Hi. My handle is Cygnus and I'm a lateral thinking SEO.
There have certainly been some interesting posts lately about the cyclical debate over white hat vs. black hat SEO, which lends itself to debates over whether SEO is easy or hard. Having been in the industry more or less since mid 1997, I've had the fortune (or misfortune) of seeing these things time and again, but then, like others have mentioned, this isn't particularly unique to SEO. I'm fond of saying that the pendulum is constantly swinging between ignorance and arrogance; whenever I feel myself getting a bit too big for my britches, I can almost expect to feel like a fool. That said, there is a divide in our industry, and one that should be addressed more than it is.
Some might call our divide as nothing more than understanding competitive webmastering, which isn't a bad description, and some will stick to WH vs. BH; I am beginning to think of it more as those that have the ability to think differently and those that unable / unwilling / do-not-need to do so: lateral SEO vs. traditional SEO.
I don't want to get into whether or not SEO is easy; it is like saying CSS layout is easy or hard - if you learn a skill and practice it for a while, it'll become easy, and so long as there is a sufficient demand for that skill, market forces dictate what can be charged for that skill. Since SEO, web design, programming, and a lot of these fuzzy fields are so difficult to quantify in terms of skill and a non-commoditization of the basic skill sets has not occurred as of yet (and probably never will), the rates charged will be all over the map like miniature plastic soldiers during a game of Risk.
What I do want to say is that some people will take the base rules of any system and will try to do whatever they can to become optimal within the boundaries of that "explained" system. I'm using the word explained here because it is rarely the case with any system that the explanation is comprehensive. This has been called white hat in the past, but I don't like that term because it implies naivety; in truth a better description might be conservative SEO or traditional SEO. In many cases, this is what I would suggest people do for non-competitive phrases and for heavily established brands. Again, note the choice of words here…non-competitive. If one were to try to rank using the defined rules in various industries, the end result will not be pretty, unless the brand is heavily established already.
So what about black hat? All that really means to me is using the unexplained rules of the system. It isn't evil, it isn't fraud, and it isn't hacking. To do any of those previous nasty things would be outside the scope of aggressive, competitive, lateral thinking search engine optimization. Understand that and stop trying to divide the industry in such black and white terms (of which their descriptions are so aptly defined). A lateral thinking SEO will do what makes sense within the explained rules, but will then say to him or herself "I'm in a competitive industry" and/or "This is not an established brand", and then follow up with a very important "What can I do that will set myself apart within a search engine's algorithm?" If you dumb down what a search engine is to the level of a single database with a single data table, and a couple hundred fields, then it is easier to see what is happening. At any given point of time in an algorithm's evolution (yes, they evolved, get over it…from bubblesort no less!) certain variables are going to be weighed more heavily than others, and some that fall into certain ranges are going to be treated as red-flags. Thus, lateral thinking SEO from the perspective of someone like me is to say to "when that giant sort button is pushed, how can I make sure I rank for something like payday affiliate?"
That's all fine and dandy you say, but how does one go about developing lateral thinking? I don't think of this in white or black terms either; some people really are gifted lateral thinkers, and some admittedly will start out with the traditional mindset and Forrest Gump themselves into thinking differently as a means to survive. If you find yourself more in the camp of Forrest Gump, don't worry, you and your rankings can be like peas and carrots again if you observe absolutely everything you can, digest as much information as you can, become a skeptic that experiments, take risks, and learn from your failures as much as your successes. One very quick way is to take a look at that various industry again - I don't even feel the need to point out specific methods being used because that will just date this post more than my love for polka music; the phrase is extremely competitive. Go back a few years and those lateral thinkers were stuffing meta tags, then they were stuffing keyword density, then links, then "quality links", then authority domains, etc. The point is, the evolution of the system will dictate the explained and unexplained rules. Choosing to play with the system may ultimately result in a site no longer being listed in the search engine, but that is the market risk, and perhaps why some people label lateral thinking SEOs as black hats. At that point the algorithm has evolved once again (hurray for quicksort), either eliminating the variable manipulation factors previously in place or simply moving them by overweighting another set of variables with adjusted ranges on the variables that just got you banned.
As a conclusive point, lateral thinking and its implementation does have varying degrees. For this site I'm not about to copy the above industry example and mimic their practices because I want this site for the long-term. This isn't to say that I'm not thinking laterally though, or that this site would be considered pure snow white hat. Remember those variable ranges and their weighting; moving within those unexplained ranges as they change can help to ensure longevity, while helping to rank in moderately competitive markets, which is what I'd consider the payday affiliate industry. Understanding and selectively employing methodologies learned on both the search engine guidelines and search system architecture side of SEO is what lateral thinking is truly about, transcending white or black, potentially making the hard look easy (which is easy to forget if you've been doing something for a while).
Good luck in your lateral thinking SEO journeys!