The ethics of SEO

April 04th, 2012 – 101 Comments

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.

My background

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.

101 Responses to The ethics of SEO

  1. jonathan
    By jonathan on 30 April, 2012

    well, i don’t think the groupon thing is just immoral, it’s blatantly illegal, i don’t have any religious backgroud, and that makes me want to puke

  2. Dagim
    By Dagim on 30 April, 2012

    Thanks a lot what a cool guy you are? I was attending a wordpress beginners met-up, a young guy who knows everything about wordpress use to price you again and again… now I understand. God bless.

  3. SEO Blogging
    By SEO Blogging on 29 April, 2012

    I really agree with Ethics of SEO. Spammy is not work for Search engine.

  4. Lalit Kumar VaaYaa Edutech
    By Lalit Kumar VaaYaa Edutech on 28 April, 2012

    You seem to have lost it big time. Its like crying foul while you yourself practising the same. Your website was anlayzed using various paid SEO tools and saw that you are wrong person to preach contrary to what you do in practice. Its ironical.

  5. Online Ventures
    By Online Ventures on 26 April, 2012


    Very nice post, I agree completely on the GoDaddy situation, I have come across more articles on their “Spammy Link Techniques” than I have been able to read. Throughout my time in this industry I have to admit there have been moments where I have been impressed with how intuitive some link spammers have managed to manipulate their way up the rankings (Provided that their client’s don’t suffer for it). The one thing that I know for certain is that the search engines are getting smarter and it is only a matter of time before these techniques are a thing of the past. Good things come to those who wait, if the ethical companies can wait it out I really do believe that they will benefit in the end.

  6. Manch Kersee
    By Manch Kersee on 25 April, 2012

    Well done. I alway applaud someone who has a enough ethical backbone to formula there own thought. Keep on the right path. Kudos

  7. JP
    By JP on 24 April, 2012

    I could not agree with you more, Joost. In my niche, it’s not so much unethical conduct as it is simply bad programming that needs to be outed. It’s a credibility issue. You are doing a service to the community (read: the potential future victims) by exposing frauds publicly. Only people who are doing something wrong say things like “outing is immmoral”.

    • Robbi Drake
      By Robbi Drake on 27 April, 2012

      I’m going to disagree on this one. I personally don’t smoke pot, but I don’t find it necessary to see you smoking it in your living room and call the police. Not only people who are doing something wrong will say it may be wrong to turn in someone else. I believe that is a sweeping statement that lacks verisimilitude. Whether you decry bad SEO or black hat seo, it may be that you’d prefer to not turn in a competitor for something you may believe is going on, but simply can’t prove completely, which has been the case for me several times. While I absolutely agree that ethical SEO is the only way to fly, and I work hard to create solid quality content and well written commentary on every client site for which I write, I’m going to add that it occurs to me that some negatives come with this update– a multi-billion dollar business has found a way to pit one small business person against another to serve their ends. Positively Machiavellian.

      Additionally, the odds are very good that this update provides a lovely new tool in the arsenal of the Black hat. Consider the ramifications of inbound links that can count very heavily against you. How long will it be before it is used by unscrupulous SEO practitioners in a game to take out another site? The appearance of a blog network can be lent to anything– a single site hammered with unnatural links and a breath of a whisper to Google. It’s already in use by some reputation management companies in order to bury bad press, we see it all the time. The search engines DO need better returns, the smaller sites DO need to be seen and their good content read, but what about the down side that the update presents?

  8. Fraser Burt
    By Fraser Burt on 24 April, 2012

    amazing post, love the honesty. I think search engines are getting smarter and internet users are becoming more savvy. We’re waking up to a brighter internet every day!

  9. Angie Baldelomar
    By Angie Baldelomar on 23 April, 2012


    Thank you for your standards and leadership on this hottly debated topic. You’re a hero! Really.

  10. Linkbuilding en SEO
    By Linkbuilding en SEO on 18 April, 2012

    Big companies have been doing this for a long time! Why? Because it works… Now somebody in The Netherlands found out, who? Someone inside otherwise you wouldn’t know, even moderators didn’t foudn it so it was well done. Happens all the time and Google doesn’t do anything about black hat, at least not enough. They are to busy making money…

  11. Robert
    By Robert on 17 April, 2012

    Hear, hera, Joost! I am totally with you on this issue.
    Besides, blackhatting will only gain shortterm.

  12. Pranjal
    By Pranjal on 17 April, 2012

    That’s really inspirational, these days I am also fighting with my competitors as they all are indulged with using black hat techniques for link building.

    Some of them has even raised more than 250+ websites and on those sites they’ve linked back their main site, resulting; they’re topping every single related keyword query.

    This is something very wrong, and jointly we should bring out some effective solution to these black-hat back-links. These dark ethics are trashing life of the good content rich sites on the web while, others with relatively little to no-content are making $$$. :(

  13. yeutruyen123
    By yeutruyen123 on 15 April, 2012

    I think this is a good move for Google, I hate slow sites.

  14. David
    By David on 14 April, 2012

    That’s a good article! I have a lot of blogs and I hate that automated stuff everybody is posting just to get backlinks. I once had a forum running with 75.000 spam posts every month.

    I dont knock on someone’s door and throw a lot of garbage into their appartment when they open. I make a lot of SEO and I think it’s an honor to try to integrate SEO and ethics.

    There is a HUGE lack of ethics out there… Blackhat most likely works in the short term but only white hat works in the long term – to every ones benefit!

    I’m glad I’m not alone :-)

  15. Jeffrey Friend
    By Jeffrey Friend on 13 April, 2012

    Well said! There are many in the industry (and in the world) that are not using ethical practices. I applaud you for standing up and bringing it to the forefront.

