SEO Ethics Are In The Eye Of The Beholder

100% Organic - A Column From Search Engine Land

True story. I was sitting at one of my computers, a bit flustered because I was trying to solve yet another CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) browser incompatibility, and I received the following email:

I would be pleased to buy some text links on your website. Let me know if you are interested so we can proceed for further negotiations. I can really offer you a smart and competitive package.

Smart and competitive package? This guy had to be kidding me, right? Anyone who knows me can reasonably assume that I will respond to most search engine optimization (SEO) and/or link buying pitches with one of the following responses: (a) Hit the delete button, or (b) Report search engine spam. Of course, the delete-button decision would have been more efficient. But I was in one of my moods. I really hate CSS browser incompatibilities.

Thank you for getting back to me. I am interested in placing paragraph somewhere in the middle or bottom of the internal pages of your website. For that, I shall pay you accordingly: [amount] for each of the internal pages where you can easily add small paragraph with links below the post. My recommended pages are as below…

I was quite puzzled at his page selection. This person selected pages where the last thing any savvy website owner would want is to distract site visitors from their desired goals.

Then it dawned on me — this person was completely serious in his intent. He did not label himself as black hat, white hat, red hat, blue hat. He did not view his internet marketing as search engine spam. In his mind, I imagined, he was trying to enter in a perfectly legitimate business transaction — building high-quality links to his site. Which brings me to my first point….

"Ethical" Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

Plenty of SEO professionals consider themselves to be ethical search engine marketers. Labeling a company as an "ethical search engine marketing (SEM) firm" is a great sales pitch as it implies credibility in this industry. The label communicates knowledge and expertise, that the SEO/SEM firm understands all search engine guidelines. The label communicates that the SEO/SEM firm is trustworthy.

Additionally, being an ethical SEO/SEM often depends on circumstances. One SEO professional’s circumstances are not the same as another SEO professional’s circumstances.

For example, I know some in-house SEOs whose job it is to optimize Flash sites and/or sites with a horrendous content management system. I know people who are told by management to make their sites number one, but they cannot change the appearance of the site at all (no keyword/copywriting changes — nothing). Their job is to optimize web sites under these circumstances. Management, or the powers-that-be, do not want to hear their excuses about search engine guidelines. They just want these in-house SEOs to do their jobs.

What is the ethical solution to that problem? Are these in-house SEOs less ethical because of their circumstances?

My circumstances are quite different. I am the company owner. I can decide which search engine strategies to implement or not. Whenever I hear unreasonable expectations from clients and prospects, I gently try to let them know that their expectations are unreasonable. Optimization almost always means making changes to a website. Some changes are simple text changes. Some text changes are not so simple. Information architecture modifications can be a long-term project, one that people wish to solve artificially.

I understand that people don’t want to change their websites. That’s when I might mention search engine advertising. If a client or prospect has no interest in search engine advertising, sometimes I state:

So, you would like me to sprinkle magical fairy dust on your website and miraculously make it appear number one all of the time for all of your keywords? Okay…hold on…I have to make a note that I have to change my job title on my business cards to say: Shari, the SEO Fairy.

I wonder if fairies are ethical, but I digress. I understand that it is probably easier for me to follow all of the search engine guidelines due to my circumstances and knowledge. Others SEO/SEM professionals are not any more or less ethical because they do not share my circumstances. The person who tried to negotiate paid links with me did not perceive himself to be a search engine spammer.

Therefore, I believe the perception of "ethical search engine marketer" is in the eye of the beholder.

White Hat SEO Is SEO 101

Many black hat SEO practitioners get characterized unfairly. Many white hat SEOs share that unfair characterization. And the discussions that go back and forth can get quite heated and colorful. I asked Erik Dafforn, executive vice president of Intrapromote, about this:

"We do our very best to stay out of the fray …. we used to really toot the "white hat" horn, but it became so morally charged that we just tried to gently excuse ourselves from the conversation. It’s frustrating to be considered ‘out the loop’ or less technically savvy than other crowds, but to be quite honest, we’re not, and people can believe or refute that at their leisure.

"Chasing the current loopholes just doesn’t cut it for the clients we’re going after," Dafforn continued. "I can’t imagine telling a large client, ‘Remember the re-architecture implementation that we recommended that cost you $40,000 eight months ago? Well, let’s do it all over again before this loophole closes.’"

As Erik mentioned, one common characterization is that white hat SEOs are not SEO experts because they lack sophisticated technical skills. When, in fact, coming up with an effective information architecture with wireframes and prototypes often involves considerable technical skills. Here’s what Adam Audette, president of Audettemedia, told me about that: 

"There is a lot of misunderstanding about what ‘white hat’ SEO entails …. you often hear that black hats are cutting edge; white hats are not. Or that black hats are more sophisticated than white hats."

"White hat SEO does not mean SEO 101," he continued. "There are advanced, very sophisticated search marketers doing white hat work. And there are very advanced people doing black hat work. The big differentiator for me is that white hats work with the user in mind. They don’t necessarily have to always agree with what the search engines dictate — but they do have to keep relevance at the fore and a user-centric viewpoint. To me it’s the most long-lasting way to deploy search marketing campaigns, rather than always trying to out-maneuver a search engine."

White Hat SEOs Are Search Engine Patsies

White hat SEOs have been characterized in many ways. We’re holier-than-thou, goody two shoes, search engine whipping boys, and a number of other colorful descriptions. All of these descriptions can be a great source of entertainment.

I think many people confuse following search engine guidelines with agreement. White hat SEO practitioners do their best to search engine "boundaries" but do not necessarily agree with all of their guidelines. Ask any white hat SEO what they dislike about Google, and you will probably get an earful.

For example, I am not a big AdSense fan. I understand why it exists. I understand its income-generating potential. I also dislike the "AdSense magnet" websites that are more common than I care for them to be. In fact, during many of my usability tests, I have actually observed an initial negative impression of a website when test participants see the "Ads by Google." The response is often a look of disbelief followed by, "Google approved this site?" How am I supposed to respond to that question as a Google supporter?

I certainly do my very best to follow all of the search engines’ terms and conditions and will continue to do so. But I do not always agree with them. To be honest, I believe many white hat and black hat SEOs share the same opinions about some of the search engines’ terms and guidelines. Ask us at the next Search Marketing Expo. You might see how much we have in common.

I am very interested in what others have to say about this subject. What opinions do black hat SEOs and white hat SEOs share? Personally, I would love it if a creative search engine marketer wrote a play with this colorful cast of characters. I want to be Shari, the SEO Fairy. How are both groups unfairly characterized? What character would you play?

Shari Thurow is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the book Search Engine Visibility. The 100% Organic column appears Thursdays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO | SEM Industry: General | SEO: Spamming


About The Author: is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the board of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).

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