If you go back and watch a lot of the old black-and-white western films, it’s really easy to tell who the good guys and the bad guys are. The good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black ones. Simple, huh? Well, you’ll hear a lot of that same vernacular around the different kinds of tactics used in search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM).
White hat efforts work to follow the best practices of Google, Bing and other search engines, and black hat ones…well…you get the idea. The problem is that, from an outsider’s point of view, it’s not that easy to actually see the hat; you have to rely on your SEO partner to play by the rules. Just ask JCPenny and Overstock.com, who both ran afoul of Google in the tactics their SEO companies were using to increase the companies’ rankings. Whether intentionally executed or just an example of unfortunate SEO, in cases like these, the consequences can be dire either way. If Google catches overt use of bad techniques, the search engine reserves the right to penalize you or even outright ban your listings.
The worst thing is that, in the above situations, you’ve got bad publicity that works to affect the public image of your overall brand, which can carry a costly price tag. Both of these events were widely circulated in the blogosphere, and you had more than few people taking negative stances on the companies themselves, not only the SEO groups that did this work for them.
So take the time to vet your SEO companies and keep in the loop on what’s a good practice vs. bad practice. As marketers, you’ll be held accountable for your actions at a macro level, and your brand value is the most important thing you own.