Every so often, SEOs find themselves in a debate regarding the ethics of SEO. Aside from the black hat SEOs them self, no one is a fan of black hat tactics. There is too much risk involved in using them for far too little reward. Eventually, the SERPs always catch up with black hat tactics and the penalties they hand down are severe. There are some that also believe that there are SEOs that fall between the black and white hat clans – the gray hats. Gray hat SEO is very misunderstood and while not technically wrong, it isn’t necessarily technically – or more often – ethically right.
A gray hat SEO will for the most part adhere to white hat standards. They do not cross the line to the dark side of black hat SEO. What they will sometimes do however, which is why they are called gray hats, is stretch the boundaries of how things should be done to achieve a desired result. One of the most common tactics a gray hat will be accused of is tanking someone intentionally.
There are some SEOs that take a standpoint that it is acceptable to manipulate the tools used to help a client climb the rankings can also be used to directly target a competitor’s site to knock them down the rankings. their thinking is often that all is fair in love and SEO and that the other guy would do the same thing. They may engage in a number of legal actions that many would say are in poor taste. The argument against this has always been that karma will catch up, or maybe Google (which might be worse) if the practice proliferates. Gray hats often believe it is easier to raise one site by dropping two or three others than it is to climb the SERPs naturally.
What they often forget is that when they target someone’s site, they are targeting their livelihood as well. This doesn’t even begin to explore the ethical dilemmas of doing harm to others to advance. Many argue that there is no honor in “winning” by getting everyone else in the game disqualified. Also, it doesn’t take long for word of a person being a great hat SEO to get around. While some actually look for them hoping to gain any edge possible, many others shy away because who wants to be the one client that a gray hat decides to go black hat on – it is a very fine line.
No matter how you look at it, no matter what you call it, SEO needs to be white hat all the time. There is no point in risking your reputation or your site to gain a small and often temporary advantage. Your best use of resources is to only engage with established, reputable SEO firms that only employ white hat SEO. Anything less is too big of a gamble.