  16. Gene
    By Gene on 12 April, 2012

    Thank you yoast for Ethics, Some people don’t?

  17. Oliver Hirst
    By Oliver Hirst on 12 April, 2012

    Great blog post.

    As an SEO (and philosophy graduate), I have an interest in digital ethics.

    My comment relates to your mentions of peoples’ perceptions relating to SEO activity. I agree with you, that ‘gaming’ the algo is essentially a game-of-its-own and it will always have an attraction (not least intellectual) for some.

    That’s totally different to an unwritten rule not to “out your own”, as-it-were, when there are people who are engaging in morally dubious (and even illegal) practices. Labelling those practices (e.g. using trojans to get links) as “SEO” is simply misappropriating the industry name as a justification for criminal activity and as a shield from being identified as such. I understand that there are shades of grey, but not in any case which oversteps the legal boundary.

    I totally agree that good people will lose jobs because of the “foul play” of others – therefore (all other things being equal), I’d like to think that if we could choose who should get the work, we’d choose the ethical practitioners. Although some may disagree, I actually believe that many companies would take ethics into consideration. If no one draws attention to the more questionable practitioners out there, how can we (and potential clients) know this? My understanding is that that’s part of what having a community is about.

    Whether “outing” people can be considered an ethical practice or not is entirely dependent upon the values of an individual. You’ve made a good case to show that, on balance, it isn’t necessarily an unethical practice (I’m not going to digress into a lecture on utilitarianism here). What is for sure is that as members of this community, we should all have an opinion on matters that affect our reputation – and let’s make no mistake, it is that serious: our reputation as-an-industry is at stake. Remember that our reputation significantly influences how people view us, and that includes Google and their employees.

    I believe it can be loosely framed as a prisoner’s dilemma in the following way: police = public, prisoner 1 = “black hat” camp, prisoner 2 = “white hat” camp. Matter on which there is a lack of information: SEO.

    I feel that every time some significant bad practice is identified and publicised, this roughly equates to the “white hat” guys getting sold out.

    The lack of transparency in the industry, coupled with some bad press, can lead members of the public to believe that SEO is a nefarious practice. Since great SEO success stories aren’t conveyed into the public arena, it’s difficult for the public to see the flipside of all the bad stuff that goes on.

    I believe, as you seem to, that the goal of SEO is to make the web a richer and more user-friendly place. In short: better content, better curated. As such I’m all for, if you’ll excuse the phrase, “white hat SEO evangelism” – and I’d support any effort to help clean up the reputation that SEO has (at least in the eyes of some).

    • Patrick Heatherington
      By Patrick Heatherington on 12 April, 2012

      Oliver Hirst make some great points, and to follow along with analogy of the prisoner’s dilemma, consider the following: as a public user, would you be annoyed or angered by garbage search results – and maybe even dubious or malicious websites — being delivered by a search engine due to black hat SEO efforts? My guess is 99% would say “yes, I would be annoyed.” There is your answer regarding the hand-wringing over “outing” black hat efforts.

      • Robbi Drake
        By Robbi Drake on 12 April, 2012

        I don’t think there is a person online who wouldn’t be irritated by being cheated in that way, and it’s a very good point. The very reason for the search engine is to give us quality and relevant results for our searches. Using black hat to skew those and fetch us something we don’t want, would of course make us go and find a new search engine. While the reasons why many companies are “outing” others isn’t always quite so laudable as helping the world, but perhaps instead more self serving, you have to wonder if the ends–getting a better search return– does, on some level, justify the means.

  18. Patrick Heatherington
    By Patrick Heatherington on 11 April, 2012

    Spot on. Thoughtful analysis and proper use of “taking perspective” and drawing a conclusion. The web would be a better place if relevant content rose to the top of searches. I also appreciated this part of your article: “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”. Well said.

  19. Robbi Drake
    By Robbi Drake on 10 April, 2012

    Kudos to you. Your professionalism in handling those with whom you disagree and your ethics alone give me hope. This is the kind of SEO that gives everyone a good name and promotes what we do. We’ve all seen black hat done and we’ve all learned to do it, but just because we CAN do it, doesn’t mean we should. I prefer to get my links from clients knowingly and to do my job in such a way that I can look in the mirror the next day.
    Thanks for a great post.

  20. Chris Johnson
    By Chris Johnson on 10 April, 2012


    I really, really like the fact that you have a line and try to apply things to a framework. It’s never perfect, and we always make excuses (we’re human).

    I’ve read you for years now, and have appreciated your voice. I don’t know you personally, you’ve been cordial and polite in the couple-of times I’ve emailed about one of your plugins.

    But the fact that you disagreed with Joe, treated him cordially, and presented your ideas without rancor lent me some encouragement.

    Bad-ass example.

  21. Scott Krager
    By Scott Krager on 10 April, 2012

    Great post Yoast. I thought your definition of black-hat was interesting though. I usually think of black-hat as tactics that do break laws…hacking, trojans, etc. To me that is black-hat. Crappy comment links or profile links…that is what I would consider grey…it’s mostly just spam, but doesn’t harm anyone. I guess everyone’s definition is different, but I like to make the distinction of black-hat as something that could get you in trouble with the law.

  22. Dan Lee
    By Dan Lee on 10 April, 2012

    Excellent post Yoast. It’s a breath of fresh air to see someone who is as respected as you in the industry to take a stance on what they believe in.

    That GoDaddy crap is shady as hell and I for one, am glad you outed them. Taking advantage of their own customers is riduclous.

