Is Your SEO Ethical?

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Being a provider of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) services has never been easy if you’ve attempted to stay completely “white hat” i.e. follow Google’s marching orders to the letter.

“Gray hat” and “black hat” techniques have always had more success, and your fellow SEO companies will look at you in awe, contempt and/or disbelief when you tell them you’re white hat.

I don’t blame them – you can choose to go the easy way, or the hard way. And your SEO clients want results, fast, as cheaply as possible. So what do you do? How can you balance making a living and providing results to your paying customers, with morals and ethical issues involved in performing SEO?For some it’s an easy decision, for others, not so. I’ll tell you what I choose to do at the end of this post.

How Google Makes Liars Out of the “Good Guys” in SEO

Wil Reynolds of SEERInteractive wrote a great guest blog post with this title on the SEOmoz blog back in February after his presentation at Searchfest.

It’s sad to think that if I wanted to rank well for keywords in my industry, writing this post, getting comments on it, and engaging in the community by answering questions counts LESS to help us rank well for targeted competitive keywords than me getting 20 anchor text links on a tag page? A freakin tag page! So when I spend time doing the HARD work, I get fewer rankings than those who take the lazy way out?

Is that really the message Google wants to send?

The SEO Dilemma – Wil Reynolds

Think about the daily high wire act every one of us undertakes, too much anchor text – you win temporarily and risk getting banned too little you risk your reputation as an SEO company and are likely to be branded a snake oil salesman.

But let’s also think in the same way we consult with clients, we tell our clients every day that people “Google things” and when they perform searches, they make sometimes make purchasing decisions, based on those searches, right?

So when people search Google for “SEO company” and they find this smut outranking the good guys of SEO… Google is perpetuating the cycle they want to end.

They are “letting” the bad guys rank, which only gets them more clients, and pollutes more of the web with crappy sites that have over aggressively linked.

– Wil Reynolds on the SEOmoz blog

It’s interesting to see this presentation & blog post (February) in the context of the Google updates Panda (March) and Penguin (May) which have slashed the rankings of millions of low quality sites, but also caught many innocent bystanders in the crossfire.

The result of all this? Well it’s clear that we are still seeing a lot of low quality sites ranking for very obvious keywords. And not even subtly low quality – e.g. 5 of the top 16 results for “Viagra” have “This site may be compromised” warnings as of the time of posting this. (Aside: “Viagra” is commonly used as a search test case for SEO people as it is highly competitive due to the huge amounts of money to be made from ranking highly in this niche.)

This is a blatant low quality indicator generated by Google themselvesyou have to question how their algorithm, with all of these quality updates, can possibly rank these sites in this position in a competitive SERP like this.

Danny Sullivan has an awesome breakdown blog post with a ton of example SERPs over on Search Engine Land.

SEO-based Business Models

What does all this mean for businesses selling SEO services?

Now more than ever SEO requires threading the needle: being sufficiently aggressive to see results, but not so aggressive that you get clipped for it […]

And your business model is probably far more important than your SEO skill level is. Imagine running a consulting company for a lot of small business customers for a few hundred Dollars a month each, based on stable rankings & then dealing with a tumultuous update that hits a number of them at the same time. And then they see an older (abandoned even) competing site of lower quality with fewer links ranking and they think you are selling them a bag of smoke. These sorts of updates harm the ability to do SEO consulting for anyone who isn’t consulting the big brands.

– Aaron Wall of SEObook on the Penguin Update.

Link spamming is not a viable strategy for SEO. Yes, you can see short term results, but by and large, these services aren’t for long term growth.

Even though I think these services are a waste of money, I could care less if others use them, as long as they know the full risk involved. Many rave about lobster, but I like crab more, and that won’t stop me from having dinner with them.

– Joe Hall on SEO “Outing” (comments on this well worth a read)

Google doesn’t tell people what to buy, it helps them find where they can buy it. Keep this in your mind at all times: search doesn’t create demand, it merely funnels it. I refuse to let people who use unethical SEO methods “win” because they support families, simply because their more ethical competitors support families too.

– Yoast on The Ethics of SEO.

As you can see, ethics in SEO is a very interesting topic with ramifications for businesses and people’s livelihoods – and our search results.

Where I Stand

At the beginning of this post I mentioned white, gray and black hats, and that’s my preferred terminology for these concepts. Personally, I really don’t like people referring to “black hat” SEO techniques as “unethical”, or worse, “illegal” as if the terms were completely interchangeable – they’re not.

Let’s be very clear: there are SEO techniques that violate Google’s guidelines – these can be black hat or gray hat. There are illegal techniques, such as hacking someone’s site to insert links. This is both illegal (at least, in most countries) and unethical. There are ethical blackhat techniques, for example buying a link on a high quality site is completely legal and ethical (at least, to many people).

Just to confuse matters further, there may be illegal techniques that are not unethical. I can’t think of an example in the SEO space, but think of the equivalent of driving through a red light at an empty junction with no other cars around at 5am, rather than waiting a minute or so for the green light. Illegal – yes, unethical – arguable.

My personal view is that I stay on the white to very-light-gray end of the SEO spectrum, not because I believe all black hat techniques are unethical – as I’ve said, I don’t believe this at all – but because I believe the long term game has to be good quality content. I don’t want to put a lot of time and effort into building high quality brands and one day wake up to find scorched earth because Google have tweaked an algorithm somewhere. Link spamming is a house of cards, and even if Google haven’t figured out how to correctly filter them yet, I believe that one day they will. Panda and Penguin are their latest efforts.

Does that mean I’m “leaving money on the table” in the short-term? Yes.

Successful black hat SEOs play a simple numbers game – they know what works in the short term, they do lots of it as fast and as wide as possible. They create lots of spam on autopilot and make lots of money. Then when it all gets nuked from orbit by a Google update, they shrug their shoulders, count their massive earnings, and move on to the next project.

What’s the Answer?

Goldilocks SEO

As Aaron Wall suggests in his “Goldilocks SEO” approach, the right approach is to be “sufficiently aggressive to see results, but not so aggressive that you get clipped for it”. It’s a tough one, and I believe it depends on where your own moral compass points and where you draw the line.

I provided SEO services from ~2005 until sometime 2008, when I decided to change to a more all-round website and online business advice consultancy with a new brand, WebsiteDoctor. I still provided SEO audits and onsite SEO services like content creation, but stayed clear of link building which is where most of the contention is with SEO.

Am I going to start providing SEO services again? There’s a lot of positive, interesting stuff that I love in SEO, I’d be quite happy to do site audits and help people create content strategies. As for the link building, I’m happy to provide what I consider to be white hat services (e.g. high quality guest blogging, etc), and give advice about all the other options available – or at least, the ethical and legal ones!

Who knew business could be this complex, eh? 😉

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About the Author

I specialize in helping consultants, speakers and published authors to increase their sales. Unlike other marketers, I focus on customer lifetime value before focusing on conversion optimization. I’ve been building websites and software since 1996 and co-founded several software, web and information based startup companies and provided solutions for businesses and organisations of all sizes. I am the author of Running a Website with WordPress: A Quick Guide for Business Owners, available from Amazon in print and Kindle editions. I blog, and make media of all kinds at WebsiteDoctor.

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