Ethics and SEO: When does manipulation become deception?

Search engine optimization is big business these days, and for good reason, since it’s a key part of any PR strategy that involves online communication. And don’t they all?

google_seo.gifSEO helps our clients cut through the clutter of cyberspace and create the ever-important “Google Juice” that drives Web denizens to our sites. At Kent State, we include several lessons on SEO in the “Public Relations Online Tactics” class. And we’re happy to have our own SEO expert from the PR office demonstrate her magic.

For the uninitiated, SEO is “the process of improving the volume and quality of traffic to a web site from search engines via “natural” (“organic” or “algorithmic”) search results. Usually, the earlier a site is presented in the search results, or the higher it “ranks”, (sic) the more searchers will visit that site.” (Wikipedia)

Though SEO is a critical part of most online strategies, it’s also inherently manipulative — even potentially evil. Using SEO, we design our sites and distribute related communication with the intent of boosting our position/ranking with the search engines. On one hand, we’re helping the public find our information, and that’s a good thing. On the other hand, we’re manipulating the search process — messing with nature, if you will — and telling no one we’re doing it.

See the potential for unethical behavior here?

Why are PR professionals not raising ethical concerns over SEO? I’m not sure — or perhaps I missed a heated debate while I was tanning in the islands. Or maybe that debate happened before my Web 2.0 enlightenment.

SEO geeks, on the other hand, have been talking about it for 5 years. You’ll find samples here and here and here, and that list gone on and on and on.

SEO is good business, and a service our clients have come to expect. But SEO, in the hands of zealots can quickly degenerate into spam campaigns that every blogger is subjected to these days. As I write this, I count 446 junk comments in the Askimet file of this blog, and that number will double by tomorrow.

All around us, search engines are manipulated by the phony traffic and counterfeit links created by spammers. It’s all perfectly legal, and the charlatans who used these tools are pushing your clients’ listings further down the search list.

Because the average Joe neither knows nor cares about the ethics of SEO, he is easily duped. But aren’t we all? I click the first site that turns up on a search. Don’t you?

I’m certain that most of my 57 readers are ethical practitioners who would never resort to unscrupulous spam to build Google Juice. But the lure of landing atop the search engine charts is a powerful one, driven by corporate greed — the very same greed that drives our clients to do “whatever it takes” to win the game.

No matter how you slice it, SEO — even responsible SEO — is a clandestine enterprise. And when our website slips to page 6 of the search, I worry that some of us will do “whatever it takes” to rescue it. Seems to be the way of the Web these days.

images1.jpgA tip of the cap. I didn’t think much about SEO ethics until I read Andrew Keen‘s “The Cult of the Amateur.” Thank you, Amanda, for insisting I do that. Anyone who uses social media will benefit from Keen’s perspectives. And we can all benefit from Amanda Chapel’s biting criticism and smart-ass wit. If you read her carefully, you’ll see that Amanda really loves this business and fears for its future. And isn’t she hot?

10 Responses to Ethics and SEO: When does manipulation become deception?

  1. Andy Curran says:

    Didn’t you mean, “…when I was burning in the islands”?

    If you don’t pop up in the first window, your site/blog is reduced to second-class citizen status. Everyone has googled their name. When I do, I am on about the 30th page, thanks to a Canadian hair band guitarist who is very popular north of the border.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Curran

    Unless I split the atom or commit a heinious crime (and, no, listening to John Meyer and rooting for the Mets do not qualify!), I am doomed to a life of anonymity. Not a problem for me, but it could be for a business counting on website hits.

  2. I specialize in online PR, run nearly two dozen sites of my own, and have a lot of clients who are SEO professionals. When you read about SEO on the Web, one important detail is almost always ignored (which I’ll paraphrase from a colleague and Internet marketer) – the best optimized webpages usually end up being the ones written for readers and not for search engines. Here’s why:

    1. Too much keyword-stuffing can actually hurt your ranking as opposed to improving it, and we write with keyword-targeting pretty well naturally, when we’re not stressing over it. And those natural articles can always be tweaked later a little bit if necessary.

    2. When content on your site attracts decent rankings in the SERPs naturally as opposed to keyword-stuffing, link buying, and SEO “tricks,” you often don’t see quite the same fluctuations after algorithm changes. While I’m fortunate to know a few highly ethical SEO pros, the majority I’m acquainted with actually count on those changes to discount the tricks they’ve used, because it keeps the clients coming back for more every time Google weeds out some other kind of search engine spam tactic.