  23. John Hiemstra
    By John Hiemstra on 9 April, 2012

    I’m a huge fan of your work, Joost. I was interested in this post and these comments because, despite my not-so-Christian academic philosophy background, I think I may be even more anti-black hat. As a WordPress developer for businesses, I think the beauty of the web, search and Google is that it is still essentially a meritocracy: well-organized, labelled and relevant content/connections SHOULD win out over tons of crappy back links & fake comments from automated systems, etc. Thankfully it still does in most niches. I try to educate each of my clients enough to make good decisions about their site & digital image even after our contract is over- (another reason I SO appreciate your contributions to WP community)- and screen pitches from shoddy companies so that businesses become self-policing and help maintain the meritocracy for all of us. Nothing bugs me more that “SEO experts” taking advantage of uneducated consumers (and this whole SEO thing is still pretty new in the grand scheme of business things), so I love the capitalism with a conscience quote from Ariana above, too– it should be all of our jobs to help keep people from getting screwed by helping them get smarter. Thanks for your continuing excellent leadership by example on this!

  24. Lyena Solomon
    By Lyena Solomon on 9 April, 2012

    After chatting on Twitter, I had to clarify my opinion in the comments. GoDaddy practices are unethical – I agree with you. They are hurting their customers’ sites without their knowledge. Hacking sites also falls into this category.
    I took exception to the statement that “SEO and ethics cannot be used in the same sentence.” I have many friends SEOs who, in my opinion, are very professional and ethical. Blanket statement that SEO is automatically scammy is untrue.

    Our community is vocal and self-regulating. We trust people like you to bring to light shady practices because we value your opinion. Making something illegal will not make it disappear. Open discussion is much more effective than regulations. And that is my opinion.

  25. Flo
    By Flo on 8 April, 2012

    Cool post and interesting point of view, I was wondering what do you think about changing the auto-complete suggestions in Google. Do you consider it ethic? This has happened pretty recent for keywords starting with “Romanians are” as it has been described in a post on SEOmoz ( ).

    I am really interested in knowing your opinion on that. Thanks.

  26. Cory Howell
    By Cory Howell on 7 April, 2012

    It’s nice to see someone with a moral compass that isn’t afraid to admit it. Thanks for you honesty & forthrightness on this issue.

    You gained even more respect in my book.

    I think the following quote applies here:
    “Ethics should precede economics… We know this because we’ve seen the results of capitalism without conscience: the pollution of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat; the endangerment of workers; and the sale of dangerous products — from cars to toys to drugs. All in pursuit of greater and greater profits.” – Source: Arianna Huffington

  27. Gyi Tsakalakis
    By Gyi Tsakalakis on 6 April, 2012

    Very thoughtful post. Really like your distinctions between white hat, black hat, and hackers.

    Ethics is tricky for folks, especially when it comes to SEO.

    I work in legal in the U.S. and lawyer rules of professional responsibility add an additional consideration to the mix.

    Folks that want to take risks gaming Google ought to be informed of the consequences of that approach. Which include, doing battle with one of the smartest, well-funded global companies in the world…

    Cast in that light, seems to me that’s a losing battle for most…

  28. Jared
    By Jared on 6 April, 2012

    Yoast, I appreciate the value you provide the SEO community and for standing for a set of values you believe in. It’s refreshing in a world that sees more grey than black and white.

  29. Simon
    By Simon on 6 April, 2012

    “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. ” Very good, obvious point and really clearly articulated.”

    “I refuse to let people who use unethical SEO methods “win” because they support families, simply because their more ethical competitors support families too.”<—-LOVE this.

    "There really is such a thing as "the common good"."<—-and I think it's here, in his/a lot of people's view of this, that things falter; if you're not focusing on how to do, what you do, to improve people's lives, you're going to start projecting strange stuff (which we can see in that quote, "If your paycheck doesn’t say “Google” on it, it’s not your job to police the web.").

  30. Jorg
    By Jorg on 6 April, 2012

    Nice article Yoast. We got hacked for SEO last week together with some other mayor sites and I wrote up a quick post on it yesterday.

    When someone said in the comments that we should hire the guy, I remembered you and I talked about this as well. I think it was at our unofficial SES diner in Amsterdam two years ago. Although I don’t consider myself as a SEO, I definitely can agree on the set of ethics you describe here.

    Nice one.

  31. Obinna
    By Obinna on 6 April, 2012

    Why is it so hard to make a website rank very in google and others? How i wish SEO was much easier.

  32. Brent Leavitt
    By Brent Leavitt on 5 April, 2012

    This article comes as a breath of fresh air. I appreciate your moral convictions. Thank you!

  33. Brian
    By Brian on 5 April, 2012

    Great write up.
    I always kinda figures that’s the stance you take on seo practices.
    But it’s good to spell it out plainly.

  34. Nigel
    By Nigel on 5 April, 2012

    People forget that Google is a company in business with real customers. Google doesn’t “owe us” anything, they owe their customers the best service they can provide.

    Our SEO standpoint towards website owners is this: Your “potential” customers are already Google’s “real” customers. The better you treat their customers the better your chances of them becoming YOUR real customers.

    Just build a good site and be creative, it will live longer.

    Bedankt Joost – groetjes uit California!

  35. Frank Scharnell
    By Frank Scharnell on 5 April, 2012

    Joost de Valk,

    Great post, the idea of SEO should be to help enrich the web with relevant content even though pulling results is very difficult on a budget for many clients and companies. The overall goal is really to see growth in companies by reaching a bigger demographic of clients.

    My paycheck doesn’t say “Google” but there is a lot of pride over making sure that content is relevant and not taking advantage of anyone or anything.

    Between you, Mr. Cutts and several other duly noted Ethical SEO influences there are plenty of great sources to really do a constructive SEO strategy for clients.

