In one of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits, “Tom Ridge” explains the U.S. terrorist-threat color codes:
Tonight, I’m proud to unveil my agency’s new weapon in the War on Terror: the Homeland Security advisory system. It’s a simple five level system, which uses color codes to indicate varying levels of terrorist threat. The lowest level of threat is condition OFF-WHITE, followed by CREAM, PUTTY, BONE and finally NATURAL. It is essential that every American learns to recognize and distinguish these colors! Failure to do so could cost you your life. For those who may have questions, an excellent guide will be found on page 74 of the spring J. Crew catalogue.
Now, what precisely do these threat levels indicate? Condition OFF-WHITE, the lowest level, indicates a huge risk of terrorist attack. Next highest, condition CREAM: an immense risk of terrorist attack. Condition PUTTY: an enormous risk of terrorist attack. Condition BONE: a gigantic risk of terrorist attack. And finally, the most serious, condition NATURAL: an enormous risk of terrorist attack.
Here’s my attempt to give SEO’s more than just two or three colors.
Background: A naive (non-SEO) webmaster or content producer simply makes a site, without a thought or a care to the world of search engines. Or if there’s a thought it’s a thought of hopeful trust: if I make a useful interesting site on topic X, then the search engine will figure that out and deliver users who care about X to my site. SEOs and SEO-aware content creators construct sites instead with an eye to how search engines work, and make content that is designed to be retrieved. The white-hat/black-hat continuum is about the extent to which SEOs are working with search engines or against them. Black-hat SEOs are also known as search-engine spammers.
Dark inky black: The SEO’s (or in this case the spammer’s) interests are totally divergent from both the engines and the users – the SEO wants to trick the search engine into handing over users who are ripe to be tricked themselves into a situation of malicious harm. For example, the SEO might name his domain just one typo-character away from a famous domain name, then install spyware on the computer of any user careless enough to visit, or attempt to impersonate a major portal’s login page to collect logins and passwords.
Charcoal: The SEO tries to trick the engine into showing the user something totally unrelated to the query, and possibly offensive, but doesn’t actually commit any illegal or fraudulent acts within five seconds of the first user click. Example: a (heinous) pornspammer who stuffs the page with irrelevant non-porn keywords targeting innocent queries, maybe via invisible text. 99.9% of searchers will be searching for something else and will be put off; 0.1% will be searching for something else, but will, um, flexibly and opportunistically reorient their interests.
Dark gray: The SEO collects (aka steals) random text from other sites, and uses it to create thousands (or millions) of pages targeting particular queries. The pages have nothing original of value, but do have ads.
Slate gray: The SEO creates thousands (or millions of pages), all of which point (by linkage, or framing, or redirection) to the same content, which might actually be interesting to the searcher.
Gray: The SEO reads the guidelines of search engines, and tries to juice up their sites just enough to fly under the radar on all dimensions – artificial linkfarms that remain small, automatic content duplication that is arguably not too abusive, etc. The goal is to get enough referral traffic as possible, without too much reference to whether it is interested traffic.
Light gray: The SEO creates “original” content in bulk the old-fashioned way, thinking first of all of search engine rules, secondly of duplicate detection algorithms, and lastly of whether the text makes sense to human beings and is something anyone would ever want to read. Then the SEO experiments with all the parameters (keyword density, internal linkage) trying to move up for the queries of interest.
Off-white: The SEO ensures crawlability of the site, restructures it if necessary for size of pages and internal linkage, and then injects terms to specifically target the important keywords and queries. He doesn’t create linkfarms, but friends and allies are importuned to link with specific text and phrases.
White: The SEO starts (if lucky) with a site full of content you can’t find anywhere else, and that answers a need that searchers actually have. Then the SEO makes sure the site is crawlable, and that titles and internal links make sense and are descriptive. Then the SEO thinks hard about the queries that really should pull up this content, and tries to discover if the right terms are present. Then (the hard, artful part), he or she rewrites content with a dual consciousness of the infovorous human reader and the termnivorous spider, making sure that the most important terms and phrases for the spider are present (in all their forms) and forefronted for the spider, without degrading the quality for the reader.
Luminescent pearly white: This would be a case where the SEO designs a site to show up for relevant queries and _not_ to show up for irrelevant queries. Do luminescent SEOs exist? Well, Jon Udell is one anyway.