From the very beginnings, search engine optimization was a way for savvy web developers and business leaders to trick search engine algorithms into ranking certain pages higher in the search results. The tactics back then were much less than sophisticated; they entailed spamming links in comments sections, stuffing keywords into content and even reposting the same content over and over. In some ways, SEOs strove to deceive search engines, and therefore web users, into believing that their websites offered the best information related to search queries.
Today, these tactics are no longer in use because search engines wised up and refined their algorithms to penalize such flagrantly unscrupulous behavior. Even so, there are still ways to manipulate search rankings in an unethical way — but should you strive to avoid them? What constitutes ethical and unethical SEO, anyway?
What We Currently Understand About Ethical SEO
The most widely accepted definition of ethical SEO is: “search engine marketing using only techniques and strategies that search engines consider to be acceptable.” At first, this might make some sense; after all, search engines typically want what is best for web users and push for marketing tactics that improve the quality of the web overall. It does seem ethical to use a service like a search engine in the way that search engine prefers.
However, there are a few issues with this understanding of ethical SEO. First, it assumes that search engines are altruistic, that they always aim for encouraging SEO practices that are good for everyone — and this is a flawed assumption. At their heart, search engines are companies, just like yours, and though they provide a widely used service that benefits almost everyone online, they are still striving to make money. Thus, they might choose to accept only SEO practices that contribute to their profitability — which is a decidedly unethical act.
What’s more, even if you do grant that search engines have the power to determine what is an ethical and unethical use of their web tool, most search engines follow different rules. Unfortunately, you only have one website. As a result, by participating in SEO, you are almost certain to remain ethical to one search engine while becoming unethical with regards to another.
Ultimately, it seems unfair to categorize digital assets like search algorithms, websites, social media pages and the like as tools for morality when in truth they are tools for industry and profitability. Still, there are ways to use these tools in ways that do not lie to or harm web users in ways that reflect poorly on your business.
How Businesses Should Behave With SEO
It is unclear whether ethical SEO exists or what it means as yet in the 21st century, but you should commit to SEO practices that do not interfere with your long-term ability to rank highly in search and more importantly that cast your business in a positive light. Here are a few so-called ethical guidelines to remember when drafting your SEO strategy for the next few years:
Read and Respect Search Engine Guidelines
Google, Bing, Yahoo and most other prominent search engines publish webmaster guidelines and resources to help SEOs and digital marketers better understand what can help and hurt their rankings. These guidelines often include descriptions of the type of content search engines serve, technical recommendations and lists of optimizations techniques that will result in penalties and de-indexing. Though you don’t need to follow these guidelines to the letter, it is wise to read and understand them to avoid some of the most egregious SEO mistakes.
Recognize That SEO Strategies Differ
What works for a large corporation in a vast industry might not be what works for you — but that doesn’t make your SEO strategy unethical. You should find SEO services that are appropriate for your SEO goals, budget and brand, and you should be careful to separate your SEO tactics from decidedly non-SEO tactics. Then you can get a better grasp on how your SEO will work into the future and how you can ensure that it doesn’t offend either search engines or web users.
Refuse to Be Exploitative
Even if you believe that SEO can be neither ethical nor unethical, you must understand that the tactics you use can fall into one or the other category. For example, not long ago it was a typical digital marketing tactic to run fundraising campaigns for charities in the hopes that non-profit websites would post authoritative backlinks to business sites. Unfortunately, after obtaining that link, many businesses dropped their interest in charitable fundraising almost immediately. Before engaging in any tactic, you should consider your personal and business values and determine whether your efforts would exploit any group unjustly, which is unethical behavior.
All entrepreneurs and business leaders should strive to be ethical in everything they do. While SEO doesn’t offer the clearest path to ethical practices, you can commit to ethical SEO efforts by staying true to your business values and doing what is best for your online audience.