Sam Crocker, samuelcrocker.com
This is a tough one – because ultimately you will need a budget to succeed in this space. In my opinion it doesn’t matter if you need to become a brand to rank, whether you feel the need to manipulate the search engine with SPAM or invest in expensive white hat tactics, they will all cost money in the long run. The degree to which SPAM works varies largely from one SERP to the next and in my view will always be a bit short sighted.
The one dangerous mix (at the moment) that I see is the fact that “established” sites can still get away with a lot and will VERY rarely see more than a page level penalty. But just because the big sites could (and sometimes do) get away with it, doesn’t mean that that’s the reason they rank as well as they do – or that you could achieve and sustain similar success with spammy tactics.
White hat SEOs can definitely still compete – if they’re creative enough and if they nail the basics. It might cost a little bit more in the short term but I genuinely believe it will cost less in the long run and will be much easier to sustain (link rentals can get pretty pricey, pretty quickly!) It’s all about cause and effect and though I can see the temptation to be a bit spammy in order to get quick results that’s just not going to make anyone happy and it’s not usually the sort of client I’d want to work with. There are obvious variances by niche and I’m not trying to say that all “spam” (i.e. anything that goes remotely against Google’s guidelines) should never be used by anyone, but it’s never how I’d want to spend my budget and I’ve seen more than enough results from white hat SEO to not have to worry about whether I’m adding value.
For me, it all comes back to my responsibility to the client and that (in order of importance for me is):
• Am I putting the client at risk? Not just penalties… but at risk of upsetting their customers, being outted for lazy SEO, etc.
• If so, have I made the client perfectly aware of all risks?
• Am I improving the client’s bottom line? If I’m not making the client more money than they are paying me, something’s wrong.
And if results will require activities with which I am not comfortable I will gladly help a client find another SEO who will take those risks and wish them luck.
Steve Lock, Analyticsseo (iseo)
It’s possible, but certainly not easy! Especially due to biases towards branding signals in the SERPs and Google’s hands being tied over not being able to penalise poor quality links as much as they could (because of the risk of competitors focusing on trying to get each other penalised).
Smaller brands need to focus on their competitive advantages, two of which are speed of implementation and communication as these are far easier in smaller businesses. I can recall large organisations that could take a year of badgering to get them to implement basic changes and, even worse, they could require as much as 90% of the projects billable time to be spent attending meetings instead of focusing on direct actions to improve their online campaigns.
Although massive budgets and larger brands can help build authority very easily and quickly, some of the worst examples of SEO I have encountered have been on websites owned by large brands with astronomical budgets.
What I would also say is that targeting longer tail terms is one way any size of business can compete even in very competitive markets.
Will Critchlow, Distilled
Well, let's not kid ourselves – many of those tactics aren't cheap either! Whichever way you want to go after highly competitive keywords, you are likely to be looking at significant investment on a brand marketing scale.
I personally would rather be investing that budget into techniques that bring both search visibility and permission assets, brand visibility and long-term benefits.
Jane Copland, Ayima
Yes, a small white hat can compete, but it takes a lot of creativity to make up for that big brands often achieve by throwing money at marketing. And even then, I have never seen a very small brand rank for a big money term. For secondary terms, definitely. But major Google is very kind to major brands and their marketing budgets at present.
Barry Schwartz, Rusty Brick/ SMX
Yes, white hat can win. In fact, most black hats I know from ten years ago have changed hats and are now on the white hat side. Because black hat is now more about hacking and stealing versus spammy links, doorway pages and cloaking. The old fashion "black hat" spam techniques do not work as well in Google as they did a few years ago.
Grant Whiteside, Amber Green
Beyond using local search, it is become harder.
Shaun Anderson, Hobo-web
White hat seo? Plenty of room for it – just not in competitive verticals with sites with no domain authority – unless you want to spend a year marketing it properly on all fronts – you know, actually making a brand. Not many folk do.
Kevin Gibbons, SEOptimise
Most definitely, I think a huge amount of spammier techniques aren’t as effective as the people carrying them out believe. Just because the links exist doesn’t mean they are valuable. The search engines want to reward the good guys.
If you’ve got spammy competitors you’ve got to be smarter and pick your battles.
Paul Rogers, GPMD
As I mentioned earlier, I still believe that valuable and quirky linkbait will generate lots of high quality links. I also think that managing your brand, building a strong outreach and finding and nurturing your brand evangelists will get you loads of great links and help you to overcome the questionable link building tactics of your competitors.
Neil Walker, SEO Mad
Of course there are ways of white hat link building which can gain really good links, it’s the time associated to building up communities or engaging in them which inevitably get really good links, personally we carry out the whole range of the spectrum from private networks to community engagement to directory submissions and press releases but from talking with hundreds of SEO’s in the UK the majority carry out some form of paid links and only believe that white hat link building is fully effective when you have a brand to work with.
Neil Pursey, Web Growth
White hat SEO has to win, spammy links/content etc was the big reason for the launch of the Panda Algorithm. If major search engines provide poor quality search results then they will lose market share. We might find that the occasional spammy website will rank well but it won't last for long. Over longer periods of time the white hat websites will still prevail as the leaders.
If one wants to pick fights with major brands one has to be able to pick the right battlegrounds and be aware that speed, agility, creativity and flexilibity is strengths. The smart and think ahead, being a first mover can generate pretty much publicity and popularity. Spammy content doesnt call to action.
Peter Handley, The Media Flow
Absolutely, its something that I’ve been doing for years. “Winning in the SERP’s” can happen in multiple ways – there are plenty of ways to be successful – spam does clearly work, but its not the ONLY thing that works.
For every 100 spammy site getting short term wins, there is a least 1 site that is winning in the long run by using creativity. Maybe it is for every 1000, but I know for a fact that there are a good number that are doing pretty good with white hat SEO.
Tom Critchlow, Distilled
Yes absolutely. White hat SEO is effective but hard. People need to be prepared to put in the elbow grease to get results.