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How to Build a Successful ‘White Hat’ Business on a ‘Black Hat’ Internet

White-HatOver on the ProBlogger Facebook page I was asked a great question by Aman Tandon, who asked for some tips on ‘how to stay alive using white hat techniques?’ when competitors in his niche were being ‘foxy’.

It’s a great question and one that I know many bloggers face in different ways.

The reality is that when you’re developing blogs or websites, there are many temptations that face us as bloggers. People make all kinds of choices about how to grow their businesses – choices that span the entire length of the ethical spectrum.

These choices impact the way that bloggers:

  • create content (eg. using others people’s words, images, and ideas)
  • optimise their sites for search engines (eg. buying links)
  • engage on social media sites (eg. buying followers)
  • monetise their sites (eg. selling links, disclaimers, promoting dodgy products)
  • grow readership (eg. personal attacks on others to create controversy)

The list could go on… and on.

Not a day goes by when I don’t see some kind of black…. or at least murky grey…. hat strategy being employed in some of the niches that I operate in (particularly the ‘make money online’ space).

Note: it is probably worth saying that while there are plenty of examples of ‘black hat’ around, most bloggers I come into contact with are good people with great morals, integrity, and a genuine desire to build businesses that not only are profitable, but that serve and help others. It’s also worth saying that there’s lots of different shades of grey between the extremes!

I have always taken the stance that I want to approach what I do with high ethics, transparency and integrity. That doesn’t mean the temptations are not there. I, like everyone else, am human and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t face temptations to take shortcuts or get ahead.

However I’ve worked hard at keeping on the straight and narrow and operating at the ‘white hat’ end of the spectrum. This probably flows from a mixture of motivations – partly it’s just who I am and how I was raised, partly it’s because I get a lot of satisfaction from doing things well and without taking short cuts, and if I’m honest it probably is partly out of fear – I’d hate to lose what I’ve built as a result of making a dumb choice.

I’m not going to use this article to define what is a ‘white hat’ vs a ‘black hat’ approach to blogging (although that would certainly make for an interesting discussion), but let me make a few comments for those bloggers who do try to play by the rules and approach what they do with ethics – sometimes in the face of others in their space who don’t mind bending (or completely breaking) the rules in an attempt to get an advantage or take short cuts.

Play with a long-term vision in mind

The main message I have regarding this topic is to approach what you do online with a long-term vision in mind.

As I mentioned above, I’ve seen many examples over the years of people crossing over to the ‘dark side’ to grow their online businesses. It is frustrating to see it happen, but in each case I’ve reminded myself that I’m not looking for a quick buck, but am looking to build a business that sustains itself over the long haul.

Numerous examples come to mind of when I’ve seen people make decisions for short-term gain that have led to long-term hurt.

  • I think of one blogger, seven or so years ago, who went on a spree of personal attacks of other bloggers to grow traffic to his site. He got the traffic, but destroyed his own reputation in the process.
  • I think of another blogger who made the decision to promote a product he knew was dubious as an affiliate on his blog. He hyped it up and made a lot of promises the product couldn’t live up to. While he made some quick money, he lost his reputation and most of his readership.
  • I think of another blogger who tried to grow his blog with some prolific link-building schemes with a ‘blog network’ that promised he’d be #1 on Google overnight. He did get to #1… for a week, before disappearing from Google altogether at the last big Google algorithm update.

Of course there are good examples around of people who behaved in arguably unethical ways that ended up doing well (anyone who has seen the movie ‘The Social Network’ probably has a good example in mind – however in many (if not most) cases that I’ve come across, the people who decide to go to the ‘dark side’ to get a short cut often end up behind the pack as a consequence of their decisions.

Deliver value

Instead of looking for a short cut, look to deliver value and be useful.

Usefulness trumps pretty much anything else I can think of in the online (and offline) space.

  • The online businesses that I support by spending my money with, are the ones that solve a problem for me.
  • The blogs that I support by subscribing, reading, and interacting with, are the ones that make my life better in some way.
  • The people that I meet on social media that I retweet, link to and recommend to others to follow are the ones that add value in some tangible way to my life.

