Black Hats vs. White Hats: The “Magic” Start of Late-‘90s SEO

Black hats” vs. “white hats,” search “wizards” coming together turning intangibles into gold – it seems like a commercial for a “Harry Potter” movie. I guess SEO can be quite… magical. And that sentiment is definitely addressed in a new feature film that recently premiered, “SEO: The Movie.”


The Sorcery Begins

The 40-minute movie, produced by John Lincoln and Ignite Visibility, recounts the fantastical successes and the hard-hitting downfalls of the search frontier – from blasting off in 1995 with services like Webcrawler, Lycos, and Yahoo! to evolving into a web environment mostly dominated by, and dependent on, Google.

Several of the founding players in search engines are featured in the film, such as:

The documentary covers the key players’ personal successes and the climate of constant shifts in the SEO industry. While the film briefly touches on the recent timeline of Google algorithm milestones, it hones in on describing the early days of two competing sides of the search environment: the affiliates and the SEOs.

The film describes the affiliate “black hats” as “spammin’ and jammin’” users, and the “white hat” SEO companies as straight edge – sticking to ethical, standardized boundaries of search engines.


Dark Magic

While both schools are highly contrasting, one commonality the film focuses on is the millions of dollars that the preliminary search players cashed in on. Many of the players made “bookoo” bucks, but the documentary points out that the environment of “breaking rules and moving fast” was the moneymaker in the early days of search.

This approach is compared to the lavish riches portrayed in an old mafia movie – complete with $200,000 Yahoo-sponsored parties atop Hugh Hefner’s suite in Las Vegas.

As Brett Tabke states in the documentary, pioneers working outside of the parameters instituted by Google would load up thousands of domains, keywords and link tags to drive up rankings.

Search gurus like Rae Hoffman (better known for her “alter ego” Sugarrae and a known affiliate marketer) thrived in this “wild west” environment, mentioning in the documentary that sometimes just three search terms would land her more in commission than her husband made in a year.

Dueling with Google

While some were reveling in the freedom, the documentary describes others like Rand Fishkin who struggled initially before finding success – Fishkin’s being his now extremely popular “white hat” SEO company, Fishkin complains of accruing hundreds of thousands in debt back in the early days of search by trying to rank in an “ethical” fashion in line with Google constraints.

However, the movie shows how the tables quickly turned with Google algorithm crackdowns—like the infamous Florida Update of 2003 which­ weened out unrelated keywords in search results, sending many “black hat” campaigns plummeting down in page ranks. Other algorithm updates covered in the documentary include:

  • Google Toolbar, 2000
  • Panda Update, 2011
  • Penguin Update, 2012

Not only does the film lay out all of the updates that have continued to make and break the “sorcery” of the search tactics by “black hats” and “white hats,” but it documents the people who have helped the two sides navigate through the vast maze of search – guys like Matt Cutts.

Cutts, otherwise known as “Google Guy,” was the head of the web spam team at Google and produced SEO navigation tutorials to dance “the google dance.” Others, like Danny Sullivan, created guide sites like Search Engine Watch as an online tool for news in the industry. And certainly, guides and tutorials such as these continue to be needed in this ever-evolving industry.


How the “Wizardry” Lives On

While Ignite Visibility’s film portrays the extreme fluctuations in profitability between white and black hat forces, it closes with comments from both sides of the race-in-the-ranks divide that the industry is ever-evolving in what keywords and marketing mediums it favors. As some of the pioneers point out at the closing:

  • Whoever thought that YouTube would be one of the largest search engines on the internet?
  • How will smart assistance and voice search affect the SEO climate?

“SEO: The Movie” is sure to be intriguing for both the longest players in the SEO game and those who are just learning the “sorcery” of search. Be sure to track it down and give it a watch!

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