There is an entire ethical spectrum of practices that contribute to optimizing a website's search engine performance. The less-ethical practices are labeled as "black hat SEO," after the preferred headgear of Western movie villains. In contrast, above-board SEO techniques are called "white hat" practices. You want to make sure that your website is optimized with white hat techniques, whether you handle optimization yourself or leave it up to a consultant.
The real difference between black and white hat SEO is in the overall strategy that guides the optimization. Proper, ethical SEO is about enhancing the appeal of your site's content to search engines and building legitimate links. Black hat SEO involves adding content for the sole purpose of inflating search engine ranking and installing links that are of no use to your visitors. Its effects on your search engine ranking can be powerful, but they are short-lived and carry great risks with them.
Black hat SEO is not a crime; it is at worst an ethical grey area. It is still a very bad idea to employ it with your website, though. Using these kinds of optimization techniques inflates your search engine rankings in a way that the engines themselves do not like. They try to rank sites by measuring their ultimate utility to the people who use their engine. When you use black hat techniques to push your site past others which are more useful to searchers, the engines will not hesitate to take punitive action.
The punishments doled out for getting caught using deceptive rank-building tactics can be harsh. You want to avoid them at all costs, especially if your business relies on pulling in traffic from the search engines. When the engines decide that you are abusing their ranking algorithms, they will not hesitate to push your site's search engine ranking down. In extreme cases, they may even de-index your site entirely. Not only are the search engines always hunting for black hat websites to purge from their indexes, you also have outside competition to worry about. It is not hard for competitors to report your website to the search engines, and if they find evidence of black hat SEO, your punishment will be just as harsh.
Why would anyone risk these dangers and wear the black hat? It can be effective for website owners who do not care about the negative repercussions. For an owner concerned solely with short-term results, who intends to abandon his or her site soon, black hat practices carry much less risk. More importantly for you, black hat techniques can be used on your site without your knowledge if you deal with an unethical SEO consultant. This is how the majority of black hat abuses occur; it's important for you to steer clear of consultants that might fit you for a black hat without your knowledge.
Be very wary of SEO specialists who promise fast and dramatic results. There are few ways to produce such results without donning the black hat. A good SEO consultant should be talking about slow and steady rank enhancement, not instant conquest of the results page.
You should investigate consultants' SEO procedures before hiring them. Even without learning the intricacies of current SEO techniques, you can look for two basic warning signs. First, if a consultant is reluctant to discuss exactly how he or she is going to improve your rank, they may well be planning to do it un-ethically. Second, if you notice a lot of change in a consultant's practices, it may be because they are dodging to stay ahead of search engine punishments. Consultant's blogs are excellent places to find out if they are shifting strategies frequently.
Remember that search engine optimization is an entirely legitimate way to enhance your online business. As long as the practices used on your website meet with the approval of the search engines, you can be confident in the value of your improved ranking. Just steer clear of the ethically-shaded practices discussed here, and you should have no trouble.