Conversely:

  • the website that is clever enough to get me to visit them by ranking #1 in Google but doesn’t serve any purpose when I get there doesn’t get me to come back.
  • the person on twitter who simply self-promotes, or spams out affiliate products gets unfollowed, blocked, or reported as spam.
  • the business that rips me off or tells untruths to get a sale gets their reputation left in tatters, as blog posts and tweets go out exposing what they’re really about.

My personal experience is that when you build value, you build something that is much more likely to last as a business.

Stay true to your values and build something that matters to you

Much of what I’ve written above probably sounds a little trite, and will probably be laughed at by those who take pride in their ‘black hat’ ways.

I’ve previously been linked to and ridiculed in a number of black hat forums for the stances I’ve taken, so as I’m writing this half-expecting that reaction again.

However, all I can really say is that you’ve got to be true to yourself and do something that matters to you.

Me donning a black hat and going to the dark side simply isn’t who I am. I get a lot more satisfaction in life in building something of value, serving others, and looking to build a business and become sustainable through a win/win exchange with those whom I interact.

I sleep easier at night living in that way.

Others seem to be comfortable living at other points along the spectrum, and sleep easy with the decisions that they make. At least to some point, I think we have to live knowing that we’re each different.

When I first started out in blogging, and I would see others doing things that I disagreed with, I would often get angry and outspoken about it. I guess in some ways I’ve come to peace with the fact that in most cases, as angry or outspoken as I get, it is unlikely to change the perspective and practice of the other person.

Instead, these days in most cases I choose to focus my energy less upon what others are doing that annoys me, and more upon doing something myself that matters to me and those who read my blogs.

One last note on taking a stand

A final thought – there does come a point when sometimes you do have to take a stand, and not ignore what others are doing in your niche.

For example: if I see another blogger blatantly copying and pasting my content onto their blogs without any attribution, or pretending it is they who wrote it – I act. I start with an email to them, and will escalate that to issuing DMCAs.

Another example that comes to mind is a time when I saw a lot of ProBlogger readers being ripped off by a certain blogging network/service that I felt was a scam. In this case I wrote about it as a service to my readers.

While I’d rather ignore the dodgy behaviour of others and focus upon building something of value, there are times when I think it is important to take a stand to either protect what you’ve built, or to stay true to your values.

What would you add?

These are just my thoughts on this topic – I’d love to hear yours.

How do you approach working on the web where there is such diversity in the approaches that people take on an ethical level?

What do you do when you see others in your niches taking different approaches to you?

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Samuel says:

    I personally don’t prefer to use any blackhat methods and never will.

    As this article mentioned, some techniques are taken to the extreme and that’s why some of the methods may be given a very bad name.

    If it works for you and you are doing it with honesty, then I don’t see why not you can’t do. Please, never take anything like this into the extreme. That is never good.

    - Samuel

  2. Darren

    Maybe I’m being cynical, but I suspect some people will never have anything insightful or valuable to offer.

    And, because of that, they feel they have no choice but to go over to the dark side.

    But that’s a bit like turning to a pay-day loan when you’re strapped for cash – you get a quick solution to your cash-flow problem. However, the good times are very short-lived and very quickly afterwards your finances take one big nosedive.

  3. I think blogging is like any other area of business, hobby, life or adventure, short cuts and “black hat” tactics may help you at first but a brick wall awaits at the end of that path. Once you have ruined your reputation, it takes a long time, if ever, to get it back. Good food for thought and encouragement Darren.

  4. Wise words indeed. Honesty and truth will in most cases finally triumph. More so nowadays as Google and friends work hard to catch the bad guys.

    It amazes me to see some bloggers spamming other sites with useless and unrelated comments to the content of the post. I have at the moment thousands of mostly spam comments that I have to go through.

    I have this year committed myself to getting only natural backlinks and to let the quality of my posts speak for itself other than buying some fiverr backlinks and comments.

    Once again thanks for your wise words.

  5. kathyj333 says:

    This is a great post Darren. And great advice.

  6. I was explaining an hour ago to a returning client how much things have changed on the Internet since we last worked together, that there are a number of tactics that before were useful that are not only useless but dangerous now – but that the fundamentals are still strong – create truly great content and employ a very loud megapphone. I believe that formula still works, and works in social media, for SEO, in forums and offline, as well.

