The search marketing industry, providing search engine ranking or search engine marketing or digital marketing type services to website owners, is, give or take a year or two, about 20 years old now. It has certainly changed over the years, and in my experience as an SEO since the 1990s, I’ve seen all the changes. SEO ethics is an issue SEOs have wrestled with over the years. It’s still time for an SEO code of ethics. But we certainly don’t need the SEO Police.
I’ve seen it all — from rudimentary cloaking, to redirecting domain names, to comment spamming, to doing canonical negative SEO, to outright hacking websites in order to place links (which is illegal). Those are only a few of the black hat SEO techniques that have surfaced over the years. Sure, most of us would call those black hat SEO techniques “unethical.” But then there are other kinds of business ethics. Like misinforming clients, telling a client one thing and doing another, to even taking a client’s money and not performing any SEO for their website.
Is it time that the SEO industry, as a whole, define SEO ethics? Is there even such a thing as SEO ethics nowadays?
SEMPO, the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, decided, way back in 2014 when I originally wrote this article, that a code of ethics was needed. Back in 2014 they launched a website, the SearchCongress.org, that was supposed to be “Working for a Unified Search Marketing Code of Ethics.” OK, I get it. I’m game. Let’s go ahead and put our collective heads together and define the keyword phrase “SEO Ethics.” It will be interesting, as an industry, to see what we all come up with. That’s what I thought back in 2014. Now, that site doesn’t resolve and has been taken down. Did SEO ethics go away with that site? Absolutely not. There are still ethical SEOs out there.
What are SEO Ethics?
Even though the site that SEMPO started a while back is gone, SEO ethics are still alive and well. I’d like to define “SEO Ethics.” There are several ways to define SEO Ethics, and it really depends on what your end goal is. Are we trying to define what is ethical SEO and what is not ethical SEO? Because let’s just take one look at that:
- Automatically generated content
- Participating in link schemes
- Creating pages with little or no original content
- Sneaky redirects
- Hidden text or links
- Doorway pages
- Scraped content
- Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value
- Loading pages with irrelevant keywords
- Creating pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other badware
- Abusing rich snippets markup or schema markup
- Maliciously using or abusing the canonical tag
- Dealing with fake traffic or fake social engagement in order to increase rankings
Wait, does that list sound eerily familiar? If you’re an SEO, it should.
Some of that list is taken directly from Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, the quality guidelines, in fact. Then I added a few. So, generally speaking, if someone were to be an “ethical SEO” then one wouldn’t participate in any of those practices. If you were ethical, you wouldn’t take a company’s money and then do any of those things listed above to the client’s website. At this point, though, as a side note, I can tell you that if you do any of those things then most likely your website will not rank well, at least not in Google.
But lately, let’s say in the last 10 years or so, there have been lots of SEO companies who still continue to take their clients’ money and participate in link schemes in an effort to get the client higher search engine rankings. Link schemes like this:
- Buying or selling links that pass PageRank
- Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
- Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links
- Using automated programs or services to create links to your site
- Text advertisements that pass PageRank
- Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank
- Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites. Low-quality directory or bookmark site links
- Keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites,
- Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites
- Forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature
- Relying on PBNs (Private Blog Networks) for rankings or to influence rankings
It’s participation in those link schemes and creating PBNs that has gotten a lot of websites in trouble over the years. They either got hit by algorithm updates or even have had manual actions levied against their websites or their clients’ websites. Trust me, there are a lot of unethical SEOs who have violated “SEO ethics” and did these things to their client websites. Now, it’s people like me who have to clean it all up. It’s not like I don’t mind the work, but really: Is it unethical to participate in Link Schemes? Well, according to Google, it is.
So as we go forward, is it right for us to simply take the easy approach here and define “SEO ethics” as anything that violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines? Sure, that would be easy. But is Google the “deciding factor” here? What if Google decides that guest blogging is a violation of their guidelines?
Well, they have, sort of. That falls under the “large-scale” category. Guest blogging is a violation, but only if it’s done in “large scale.” So, one or two (or several) guest posts isn’t a bad thing. And I am going to go out on a limb here and say that there are guest blogging opportunities (guest author opportunities) that are wonderful opportunities because they are typically on high-trafficked, well-respected websites.
