, but doesn’t actually commit any illegal or fraudulent acts within five seconds of the first user click. Example: a (heinous) pornspammer who stuffs the page with irrelevant non-porn keywords targeting innocent queries, maybe via invisible text. 99.9% of searchers will be searching for something else and will be put off; 0.1% will be searching for something else, but will, um, flexibly and opportunistically reorient their interests.

Dark gray: The SEO collects (aka steals) random text from other sites, and uses it to create thousands (or millions) of pages targeting particular queries. The pages have nothing original of value, but do have ads.

Slate gray: The SEO creates thousands (or millions of pages), all of which point (by linkage, or framing, or redirection) to the same content, which might actually be interesting to the searcher.

Gray: The SEO reads the guidelines of search engines, and tries to juice up their sites just enough to fly under the radar on all dimensions – artificial linkfarms that remain small, automatic content duplication that is arguably not too abusive, etc. The goal is to get enough referral traffic as possible, without too much reference to whether it is interested traffic.

Light gray: The SEO creates “original” content in bulk the old-fashioned way, thinking first of all of search engine rules, secondly of duplicate detection algorithms, and lastly of whether the text makes sense to human beings and is something anyone would ever want to read. Then the SEO experiments with all the parameters (keyword density, internal linkage) trying to move up for the queries of interest.

Off-white: The SEO ensures crawlability of the site, restructures it if necessary for size of pages and internal linkage, and then injects terms to specifically target the important keywords and queries. He doesn’t create linkfarms, but friends and allies are importuned to link with specific text and phrases.

White: The SEO starts (if lucky) with a site full of content you can’t find anywhere else, and that answers a need that searchers actually have. Then the SEO makes sure the site is crawlable, and that titles and internal links make sense and are descriptive. Then the SEO thinks hard about the queries that really should pull up this content, and tries to discover if the right terms are present. Then (the hard, artful part), he or she rewrites content with a dual consciousness of the infovorous human reader and the termnivorous spider, making sure that the most important terms and phrases for the spider are present (in all their forms) and forefronted for the spider, without degrading the quality for the reader.

Luminescent pearly white: This would be a case where the SEO designs a site to show up for relevant queries and _not_ to show up for irrelevant queries. Do luminescent SEOs exist? Well, Jon Udell is one anyway.

33 thoughts on “Search engine optimization (SEO) from black to white”

  1. I try to stay white for the most part, but I have delved into some gray in the past. I have met some people who have gone as far as dark gray but I’ve never known anyone who has gone beyond that.

  2. I like to think of myself as off-white to pearly white. It really depends on the content and client, but it makes no sense to create content just for the sake of content. It must be meaningful and targeted. Content must often be rewritten to maximize the relevance to specific key phrases. These less-than-white SEOers are the e-mail spam of web design.

  3. Good article. I too am one of those folks that stays in the off-white to pearly. I think those folks that partake in dark gray and below practices give seo’ers a terrible name, but if you can keep in the decent end of the spectrum, then you’re bound to make an impact in the long run.

  4. I think most of us start out gray hat, but then after awhile you give up trying to chase the search engine algos and just develop good content and good links.

    I have been watching a friend of mine start out, and after getting no where after several months in the search engines he has gone to the dark side. It might be a year or so maybe he will turn himself around.

  5. And to think, I thought Off-white, White and Luminescent pearly white were the same thing… :). You ask: “Do luminescent SEOs exist?” I ask: “Do 100% truthful Salesmen, PR People and Marketers exist?”

  6. I’m luminescent. I work for major companies who work exclusively online. The stupid little tricks and games are of little to no value to their operations or their bottom line.

    SEO’s need to learn that if Search Marketing is going to be legit in the mainstream there has to be legitmacy on their end as well.

  7. If its so easy to see and categorise, then it shouldn’t be too difficult for smart folks like yourselves to eliminate..right?

    In terms of the scraping/ads scenario isn’t that watch search engines do?


  8. Haven’t cross the Gray-line yet. I HAVE done stuff purely for search engines, such as making a “site map” that’s ugly that users don’t want to see, so search engines can get to all my dynamic pages.

  9. Andy Atkins Kruger SMA UK acting president had a similar view last year, but used Edward de Bono’s thinking hats to better describe the nature of SEO’s:

    * White hat (Blank sheet): Information & reports (”objective”)
    * Red hat (Fire): Opinion & emotion (”subjective”)
    * Yellow hat (Sun): Praise, positive aspects, (”objective”)
    * Black hat (Judge’s robe): Criticism, negative aspects, modus tollens (”objective”)
    * Green hat (Plant): Intuition, new approaches & everything goes (”speculative”)
    * Blue hat (Sky): “Big Picture,” “Meta hat,” overall process (”overview”)

  10. Cool Post,

    Heard about it on Webmaster FM, but did not get the URL until I posted a question on searchengine forums.

    To be honest, I still don’t know what color my hat is though. If your ‘business’ is helping to get others noticed, would this, in general, be unethical?

  11. To just use random shades of grey is not good enough now we all use CSS. I suggest we use hex codes for SEO colours.

    I like to believe that I am #FFF, but I guess I would normally be classed as #CCC. The sad thing is that many people seem to get away with being #666 or #333, but they won’t last long.

  12. Chuckles, I love the colors. It is so true that there is more than Black&White. It’s almost like a test at school, you do well and you generally get an “Off-White” or “White” grade. Study Hard!

  13. I really enjoyed the post, but I’ll try to add some tips on how you can avoid being a site that’s a Google “supplemental result” (very, very bad).

    1) Be careful what you quote from other sites. For example, don’t quote half an article or Google will push you down! And you may never see that page in Google again.
    2) Keep your title to a maximum of 60 characters.

    Hope it’ll help.

  14. Nice blog, I am going to blog about this on my website. I have found a lot of blogs here useful, and have learned a lot from these.

    I recommended these blogs to anyone that wants to learn, or learn new techniques.

  15. Search Engine Optimization for non-related keywords has been pevalent on search engines for long.

    We have observerved that companies from “Hardware” section using text from “Marketing” section to gain exposure on Search Engines.

  16. I’m about half tempted to learn some black hat techniques, well maybe very light techiniques that google won’t see because my traffic sucks, and been using white hat for sometime, and only got like 1,000 links in the past 2 months.

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