Black Hat SEO (search engine optimization). That's an interesting term. It hearkens back to the idea that the cowboy with the black hat must be the bad guy. He's evil. He's obvious. He breaks the law.
The sheriff, the good guy, the hunter of the black hat, is the one wearing the white hat.
When you consider the black hat and white hat, it makes you think that black is bad and white is good. Unfortunately, SEO doesn't really work that way.
Let me give you the top reasons why black hat SEO isn't necessarily wrong.
Black Hat Tactics are not Illegal.
I choose to put this first because this is the most important part to understand about black hat. Just because someone uses black hat tactics, it doesn't mean that they are bad people, do bad things or get bad results. Above all, they aren't breaking the law.
There is no law that governs how SEO should be performed. It's all based on what the search engines say they want. Remember, the search engines are private organizations. All of them want the same basic information but there are variations in their expectations. There is no government agency that will shut you down if you try to SEO for the wrong terms in the wrong way (assuming you aren't breaking any actual laws).
Black Hat Changes over Time.
In the early days of search engines (after Google started) the search indexes were automated and thus began SEO. In the beginning things like key word stuffing, hidden text, link farms and myriad other current black hat tactics were just tactics. They were just what you did to get to the top of the search engines.
In fact, there used to be services that would create links on your site for you to other sites and then create links to your site from them. This was an incredibly effective way to increase ranking in the search engines. That is, until the search engines decided that tactic was black hat. When the search engines decided that was bad, those sites were de-indexed.
Black Hat is Very Effective. In the Short Term.
Until you get caught by the search engines, if you ever do, black hat is very effective. You can get to the top of the search engines very quickly. But, you run the risk of losing all your rankings when you do get caught. It will usually be the websites that draw a lot of traffic and are more obvious about their tactics.
One great example is from JC Penny a few years ago. They had thousands of inbound links from unrelated sites that resulted in their entire website to be de-indexed or pulled from the search engines.
In the short term, they achieved some incredible search rankings. Then, until they could get their act together, you couldn't find them in the natural listings of the search engines.
Other Ways to Generate Traffic.
If your business is based on other ways to generate traffic such as paid advertising, maybe the risk of losing your ranking isn't such a bad thing. Maybe it's worth the time and effort to use black hat tactics and take the risk.
The Biggest Risk.
So, I've given a couple of reasons why Black Hat SEO isn't necessarily that bad. The reality is, like JC Penny, it can be a huge risk.
When you use too many black hat tactics, the real risk is that the search engines will simply remove your site from their index. Our experience is that you have to do a lot of it to be de-indexed and you won't lose some rankings of some pages or key terms but you'd likely lose all rankings of all terms on all pages. We have noticed some instances where the rankings would simply tank by 100 or more slots on the search engine results page.
If you have dropped a slot or two, it's probably not because of black hat tactics but simply because you haven't maintained enough positive search engine tactics.
Now, this is my personal opinion. I believe you are under no ethical obligation to perform search engine optimization in a way that follows the terms that the search engines have put out. You are under no obligations to do what they say.
I look at it like taking food from one restaurant into another. Some restaurants are good with that while most are not. The worst thing they can do is ask you to leave. If they put up a sign then you should expect you'll be asked to leave. Some understand that your kids may not like what you want to eat so as long as you buy food, your kids are okay with other food.
In our company, the primary reason we don't use black hat tactics is because we don't want our clients to have the risk of long-term de-indexing and not because of any ethical consideration. We want our clients to have long term success and not just short term success.
Where I do think ethics apply is if you hire a company to perform SEO for your business and they don't tell you part of their tactics include black hat tactics. If you are de-indexed because of their performance and you didn't understand the risk then I have ethical issues with that.
Now, be careful before crying foul. You have to make sure you understand what is black hat or white hat and where the lines blur. You have to make sure you understand that something small here or there is going to have zero net negative impact. Most importantly, you have to remember that a black hat tactic today could very well have been a white hat tactic when they were performing the service. If your website still has rankings in the terms they optimized for after a year or two then you can feel pretty confident their tactics were above board.
When we think about black hat tactics, we find that an occasional indiscretion has virtually no affect on your search results.
For example, if you have a few links here or there that are against current white hat tactics, you'll not see an issue. That's great because you won't have to stress. There is no exact number of what is acceptable and what is not but the common convention simply says if you have many irrelevant links then you risk being de-indexed. Personally, I think that's a lot more than just 5 or 10. It's likley in the hundreds of unrelated in-bound links.
The search engines are looking for patterns of misbehavior because they seem to recognize that some tactics have changed because of the expectations of the search engines over the last few years and they don't want to penalize people... they just want to return better results to their customers.