Clarifying our position on “hats” in SEO

I believe in the web. I believe in organic citations. I love inbound marketing.

We have built our business by believing in the flywheel and I desperately want that to be how our clients and conference attendees build theirs too.

Some misconceptions have arisen following our link building conference last week and I just wanted to set the public record straight. This is especially important in light of the fact that we are taking the show on the road to New Orleans this Friday.

When programming this event, I wanted the focus to be on tips and tricks that real SEOs could take away and start using immediately and I coached our speakers to bring their A games and deliver on that promise. I personally took away loads of tips that I am going to start using immediately and I’m not the only one.

In the process of building a remarkable program of subjects and speakers, we included a session entitled “Lessons from the dark side” that explicitly set out to show riskier tactics that we would never use or recommend under any circumstances but from which I believe white hat marketers can learn a great deal. Some similar ideas and thought experiments were shown in other presentations as well.

The message that you should absolutely not do this was in various pieces of written material and said by the speakers themselves. Nonetheless, some write-ups of the event didn’t include this crucial piece of information and gave some people who were not there the wrong impression. I would therefore like to state, as clearly as I can for the record, that we believe the only value that black hat tactics bring legitimate agencies and brands is to learn what competitors are doing and to find genuine ways to market via new channels. I don’t want to put words into our speakers’ mouths on such a sensitive topic so I’ll just let you read what Russ and Martin have to say on the subject directly.

I believe our speakers were amazing and the feedback I have seen shows that our attendees agree with me. I have seen preliminary numbers showing ~94% would spend the money to come again. I have never seen such high scoring presentations. I also have seen no negative feedback from people who were actually there about the shady tactics mentioned. In the past, if a speaker has mentioned these things, we have heard about it in the feedback, but this time around we appear to have done a good enough job of explaining and disclaiming that the attendees understood the purpose of these sessions.

It’s also worth saying that there was a strong theme throughout the day of brilliant purely whitehat ideas and numerous whole sessions from influential speakers on very positive and clean themes. The issues arose as ideas were tweeted or blogged without the surrounding context triggering upset from people who weren’t there but assumed these were presented as recommendations. We’ll be thinking hard about how to make sure the external impression matches reality more closely. Watch this space.


It’d be crazy of me not to mention at this point that if you want to see these presentations that were rated so highly, you can register to buy the video.

Will Critchlow

Will Critchlow

Will founded Distilled with Duncan in 2005. Since then, he has consulted with some of the world’s largest organisations and most famous websites, spoken at most major industry events and regularly appeared in local and national press. Will is part...   read more

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13 Comments

  1. As I said in a tweet, a bit of a shame that you should even need to clarify this position but totally understand why. Without trying to boost y'all's sales too blatantly (though the event was well worth the investment) for any serious doubters just watch the videos or go see the show in NOLA.

    Perhaps the few most vocal doubters deserve a complimentary copy of the DVD? :)

    Thanks again for a good show.

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  2. I think that almost everyone that participated at the conference understand this, the speakers said things with "crossed fingers".

    I think it is good to bring this up for discussion, what is really black? what is really white? A speaker said one thing at the conference that got stuck in my head, "If you want to work in the black box, you need to take the consequences". It sums it up!

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  3. Ian

    Did this all stem from the comments of one person on Twitter? I've been watching this whole clarification process develop and it does seem to be the case. Still, kudos for responding and getting the facts cleared up.

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  4. "Perhaps the few most vocal doubters deserve a complimentary copy of the DVD?"

    If you're thinking of following through on Sam's suggestion, then i say: DOUBT! I DOUBT!! YOU ARE SHILLS FOR BLACKHAT TACTICS AND I NEED VIDEO PROOF TO BELIEVE OTHERWISE!!

    ;-) In all seriousness, having been to the London Pro Seminar and seen walk that you talk, I'd say you tread the line as best as is possible. When you think about it, there's no perfect way to present blackhat tactics without being seen as subtly endorsing them. Like almost anything, context is absolutely essential in understanding Distilled's intent here. And how do you broadcast the context without broadcasting the entire event? I think that'll be the toughest nut to crack.

