Last Updated Apr 18, 2011 11:11 AM EDT
Are you a white-hatter who does everything by the book? Most companies claim that when it comes to search engine optimization (SEO) ,they're completely legit. They read Matt Cutts' blog religiously and follow the industry's best practices â€" whatever they are today.
Is your hat gray? Do you take a few shortcuts, but try to play fair? Or are you an unashamed black-hatter, not afraid to hack, spam or buy your way into a number-one ranking on Bing!, Google, or Yahoo?
Answer that, and you may also answer the question: Are you delivering good customer service?
What, you might ask, does SEO have to do with service?
Nothing. And everything.
It's hard to find a company that doesn't know what SEO is or who can name the biggest offenders: JCPenney.com, which used links from unrelated sites to boost its visibility, DecorMyEyes.com, the retailer that manipulated search results by encouraging bad reviews, or Overstock.com (more on that in tomorrow's post).
What, if anything, does hat color say about how a company serves its customers? I asked a few people who know, and they told me the two are often connected. But not always.
"There are plenty of other well-known brands who are engaged in SEO to the same level as Overstock and JC Penney," says Stephen Pavlovich, CEO of the Conversion Factory. "If you avoided every company doing aggressive SEO, you'd be doing very little online shopping."
It doesn't help that there's no widespread agreement on hat colors. Generally speaking, Pavlovich says white-hat SEO complies with Google's guidelines; Gray-hat SEO breaks these guidelines to increase rankings without damaging other sites. And black-hat SEO uses more malicious or even illegal practices to achieve these results faster or with fewer man-hours.
It's also clear that a site with good SEO often serves its customers better.
"Certainly, a well-optimized ecommerce site will be more customer friendly, as in easier to find what you are looking for," says Chris Chong of AuraDev Internet Marketing. "The very process of SEO forces one to really think through how content is organized, so in that sense the SEO process enhances customer friendliness."
But is there a direct link between hat color and service?
"Companies that employ ethical white-hat tactics are earning, not rigging, search engine results by creating high-quality website content that engages, entertains or educates search engine users," says Josh Braaten, an online marketing manager in charge of SEO at Rasmussen College in Minnesota. "Google's algorithm is built to serve the best content to the searcher and white-hat SEOs embrace and live that same mission."
At the same time, there's a lot of confusion about SEO.
"Everybody is doing the best they can with the information and experience they have," says Nigel Swaby, an SEO expert with Swaby Online Media. "Some are definitively unethical, while others are not. I don't believe corporate America has a large enough grasp on SEO and online marketing to be decidedly unethical. They trust their ad agencies or other companies hired to do the online marketing task."
Georgianne Brown, the co-founder of Big Couch Media, an SEO firm, suggests a focus on customer service will ensure you're doing the right thing in SEO â€" including wearing the right color hat.
"Good SEO is an art and a science, not magic," she says. "Create a good customer experience online -- good site structure, taxonomy, and rich content." Everything else will fall into place.
It would be easy to say all white-hatters go to heaven and that black-hatters face eternal condemnation in customer-service hell. But JC Penney and Overstock aren't exactly bottom-feeders, and neither is BMW, one of the original black-hat offenders.
Perhaps it's fairer to say that a focus on the customer will lead to the right decisions, when it comes to SEO.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.