In SEO, go for the white hats, and avoid the black hats

JPCT 150713 Alan Stainer. Photo by Derek Martin
JPCT 150713 Alan Stainer. Photo by Derek Martin

Whenever you start talking about websites, you hear people bandy around different pieces of jargon. Like HTML, PHP, cloud hosting, VPS… the list goes on. SEO is one you will hear a lot. In fact there is a whole industry based around it.

So what exactly does it mean?

Let’s start with that annoying acronym, SEO. It stands for Search Engine Optimisation and that should give you a clue as to its meaning. At its most basic, SEO means optimising a web page so that search engines can crawl and understand the page more easily. This in turn may help your page to rank more highly in search engine results.

That sounds simple enough, but there are many different factors that an SEO specialist has to deal with, plus SEO has grown to include more than just on page optimisation (as it is known). For instance social media campaigns, Pay Per Click (PPC) ad campaigns and any form of backlink acquisition (backlinks are links from other sites to yours) all either directly or indirectly affect a page’s rankings.

To complicate things further, the search engines are constantly changing their ranking algorithms. Not only does this move the goal posts in an ever changing playing field, but it also invalidates older methods of optimising a site.

Take keywords as an example. It has been known for years that including the keywords you want to rank for helps you rank for those keywords. So webmasters started taking that to an extreme and included streams of keywords in the footer, down the side and sometimes hidden on the page (white text on a white background for instance). They were effectively gaming the system (and it worked!). However, the search engines responded by penalising sites that do this and harming their search rankings. While keywords are still important today, ‘keyword stuffing’ is bad.

These sorts of behaviours have lead to terms like ‘white hat’ and ‘black hat’ SEO. It’s a tip of the hat to the old Westerns where the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats. White hat SEO is very much about doing things the right way, playing by the book and not trying to game the system. Black hat SEO is much more about gaming the system for short term gains… for the SEO company. I say that, because if you are unfortunate enough to hire a black hat SEO company, you may see some gains in traffic to your site initially, but as soon as Google (or whichever search engine it is) finds out that you have employed dubious tactics, your site’s ranking will suffer and in extreme cases can be de-indexed completely.

If you are approached by an SEO company that says something like, “We can get you on page 1 of Google,” my word of advice is, go somewhere else. SEO (the proper white hat variety) takes time. A lot of time. It isn’t a one off process that you can do on a site for an overnight success and then forget about. It can take months or even years to build your site’s reputation, but you are in it for long term gains aren’t you?

So the question is, can you do any SEO yourself? Yes you can and there are some really successful sites out there to prove it. There is an awful lot to learn and it can be a fascinating (sorry, geek hat on again) subject. There is an awful lot to avoid doing too, so tread carefully. If you do need to hire an SEO specialist, do a bit of research on them first. You can usually spot the good ones.

Alan Stainer