SEO, or search engine optimization, has a number of approaches that usually fall into the categories of white hat, gray hat, or black hat. I’ll explain.
White hat. The approach is pure. You follow all the search engine webmaster guidelines to the letter. You have impeccable site architecture, your links are all naturally obtained, and your content is relevant, valuable, and rich, providing significant utility to your users. You are a paragon of virtue in the digital world and, as a result, incredibly rare. Your site and your code is sincere and awesome, to use Matt Cutts’ analogy. SEO agencies that operate with white hat only procedures will tell you (or should tell you) that improving rankings in the search engines takes time. It is a long-term process and not one that can be rushed. However, the rewards are that you will not be punished by the web spam teams and updates to the search engine algorithms will rarely end up punishing you. For example, there was a lot of commotion among SEO’s when Google launched their Penguin update; however, Penguin didn’t really affect well-optimized sites with legitimate content. It was an intensification of code against web spammers, so sites that were optimized with white hat techniques ended up benefiting from the changes.
Gray hat. You are following the webmaster guidelines, but in the words of Pirates of the Caribbean, you consider them more like guidelines than rules. You might follow the spirit of the rules, but not exactly to the letter. It usually involves a number of white hat techniques and then bending the rules a bit to try to make it work faster. In some cases, this is okay – as long as your clients are aware of what you’re doing and why, all the potential risks and rewards. You could be using tactics like creating and distributing excessive amounts of content that maybe isn’t exactly valuable in all cases, but you aren’t using something like a content rewriter. You might use certain link distribution methods, but you don’t buy links from a link seller. This happens a lot in agencies when they’re trying to rush results and can’t wait for the spiders to deem their quality, relevant content worthy of that first page in the search results and can’t sit around and wait for people to discover the site and start linking to it. Sometimes you can get caught for bending the rules, which is why you always have to examine what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and make sure your clients are aware of the risks and rewards.
Black hat. With black hat, you are using tactics to improve search engine rank that are exclusively forbidden by the search engines. Does this make you a bad person? Maybe not. Does this mean you aren’t playing fair? Absolutely. But does everyone else play fair in the world of SEO? No. Black hat SEO is one of the main reasons why you get irrelevant sites in your search results (which contributes to poor user experience). Many of the Google updates (specifically the recent Penguin update) are meant to combat black hat techniques. Using black hat techniques is always risky. If you engage in black hat techniques without telling your client, you are absolutely violating search engine protocol – and giving the rest of us a bad name. Black hat can pay off with fast rewards, but if you get caught, you can get your client booted from the search results. To me, that’s a risk that is never worth taking.
The most important thing to consider when working with an SEO agency is to understand what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why. If they won’t tell you the techniques they are using or why they are using them, then you need to go with another company. A great article from Search Engine Watch calls this “asshat SEO.” An agency should always be able to explain to you what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and the potential risks, rewards, and reasonable timelines for results. If you are promised #1 rankings very quickly, run the other direction because they are not using legitimate methods.