  7. Even if you aren’t on the dark side, people can choose not to support you even if what you represent and your subsequent success could hurt their business. I had a well-known speaker in my field tell me he liked my concept and product, but since I was offering it for free download on my site, he wouldn’t mention it or support it. He said to contact him when I started charging for it.
    Well, I still offer it for free and I feel good about my model. I am sticking to what works for me. It makes me feel good to offer something of value, and in return I get traffic and behind-the-scenes revenue.
    What resonated with me in what you said was “you’ve got to be true to yourself and do something that matters to you.” This works for me and so I’ll keep working hard at it. Sell, sell, sell was not my vibe. Some are great salesmen, and some are great bloggers! ;)

  8. oh one thing that I notice is fb sites that download images from pinterest, flikr, websites, etc and then upload them with out reference to the original. From that moment on each time that image is shared it shows only the name of the fb page that ‘borrowed’ it.
    I see this everywhere and most of these sites have followers in the tens or hundreds of thousands. I had one site do this with images of my daughter and when I tried to get them taken down I got no response at all. If they had clicked ‘share’ my name would have remained with the image.
    I did get worked up about this and then thought it’s just not worth it, I have been tempted to do the same myself but it seems crazy when sharing someones work is a perfect way to openly acknowledge them and begin to create a relationship.
    I’m sticking to my white hat xxx
    ciao lisa

  9. Nice to read this Darren,

    I steer clear of black hatters, but as you say, there are so many shades of gray. One thing not usually considered black hat so much but that bothers me is super-manipulative copywriting–many shades of gray in that area too. A “light hand” with that isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes, though, it’s very obvious (though maybe only to other writers/bloggers). If it’s heavy handed, I lose interest/unsubscribe/ignore.

    Plagiarism and spinning bugs me too. I’ve seen it as a copyeditor working on a hired ghost writer’s stuff–it was barely disguised. I can’t support stuff like that, even in that role (site owner didn’t seem to care or realize how serious it was) so I stepped out. And I wrote a post on my own blog about it–there’s a big difference between paraphrasing and research and so on and spinning. So my reaction was to educate.

    Then there was the guest poster who clearly bought Facebook likes…oh boy. Tough one, and I couldn’t prove it…

    I suspect black hatters don’t sleep all that well. But I figure I have enough work of my own to do, so I tend to ignore it and stay away. But if my own readers were getting ripped off as you said, well I’m sure I’d speak up.

  10. Thank you for posting about this topic Darren! Just yesterday I was thinking, oh perhaps these black hat tactics are what I need to do to play seriously in the online space of business consulting. Thank you for reaffirming my beliefs that we should all act in alignment with our values, to serve others and for the long term!

    My uncle once told me (after I missed out on a job interview), that I was honest like my mother, but that it was a really good trait to have. This uncle has the nickname ‘the silver fox’. I didn’t believe him for a number of years and thought instead my honesty was a weakness. Slowly I’m believing more in myself and who I am.

    I love everything that you and ProBlogger stands for! I hope that every new (and experienced) blogger – and person in business – gets to read this post.

  11. Lenny Gale says:

    Hi Darren,

    What a timely post!

    I dealing with two clowns that engage in BlackHat seo. Aside from useless, spun content, they use linkspam to get to #1 and #2 of google search results. Specifically, they create fake user profiles on websites like Bleacher Report and put links in user profiles. It’s pathetic, but it works.

    Two tools that have helped me deal with these bozos:

    Open site explorer lets you see all links coming in to any site. http://www.opensiteexplorer.org/
    Google webspam report to give google a heads up. http://goo.gl/linkspam

    Doing the right thing always wins in the long run. Sure, you can beat google at search now. But, you better be prepared to be crushed later.

    Good things,

    Lenny

  12. Aman says:

    I am so happy that my favourite problogger replied to my confusion with a post !
    Really very happy !