I don’t believe we can redefine Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and come up with a proper definition of “SEO Ethics.” As an industry, we need to go further. We need to define SEO Ethics more, as it is much more than that.
As an SEO consultant, one needs to make sure that they are not deceiving the client or website owner. Deceiving a client or website owner could mean something along the lines of:
- Not guaranteeing search engine rankings
- Being transparent on the SEO methods used for higher search engine rankings
- Taking the time to educate the client about SEO best practices
- Not deceiving the client
I know “not deceiving the client” is pretty vague. But let’s take at a high profile Search Marketing website called Top SEOs, for example.
The Case of TopSEOs
Once banned by Google, the TopSEOs.com website somehow came up with a list of, well, the “top SEOs.” Essentially, this was supposed to be an unbiased list and a list of SEO companies who were, in fact, vetted.
Well, come to find out, the list, all along, was a fake: Whoever paid the most to be on the list was the “top SEO company” or “Top SEO.” While the website at some point put a disclaimer on their website in the footer, the disclaimer was not always there; or at least it was not easily visible to the visitors to the website (including me). That, in fact, was a type of deception: unknowing companies made decisions to hire “top SEOs” when, in fact, they were only paying for such distinction. That’s not ethical.
The Case of SEMFirms.com
Then there’s another site, SEMFirms.com, who has the same business model: pay to be listed and get reviewed. Pay more, get higher up on the list. The same business model as Top SEOs, and the same unethical type of website. It’s unethical because the visitors are not told that the companies listed paid to get listed.
Last time I checked, the United States Federal Trade Commission guidelines require that sponsored posts and advertisements must be labeled that they were sponsored.
The Case of Google Maps Listings
And then there’s the case of the “SEO company” cold-calling business owners whose websites show up in the Google Maps listings. The telemarketer would call, claiming they are Google, and that if they did not pay a certain fee, their Google listing would be removed. Again, highly unethical. It’s been going on for years, and Google finally sued. They even have a form available to report such violations directly to Google.
Guaranteeing High Rankings
We’ve also heard (and probably received) plenty of spam emails that claim or guarantee high Google search engine rankings, almost always for a small price. Again, highly unethical. This one has been around for years, almost as long as the SEO industry has existed.
As someone who ran an agency highly involved with Google Local rankings and Google My Business (I’m currently a Level 9 Google Local Guide), I can tell you that fake reviews have been around for a long time. We just recently heard reports of a fake review attack on millions of small businesses. A collection of 37 profiles left over 3 million fake 4-star ratings. I’m personally not sure what the motivation was for those fake reviews. But leaving a review for a business that you’re highly associated with (a current employee or a former employee) is, in my definition, a fake review. Unethical.
Basic SEO Ethics
Is it the basic “SEO Ethics” of performing search engine optimization for a website that we’re after when defining “SEO Ethics”? Because if that’s the case, then we need to look as far as the Google Webmaster Guidelines. Or is it much greater than that? Do “SEO Ethics” need to actually define the search marketing industry as a whole? Do we really need to put a “code of SEO ethics” in place so that search marketers (or SEOs, for that matter), get rid of the stigma that I despise: “SEOs are just selling snake oil”?
We absolutely do not need the SEO Police. If we were to define an SEO Code of Ethics, then frankly that code is only as good as the enforcement of those ethics. We all know what happens in a town when speed limit signs are put up: but as soon as word gets out that the police never pull people over for speeding, then what’s the point? People ignore those speed limits.
The same goes for an SEO Code of Ethics. We can come up with all of the ethics “lists” we want to come up with. We can even come up with a list most likely better than Google can. I would be happy to share plenty of unethical things my SEO competition has been doing that is not defined in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines that should be because they’re unethical.
But what’s going to happen then those SEO Ethics Police start enforcing the rules? I am certainly not going to be someone on that police force.
This post was originally written and posted on the SEMrush.com blog back in 2014. It was removed from that site, so I rewrote it, updated it, and am posting it here. After 4 years, you’d think that we have gotten past the need for an SEO code of ethics. But apparently not. And that’s unfortunate.