Black, white and grey

When I was growing up, most marketers wore a white hat.

White hat marketers have jingles. They buy TV commercials. They tell the truth about what they sell and how they sell it. They offer a money-back guarantee and honor it. They belong to the better business bureau and to the Lion’s Club. White hat marketers donate money to charity because it’s the right thing to do. They build long-term relationships with people and with organizations. They belong to associations. They go to trade shows and have big booths staffed with struggling models, often in bathing suits. They offer a free bonus–and clearly state what you have to do to earn it. They have a sales force that sticks around.

Lately, there have been a bunch of black hat marketers in our lives. One firm offered to put my new book on the bestseller lists–not by selling more, but by manipulating the system. Many websites manipulate the search engines to rank higher. Companies are organized around spamming people. Firms hire squads of clickers in the developing world to boost their income or to punish their competitors. They say they are giving away something but are really harvesting names. There are rings of people who trade links to influence their Alexa rankings. Squadrons of fraudsters work the eBay universe, just barely staying a step ahead of the system.

It’s a slippery slope. Is it okay to vote for your site a million times in an online poll? What about encouraging your readers to vote for you a million times? Digital systems have so much leverage that sooner or later, a line gets crossed.

I worry that it’s inevitable that black and white are mixing. That brands we trust send out spam, but call it a legitimate use of their privacy policy. That they hide the results of this test or that ruling because the law permits it. I worry that their webteam is under so much pressure to deliver results that just a little black hat SEO feels just fine. It’s easy to shade your accounting and even easier to lie about your online presence.

Online, where a bit is a bit, where no one knows you’re a dog, where a big company looks just like someone in their garage… sometimes the people who succeed the most are the ones acting the way we’d least like them to. I wonder what happens next.