    Thanks Again

  36. Robin Jennings
    By Robin Jennings on 5 April, 2012

    It’s fantastic to have someone as successful and high profile as yourself discussing ethics. Too often ethics is left out of SEO and business in general.

    Thanks so much.

  37. James McBride
    By James McBride on 5 April, 2012

    Great post, I think we all spend too much time everyday sorting out spam comments, deleting emails asking for link exchanges and fortifying our websites against hacking attempts that want to turn our sites into link farms.

    It’s frustrating and I agree that I’d have no problem “outing” black hat SEO people, their tactics don’t just affect white hat SEO professionals, they also affect people like me who are just trying to run a website within the rules and support a family.

  38. Justin
    By Justin on 5 April, 2012

    Thanks for this post. I really admire you standing up for what you believe in and sticking to your morals. I feel my morals are questioned almost daily, in fact I have been told multiple times I would be more successful if I strayed from my morals. Knowing your success and hearing how you stick to your morals delivers a much-needed reminder that you don’t have to be un-ethical to be successful.

  39. aaron wall
    By aaron wall on 5 April, 2012

    IMHO I think every article like this should have a big disclaimer upfront about Google’s behaviors as well.

    The problem if it doesn’t is that many people conveniently conflate many concepts & issues.

  40. Luke Chandler
    By Luke Chandler on 5 April, 2012

    Great post. I like the honesty.

  41. Michelle MacPhearson
    By Michelle MacPhearson on 4 April, 2012

    I think this is a tougher call than “Outing is OK” or “Outing is not OK.”

    We all know SEO isn’t just black (hat) or white (hat). There’s a ton of grey area.

    You think Godaddy’s practices aren’t ethical.

    Some wouldn’t agree.

    You wouldn’t out someone “for buying high quality, relevant links from high quality websites related to their own topic.”

    But some would find that extremely unethical and worthy of outing.

    One could be “outed” by someone who thinks what you’re doing is unethical while you think is very much above board.

    This isn’t to argue any one thing *is* or *isn’t* ethical, it just to remind everyone that we all have different standards.

    • Joost de Valk
      By Joost de Valk on 4 April, 2012

      We agree there, and I, personally, don’t mind that as long as people respect my standards.

  42. Twabla
    By Twabla on 4 April, 2012

    I’d be interested in examples of big brand companies setting op link wheels using fake identities to post messages with backlinks on fora of all sorts communities, outside the already diluted tech space. Yoast suggests this is common practice in the US, UK and Germany.

    • Joost de Valk
      By Joost de Valk on 4 April, 2012

      Toine, please don’t come mining here. And they’re not link wheels.

  43. Dr. Pete
    By Dr. Pete on 4 April, 2012

    I appreciated Joe’s post the other day, but I tend to be somewhere closer to the middle, and I agree with many of your points. I am a bit tired of the notion that black-hat tactics are a “victimless crime” just because business owners are duped into using them. As you said, if one business ranks unfairly, another business doesn’t. There’s nothing victimless about it – it may just be that, in some cases, there are two victims.

    Take an example I learned as a manager. I hated the idea of firing people, and always tried to work with sincere employees (the ones not knowingly cheating/stealing/etc.) to keep them employed. I still think that’s admirable, but there are times when firing someone is the right thing to do. I had one employee whose work was constantly creating problems for other staff and for clients (costly problems, eventually). I worked with them, and eventually realized that they had major skills gaps, and we would be forced to gradually move them to doing nothing but busywork. Firing them sucked, and it hurt them in the short term, but not firing them was hurting their entire team and a couple of other teams. Sometimes, penalizing a business who innocently did wrong is still the right way to go.

    I’ll also say that, while I love working with SMBs, I’m helped build two companies, and have had many small-business clients, it’s not always David vs. Goliath. Some small business owners are crooks and liars, just like anyone else, and many more of them aren’t 100% innocent in this. If you go to an SEO company, asking them to do anything necessary to rank, and then look the other way, you’re complicit. I’ve been asked that many, many times. The idea that Google is pure evil and all small business owners are angels is simplistic at best.

    Do I regularly out people? No, and almost never individual businesses. I don’t think it’s always wrong, though, and I do believe that large-scale unethical practices should be outed from time-to-time. I’ve lost no sleep or tears over these link network shutdowns.

  44. Ross Hudgens
    By Ross Hudgens on 4 April, 2012

    “I don’t mind them “playing” Google’s algorithms. I mind them abusing their customers websites without their consent. ”

    Boom. Similarly, I have problems with webmasters using manipulative rich snippets (mis-applying rel=author, creating fake reviews) in order to fake trust and improve CTR. These kinds of websites are almost always the converse of an authentic user experience, and through these actions they are trying to subvert Google’s SERP meritocracy to in-authentically grab clicks. No “author” should be a giant green arrow pointing to the search result.

  45. andrea "gareth jax" scarpetta
    By andrea "gareth jax" scarpetta on 4 April, 2012

    Joost, let me start by saying that i have the greatest respect for your work, your fantastic plugins and your ethics too.

    But i think that Seo is still dominated by big spenders/brands. I see constantly big media sponsoring big brands, which in turn invest constantly on advertising on the media.

    A big brand of fashion spit out a new online shop and they automatically get a link from the New York Times the day after. No it’s not an hypothesis, i know a guy who works as in-house Seo for the fashion brand.

    Let me ask some more questions:
    – why the adwords block in search is getting nearly white?
    – who has the responsability for the “made for adsense” model ?
    – who paid the content network till they were too big ?

    The antispam team has surely an hard job trying to clean up the mess caused by the corporative soul of google.

    Google has the right to defend the indexes, but in my opinion google is quite the irresponsible father, giving birth to children and throwing them out of the house saying “good news, i granted you free will!”. Of course when free will become a danger, google rains thunder and fire over the childrens.