    This really isn’t just speculation. I’ve worked within three large content networks in either a writer or editor capacity, including as the Technology Editor for one of them dealing with issues just like this. So I’ve had the opportunity to see how the large content-based sites, who tend to do very well in the SERPs, handle things, and it’s not by keyword-stuffing or SEO tricks. Frankly, the writers they bring in rarely know enough about SEO to try to manipulate anyone with it. While they’ll educate the writers in the basics (choose long tail keywords instead of worrying about ranking for a popular single-word term, etc.), it really comes down to writing for the readers and not the SEs. Yet they rank well for a lot of terms (just look at the frequency of About.com results in a lot of very general searches that are hard to rank for). Here’s why:

    1. The sites are old and have built up a certain level of authority.
    2. The sites are heavily networked with relevant sites (within and outside the larger network).
    3. The sites aren’t likely to get slaughtered by an algorithm change to discount this type of link or that, because they’re not using “tricks” in the way smaller sites do.

    The reality is that SEO is about exposure. A lot of SEO professionals just look at the traffic or financial bottom lines (they’re also usually the SEOs who just learn on the Web from other unethical SEOs about the fads of the moment, and not ones who educate themselves on much deeper than that). In PR, we know that building authority can take time, and we have the benefit of being able to teach our clients to do that. SEO is one very small component of the larger online PR picture. It just gets hyped up more b/c webmasters love to frantically obsess over Google rankings and changes. If people focus more on the authority aspect and keeping the content “clean” for readers, the rankings do come. There’s no reason to be unethical about it.

  3. One more quick point I didn’t address regarding why writing for readers leads to better-optimized content:

    One of the big factors in determining rankings is how many sites are linking to your pages. When you write more for search engines, you can alienate readers. If you keep the focus on high quality content and resources, you’ll attract a lot of relevant backlinks, sometimes from authority websites.

    A lot of Internet Marketers and SEOs don’t like to hear it, but content really is still king. My blogs tend to rank reasonably well for terms I target with certain posts, but I don’t go around actively trying to build links to them or trying to force keyword phrases where they’re unnatural. Maybe I’m just lucky, but I’ve managed to attract quite a few authority links for several of my blogs just by writing content worth linking to (whether that be informative, controversial, etc.).

    Write for readers. Write things worth linking to (provide something of value). Network with people in your niche or industry to gain exposure and authority. The rest really does fall into place quite naturally SEO-wise.

  4. very interesting and thoughtful. If any one reads italian (I know amanda chapel from strumpette to be an amateur of Italy and maybe you and your readers are also) please read this which appeared last night on the official website of the Italian Public Relations Association on the same issue http://www.ferpi.it/news_leggi.asp?ID=44572.
    But if you do not read Italian you might wish to read what only last Sunday appeared on the New York Times on http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/opinion/26pubed.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin.
    The argument is the same and very enlightening indeed.
    Not being one of the apparently 15 million plus luddists who have voluntarily decided to abandon the Internet, I am convinced that technology is in itself neutral and can be used for the good and for the bad. However, as you acutely point out, in this case we very quickly need some sort of code of conduct and also that some well intentioned geeks develop counter measures for this other and newer form of blackpr, an issue which is constantly being debated, by the way, on http://www.prconversations.com a collaborative blog involving professionals, scholars and students from all continents.

  5. Steve says:

    there is fine line that you have be aware of when doing seo work.

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    I guess that was my point, Steve. And I’d rather see the line be a lot more defined than it is. We’re all in the business of persuasion, and part of the job is getting our audiences to take note of our message. But when I produce an ad or brochure, my reader knows exactly what it is and who paid for it. When my website lands at the top of a Google search, my reader does NOT know how that happens. Sometimes it’s by fair means, other times foul.

    Now tell me, did you post a comment here as part of your own SEO strategy?

  7. […] ToughSledding’s post from last August (Be sure to check the comments). […]

  8. […] between SEO and tricking the algorithm to deliver more Google juice has been crossed before. People have warned about such dangerous […]

  9. […] The URL: In the next 30 days I (finally) make the move to WordPress.org and my own URL. Thanks to the bad economy (or so I assume), the financial planning firm that once owned “ToughSledding.com” let it go. Ironic, eh? Anyway, I grabbed it. But the main reason for the switch to .org is the improved analytics. I’ve decided it’s time to pay attention to the numbers, and maybe even the SEO. Sigh. […]

  10. Thanks for the great information. Will help make my wordpress blogs more user friendly for my readers. With trial and error I have been able to learn some about Seo and what search engines like and what they do not and frown on. After reading many s called experts i felt it was the best way. But keeo up the good posting informing bloggers about good seo and it’s importance to there success.

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