The ethics of SEO
The type of SEO I help my clients do and promote to you using this blog is often labeled white hat SEO because it stays within Google’s and other search engines guidelines. Other SEO’s don’t care about Google’s guidelines as much and do what’s called “black hat SEO”. Far too often though, black hat SEO is confused with the hacking of sites and the use of other tactics not outside the laws of Google but the laws of our lands. I think it’s time for me to explain where I stand in this.
As a former Theology student and as someone raised in the Christian tradition, I have a fairly specific (and in some eyes: stringent) set of ethics. I don’t work on gambling or porn related sites because of that. I’m aware that others have different opinions on this and I don’t judge others when they have other ethics with regards to their work. To each his own. Sometimes though, I draw the line. Among my friends are some of the world’s best black hat SEO’s. These are also guys that will never break a law or willfully hurt other people to get their rankings, they just game Google’s algorithms. I know Matt knows at least some of them and there’s even a form of “honor” among them: he seems to appreciate their ability to outwit their algorithm. Unfortunately not everyone in the SEO “community” is that clean: some people are willing to break laws or hurt other people. After the last SES conference in Amsterdam, which I arranged the speakers for, one of the speakers (not the keynote :) ) admitted to me he wouldn’t mind teaching other people how to hack sites or how to build trojans to gain links. I was too startled to give a proper response but decided later that day that I would never allow him back on a conference I arranged speakers for.
Spammy Link Building in the Netherlands
The last few days there’s been an outcry in the Netherlands over several companies using comment spam and forum spam as a method of gaining links. They’d been caught creating fake profiles on all sort of sites and pretending to interact while really only inserting their links. I had to laugh a bit, as would most of my UK, American and German friends, as that’s so common outside of the Netherlands nobody would be surprised to see that anymore. There was one specific case though that “hurt” more than others (which was by another company by the way). Someone had willfully created an account on a forum for MS (multiple sclerosis) patients, claiming to be a patient, while was spamming links there to health related offers. That’s so low that it hurts.
Outing Non-ethical SEO practices: immoral?
Recently Joe Hall, whom I respect a lot, did a post saying SEO “outing” is immoral. He mentions that while the outed practices themselves might be non-ethical, those people have families too, etc. Basically: people lose their jobs because of it. That’s true. And that’s sad. Especially as most of those people will not know what hit them. I will counter that though: those companies have grown by using their unethical methods, costing other people their jobs in other companies. This is a zero-sum game in most cases. 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. I recently outed GoDaddy over using spammy link building techniques and got a lot of flack for that from other people in the industry. Some seem to think that it’s all of “us” (SEO’s) against “them” (Google). I wholeheartedly disagree. GoDaddy was using its paying customers to strengthen their own SEO without consulting them, in fact, they were specifically hiding what they were doing in their editor. I don’t mind them “playing” Google’s algorithms. I mind them abusing their customers websites without their consent. The only way of making that stop is to ask Google to remove the value that abuse has. In the same way I loathe WordPress plugin developers who add links to their users sites without consent. I will not “out” people for buying high quality, relevant links from high quality websites related to their own topic, I have less issues outing people who hack into my website to gain a few links. This happens more often than I dare to admit.
Policing the web
Joe goes further and says:
“If your paycheck doesn’t say “Google” on it, it’s not your job to police the web.”
My paycheck doesn’t say Google. I’m not policing the web. Neither is Google. Google is trying to maintain a set of rules within its own index. It has all the rights in the world to do that. My paycheck doesn’t say “WordPress” either, yet I help develop that project because we all benefit. There really is such a thing as “the common good”. That’s entirely different from outing every SEO I find that does something outside of Google’s guidelines, I’m smart enough to create my own set of ethics. I hope you are too. I for one intend to help them battle unethical SEO’s because I think we all benefit from that.