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Black Hats and White Hats - It's Not a Western Movie, It's SEO!

Oct 12, 2007
Having spent even just a little time on the Internet, you're probably aware of the term "SEO," which stands for "search engine optimization." However, if you're like many people, you might have only a rudimentary understanding of what SEO is and how it works.

SEO is a process. It's the way webmasters help draw more and better traffic to their websites from search engines. Because most users scan a computer screen for information beginning at the top and moving toward the bottom and from left to right, it behooves the webmaster to have their site listed as close to the top of a list of search results as possible.

Search engines typically use complex algorithms and other factors to rank sites according to relevancy to a search term. Improving a site's rankings could mean changing something about the coding of the site, bettering its structure and presentation, or delivering better quality of content.

Achieving better ranking in search results can be accomplished in a number of ways, and those ways are broadly categorized as "white hat SEO" or "black hat SEO." As the terms imply, whether SEO efforts are considered white hat or black hat depends on whether or not they follow the guidelines set forth by a search engine.

In general, white hat SEO efforts use elements of "good" design that conform to the set rules and typically produce long-term results. It means that the webmaster responsible for a site's SEO makes certain that there is no deception involved to produce artificial rankings and that the content a user sees is the same as what the search engine used when indexing.

Black hat SEO, on the other hand, might produce exceptional search rankings at first, but the rankings don't usually last for long. This is because black hatters know they will eventually be "found out" by the search engine and either banned or pushed further down in the rankings.

There are a lot of deceptive techniques used in black hat SEO. For example, a webmaster might hide text against the background of the site by using a font color that blends in, or by positioning the text so that it is off screen. Or, they might create a page specifically for the search engine that actually redirects the user to another page so that they never see the page the search engine indexed. This method is referred to as "cloaking."

As a result of deceptive techniques used to boost search results, search engines have gotten smarter about how they determine the rankings. When webmasters first began optimizing their sites in the mid 1990s, they only needed to submit the site to the search engine, which would use a spider program to extract the necessary information from the pages, and then index it. However, once webmasters learned they could trick the search engines, pages full of irrelevant information began to appear and there was just generally a lot of junk out there.

To combat the problem and produce better results for their own customers, search engines made some changes to how they determined rankings. And, many of the larger search engines, like Google, Microsoft's Live, and Yahoo!, stopped publishing their ranking methods. In addition, many search engines frequently change their methods so that what works one day might not work the next. This has led to much better results.

Today, the best way to ensure good search engine ranking is really to design a quality site that delivers good content. The content of your site should be useful and informative, providing a good service to visitors. Posting links to other sites within your own website is perfectly acceptable as long as the links relate to your subject. For example, if your site were about outdoor activities, a link to a site that sells tents would be just fine. However, a link to a designer clothing retailer probably wouldn't be.

There are consultants who specialize in SEO and can help you boost your rankings. These consultants will review a site a make suggestions for improvements. However, if you choose to hire someone, be sure to take the time to check references and credentials. Make it clear to your consultant that you want long-term results that will not violate search engine guidelines and cause your site to be banned or penalized in any way.

Learning about search engine optimization and how you can improve your site will undoubtedly help boost your search engine rankings and, thus, your site traffic. There is a great deal of information available on the Internet and in books that will assist you with the SEO process.
About the Author
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