How Black Hat Are You, Really?

Black Hat through the Ages. The term “Black Hat” isn’t new. It popped up as soon as hackers started using their skills for personal gain and malicious intent. Black Hat hackers weren’t breaking into systems to free information for the world. They were all about personal gain. The term really exploded when SEO came into the mainstream. If you have any experience with SEO, then you’ve heard of Black Hat practices. I was contracted to do SEO for an Indianapolis company in 2010—back when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. Even in those dark ages, we were all told how evil Black Hat techniques were, and how we were creating organic, useful content for the web.

Of course, our white hats look a little more dirty as time passes. If you’d like to waste one hour or so, just look up Black Hat SEO. No one fully agrees on what applies. I could have sworn that forum linking—even manually—was considered bad form now, but I find just as many positive statements as I do negative ones. Of course, maybe I was in one of Google’s bad neighborhoods.

The Black Hat terminology has even permeated social media management. And it’s not a new idea. The real problem with all this Sharks vs. Jets banter is that the line is constantly shifting. If you happen to read the Facebook TOS, you’ll find a list of commandments when it comes to advertising. Twitter has a similar—admittedly simpler—list of rules as well. Don’t get me wrong; these pages are important. You need to be checking them often to make sure your brand is still in compliance. But this is a tricky field. For every rule you find and roll your eyes at due to obviousness, there will be another one you’re guilty of at this very moment.

The issue with Black Hat is that everyone knows what’s very bad, but no one can agree on what’s kind of bad, or mostly good. This is doubly true when it comes to Black Hat social media management, because creativity in our industry can outshine edginess. If you do something interestingly, you can usually be forgiven for doing something a little Black Hat. At least the first time.

What to Do? Sadly there is not an ancient tomb of rules about what is and isn’t Black Hat—no matter how many blogs you read claiming such. Aside from abiding to various social media contracts, the advice here is more about media production than social media rules.

Is your content good? No, really. It’s easy to look at your Facebook calendar, your mounting influencer list, and then shrug your shoulders about one little crummy tweet. Forget about engagement and conversion for a moment; are you saying a damn thing with this content? If you were on the other side of the screen, would you LIKE your brand? If you waver, it’s time to re-evaluate what you’re doing.

Are you following or mimicking? We all look to brand leaders to learn. We’re also looking for potential customers that those leaders have already found. So we borrow what works. It’s the oldest trick in the book, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But somewhere along the line we have to start innovating and creating our own content. If all you do is mimic the top brands, you aren’t creating anything.

Are you spamming—but not really spamming? We all know—and hate—spam. But spam isn’t just an annoying, poorly worded email trying to get you to buy something bad. Spamming is bothering people. Are you giving people interesting content 75% of the time so you can then throw products at them in an annoying, obvious fashion? If so, you’re still spamming. You’re just a really good spammer.

Are you not doing evil? There are plenty of brands out there that have done harm without ever turning Black Hat. It may seem obvious, but there is more to the world than the brand you are creating content for. Know when to back off. More importantly, know when to say nothing at all.

Whether it’s 2010 or next Tuesday, we’re all going to get our white hats scuffed up at some point. The key is to be deliberate in your actions. Even on social media, reputation outshines one bad campaign or tweet. Now make sure that reputation is shining.