    Sound familiar ? ;)
    (yep we have the same upbringing)

  46. Still Blonde after all these YEARS
    By Still Blonde after all these YEARS on 4 April, 2012

    Amen Brother.

    You have to STAND for something, or you’ll fall for anything.

    Joost–Thank you for not being afraid to STAND!
    The Chief Blonde

  47. andrea "gareth jax" scarpetta
    By andrea "gareth jax" scarpetta on 4 April, 2012

    Spam is inedible, unless properly prepared :) Spam and cheese sandwhich is delicious!

  48. Pedro Dias
    By Pedro Dias on 4 April, 2012

    My paycheck doesn’t say Google… now, it once did. Immorality doesn’t come from a paycheck it comes from lack of principles.

    Just by saying that Google is a corporation and that gives you the right of abusing or polluting the index and getting away with it doesn’t stick.

    Google is an ecosystem that provides traffic and strives on innovating their search results and their quality. That said, this ecosystem is only possible not only because of the Webspam and Search Quality team but also because of all the people that contribute with spam reports and quality suggestions.

    I see Google as the street I live in, because my business is there, because many good businesses are there and they abide by Google’s Quality Guidelines. If I see people going around breaking the windows and polluting that street, you bet I’m going to do everything in my power to prevent it. That is having principles and moral and not letting other “wise guys” spoil what has been built on a fair ground.

  49. Joe Hall
    By Joe Hall on 4 April, 2012


    Thanks a ton for mentioning me in your post! I also want to thank you for talking about the difference between hackers and black hat SEO. However, I think it is also important to note that there are a heck of a lot more black hat SEOs then there are hackers that hack for links. Because of both of our relationships to WordPress it is hard to see this sometimes given that we often see hacking attempts on a regular basis. Because I see a huge difference between hacking for links and black hat SEO, I regularly report plugins, themes, and developers to for such offenses, not because I am fighting spam but because I want to protect the integrity of the WordPress project and the sites that use it.

    This brings me to a comment you made.

    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”.

    Your right there is a “common good”, and in many ways WordPress is a wonderful example of it. WordPress’s adherence to the GPL and free software initiatives has helped mold it into a awesome community project that has empowered millions of people. Google on the other hand is a completely different story…. Google is a corporation. Google is not a community like WordPress is, they set the agenda and the rules, they control the flow of information, helping to improve their results does nothing to guarantee that you are treated with the same respect and compassion that a community can offer.

    I agree that all site owners have families to feed. All web sites that depend on rankings have real people behind them. Which is the whole point of my post. As an industry and community we need to have equitable levels of compassion and empathy for all involved. Even if you disagree with their methods.

    Disagreeing with methods is something that I think is at the crux of this discussion. I noticed that you used the term “Non-ethical SEO practices” above. I am having a hard time swallowing that. Spam is annoying, spam is the lowest form of marketing, spam reflects on complete laziness, spam is garbage in my mind. But it isn’t unethical. In my mind being unethical is causing harm on people when you know that is wrong, and thats why I will always believe that SEO outing is immoral.

    • Rarst
      By Rarst on 5 April, 2012

      In my mind being unethical is causing harm on people when you know that is wrong, and thats why I will always believe that SEO outing is immoral.

      If spam, black hat SEO and hacking caused no harm – outing them wouldn’t be able to cause any harm either.

      The “problem” people seem to have with outing is subjectively disproportional response. “I only spammed several thousands people, but lost my job for it! So unfair!”

      It is brainless self-justification response. Fair didn’t get in a way of going up by profiting from harming others, no reason for it to get in a way of going down (hard) when that comes out.

    • Mike Schinkel
      By Mike Schinkel on 5 April, 2012

      Spam is completely unethical.

      Spam squats on the property of others for the sole benefit of the spammer. It takes time for site owners to weed out the spam, it devalues the other legitimate links on the page, and visible spam devalues a site in the eyes of actual visitors.

      Saying spam is not unethical is like saying it’s not unethical to walk onto someone’s front yard, eat apples from their apple tree, and then leave their apple cores laying on the ground attracting flies and making the front yard look like crap.

    • Joost de Valk
      By Joost de Valk on 4 April, 2012

      Hi Joe,

      Thanks for your comment!

      I understand why you have a problem with unethical. In my mind, abusing your chance to respond to someone’s work for your own good IS unethical. Claiming to be someone you’re not and creating fake identities IS unethical, in fact, in many European countries that could be judged as illegal.

      As I said: I have my own moral and ethical compass, I will not always blindly follow Google. But it’s obvious I draw the line somewhere else than you do. I think we both can live with that :-)

      • Joe Hall
        By Joe Hall on 4 April, 2012

        Yes we both can live with that! :) I think that it is that type of mutual respect that helps everyone in the community discuss such complicated and important issues with coherent and intelligent dialog. Well at-least most of us! ;)

  50. Tight Line Productions
    By Tight Line Productions on 4 April, 2012


    This is a great write-up that everybody needs to be aware about. Many (more than you would think) SEO firms and companies use black hat techniques in an effort to boost their backlinks, and that really ruins the integrity of this industry.

    I like the steps that Google has taken in their Panda rollouts to attempt to stop this. It’s a fair attempt at leveling the playing field. I think sometimes our greed takes over and we are just hungry and hungry for more backlinks which ultimately plays a roll in a higher SERP, hence the black hatting of spammy links, comments, and profiles.

    Will definitely spread this article around mate…cheers!

  51. Remy Bergsma
    By Remy Bergsma on 4 April, 2012

    I have only a basic grasp of SEO and its technical inner workings (also thanks to you Joost! :)) but have followed these comment spam news items in the past days.

