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Friday
Mar042011

Who is Hiring the Black Hats?

Ever since David Segal wrote his great piece in the NY Times last month about JC Penney’s black hat antics of SEO, I have been thinking – really?  JC Penney intentionally gaming Google!  There has got to be more to this story.  Danny Sullivan followed up with an insider’s take on it – but I still thought – where is the rest of the story?  The web lit up with all kinds of commentary including this from SearchEngineWatch, and this from SearchMarketingWisdom, who also posted this response from JC Penney with an enthusiastic corporate speak counter argument to the New York Times. 

All of this has contributed immensely to the celebrity status of Matt Cutts, the guy at Google who fights search spam and swiftly pounded JC Penney’s search results into the ground.  The story continued with this good piece on NPR’s On the Media show with Bob Garfield last week.

I think we live in a country where the good guys, the white hats, win in the end.  Who knows, if Libya’s citizens prevail, maybe we live in a world where the bad guys, the black hats, are more readily punished.  In following this saga however, I have still not encountered what I have been looking for as the rest of the story;  who is hiring the black hats?  So I am going to propose this hypothesis:  the black hats exist because the white hats hire them.  It is the laundering of bad behavior through the presumed respectability of the good guys. After all, the US military hires Blackwater (now Xe Services because their reputation got so black they had to abandon their old brand) to do it’s black hat stuff.

We see this from time in our industry.  In the marketing services business we have encountered competitors who produce false reporting – and amazingly they don’t get fired by their clients.  They don’t get fired as long as the reports continue because the good people who hired them need the “results” to keep their budget or their jobs. 

It is a competitive world out there and marketing is getting more and more focussed on measurable results.  It is not hard to imagine a good, well intentioned, marketing services firm getting desperate and going to the bad guys -- just to boost the number -- just this one time.  Then, well, you know the rest of that story.

Maybe our industry needs a black hat amnesty day.  A day that all performance expectations can be re-set so our industry can purge the black hats and get back to doing the work of the good guys.