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Welcome to the website of the Internet and Intellectual Property Justice Clinic, a University of San Francisco School of Law clinical program that provides legal assistance to parties in intellectual property matters. For more information, see the "About Us" page.

Our website includes commentary from our students on cutting-edge internet law and intellectual property topics. Those posts are listed below, and more are archived under "Pages" on the right. Enjoy!

Search Engine Optimization: Black Hat v. White Hat

By Phillip D.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving visibility in a search engine through the organic/natural search results. As a result of an increase in the visibility of its web presence , a particular website will rank higher in the organic search results.

   The original search engines required the websites to provide information about individual websites. This is particularly important because it was the webmasters that determined what information was provided and hence determined the keywords that were relevant to the websites. As a result, webmasters were able to manipulate the search engines through the keywords provided. This manipulation lead to websites being ranked higher in the organic results over other sites that may have been more pertinent to the user’s searches. Webmasters were able to place those keywords on their websites and increase their websites’ presence on search engines.

   In the mid 1990’s Google was started as a reaction to how search engines were operating. Instead of searching for keywords on websites, the creators of Google believed that looking at the relationship between sites was a better means of ranking websites. Google’s algorithm stopped relying on webmaster provided content and looked at the importance of a site on the web in relation to other websites.

   Google and other search engines do not ordinarily have a problem with techniques of search engine optimization. There is one caveat: the search engine optimization must conform to the rules and procedures promulgated by the search engines. Google has no problem with the optimization if the process does not try to game the company’s algorithm for search results. When websites follow the search engine rules, then this is called “white hat optimization.” When websites do not follow the search engine’s rules, this is called “black hat optimization.”

   There are no federal or state laws regulating search engine optimization. Therefore, black hat optimization is not illegal, but the search engines severely frown upon such activity. If the search engine determines that a particular website is gaming the algorithm, then the search engine will take corrective measures against that website. These corrective measures could include adjusting the algorithm to more accurately represent the website’s presence on the web to fully removing the offending website from appearing in the search results.

   There are companies which will perform search engine optimization for your website. Just remember that in the end, even if a website’s owner is not aware that the company hired to increase this optimization is performing black hat optimization, the search engine may take corrective measures that causes the website ultimately to suffer in terms of visibility.