  13. Drewry says:

    you are absolutely right Darren when you mentioned about having a long-term vision in mind in order to succeed on the Internet with “white hat SEO search engine marketing strategies.” Many marketers today use a black hat search engine marketing tactics which are 100% this honest. Drewry only resorts to white hat SEO marketing ploys in order to effectively and honestly increase online presence. I’ve also learned that succeeding online doing things the right way takes lots of patience and effort, because in order to make millions of dollars on the Internet in the future, marketers must have patience. It’s all well worth the wait if you personally ask me.

  14. Hi Darren,

    Staying true to your high energy vision keeps you on the straight and narrow. Greed and fear motivate you to do stupid, injurious black hat stuff but if you are being the person who genuinely wants to help others and achieve great things you will go white hat all the way.

    Excellent share!

  15. Great article, Darren. :)

    I think doing everything you can to avoid Black Hat SEO is extremely important when entering the blogosphere. I have been blessed with being strategic about pretty much everything I do. With my blogs and other websites, I always create a strategic plan… What do I want the blog to look like 5 years from now? Then I create short term objectives that lead to long term goals. In terms of Black Hat, when creating these objectives and goals, I think of obstacles that could kill the strategy and I plan around them to avoid becoming victim to those bad decisions.

  16. Jeff says:

    Honest passion and working at it to make lasting value to your audience.

    PS I make no money yet. But if there is no content then there is no point and then it is just a waste of everyone’s time.

  17. Thank you for taking on this topic, Darren. Excellent read!

    Thank God blogging and search has evolved from the dark days of keyword stuffing to where we are today. And the future looks even more promising than where we are now.

    You are a great role-model, Mr. Rowse.

  18. Abel Ligas says:

    I used both method to build my business :)
    If only “white hat”, don’t enough time. if only “black hat” => die :)

    • nextrollout says:

      I agree with your abel, only white hat is not enough though you dont have to be evel. But if you use some tricks (which not harmfull for others or not fake) and using cleaver seo (not black hat), it can be benificial.

  19. Ujjwal says:

    Hi, Darren
    All points you have putted here are marvelous.
    One question arise every time in my mind, how would I give more value to my content.
    What do you think. If you have time please reply.

  20. Darren Rowse, thank you for this blog post.

    Yesterday, I posted on my blog about the ‘creative mindset’ vs ‘competitive mindset’ – the thought thatI first read from The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles [http://thewritedose.com/one-big-thought-from-wallace-d-wattles-for-business-professionals-in-the-creative-industry/]

    When we invest our thoughts, in a competitive spirit we in the end forget the morals that we ought to stand for.

    Rowse, I know you are a man of sound principles…and every single post in your blog reflects that. I truly wishes you a million more success in whatever you do. Why? Because I know somebody out there will benefit from what you share.

  21. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Darren Rowse, thank you for this blog post.

    Yesterday, I posted on my blog about the ‘creative mindset’ vs ‘competitive mindset’ – the thought that I first read from The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles

    When we invest our thoughts, in a competitive spirit we in the end forget the morals that we ought to stand for.

    Rowse, I know you are a man of sound principles…and every single post in your blog reflects that. I truly wishes you a million more success in whatever you do. Why? Because I know somebody out there will benefit from what you share.

  22. Ben Troy says:

    I love the lifestyle that comes from running an online business. I get to work from home each day, set my own hours, choose my own projects, and enjoy abundant income.

  23. zolar says:

    hm.. great.. maybe i need to learn how to get a loyal readers of my blog rather than put much effort on SEO or black hat.. thanks darren for inspiring article

  24. Hi Darren,

    Totally agree with you. White hat makes sleep easier.

    Some people started blog/site solely to make money and it’s generally will not come as fast as they want. And they become frustrated and go with Black Hat.

    However, I always believe in White hat and I get a lot of satisfaction with my work.

    Thanks for this awesome post.

  25. Erin says:

    LOVE Kevin’s analogy to taking a loan when you are strapped for cash. That really drives the point home.

    In answer to Darren’s thought-provoking questions, I have to admit that, just starting out, I have a bit of confusion about how to play the blog-promotion game. Not because I come from a weak ethical or moral standpoint (ideally, I want reader’s based solely on my content) but because it’s difficult to walk that tightrope of self-promotion. How much is too much? How little is too little? Social platforms just add more mud to the muddle! I suppose time & experience reveals all.

