After the New York Times unearthed J.C Penney’s unethical link building practices and Google responded by manually penalising the companies search engine rankings last week, black hat SEO has been thrown into the spotlight once again.

What kind of knock on effect could this really have for SEO in 2011? Could 2011 be the year white hat prevails over black hat link buying?

As many companies and SEO agencies continue to tread the fine grey line between ‘black hat’ and ‘white hat’, this recent debacle will have many questioning their current link building techniques and SEO strategy.

Last week SEO professionals around the globe will have had some difficult questions coming in from their clients on if their link building practices could eventually lead to penalisation.

Whilst traditional techniques such as cloaking and doorway pages have always been a clear black hat zone for SEO, link building has become an increasingly grey hat area, with paid linking becoming common practice in highly competitive industries.

However, Google cracking down on big brands in the competitive SERPs manually and publically clearly sends a message out: use black hat link building and it will catch up on you eventually.

But with Google’s algorithm still placing importance on the links coming into a website, many companies may be asking themselves what alternative they have to using paid links.

In 2011, companies wishing to build links to their site are well advised to avoid the risk of link buying and go back to basics: create great content that people will want to link to naturally. While creating good content is just one part of the SEO puzzle, so is catching the interest of social networkers.

Over the past 12 months, Confused.com has been working hard on developing an engaging social media presence for both improved branding and greater customer engagement.

Being able to blend above the line with social has also helped to ensure a greater reach with traditionally ‘offline’ content and marketing activities. This is becoming increasingly important, considering that social signals have been seen to directly influence search rankings. All of which highlights the importance of developing content that will do well both socially and with the usual linkerati crowd.

As the web becomes increasingly social and starts to play some importance in SEO, there may be big wins from social media engagement and community building – both of which have the knock of effect of increased natural linking from a diverse range of websites in your niche.

In light of this event, 2011 might not only be the year that link buying is cracked down on, but also the year of ‘naming and shaming’ companies with suspicious links.

The threat of being exposed to the industry may be warning enough for many companies to steer clear of paid linking and clean up their link building strategies.

With this in mind, we should expect to see 2011 as the year for budgets being directed towards clever, shareable content rather than under-the-table link buying schemes.