    If it would be possible, I would say ban for life (off the internet) for those people. It’s beyond netiquette and personal morale.

    Sadly, money talks, and this means that this stuff will be done as shown in the example here in The Netherlands.

    Good post, Joost, and keep it up.

  52. Ginger Rockey-Johhson
    By Ginger Rockey-Johhson on 4 April, 2012

    Bravo Joost. I love it when someone’s integrity and stance outweighs the paper dollars. I feel like just copying this and sending it to my clients because it just mirrors my heart 100%. Thank you for your continued boldness. Blessings

  53. Mayank Goyal
    By Mayank Goyal on 4 April, 2012

    Would you out even people who have high quality useful content on their website, better than their white-hat competitors(if any), but are either using blackhat techniques or their SEO service is using blackhat techniques without their knowledge?

    • Joost de Valk
      By Joost de Valk on 4 April, 2012

      Depends. If they’re hurting competitors that have the same type of products? Probably yes.

  54. Michel Janssen
    By Michel Janssen on 4 April, 2012

    Being new to the world of IM and linkbuilding i had to make some steps first. Sometimes big, sometimes small. Sometimes White, (as i thought) and i tried Black (it turned out so). Now im less new in this Google world, but still i am newby. With all knowledge i gained sofar, it is now my common sense telling me the difference between white and black hat. Black hat simply doesnt feel good. It gives obvious the easier oppurtunity, but somehow it makes me feel bad. I made the decision to only do white hat. I subscribed to Eric Wards linkmoses private and try to learn from inside out. Hell its far more difficult, but it feels good. I am not agains Black hat myself. I think its a method. And everyone can try its own methods. Its very likely im still running some blackhatted backlinks here and there. Besides. everything is white hat, until google changes its algoritm and calls it black!

    note: I do not do backlink building for clients(yet). Its for personal use only, but i think its a very funny challenging business.

  55. Craig Milam
    By Craig Milam on 4 April, 2012

    Thank you, Yoast for this excellent article. I agree with you 100% on your ethics and approaches to SEO. When you say black hat SEO directly affects jobs/families, you are absolutely correct.

    I think it’s important to note as well, that not only does it hurt competitors business, it sucks the life out of the small business guy with no knowledge who pays a black hat SEO firm.

    Imagine this scenario Company A has gained an excellent ranking for it’s targeted keywords, through diligence, hard work, and white-hat methods. Company B comes out of no where and immediately starts competing for high traffic keywords, some of which fall outside of his expertise, yet fall within company A’s expertise. Company B’s SEO guy keeps saying “I need some more money so we can get more links. End effect, company A loses customers due to sudden rise in the rankings of company B, company B is caught in a never ending endless expense of paying for spam back links that benefit his site for at most a week, Company B’s operating expenses go up due to the rise of calls many of which are unrelated to their field, and the only guy that comes out ahead is the black hat SEO firm who uses fiver dot com to get backlinks.

    So is outing immoral? No, on the contrary, I think it is one’s moral duty to inform people like company B in the above example of the unethical tactics being used. I also think it’s one’s duty as a white-hat SEO professional to submit spam reports to Google and write blog posts for consumers explaining how to look for spammy results (this can be done without name calling or outing).

    Thank you for being a champion of ethics. It’s true, building a solid foundation from the ground up takes more time, but it’s better to build on rock (white-hat SEO) than shifting sand (black-hat SEO).

  56. Terry A. Davis
    By Terry A. Davis on 4 April, 2012

    God loved Jacob and hated Esau.

    • Joost de Valk
      By Joost de Valk on 4 April, 2012

      As said, I’m from a Christian background, which has as a golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

  57. James Gurd
    By James Gurd on 4 April, 2012

    Hi Joost,

    Nice post and I think you’re right to speak out for the importance of ethics as well as commercial interest. I think everybody has a moral obligation to do things that are positive and those that ignore this deserve a little hand slapping. I don’t like the “success at any cost” approach, it’s very soulless.

    That doesn’t mean people can’t and don’t make mistakes. Often you learn more from mistakes than from successes. However, there is a big difference between deliberately doing something you know to be underhand in order to get a commercial advantage, and stumbling into a sh&t storm by accident because you didn’t have enough knowledge or advice.

    I think provided we all support each other and give the benefit of the doubt when that happens, whilst ‘outing’ those who are taking cheap shots, then we’ll all live happily ever after. Or something like that…


  58. James Crawford
    By James Crawford on 4 April, 2012

    Ethics are a funny concept in SEO. There are no industry bodies and only ‘the crowd’ or Google who can do anything about it.

  59. Paul Christian
    By Paul Christian on 4 April, 2012

    Nice post yoast. Too bad it had to be in The Netherlands :S
    But I do agree with the poster above. White hat mostly becomes better because of black hat.

  60. Mert
    By Mert on 4 April, 2012

    Welcome to the world of xrumer Joost. Last month I saw one programmer hit hundreds of expression engine CMS of churches and other not-for-profits to make dozens of user profiles to rank for short term loan keywords. Do you know how much server power and profile/comment spam it takes to pull that off? Ironically Bing was a lot better at eliminating those from their index than Google.

  61. Dan
    By Dan on 4 April, 2012

    Nice post Joost, fully ACK! :)

  62. Mike
    By Mike on 4 April, 2012

    Isn’t the definition of spam, “anybody who ranks higher than me?”

    All offsite optimization activities could be interpreted as spam if you read Google’s guidelines. They would prefer their guidelines to remain ambiguous. White hat is in the eye of the beholder. Be careful where you stand lest you fall. White Hat today; Black Hat tomorrow.

    • Joost de Valk
      By Joost de Valk on 4 April, 2012

      Mike: that makes it even more important to have your own moral compass.

