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Ethical Search Engine Optimization Explained

Alan Perkins's picture

The first article in this series looked at simple definitions of Black Hat and White Hat Search Engine Optimization techniques, which I presented at the "Black Hat, White Hat and Lots of Gray" session at Chicago Search Engine Strategies in December 2004. During that session, I suggested that Black Hat SEO techniques are unethical whereas White Hat techniques are ethical. It seems that many SEOs and potential clients are confused by these labels. What does "Ethical SEO" actually mean?

"Ethical SEO" applies to SEO techniques, not to individual SEO practitioners. It's important to make this distinction between people and techniques. SEO practitioners may behave ethically (or what they believe is ethically) towards their clients. This does not mean that their practises are ethical or in anyone's ultimate interests but their own.

A range of strategies and tactics are available in order to perform search engine optimization. Which are ethical and which are unethical?

Drawing upon the document "A Framework For Ethical Decision Making" (from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University), the most ethical SEO technique is the one that

  • produces the most good and does the least harm
  • respects the rights and dignity of all stakeholders and treats all stakeholders fairly
  • promotes the common good
  • helps all participate more fully in the goods we share as a community and a society
  • enables the deepening or development of those virtues or character traits that we value as individuals, professions and members of a society

Who are the stakeholders in search marketing?

The search marketing stakeholders are those who have something to gain or lose as a result of search marketing taking place. As such, there are four sets of stakeholders:

  • Searchers
  • Search Engines
  • Site owners, their employees and their agents
  • The Web as a whole

Searchers have something to gain if they obtain the search results that best match their queries and, consequently, something to lose if they cannot do this. Therefore, any aspect of search engine marketing (whether perpetrated by search engines, site owners or another party) that deliberately does not provide searchers with search results that best match their query is unethical from the searchers' perspective. An example of unethical practises in this area is advertisements masquerading as objective search results - it's important that advertisements are clearly labelled so that searchers can tell when they are being advertised to and when they are not.

Search engines have something to gain if they can attract a market of searchers that appreciates and trusts the search results and will consequently keep coming back to the search engine. Search engines have something to lose – their market of searchers - if they fail to deliver relevant, objective search results or if they lose the trust of their searchers.

A site owner and everybody that acts on behalf of that site owner (including employees and agents) is a single stakeholder when evaluating the ethics of various search engine optimization techniques. It is for this reason that arguments about the way clients are treated by SEOs, although important in other contexts, are redundant when evaluating ethical optimization techniques – because, as far as other stakeholders are concerned, the site owner and their SEO are the same entity. Site owners have something to gain by attracting searchers (self-qualified, relevant traffic) to their site, and they have the most to gain if those searchers convert into something meaningful. Conversions range from reading a message to becoming a lifetime customer.

From a site owner's perspective, the action that does the most good and the least harm is the one that recognises the fundamental reason why a site is not performing optimally in search results; and fixes that fundamental problem; thus improving the site, the search results and the Web as a whole.

The action that does the least good and the most harm is the deception of search engines in order to achieve a placement in search results that is not warranted by the content that searchers see. This does not improve the site; in addition, it worsens the search results, and thereby the Web as a whole. Such actions effectively remove the role of determining relevance from the search engines, and place it instead with site owners. When site owners use deception to influence relevancy, the quality, diversity and utility of search results is lost to deceptive commercial influences.

The Web as a whole has something to gain if search engines improve the quality, diversity and utility of their search results, and something to lose if search engines fail to do this or are prevented from doing so. Search engines are an important part of the information architecture of the Web.

In order to provide the best (or least worst) outcome, the roles and responsibilities of the stakeholders are as follows:

Roles and Responsibilities of Searchers

  • Locate and use search engines with results that best match their requirements and personalities (demographic and psychographic profiles)
  • Use search modifiers and tools in order to tailor search results to their exact requirements
  • Have a basic awareness of technical issues
  • Be able to recognise clearly labelled advertising in search results
  • Obey terms of service of the search engines they use and the sites they visit

Roles and Responsibilities of Search Engines

  • Crawl and index the Web
  • Don't place undue strain on Web servers
  • Represent Web sites fairly in search results
  • Obey and further develop robots standards
  • Obtain a market of searchers
  • Determine relevance of resources to queries made by those searchers
  • Provide good quality, trustworthy search results with clearly labelled advertising (if any)
  • Obey the law

Roles and Responsibilities of Site Owners

  • Provide a good quality Web site designed to appeal to particular target markets
  • Correct any fundamental problems with architecture, accessibility, usability
  • Write or rewrite the content to ensure suitability for the target markets
  • Make good use of the available robots standards
  • Market the site using links designed for people to see and follow
  • Obey the terms of service of the search engines and directories that site is submitted to

Within this ethical framework, search engines are allowed to improve their search results or die, to be replaced by better search engines; the quality of Web sites in the search results improves, benefiting the owners of those Web sites to the detriment of lower quality Web sites; searchers obtain better results from search engines and are not deceived by advertisements masquerading as search results; and the Web as a whole is a better place. That is the outcome of ethical search marketing. When unethical, deceptive practises are deployed the opposite happens. It is partly for this reason that I believe the SEO industry is sleepwalking towards disaster. Any industry that condones actions that make the Web a worse place cannot rely upon the long term support of the Web's users.

The other reason I believe that the SEO industry is sleepwalking towards disaster is that many of the techniques it uses, in addition to being unethical, are illegal. My next article, Search Engine Optimization and The Law, will this in more detail.

Alan Perkins : 10/02/2005