Link building pro Eric Ward has an article in the Winter 07/08 issue of Search Engine Marketing Standard called "Staying White Hat in A World of Gray."
The article is not, unfortunately, online.
Ward’s piece is a fair and evenhanded attempt at defining just what is "black hat" and what is "white hat" Internet marketing, i.e. unethical versus ethical marketing.
His basic argument is your motive is anything other than sharing stuff you like with the rest of the world, then it’s Black Hat. Using the social bookmarking site StumbleUpon as an example, Ward says:
"The moment you socially bookmark a site for which you have an agenda, you are engaging in a black-hat tactic. Why? Because StumbleUpon was not created for business people to use as a marketing channel. It was created as a way to share sites they liked, not sites they were being paid to promote."
I completely disagree with his definition. I think the most important criteria to determine whether or not a tactic is Black or White Hat, is whether the addition of a given piece of content is helpful or adds value to the audience.
Using Ward’s StumbleUpon example, say I’ve got a blog the sole purpose for which is to sell stuff through affiliate programs. My blog posts are only affiliate links to products for sale and my sole purpose is to get people to click and buy those products so I make money though the affiliate program. I go and bookmark every page with StumbleUpon and use deceptive headlines when I do so. That, clearly, is spam and a Black Hat tactic.
Conversely, I almost always bookmark new posts of this blog to StumbleUpon and categorize them accurately and describe the content of the post honestly. My StumbleUpon account is e-strategy.stumbleupon.com and my account name is e-strategy so anyone with half a brain can put two and two together and figure out that I’m bookmarking my own posts.
I am doing nothing clandestinely but my motive is to increase the readership to this blog. And this purpose of this blog, of course, is to share my knowledge of Internet marketing because 1) I love what I do, but also 2) I hope to get some business out of the demonstration of my expertise. My motives, at the end of the day, are commercial.
Does that mean the content I add to StumbleUpon is not worthwhile or in some way spam or underhanded? The quality of my content is ultimately for you readers to judge, but I like to think that my posts are adding value to the StumbleUpon community and the bookmarking of my posts is simply helping people to become aware of my content.
Likewise, my approach to search engine marketing is to help people find the information for which they’ve already expressed their desire. If the content accurately matches a search engine user’s search query, and it is quality and appropriate content, then I’ve helped the searcher find the information I want, helped the search engine provide accurate search results, and helped my client as well.
Ward and I both agree that attempts to fool people or search services online will only backfire in the long run. And that’s bad for me and my clients.