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The Danger of Defining "Ethical" SEO in Terms of Search Engine Compliance

12 February 2003
Christina Buu-Hoan

Equating ethical SEO practices with those that are search-engine-compliant isn't simply a misunderstanding, it's dangerous. Before we look at the danger, let's examine why, at a minimum, it's a misunderstanding.

Defining Search Engine Compliance

A webmaster or SEO company can use techniques that 1) the search engines don't approve or 2) the search engines can't handle very well at their current level of technology. Thus, another way of understanding "search engine compliance" is to ask: "Is this method approved by the search engines?" or separately, "Can the search engines process the content when presented in this particular way?" An example of the former (method not-approved by the search engines) is cloaking. An example of the latter (content that's challenging for the search engines to process) is a site that consists only or mostly of flash-animation, graphics, or other multimedia.

If you use techniques that are explicitly not sanctioned by the search engines, then you risk the penalties the search engines can impose upon you (which include among other things: being banned from their database or reduced rankings). Does this make you a bad person? Hardly. I'd suggest that were I a client, I might want to take my business elsewhere. But that's a question of whether or not I think you employ sound business practices- and is not a moral question. 

Context of Usage Matters When Applying Ethical Judgments

Techniques in themselves aren't morally good or bad; it's the context of how those techniques are applied that matters. Some would argue that any technique which isn't sanctioned by the search engine is automatically used in a context of deception. Since by and large, our society tends to take a dim view of deceptive practices, wouldn't that be an example of unethical SEO?

The problem with that assumption is the difficulty in proving it. This is especially true given the current level of technology. Frankly, search engine algorithms haven't caught up to the variety of content presented on the web or the forms in which it's presented (visually, aurally, etc.). This brings us to the second way (listed above) that something can be non-compliant. Give a search engine a site that's not text-centric and it has difficulties spidering the content and indexing the content (independent of a human advisor). (Read more about the difficulties in marketing a Flash site.) Flash isn't the only presentation of content that is not well-handled by the search engines. It's just one of the more widespread practices (along with others such as Frames) that is difficult to impossible for the various search engines to handle although various engines such as FAST and Google are making strides toward indexing such sites. Point? Not all techniques which aren't search-engine-compliant are automatically or deliberately deceptive.

To establish deception, you'd have to bring in the notion of "intent" and currently, the algorithms (as far as I'm aware) are just not capable yet of establishing intent, let alone intent to deceive. That's exactly why human advisors at the search engines step in to manually re-adjust rankings (as was the case in the now very public Google-SearchKing lawsuit). Manual tweaking is necessary to correct for unfair manipulations- argue the search engines. However understandable that may be, a certain amount of objectivity is still compromised and the potential to abuse manual tweaking of either results or ranking- is raised.

SEO Ethics? Is There Such A Creature?

This isn't to say that there aren't moral or ethical issues within SEO or the Search Industry. But, lack of search engine compliance- isn't automatically one of them. Using techniques that are not search-engine-compliant should not be considered unethical simply in virtue of the fact that they do not conform to what the search engines approve or can handle. (For that matter, using techniques that are search-engine-compliant should not be considered ethical! Ethics needs to be removed from this particular situation since it clouds the real issues.)

Various attempts to set-up some sort of governing board within SEO have been made. Yet none have successfully set down a coherent set of standards and practices that express an agreed-upon set of values. And with regard to consensus, neither the search engines (as a group and not as individuals) nor the webmaster and SEO community (as groups) have agreed upon a definition of cloaking. (Read more about the debate on cloaking.)

Optimizing Controversial Sites or Non-Commercial Invisible Sites

Some very real ethical issues within SEO that aren't discussed much (perhaps for obvious reasons) are those having to do with the actual content being optimized. If we assist in optimizing sites that promote harm, hatred, and so forth, is that unethical? Are gambling sites ok? But porn not? Are sites that promote the legalization of drugs ok? What of the clash between pro-choice and pro-life? What of the distinctions between sites that promote (or separately exploit) civil disobedience, freedom of speech, racist, fundamentalist, or other-sectarian views, terrorism (or state-sponsored terrorism), and so on? What is the impact of SEO for those smaller businesses or non-commercial entities that can't afford SEO (or the time to gain self-taught knowledge) but suffer from their "invisibility" (as a result of poor rankings or not being spidered & indexed) on search engines?

Other real ethical issues within SEO include stealing content, domains, and the questionable optimizing on your competitors' names, products, and so forth.

Further, I think a case can be made that practices that are understood to be "spam" (unwanted, irrelevant, and an abuse of time and other resources) are unethical. But if they are unethical, it's not because the search engines deem them as unsanctioned practices. It's because we can show how they cause harm. Harm to ourselves or harm to others. Or because we can show how its practice leads to a world that's worse to live in. [These are admittedly simplistic statements.]

Bad Business, Not Unethical

In an earlier commentary on the ethics hype in SEO, I talk about why it's more constructive to view the debate about search-engine-compliant practices in terms of bad or good business practices (instead of ethics). Those who argue that non-compliant practices are unethical are confused and mistaken as to what ethics is about. They have not made any case as to why such practices are morally wrong. (Apart from repeating that the search engines don't like such practices.) Further, they can't appeal to a group consensus within the SEO community (or elsewhere) that has clearly defined the standards and values that are to be promoted or emulated.

However, it's fairly straightforward to explain why a lot of practices that are non-compliant are either bad business practices to follow or unnecessary.


There are real ethical issues within SEO which can be shown to have some foundation in ethical philosophy. These issues do not tend to receive much attention or debate because they don't carry an obvious impact commercially. And they're about as well-received as any examination of the personal choices we make in life- would be well-received.

Search engines aren't (and don't ask to be) moral authorities. Ironically, groups such as CommercialAlert have called into question the practice by some search engines to blend commercial results (paid listings) with non-commercial results. And recently, Danny Sullivan called into question the possibility that paid listings on the search engines fall under a different set of standards (looser restrictions) than non-paid listings. Since we're all consumers, whether or not you work in the industry, how these questions are resolved affects all of us.

It's dangerous to confuse moral authority with a company's right to set down guidelines for how it conducts business and what it finds acceptable. Take the following ludicrous situation. If FAST were to ban all sites that used Flash tomorrow, I wouldn't find that policy unethical. Nor would I find webmasters that used Flash or companies that advocated the use of Flash unethical. But I might stop using FAST for searches. Granting such moral authority affects our ability to think or determine our actions independently of the moral authority. And I do find that very dangerous.

If site creation or content creation becomes ruled not by the creator (or the user for whom the content or site was created for in the first place), but by the search engines, the web's a poorer place. You can't live in fear of angering the almighty search engine gods or of being relegated to obscurity. This is not a blanket excuse to go out and spam, or go out and cloak. But ultimately, I do believe it's important to determine for yourself what course of action you will follow and why. And if you're convinced simplistically, that ethical SEO is only or mostly that which is search-engine-compliant, you've stopped examining your choices in a context independent of the search engines.

And while search engines do play a tremendous role in connecting sites with their audience, let's not confuse who our audience actually is- and it's not the search engines.

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