Lee Odden

Thoughts on White Hat Black Hat Social Media

blackwhiteSES San Jose is done and I mean done for good. The recent conference finished up last Thursday (with post conference training on Friday) and next year, SES will return to its roots in San Francisco. I think this is a great move for many reasons, but more about that later.

During SES  I presented a half day DMA workshop on incorporating SEO into social media efforts, moderated a ClickZ panel on real-time marketing, presented link building tips on a blog & feed SEO panel and participated on a discussion panel about white hat & black hat social media with Dave Evans as moderator and panelists:  Beth Harte, Chris Bennett and Dave Snyder.

As a marketer, I think it’s essential to test and to “push to see what pushes back” in many areas, to see what the real boundaries are. No one gains a competitive advantage by unquestioningly following “the rules”.
Managing risk and expectations is a very big part of client relations, especially in channels that are not mature. It’s been the stance from search marketing “black hats” that as long as there’s disclosure to the client what the risks of certain tactics are and the client agrees, it’s ok.
That’s fine when you’re dealing with something like search, where the variables at play are mostly to do with bots and ranking algorithms. With social media, the numerous platforms, communities and individuals involved make expectation and risk management a lot more complex.  Yes, I am saying social media markeitng can be (not always be) more complex than SEO.
I don’t think there are many experienced (10+ years) search marketers that haven’t used what are now known as “black hat” tactics at some point in time. And you know what? Whether those tactics were used as a test or with a client, they’re better for it.
Now let’s turn our attention to social media. Can the same be said for experienced social media marketers? Who will be better prepared to serve as an effective client marketing advocate than those who have experimented? How can an agency provide guidance on boundaries in the social media space unless they’ve done some “push to see what pushes back” of their own?
The responsible thing to do is not only fully disclose to clients what the implications are for certain approaches or specific tactics, but it’s also incumbent upon social media marketers to have actually tried those tactics themselves.
What do you think? Are there ethical issues with testing tactics (not clients) on the social web that push boundaries?

You can get the full review of the session here from Adam’s liveblog post, but I wanted to share a few thoughts that were not discussed. I opened with my observation of what the notion of black hat means to most people who are in that business: Shortcuts to marketing online to getting better results faster.  Unfortunately, short-cutting brings risks as well as rewards. In the case of social media, I think the risks are far greater than with search marketing.

One perspective that I didn’t get a chance to discuss was the importance of testing with any kind of marketing: search or social media. And I mean testing in an experimental sense. The kind of testing that would be too risky to do with your own brand.

I do not believe “rules” published by platforms need to be followed without question. Many platforms in the social media space are so new, they really have no idea what’s best for the community.

As a marketer, I think it’s essential to test things on your own sites and to “push to see what pushes back” in many areas, to see what the real boundaries are. No one gains a competitive advantage by unquestioningly following “the rules”.

Managing risk and expectations is a very big part of client relations, especially in channels that are not mature. It’s been the stance from search marketing “black hats” that as long as there’s disclosure to the client what the risks of certain tactics are and the client agrees, it’s okay.

That’s fine when you’re dealing with something like search, where the variables at play are mostly to do with bots and ranking algorithms. With social media, the numerous platforms, communities and individuals involved make expectation and risk management a lot more complex.  Yes, I am saying social media marketing can be (not always) more complex than SEO.

I don’t think there are many experienced (10+ years) search marketers that haven’t used what are now known as “black hat” tactics at some point in time. And you know what? Whether those tactics were used as a test or with a client, they’re better for it.

Now let’s turn our attention to social media. Can the same be said for experienced social media marketers? Who will be better prepared to serve as an effective client marketing advocate than those who have experimented? How can an agency provide guidance on boundaries in the social media space unless they’ve done some “push to see what pushes back” of their own?

The responsible thing to do is not only fully disclose to clients what the implications are for certain approaches or specific tactics, but it’s also incumbent upon social media marketers to have actually tried those tactics themselves.

What do you think? Are there ethical issues with testing tactics (not clients) on the social web that push boundaries?

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on integrated content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely on a beach somewhere doing absolutely nothing.

Comments

  1. Testing…hmmm

    Sure, using black hat methods for testing is fine. However, developing a black hat script and selling it for use is where things get ugly. Once sold (as a trick or a get-around)…too many people use it as a mainstream method.

    Let’s talk about Twitter in particular.

    There are several services out there (scripts) which allow you to send various posts with the @whatevernamehere on a massive level in an attempt for people to notice that they are being mentioned…and ultimately to get more followers.

    Because Twitter allows you to show up in any valid account if you @ them….they don’t need to be following you to get the message in their personal time line. I’m not talking your home page time line, I’m talking about the time line you check most often…which is your @yourname timeline (people mentioning you).

