Is black hat SEO a sin: revisited

black hat SEO a sinBeing a theology student, the discussion as to whether Black Hat SEO is a sin intrigued me academically, especially given some of the reasoning behind it. My suspicion (which I can in no way stand up rigorously) is that when we as churches need to ask whether or not something is a sin, we often know the answer on the subconscious level and we are trying to find a justification by which we can bend the boundaries ever so slightly.

It’s like the perennial question that get asked about sex before marriage in some Christian circles: how far is too far? The very fact that we are discussing this question should raise alarm bells: we know that we are aware of its morally dubious nature by the sense of disease we get in our consciences.

Black Hat SEO essentially works by deceit: it is the decision, whether explicit or not, that although there are a certain set of rules by which a game is played, I am not going to play by them. There are times when as Christians this is a perfectly acceptance stance to take: in the Christian tradition, we have quite rightly stood against the game rules set by economic powers that reduce people to cogs in a money making machine. We have quite rightly stood against philosophies that say that military power or physical violence is how truth and justice are best exercised in the world and instead point to the cross where true power was exercised in what looked like defeat.

The point was, however, that when the church refused to play by the rules, we did so because we believed that truth is more important than what is easy, convenient or popular. We did so because we believed that in following Jesus we knew a better way to live.

That’s not the case when we decide to engage in things that are classed as Black Hat SEO. There, we decide not to play by the rules; but it’s not for the sake of truth or righteousness. Instead, if we are tempted to engage in Black Hat SEO, we are doing so for the sake of trying to get more visitors than we are entitled to, trying to cheat our way through a system or trying to manipulate the search engines into doing what we want.

Apart from the fact that this is a colossally stupid thing to do (trust me, it’s really quite simple math to work out most black hat SEO tricks on a website, and Google has really quite a lot of computing power to turn towards this math), it is an activity which is falling far short of our calling to be salt and light in the world. In an environment where most businesses and co-operations won’t use Black Hat SEO simply because of the possible risks to their website and online reputation, it seems strange that the question should even be on the table when we are discussing how to market church and Christian websites.

We have to wonder why this is. Maybe it’s because we have a lack of confidence in our ability to produce good, credible quality content that will compete in the global marketplace. If this is the case, maybe we need to remember what we mean theologically when we talk about God as creator and the implications this has for our own creativity. Maybe we are, like many, always tempted to take a short cut, to get results without putting in the effort over many years. If so, maybe we need to remember what it means for the road to be narrow and to have to run the race with perseverance.

Questions

What do you think of the argument presented here?

Why might churches be tempted towards considering Black Hat SEO?

By night, David Bunce is a church web designer and blogger in the United Kingdom, specialising in church websites. By day, he is a Theology and German student at a Scottish University. The night time activity helps to fund the day time life! He tweets @davidbunce

10 Responses to “Is black hat SEO a sin: revisited”

  1. Thanks for the post David. You make some good points about how we often try to find a way to rationalize things which deep down we know are really sins. I would, however, question the concept that there is a certain number of visitors to which we are entitled. Is't the whole point of SEO to get as many relevant visitors as possible.

    Also, sure black hat SEO is an attempt at manipulating the search engines to do what we want, but isn't white hat SEO as well? We use keywords in our content and title to manipulate the search engines into ranking us for those keywords. A lot of white hat link building strategies are done solely to build link authority which is for manipulating the rankings of the search engines. Technically, isn't even Adwords a way of manipulating the search engines into giving better rankings for keywords we would not be able to rank for otherwise? In that case it's money that manipulates Google…and they seem OK with that. ;)

  2. Hi Kurt – thanks for the post. I think you're right that the point of SEO is to get as many relevant visitors as possible but I think there is a difference between white hat SEO, which is playing according to the (admittedly ever more frequently changing!) rules that Google has set down versus black hat SEO which is specifically trying to undercut these rules.

    Of course, an interesting angle to take on the whole issue would be this: given that as Christians we have a calling to be a voice for those otherwise voiceless and to speak up on behalf of those oppressed in the world, how does this relate to a situation where Google is THE major way that people find information on the web and which, ultimately, is going to be concerned with its bottom line. Now THAT is in an interesting question.