  63. Andy Fairweather
    By Andy Fairweather on 4 April, 2012

    Its a good and fair point. Your making, that said Black hat is becoming more prevalent and cheap to implement. Every business should have a good ethical basis in the way it operates. it’s interesting to see how Google is starting to remove the blog networks like BuildMyRank proof if ever there was one that Google is policing its own index. I look at some competitors to our print websites in SEOmoz and see 30.000 back links, the reality is its pervasive and whilst I wish everyone held your moral conviction it’s hard not to let them win with just white hat strategy’s

  64. Philippa Willitts
    By Philippa Willitts on 4 April, 2012

    Great post, as always, Joost. We all do have our lines of ethics – I turned down a writing gig yesterday because I am fundamentally opposed to what they wanted me to write about. I think a lot of people who are running websites and buy a couple of WSOs probably use blackhat SEO methods without even realising that’s what they’re doing – they just follow the instructions they get. Professional SEOs, on the other hand, have no such excuse. So good on you for speaking out.

  65. Gerard
    By Gerard on 4 April, 2012

    I appreciate the post, Joost, but I’ve got to disagree with your last point – Google polices its own index, yes. But to all intents and purposes as the dominant search engine across the globe, Google’s index *is* the web.

    • Joost de Valk
      By Joost de Valk on 4 April, 2012

      More than 30% of pageviews on the web happen on Facebook last time I saw stats, Google doesn’t index that. So no, that’s not true. And even when it’s a big part of the web, it’s only because we allow it to be.

      • Pete
        By Pete on 7 April, 2012

        Pageviews isn’t a good nor reliable indication of ‘the web’. Facebook is a very specific type of pageview. Google may not be “the web’ but Facebook’s 30% really isn’t affecting the impact Google’s SERPs (which really is the main determining of what is “the web”)… in my point of view. :)

  66. Mike Hudson
    By Mike Hudson on 4 April, 2012

    With so much to loose or gain for many people, it’s hard to take the “ethical” position whereby you extract yourself from the all of the commercial factors.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your moral position on this – which I would normally label as ‘idealistic’. However, the ‘realistic’ impacts of the “real world” cannot simply be ignored. This grates agains my core moral being, but in this industry taking the higher-ground can mean you’re quickly over-run competitively. The playing field is simply still not in favor of those who play by the rules.

    OK, enough analogies, I’m only glad the pendulum is swinging in the quality direction.

    • Joost de Valk
      By Joost de Valk on 4 April, 2012

      Mike, I work for some of the worlds biggest brands because I’ve gotten them and other people very real results without resorting to such strategies. Just be more creative and better at what you do.

      If someone is beating me with tactics I really cannot ethically condone I will get rid of them by telling Google, but in most cases, I win without even noticing their stupid tactics.

  67. Steve K
    By Steve K on 4 April, 2012

    I am not an SEO person, just a guy with a blog who had to sort of dive into the world of SEO after finding my niche dominated by marketers. It’s the only way to be heard among the sea of other sites. But learning I have been. I can see playing a little fast and loose with Google’s algorithm, but when you get to the point of actively harming someone’s work by way of malware, or defrauding people as in the health site example, there’s probably not a whole lot of people who would agree those tactics are acceptable. That would be a lot like saying its ok to be a burglar or con man.

  68. Sanne Buurma
    By Sanne Buurma on 4 April, 2012

    Well written post, good to see you putting your opinion out there.

  69. Nick Morris
    By Nick Morris on 4 April, 2012

    Great post. Something the resonated with me especially is the ethics of SEO’s doing unethical things to their own clients such as your Godaddy example.

    I think this is especially rampant where SEO’s use blackhat techniques such as getting links from blog networks without explaining the risks to their clients. Then you get situations like a network getting de-indexed and their clients are left in the shit. Personally I am unable to lie to and manipulate my clients in this way which puts me at a disadvantage to those who are willing. Therefore to compensate for that disadvantage I have no problems outing them.

  70. Kim F
    By Kim F on 4 April, 2012

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    Anything greyer than white hat presents a nuanced set of progressively tougher ethical problems, and somehow you just nailed it in representing my exact view of those problems.

    Great post.

  71. Gyurka Jansen
    By Gyurka Jansen on 4 April, 2012

    Very thoughtful post that covers most of my opinion on this as well. (Even though I don’t consider myself a ‘SEO guy’.) I figure the same thing goes for other ‘industries’ as well.

    If one has certain moral restrictions or not, that doesn’t even really matter. It’s about the things you can do online. I have a certain respect for people that know how to promote their stuff online by ‘outwitting’ the system, but for me that stops at the point that it’s really affecting the user experience. Think about landingpages that focus on amazing offers but not on the things you’re actually subscribing to… those kind of things make me cringe a bit already. It’s not even outing, I think, when I ask someone about the type of leads they think they’re getting with ‘those type of pages’.

    There seems to be a lot of “don’t diss the industry” in a lot of environments, but why can’t we discuss -even with mutual respect- the effects our choices have on the results we’re getting. Are we so afraid that customers will see through a facade? If that’s true then I’m not sure if there is much hope for long-term survival anyway.

    As for hacking, well that’s not even SEO or anything else is for me. Just like putting people up with ransomware is not “sales” – even though I can appreciate the ingenuity of the code or approach sometimes.

  72. Carol
    By Carol on 4 April, 2012

    Thanks for your post. As a business that provides SEO and Social Media services for business it is disheartening to see the dodgy practices that go on in the industry. In some cases, people are paying thousands of dollars only to build the SEO companies network – the moment they leave their contract, they start from scratch. It is horrifying. I also consider that unethical.