    As for others in my niche taking different approaches than I, I’m a little sponge here….soaking up all I can in reference to blogging and I’ve actually made lists of what I think should and should not be done. I figure if their actions make ME squirm, there’s a good reason.

    Here’s to throwing those white hats in the air, in victory, at the finish line!

  26. Alexa says:

    Great article! I like the heading, the structure and the content. Thank you for useful tips.

  27. Dan says:

    Same message that has been around since the beginning of SEO, write great valuable content and the readers will come…

  28. For a good blog transparency and integrity is really important.
    Long term goals are very important and if bloggers use “black hat” method it will not be effective and it’s not the right thing to do.

  29. Olayinka says:

    I too need to put more effort to get steady readers than working on SEO.

  30. Drewry says:

    I always tell people on the Internet if you want to keep your business honest, use speech recognition to keep your content fresh on your site, submit articles to article directories, consider using paid press release marketing services to gain an instant viral buzz about your online business, and have a reliable laptop with wireless Internet connection whereas you can run your business from anywhere in the world. A lot of people don’t know this new way of thinking when it comes to affiliate marketing and building a successful white hat business online, alongside keeping your day job. No worries. More people will know about this amazing way of building the business on the Internet and earning affiliate commissions in years to come. Thanks for this post, Darren. :-)

  31. Sarah Bauer says:

    For me, it’s simple: I put my faith in the belief that black hat techniques cannot yield the same long-term, valuable results as white hat strategies do. Make the attitude adjustment, and it’s easy to disregard black hat nonsense.

    Great article, thanks!
    Cheers,
    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

  32. Mondo says:

    In my experience: You can definitely compete wearing the white hat–but you have to work twice as hard for twice as long. I’ve had one (semi) black hat look at my old blog and tell me “I can’t tell what you’re doing here! You’re good!”

    He just assumed that the only way to compete is to be shady and that “everyone did it.”

    But, in the end, you can sleep soundly, knowing that it’s not all going to come crashing down when you least expect it.

  33. Angelina says:

    white hat techniques are always great..because we are not doing anything wrong or duplicate..awesum article .thanks for sharing with us

  34. I find it the terminology around SEO a bit strange, Black Hat, White Hat, Gray Hat and varying shades in-between. They’re evocative terms for what is essentially a means to an end. Ranking on Google.

    Google, Bing, Yahoo lest we all forget are private, investor driven companies whose sole aim since listing is profit. Hardly the kind of entities we should be allowing to dictate what is morally or ethically acceptable. I have no issue with their being able to dictate what they do or who or how they rank content. But to allow them dictate what is ‘ethical’ and ‘moral’ is not good. I think we need to be careful or we’re in danger of considering everything Google doesn’t like us doing as unethical.

    That said, I don’t believe we actually need to change our definitions of ethical or moral behaviour when we talk about the internet and issues like scraping and good old fashioned theft.

    Most cultures would agree that harming others deliberately is wrong, most agree that stealing is wrong. The problem with the internet is that the definitions of theft or harm keep changing. Ever since Stewart Brand declared ‘information wants to be free’ the lines keep shifting.

    Personally I believe the creator of content should have complete control but that ship sailed years ago.

    As for the other black hat techniques – I’m not so sure about. If someone can trick Google into ranking so be it. I have a sneaking suspicion Google will win that war. To say it’s unethical though is a bridge too far for me.

    The phrase ‘content is king’ has become a cliche but it’s significant in that it’s almost unique to the internet and websites, yet the internet is the greatest harbinger of truly rubbish content in the world. Even the most historical minded and fastidious archivist would consider about a tenth of it worth saving. Is it unethical or morally wrong to produce poor content and who decides ?

    Is advertising in and of itself unethical ? If not why is a site that does nothing but advertise the wares of others at no1 unethical ? Is it because they used techniques Google doesn’t approve of ?

    In short I don’t think we should consider everything Google doesn’t like as unethical or immoral. Societies values will do just fine.

    WARNING: This is meant for discussion purposes only – if you’re new to blogging don’t even think about using Black Hat techniques – you could cause irreparable to your Google Rankings.