  3. You said something there that struck me. It's the idea that Google's rules keep changing. At first there were virtually no rules, but people keyword stuffed and hid content, etc. so Google said we can't do that anymore. So, then people started exchanging links and Google said we can't do that. So, then people started buying links and Google said we can't do that. And on and on…

    So, if the rules keep changing, how does that impact the concept that black hat is a sin. Keeping in mind the real point here is not whether it's smart or good business, but rather truly a sin, are we to think that buying links was OK for a while and now it's a sin because Google said they don't like it?

    I'd also point out that these are not rules that we agreed to. It's not like we all agreed to some terms of service. Google does it's thing without our consent or input.

  4. I think that although the specifics of Google's rules keep changing, the philosophy has pretty much been the same for as long as I've been hanging around the web business: Google values good, relevant unique content that is spread organically (because people appreciate it) and therefore tries to engineer the best software it can towards that goal.

    Now, arguably, that has changed slightly with the recent Panda updates, but only time can tell – even here, however, it seems to be largely in favour of the unique content, just giving more emphasis to the appreciation of content via various social platforms.

    I would also suggest that there is an implicit terms of service agreement we all agree to: we want Google to prove a service (send visitors to our website) and we realise that if we don't play by their rules, they stand with the power to not perform said service.

  5. My point about the terms of service is not that they do not have the power to perform the service, but rather that we do not explicitly agree to anything. If I had agreed to a specific set of terms, then you could say that violating those terms is the equivalent of breaking my word, i.e. lying, and thus say it's a sin. In this situation, however, no terms of service have been agreed to, no word has been given and so not following those rules would not be breaking my word.

    We've talked a lot about Google, but they are not the only search engine. There are several decent sized search engines out there, hundreds (if not thousands) if you could the little ones. If my website has been included in these other search engines am I by default bound to all their different terms of service as well. I don't even know them all. So, it's entirely possible that I'm violating all kinds of terms of service with these other search engines. Would that mean that I'm sinning in these cases?

  6. I think you're chasing up a blind alley.

    Let's say that being a good Scott, I decide that I want a Guinness. So I go into a pub and order a Guinness: there are several equivalents of terms of service I agree to abide by: I agree to not shout or scream or call the barman, but to wait until I catch his eye; I agree that a Guinness has to be poured the correct way (fill up 3/4, then wait for two minutes before topping up) and therefore agree not to get irritated when the barman seemingly walks away from my half-filled drink; I agree that it's only when the drink is poured and clearly settled that I pay for it and am able to drink it. It's not a contractual thing I sign – it's the way that it's done and it's clearly understood by both parties that this is the only way I will be getting my drink.

    We agree to terms all the time implicitly – I think trying to put it in the abstract and only abiding by things explicitly agreed to is quite a naive way of navigating through the world, surely.

    Likewise, leaving aside the fact that Google will be driving at least 80% of all search traffic, I think we are also chasing down a blind alley, certainly in the terms of my argument, assuming we are breaking hypothetical terms of lesser search engines: as I outlined in my argument, I think the sin is the decision not to play by the rules set out and instead manipulate the other into a more favourable decision for them. So I don't think your point really stands about the ToS of other search engines you don't know about, because there hasn't been the decision made there.

  7. I guess it depends on what sin is. Using the example of walking into the pub, would it be sinful to call the barman?

  8. It may depend on your definition of black hat, but in my opinion trying to get your website ranked higher by another company is not sin. Manipulating Google is not illegal or immoral. They are just another company with a formula for ranking. Google searching in itself is amoral. Google is not God. They just have an opinion as to where sites get ranked in searches. If you can figure out a way to rank higher then great. Google might not always like it, and they can choose to lower your ranking if they choose. It is just how the system works. There is no legal violation. It is not like speeding where you are breaking the law. It is more like stealing a base in baseball. The runner didn't deserve the base, but the runner stole it when the defense wasn't ready. If you are not breaking the law and not doing something immoral then I don't like the idea of adding more legalism in our lives.
    As a warning, just like doing any dumb activity, it may have consequences. But you can't call it sin.

    • Some good points Matt. I tend to agree with your general point, but I'm not sure the analogy of stealing a base really applies. In baseball, it is within the rules for a base runner to steal a base. Perhaps a better analogy would be a baseball player using steroids.

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