The Search Engine Optimization Code of Ethics

By Gregory Smyth

The terms 'white hat' and 'black hat' within the search engine optimization field are often not as clear cut as they might seem. Tactics that were once perfectly acceptable are now considered black hat, and the boundaries are still changing frequently. Today we set down a definitive (though flexible) matrix within which you can assess the 'ethics' of any search engine optimization firm.

Black hat search engine optimization is commonly understood to be the use of 'unethical' practices to increase a website's search engine ranking. However, when you start investigating the nuts and bolts of search engine marketing and and search engine optimization services, it quickly becomes clear that far more certainty is needed in the definition of white hat and black hat SEO. Today we look at a definitive, though not prescriptive, ethical framework within which potential internet marketing clients can judge the colour of an SEO firm's hat.

No intentional harm to a client
Obviously search engine optimization practitioners would rather not do harm to clients who are paying for their services, and upon whom their reputations rest. However, many black-hat SEO firms use their ranking techniques in the hope that they'll achieve the rankings, without the penalty from the search engines. 'Harm' should be interpreted as potential or eventual harm, as well as direct harm.

Not violating any published search engine rules or codes
Google publishes their rules for inclusion in search engine results from time to time. To be considered an ethical internet marketing and search engine optimization service, a firm would obviously need to work in accordance with Google's and other engines' published principles. There is a grey area in this tenet, though - firms also need to retrospectively ensure that their work adheres to search engine standards as they are updated.

No intentional misleading of consumers
Consumers in this instance means the end site visitors. In most cases these bait-and-switch tactics will be against the published rules of a search engine anyway. Internet consulting services should ensure that the page displayed is relevant to the optimized phrase, and doesn't contain widely offensive material.

No representing others work as their own
This tenet of SEO ethics is especially important, as it ties into the first two principles. Using optimized content from another site and representing it as original can have serious implications for a client's website viability in Google - publishing duplicate content usually results in a penalty or delisting.

No creation of a conflict of interest
In search engine optimization, it isn't necessarily reasonable to expect that a firm will take only one firm per industry as a client - SEO firms need to ensure their survival and viability, just as every other business does. However, it is reasonable to expect equal treatment of two client firms competing for the same keywords. Conflicts of interest are prohibited under the code of ethics for search engine optimization services. It is preferable that firms disclose any conflicts of interest to potential new clients before signing them up, and allow them an informed choice.

Not setting unreasonable client expectations
Leading or allowing clients to expect unrealistic results is against the main SEO marketing code of ethics - it is the equivalent to false or misleading advertising in any industry. For example, accepting several clients all with competing keywords, and promising each of them a top search engine ranking would be setting unreasonable expectations. Implying that increased search engine rankings will be achieved in an excessively short amount of time would also.