  35. abejith says:

    It’s always good and ethical to stick with white hat techniques. Great article!

  36. Hi,

    Building any site using white hat techniques will have long term success. Any black hat techniques will not last long. Thanks for the insightful post. I will be using this tips immediately.

  37. Sadek says:

    Great ideas for great mind.
    Now a day it’s almost impossible to succeed without a bit blackhat (it would be better to say grayhat).
    We should follow the rules but not completely as rules changes too frequent through updates.
    For example: Guest blogging links are good for SEO, but if you don’t have time to write such thing just buy it from a guest posting service provider or approach to the website owner for a link within an article.

  38. jetnjeff29r says:

    @Sadek I am new to this, do these services only post on sites with cross over with your site?
    Then it might be OK. But really, sharing across blogs with similar content and audiences builds community. Otherwise it is just spam.

  39. That is essentially what black hat SEO is used for. Build a site spam like crazy knowing full well in a week or 2 that it is going to get slapped down but while it is ranking for your money keyword you will be making some money.

    It is a bit like email marketing. There are some marketers that don’t want to build a relationship with their list. So what they will do is throw 10+ emails a day at them, burn out the list and start again.

    I am on the other side of email marketing where you build the trust, you mail to them three times a week and you are not constantly starting again from scratch.

    People make a business out of this and I am not sure if the search engines can do much to stop these sites from ranking in the first place. Matt Cutts of Google recently said he takes on board what is going on with the black hat forums. Which come to think of it have plenty of ideas of what people do to rank their site for a short while?

    But you have got to think the more intelligent person would not go on a forum to share the secrets as to why his site is ranking in the first place while using black hat methods. So it will be a constant battle for the search engines to put an end to this kind of business model.

    Some people actually ask if this exists. I think it does and in any business you need a correct way of doing things and I think white hat is the correct way of doing things. We now use all white hat SEO methods.

    Like regular blog posts. Regular featured posts which we use to go into more detail about a certain product review or a subject we feel our readers would benefit from being in more detail. We also use a lot of social media and our natural links are going up day after day.

    These natural links are what the search engines are looking for because you are leaving it up to free will if the person bookmarks you site or shares your content across the web and if that happens and your content gets shared by a lot of people you will get a huge spike in traffic.

    This then brings me onto not putting all your eggs in the Google basket. Why would you just use one place to receive traffic from? You would not and you should not rely on just one place especially when you do not control the search engines.

    The best practice is to write content regularly, and engage your readers and give them what they are looking for, and then you should see your site getting more impressions from the search engines and from your social media and advertising.

    Just look at what we have shown you in this series – to do just that and do so on a long term basis.

    So I look at it this way. Black hat SEO methods can work for you if you do not want a website business building up and you just want to make quick money then dump the site, to me this does not appeal as I like to build something from scratch and try to make it a success.

    White hat SEO is for those of you who want a long lasting website business building your brand and making it successful through content making, email marketing and social media. Good luck in the choices you make.

    Thanks, Shital

  40. Samuel joyce says:

    Excellent post with useful and informative advice.Black Hat SEO may help you get better ranking in a short span of time, but the methods used will be detected over the time and at that time, your website will be get spammed. However, White Hat SEO adhere to the guidelines set up by Google for better rankings and this may take time, but the results will be everlasting.

  41. Angelina says:

    wow..excellent post..yeah its always great idea to use white hat because as it s content are unique and there is no chance any wrongthing happen…as google maintains their standers…black hat helps in getting ranking in short time but it content duplicate data which can be detected…!!

  42. Kate says:

    Great point darren I believe in strongly doing the right thing and being honest and genuine with my blog and though its still kind of small right now I have the vision that one day it’ll be a place creatives of all ages and specialisms can go to for advice and inspiration. :) kate

  43. sharma says:

    Building any site using white hat techniques will have long term success. Any black hat techniques will not last long. Thanks for the insightful post. I will be using this tips immediately.

    REPLY

  44. sharma says:

    Building any site using white hat techniques will have long term success. Any black hat techniques will not last long. Thanks for the insightful post.as google maintains their standers…black hat helps in getting ranking in short time but it content duplicate data which can be detected…!!