  73. Jens Buch
    By Jens Buch on 4 April, 2012

    I am totally with you on this. Ethics is a very important factor if you sell SEO services and you are in it for the long-term. It’s like with pretty much everything in life – if you do bad stuff, it will eventually catch up with you…and it should. There are plenty of ways out there to make money as an SEO and still be able to sleep at night and look people in the eyes.

  74. Bojan
    By Bojan on 4 April, 2012

    I have pretty extensive list of reasons, why you should skip spamming the web altogether and focus on content creation and building relationship. It can’t fit into one comment, but it can fit in a complete new blog post.

    Thank you for inspiring:

  75. Twabla
    By Twabla on 4 April, 2012

    When asked to help us out Groupon (and Zalando) you declined.

    We are not policing the internet; we are just defending the integrity of our public fora. When our debating platforms are included in the link wheels of Groupon, Zalando, KPN, Volkswagen and Douwe Egberts Sara Lee, we will make sure they end up with flat tires.

    • Joost de Valk
      By Joost de Valk on 4 April, 2012

      I declined specifically because I don’t even want my name in posts related to that. ( And because we hadn’t done any business before as well; I have a tendency to rather write my own posts :) )

  76. Mark Ginsberg
    By Mark Ginsberg on 4 April, 2012

    Thanks Yoast – I totally agree with you and do think in certain cases outing is what should be done. The problem is, how do we combat the public/media image the world has of SEOs as internet spammers and people who ruin the web? Do you think outing just makes the situation worse? I was looking just yesterday at backlinks in a very spammed out sector, some which were on blog networks recently deindexed, and it really does make you realize how some SEOs are polluting the web and ruining things for everyone else. It’s in all of our best interest to improve the image and branding of SEO.

    • Nick Ker
      By Nick Ker on 4 April, 2012

      I think that in the long run, outing unethical or black hat SEO’s will help the industry’s reputation. Link spammers and other black hatters are generally too lazy to do real SEO. If Google continues to make it harder, and people who have a sense of right and wrong occasionally blow the whistle on spammers, they will eventually either move on to some other way to make a fast buck or actually learn how to do optimization and promotion in a sensible way.

      In the short term, however, it could possibly make us all look like a bunch of link spamming, blog networking clowns to those who follow stories about such things. The problem is that the average consumer/site owner does not always understand the difference between optimization and the spam and other shady tactics that people call SEO. Those people may think “I heard Google is cracking down on SEO – I don’t want to do any of that”.
      So a big +1 to Yoast and anybody else who has been fighting the good fight and maybe even turning up the heat.

    • Michiel Brand
      By Michiel Brand on 4 April, 2012

      Excellent post Joost, enjoyed reading this. You raise an interesting point Mark: does outing make the image that SEO has in the eyes of the public/media any worse?

      I guess to a certain extent it may have this effect sometimes. But overall and in the long term, I’d say that outing probably is to the benefit of SEO’s public image, especially when it’s done by people within the SEO community itself. This should hopefully demonstrate that there are a lot of SEOs who are concerned with ethical practices and who are not afraid to take up the gauntlet to fight for what they think is right. Countering unethical practices will not only benefit the SEO community itself, but will likely do its image and branding good as well.

      • Mark Ginsberg
        By Mark Ginsberg on 4 April, 2012

        Hi Michiel,

        Part of me agrees with you, and we do need to make sure that people understand that there are people out there concerned with ethical practices. On the other hand, maybe these discussions need to happen internally, on private forums, and not provide more ammunition to others looking to disparage the industry and happy to take things out of context and intent.

  77. John Walker
    By John Walker on 4 April, 2012

    Completly agree with you on this. I purchased an SEO course from a marketer who was doing particularly well with SEO. When I went throughout the course it was about spinning articles, using automatic backlink creators, hiding your IP..

    I was left with a sour taste in my mouth as this person will potentially sabotage many people who may just implement what he taught. Even after the update happened I thought he would have the sense to stop promoting the course but far from it.

    I like the way that creative content is becoming more popular like infographics, videos as it gives us a create content that people just like and link to naturally.

  78. Martijn Dirkx
    By Martijn Dirkx on 4 April, 2012

    Very, VERY well spoken! On the long-term, black hat will always loose from white hat SEO. But without black hat, white hat wouldn’t develop (or evolve). I have my own ethics but I would never judge another points of view.

  79. Remi van Beekum
    By Remi van Beekum on 4 April, 2012

    Thank you for this great post Joost.

    I totally agree. Everybody has an other set of ethics and that’s fine. But spamming search engines is a way that hurts others in an unethical way is too much.

    And my pay-check doesn’t say Google either, but when I stumble into a website that spams the search engines (and the web) I will try to get them out of the engines.

    Especially if it’s a competitor of a client of mine. That’s not ‘policing the web’, that’s also doing what is best for my clients.

  80. dan barker
    By dan barker on 4 April, 2012

    I like this post & agree with it pretty much fully. It’s nice to see someone sticking their head above the parapet for something positive. Had a point of worry that it was inadvertently outing ‘the wrong person’ in the middle, but see it’s been edited to fix that.

    I hadn’t heard about the MS example – pretty disgusting stuff.

    We are lucky to be working in a field where there is a surplus of work for good people (fingers crossed) at the moment. Based on that, it’s nice to think of there being a line from ‘willfully hurting people’ to ‘neutral’ to ‘willfully helping as many people as possible’, and to aim for work toward the latter end of that where possible.

  81. Rogier Noort
    By Rogier Noort on 4 April, 2012

    Cheers mate… Well ‘spoken’.

  82. Tim Kapitein
    By Tim Kapitein on 4 April, 2012

    Wow, the Groupon example is shocking and immoral…

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