Ethics, Best Practices and SEO – A Crisis in the Profession?

There has been much debate recently on the practice of ethical Search Engine Optimization (SEO). The recent removal of a high profile SEO company from the Google results has plunged the industry into yet another debate on what is ethical and what is not in our profession.
I have been involved in the SEO industry for a few years now and the mention of the word ethics and best practices in what is still an unregulated industry creates a level of confusion the likes of which I have not observed in any other industry. Why does this reluctance to discuss ethics and best practices exist? After all, we call ourselves professionals and as professionals we should strive to be part of an industry which stands for best practices and quality of service.
The confusion seems to come from the way that search engines rank sites. Each search engine has an algorithm which is a complex method of giving a value to a site which will ensure that it is returned in the search results when a relevant keyword is typed into a search engine. These algorithms are kept secret by the search engines for obvious reasons. The SEO industry is highly focused on analyzing these algorithms and using any knowledge gained to modify and rank websites. Ask any two SEO’s what they consider to be ethical in their pursuit of top results and you will most likely get two very different answers. Hence, the lack of agreement on what is ethical and what is not.
So where do we start? Our commitment must always start with the client and our responsibilities to them. An ethical company will always demonstrate loyalty and respect to their client. This is true whether they are an SEO, a doctor or an accountant.
Having sound business practices and a professional approach to all that you do then we can move onto the ‘search engine guidelines.’ All the major search engines and directories publish their own guidelines of use for webmasters. This should be the minimum that any SEO practitioner complies with when working on a client’s site. Search engines have a right to protect the integrity of their results and the SEO practitioners should respect those guidelines.
The confusion seems to arrive with the interpretation of the guidelines. One SEO will interpret the rules to mean one thing and another SEO will see it as completely different. The stakes are high and a top ranking in Google for your site is powerful branding and can lead to a major upswing in your business.
SEO practitioners have been classified as ‘whitehat,’ and ‘blackhat.’ Whitehat practitioners are the ones that try to stick to search engine guidelines while blackhat operate using more questionable techniques and view the search engines as the ‘enemy.’ Unfortunately blackhat techniques can sometimes adversely affect the sites ranking and worse, get their client’s sites banned.
Blackhats traditionally play to the emotional needs of their clients and often convince them to part with their money without giving clear and specific information on the changes they will make to their sites. If a client is fully aware of the risks and is prepared to buy into short term gain then that is their choice. However, many Blackhat SEO’s do not disclose their tactics. Would you hire a CPA who submits your tax return including questionable practices and breaking all the IRS rules? You are the one who will get audited, prosecuted and have to pay huge fines.
Blackhat techniques are just plain bad business practice. They also do the search engines and the search users a huge disservice by contributing to poor quality of results. This adds nothing to the end user experience.
The search engines say that any type of manipulation to get a site ranked is a threat against them and the relevancy of their results. Whitehat practitioners will say that they are not manipulating sites but rather fixing search engine obstacles within a web site. The need for their services is great as many web site designers do not know how to integrate search engine friendly designs.
Last year a prospective customer contacted me after being burned by a “rogue” SEO company who got their site (and others) banned from Google for spam tactics. A few weeks later they were contacted by the same “rogue” SEO company under a new name. Perhaps naively she almost fell for it again. She reasoned that if they had been banned once they would not do anything wrong again! This demonstrates the lack of knowledge that consumers have regarding our industry. They don’t know the difference between good and bad SEO. People are being taken advantage of because of their lack of knowledge.
No matter what techniques your SEO uses; ‘ethical’ , ‘whitehat’ ,‘blackhat’ none at all it all boils down to one thing. Doing right by the client? Ethics is often viewed by many in the industry as hype.
I think the focus should be on serving users as opposed to manipulating the search engines. SEO’s who concentrate of making the sites the best that they can be for the end user will create a much better longer term affect. The SEOs who chase algorithms and try to game the search engines get burned when there is an algorithm change. Following search engine updates involving an algorithm shift, the industry message boards abound with posts along the lines of “I hate Google, they have killed my site” If these posters had spent more time improving their site for their clients, and the search users, the algorithm updates would be much less stressful for them.
At this time there is no initiative within the industry to create a trade body which sets a code of best practices. It is down to the consumer to practice “buyer beware” and ensure that they practice due diligence in selecting an SEO. They need to use even more caution than they would use to select any other vendor. I also believe the industry has a responsibility to provide education and resources for consumers and help de-mystify the profession.
Great SEO companies share their knowledge willingly. They hide nothing to either clients or search engines. They know that they have a specialized skill and are proud of what they do. They get their results through hard work and perseverance. They also know that to do the job properly takes a lot of time. This is something which most business owners feel they do not have. They are confident that when it comes to hiring a professional, their honest and open approach to their trade will be acknowledged by organizations who only want to work with the best.
The following are some golden rules I have written on choosing an SEO. If the consumer sticks to these rules then they should avoid the practitioners in our industry who give the rest of us a bad name.
• Only work with a company that follows search engine guidelines. (If I could only make one recommendation this would be it). The three main search engines are Google, MSN, and Yahoo. Look on their sites for their webmaster guidelines.
• Only work with a company that documents the SEO process they will use to rank your site
• Only work with a company that provides a written contract outlining their process and their costs
• Get at least four proposals for your site and compare services before you make a decision
• Do not work with a company that offers guarantees of top rankings. Nobody can offer these types of guarantees.
• Do not lock yourself into a contract you cannot get out of if you are not getting results
• Ask for references and follow up with them. If you still have any doubts ask for more. Ensure that references check out. Check that the suggested site is real and that the contact details given check out against the contact details on the site.
• Do not allow any work to be carried out on your site without your approval.
• Do not give the SEO carte blanche to do as they will with your site. It is your site not theirs. It is your responsibility to ensure that the SEO does not apply any techniques that would result in getting your site banned.
• Check the companies BBB (Better Business Bureau) report. Check for membership of any other established trade bodies such as the AMA (American Marketing Association) Many companies claim that they are more reputable because they are part of SEMPO (Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization.) However this is not the case. All that is required to be a member of SEMPO is a $299 annual subscription.
• Do not work with a company that engages in site wide link exchanges. Question their linking methods. Ensure that they only have a policy of linking with on-topic sites. Remember, your site is built for users not for search engines. If your site is about computers and your link to a site that sells children’s toys how useful do you think that link will be for your visitors.
• Ask other companies doing well on the Internet who they use for SEO. Always ask about the quality of customer service that is offered. It is not much use having a great SEO if you can never get hold of them.
• If it sounds too good to be true. IT IS!!!
In conclusion the SEO industry is a dynamic growing industry. This rapid growth has created some challenges for the industry. One of these challenges is the perception that outsiders have of SEO practitioners being unethical. To counteract this many SEOs are now promoting themselves as ‘ethical SEO.’ However, as the industry is unregulated it is up to the consumer of the service to become informed and exercise caution when selecting a SEO vendor. As the demand for SEO continues to grow the number of unethical practitioners calling themselves SEOs will also grow. To protect yourself, take the vendor selection process seriously. Look for vendors who are willing to share knowledge and partner with you to provide the best possible outcome for you business.