    People generally do NOT use this responsibly and unfortunately (for now) it’s working.

    I think you could use the service (sparingly) to test the effectiveness but lets face it. People won’t use it sparingly. Just look at the profiles of people using the script the next time you get a message like this:

    “Good people: @example1 @example2 @example3 @example4 check out http://whateverSpam.com

    When you get a message like this, just check their profile to make sure they are using a script. A sure sign that they are using a script is that their entire time line will have nothing but these messages. If that’s the case, do yourself a favor and block those users.

    Don’t block them right away because sometimes it’s just a message or two that they do that in. In this case, in my own opinion, that’s quite ok. They may be using “black hat” software or maybe they are just doing it manually but at least you know they are doing it responsibly. Maybe they are even using the method to “test” rather than exploit.

    Short answer to your post….

    “Blackhat” fine for testing. Fine for developing methods to get yourself out there but not fine if you use the methods exclusively and without caution.

  2. I agree that pushing the boundaries is always what gives you the most knowledge. Experimentation will expose wide avenues to run down, and also dead ends that can be avoided in the future.

    Not sure I would want to hire a consultant that can’t point out some of the experiments that they’ve run in the past to back up their beliefs.

    • That’s a good point Phil.

      Running your own sites or a small network (as is common in the SEO and affiliate world) provides ample opportunity for testing. For agencies, the issue is funding such experiments.

      However, I agree there should be data or at least something concrete to support claims.

  3. Mike Catlett says:

    The major point I took away from this article is..

    “As a marketer, I think it’s essential to test things on your own sites and to “push to see what pushes back” in many areas, to see what the real boundaries are. No one gains a competitive advantage by unquestioningly following “the rules”.”

    This is true on so many levels other then social marketing, but in regards to social marketing I think you need to take into account the vertical that you are testing. People are going to react differently to video games then they do to health care reform. How do you propose running these tests? Should testing be done with test sites within each vertical? I can see where that would be a problem for an agencies.

  4. Lee,

    “I have all the respect in the world for Beth Harte and Dave Snyder and for a while I wondered if they should have been sitting in front of a therapist instead of a conference audience to work out their issues from SES New York.”

    I am really not quite sure what your comment means… Perhaps you can shed some light on it?

    I barely know Dave Snyder, I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting him twice. As for “issues” at SES NYC, again, I am not quite sure what that means. He made a comment on his panel, I asked a question about his comment and he answered it.

    On this particular SES panel in San Jose, I was asked to be on the panel to discuss my thoughts on social media and that’s what I did.

    Thanks,
    Beth

    • BTW, just to avoid confusion with your comment readers… the quote I have above came from your original post and seems to have been edited out since it was originally posted.

      Thanks,
      Beth

      • That was the raw post I wrote on the plane. My damn version of WordPress autosaves a new copy of a post each time it saves. The unedited post was published. This was later fixed by one of my team.

        Two lessons from this:
        1. Don’t edit in WordPress
        2. Tell it like it is in the first place.

        • I think we’ve all been there Lee. Gotta love WordPress! Lesson for me… don’t blog or ask questions where you disagree with SEOs. 🙂 I jest, of course. That’s the beauty of social media…we ALL have a right to share our opinions/views and we better get used to it because customers/clients don’t care, they will say what they want.

    • Dave characterized your interaction with him as an attack. That was his perception going into the panel, or at least how he characterized it to others.

      The bulk of the session then involved you and Dave making cases for youR respective views on social media. If you are stating that your comments, perspective and approach during the panel had nothing to do with your interactions with him at SESNY, so be it. That is not how it seemed as a co-panelist and not how Dave Snyder said he was approachng the session.

      I agree that you provided your views on social media. As I stated in that haggis of a post on 10e20, I think a PR perspective may not resonate as well with a SEO audience focused on lead generation and online sales vs brand building and community.

  5. Hey Lee, thanks for the clarification…I appreciate it.

    I think you are right that the views of social media/marketing/PR folks probably don’t resonate with some SEOs. Which is odd to me because social media has a lot to do with SEO, lead generation, online sales, brand building and community (or, maybe that’s just my integrated marketing viewpoint). As I have always said, it comes down to effective vs. ineffective and we all have different backgrounds that affect the direction we head in first.

  6. Thanks for the great post, Lee.

    In my point of view, all this hullabaloo over black hat and white hat SEO practices should not be here if all Internet entrepreneurs learned how to be honest, creative and decisive in all of their marketing activities.

    Honesty tales away the doubt from other SEO practitioners and the dreaded black hat label. Creativity can boost your blog’s or website’s prominence by almost 50 percent and, finally, decisiveness is the key to make it all happen.

  7. I think always you must create your website developping the best content, the best design and of course, you must test new practices on satellite websites. If these new practices are ok you have an advantage over your competence.

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