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  5. Maybe we should just let the black-hatters do they're thing, get caught and have Google punish them.

    They can then be as black hat as they want!!

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  6. I agree that it's a shame this even has to be clarified - it was a great conference, and let's remember none of the presentations promoted doing anything black hat as a serious tactic, let alone doing anything illegal such as hacking into a site to inject links.

    I think far too many people confuse what's against Google's guidelines with what's illegal - Google don't own the internet and of course they are entirely within their rights to ban you from their index if you don't abide by their guidelines. There was no shadow of a doubt from the conference's content that doing black hat stuff for a client or employer is not a viable option.

    The whole controversy is rather puzzling - what would be the value of say, an information security conference if they didn't demonstrate examples of hacking or security vulnerabilities? To cover something and openly talk about it is not the same as doing it or condoning it.

    Perhaps using the term "black hat" itself in relation to SEO is a bit confusing for some, given its primary association with hacking?

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  7. With also being at the conference I feel the information that was presented to us was great, with a massive amount of content to learn from. The information contained in “Lessons from the dark side” was inventive and showed how people will go about dirty tactics to get to the top, it was stated may times that there is no quick way to the top and this can cause massive consequence's. This was just to learn and see what people are doing but not the way to go about it!

    If anyone doubts this buy the video as it'll prove once and for all that the information was not intended to be taken as everyone should go out and do everything black hat it was to say be white and do it better!!! Rand supports being whiter than white would he really want to be involved with this? anyone who is going to New Orleans look out for a great conference it's well worth it.

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  8. Hey Will,

    Having been to one (maybe two) seminars run by the Distilled / SEOmoz crew, I had no hesitation in sending a link building newbie along to the conference in question and she came back enthused, full of ideas and with a really great understanding of the process.

    She also knew which bits were "Don't try this at home", but did make for useful research.

    I'm sorry you had to write this - I guess when some bloggers have got excited about posting new ideas learned, they've forgotten to include that caveat.

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  9. Dan

    Agree with Sam at the top, it's such a shame that you need to clarify this in the first place - all I took away from the "black hat" stuff (apart from the lolz) was the theory behind it and how it could be used for the greater good...as I'm sure was the intention.

    Please don't consider NOT giving a talk on something like this in the future, as it was valuable to those who were there. Regardless, if people choose to black hat then they'll get caught out eventually, and we'll just get our rankings up!

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  10. I agree that it's a shame this needs to be clarified. Martin's talk was fantastically educating, and we should all be wise enough to heed the fact that he knows how to do it, yet chooses not to, and wants us to learn so that all whitehat SEOs know what they're up against!

    I support Martin.

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  11. Good clarification Will. The black hat stuff definitely had a bigger wow factor so for some people that´s probably that´s all they took away :)

    As someone who attended the superb event, I must say that the speakers made it quite clear which techniques were white hat, black hat and even inbetween (paid infographics anyone?).

    However, I can understand that some people might have been confused at some points during various presentations. I recall at least one speaker talking about purchasing domains and then 301 redirecting them without making the distinction (no I´m not talking about Martin making domains to get competitors links and then putting a 301).

    Perhaps in New Orleans you should have the speakers emphasize what is white, black and grey.

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  12. Will, I feel for ya - it's absurd that you need to clarify this.

    Have a great one at NOLA; the attendees certainly will.

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  13. Hi Will,

    I think you have to include talks like these. We are not small children to be kept from information. This is an advanced day with an advanced audience.

    Moreover, the general tone was really "Don't do this on important/client sites".

    Not surprising that the Reddit crowd was incensed, considering who they are and considering that Russ Jones did directly suggest targeting Reddit.

    Should we have heard that presentation? Yes. Should we follow Russ's advice? Hopefully many of us won't need to. There are other less artificial ways to get to the same goal with better content and better PR.

    As the other speakers including Rand, did not hesitate to point out again and again.

    Thanks for a great day of sharing the wealth again. I learned a lot.

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