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SEO Ethics: Hype and Hypocrisy?

28 January 2003
Christina Buu-Hoan

Do a search on "search engine ethics" or "seo ethics" and you'll find any number of articles explaining the potential perils of using "unethical" SEO techniques. The three major objections I have against these are:

1. Most potential clients new to search engine optimization (SEO) don't have enough of an understanding (at least, initially) to effectively evaluate the claims of "good" vs. "bad" techniques.

2. An unethical or "bad" technique is defined purely in terms of what the search engines don't like. (But the search engines themselves are no moral authority.) This confuses the morality of an action with an action's results. (That is, using a "bad" technique can hurt your rankings or result in your site being banned or dropped from a search engine's database- if you're caught.) A more useful characterization of bad SEO techniques is that they're just bad business or counterproductive.

3. They distract focus from the more basic question: "How are these techniques helping me to better connect with my target audience?" The answers should not be shrouded in mystery. In general, if you have to create deceptive pages, content, or links that you would never want your real target audience to see, your efforts are not serving your users or helping you to connect with your users more. (And equally, you're potentially contributing to poor or irrelevant results on the search engines thereby alienating a strong resource.)

So yes, I believe that the topic of SEO ethics can be a form of marketing hype. These tend to be self-evident with a quick glance at the material. For an example of an article that isn't hype and doesn't confuse ethics with bad business, see Chris Ridings' List of High-Risk SEO Techniques to Avoid.

So how did ethics get dragged into SEO in the first place? The truth is that people have been taken advantage of- because of their ignorance. SEO still isn't very well-known and can be confusing- especially to the technology-challenged. In "The Salmon of Doubt", Douglas Adams says:

"We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works. How do you recognize something that is still technology? A good clue is if it comes with a manual."

I empathize with the site-owners that just want to be found and don't care about the techniques that get them well-placed. However, that lack of knowledge opens up vulnerabilities as Brian McWilliams points out in a neat article he wrote for Salon entitled "Dot-Com Noir".

So how do you know whom to trust?

Educate yourself so that at a basic level, you can assess the reasoning behind any particular technique your SEO company advocates. The Internet is invaluable for this- if you can allocate a little bit of time towards the research. Check out our Resources page for some of the best places to start.

Use your common-sense. If a claim or an offer sounds a little too good to be true, chances are it is. Good SEO isn't done overnight and it takes both time and effort.

Realize there are few absolutes. No one "guru" or "expert" has all the answers. It's important to understand why a particular proposed solution is the right fit for your needs- and to be able to evaluate for yourself the success of any particular campaign. Some of the best ways to independently verify the results are via your log reports, quick manual rank checks, and internal tracking of referrals or better, sales conversions.

SEO at its most basic involves two levels of optimization: 1) on-page optimization and 2) beyond the page optimization (which can involve link strategies, paid placements, and other online marketing exposure). There is a limited amount that one can do on the former. Once you understand the techniques (which involve page elements such as tags, content, navigation bars, etc.), they're straightforward to implement for each page you wish to optimize. There is on-going work to be done with the latter. But both have to be addressed.

Finally, with regard to hypocrisy, there's truth to the charge that SEO itself is an attempt to manipulate a page's rankings on the search engines. However, it's also true that any site can benefit from the basic knowledge that SEO can give with regard to the current limitations of what search engines can index (and include) and what elements make it easier for the search engines to find your pages and include your information. Don't let the pseudo-ethics scare you or confuse you as to the importance of basic SEO for your site. At the same time, think twice about using bad-business techniques not simply because of any severe penalties that the search engines can hit you with- but because they fail to serve your audience.


It's come to my attention that Fantomaster has the following critique: 

Unfortunately, her argument is slightly at fault on the very same score, e. g. when she writes:

"In general, if you have to create deceptive pages, content, or links that you would never want your real target audience to see, your efforts are not serving your users or helping you to connect with your users more. (And equally, you're potentially contributing to poor or irrelevant results on the search engines thereby alienating a strong resource.)"

This is highly arguable at best: if search engines cannot reliably make sense of what your web pages are about (e. g. if you feature massive graphics and multimedia content), employing a "deceptive" technique like cloaking or IP delivery may very well constitute your only chance at survival. Plus, it needn't be deceptive or misleading per se. On the contrary, it may even help the search engines grasp and index content they would otherwise never really know about.

Thus, her piece, while certainly pointing webmasters in the right direction ("don't let yourself be conned by ethics hype"), one would have liked to see a slightly more sophisticated, differentiating discussion of the issues at hand.

More often than not, a mere "use your common sense" approach constitutes little else than a gut level reaction to what is essentially merely a technological rather than a moral challenge.

However, while anthropomorphizing the Web may be a "natural" response to what is experienced as an overwhelmingly complex environment hingeing almost exclusively on technological factors, but it can hardly be deemed adequate by any standard.

Great! Some thoughts:

1. I don't believe that all cloaking is deceptive. But I do stand by my belief that a company's efforts are better concentrated on serving their users rather than creating extra work that has nothing to do with their users or their users' interests. To be fair, Ralph above is commenting on the fact that one present limitation of many search engines is their inability to spider flash sites or to properly index or catalog a site that is graphic-intense (and low on actual text or text content). (And yes, the search engines have other limitations.) His point is well-taken insofar as he mentions that it doesn't need to be deceptive or misleading per se (although he doesn't explain here exactly why or how). That's important. Plus, if it's not misleading, why can't it stand up to the light of being seen or viewed by your users?

2. The general recommendation for sites that are flash or graphic-intensive is to create an html version of it that's accessible for those without flash or for those who don't have the connectivity to be able to download heavy graphics. Having worked with multimedia clients, I do understand why their sites need to look, sound, feel a certain way that doesn't lend itself to the text (or text-content)-heaviness model currently preferred by the search engines. However, it's just not the most difficult thing in the world to create a companion html site which is search-engine friendly and further, accessible to those potential consumers or visitors that don't have the fastest connections or the latest tools.

3. Let's talk trust for a little bit here. Companies who have to resort to deceptive techniques to be found- using content that's not professional or not the correct fit for their users- aren't the kind of companies that consumers tend to want to reward with their business. Remember, not all cloaking is deceptive- but when it is, I'm still waiting for the argument that justifies its use. Why do we tend to dislike deception so much? Whether it's deception from the search engines (e.g. CommercialAlert's complaint about deceptive advertising) or deception from webmasters (or SEO companies), what we really hate is being manipulated against our will or our own intent. Which leads to my next point.

4. I trust in the majority of people's common sense. Call me an idealist. Call me a fool. Actually, call me neither! A new global survey has found that while internet usage is up, users are more skeptical about the quality of information found online. Keeping that trust becomes even more important. I believe it's better to give someone the information and data they need- and then, let them decide rather than resort to manipulation or deception. There's more than gut level involved because common sense is not a reaction. It involves thought. Specifically- thinking it out for yourself rather than reacting. Which is why when someone is promising you the moon, your common sense might kick in and get you to look closer at what's being offered. Your heart might lust after that new sportscar but your common sense might tell you the morass of debt you'd sink into to afford it- just isn't worth it. And why the next time you're considering the merits of a particular purchase, you try to separate the marketing hype from whether or not it's the right solution for you and can it do what you need it to do?

Fantomaster responds (added 3 February 2003)

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