There has been much debate recently on the practice of ethical Search Engine Optimization (SEO). The recent removal of a high profile by link company from the Google results has plunged the industry into yet another debate on what is ethical and what is not in our profession.
I have been involved in the SEO industry for a few years now and the mention of the word ethics and best practices in what is still an unregulated industry creates a level of confusion the likes of which I have not observed in any other industry. Why does this reluctance to discuss ethics and best practices exist? After all, we call ourselves professionals and as professionals we should strive to be part of an industry which stands for best practices and quality of service.
The confusion seems to come from the way that search engines rank sites. Each search engine has an algorithm which is a complex method of giving a value to a site which will ensure that it is returned in the search results when a relevant keyword is typed into a search engine. These algorithms are kept secret by the search engines for obvious reasons. The SEO industry is highly focused on analyzing these algorithms and using any knowledge gained to modify and rank websites. Ask any two SEO’s what they consider to be ethical in their pursuit of top results and you will most likely get two very different answers. Hence, the lack of agreement on what is ethical and what is not.
So where do we start? Our commitment must always start with the client and our responsibilities to them. An ethical company will always demonstrate loyalty and respect to their client. This is true whether they are an SEO, a doctor or an accountant.
Having sound business practices and a professional approach to all that you do then we can move onto the ‘search engine guidelines.’ All the major search engines and directories publish their own guidelines of use for webmasters. This should be the minimum that any SEO practitioner complies with when working on a client’s site. Search engines have a right to protect the integrity of their results and the SEO practitioners should respect those guidelines.
The confusion seems to arrive with the interpretation of the guidelines. One SEO will interpret the rules to mean one thing and another SEO will see it as completely different. The stakes are high and a top ranking in Google for your site is powerful branding and can lead to a major upswing in your business.
SEO practitioners have been classified as ‘whitehat,’ and ‘blackhat.’ Whitehat practitioners are the ones that try to stick to search engine guidelines while blackhat operate using more questionable techniques and view the search engines as the ‘enemy.’ Unfortunately blackhat techniques can sometimes adversely affect the sites ranking and worse, get their client’s sites banned.
Blackhats traditionally play to the emotional needs of their clients and often convince them to part with their money without giving clear and specific information on the changes they will make to their sites. If a client is fully aware of the risks and is prepared to buy into short term gain then that is their choice. However, many Blackhat SEO’s do not disclose their tactics. Would you hire a CPA who submits your tax return including questionable practices and breaking all the IRS rules? You are the one who will get audited, prosecuted and have to pay huge fines.
Blackhat techniques are just plain bad business practice. They also do the search engines and the search users a huge disservice by contributing to poor quality of results. This adds nothing to the end user experience.
The search engines say that any type of manipulation to get a site ranked is a threat against them and the relevancy of their results. Whitehat practitioners will say that they are not manipulating sites but rather fixing search engine obstacles within a web site. The need for their services is great as many web site designers do not know how to integrate search engine friendly designs.