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The "Unethical SEO" Myth


"The use of black hat SEO techniques are completely unethical." Really? I completely disagree.

Is it unethical because these techniques are attempts to give a webmaster an advantage over their competition? If this is the case, stop participating in SEO forums, stop using WordTracker, stop studying or engaging in SEO at all, because any of those things are ways to help get you a leg up on your competition. In fact, if it is your argument that this is unethical because it gives one person an advantage over another, stop building websites because there are plenty of businesses out there that don't have a website. You may be taking advantage of a medium some people don't have access to.

Is it unethical because it violates Google's Webmaster Guidelines (http://www.google.com/webmasters/guidelines.html)? If this is the case, again, abstain from any SEO whatsoever, because those guidelines state 'Another useful test is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?"' If you are building sites for your users and disregarding search engines, things like "SEO", "keyword density", "SERPs", etc. hold no interest for you. By even considering what effect your actions have on your SERPs you are violating Google's guidelines.

Dictionary.com's primary definition for "unethical" is based on "approved standards". Who sets these standards? Google? Google is a company. Google's primary focus is on generating profits, as any company their size has to be. Do you have any doubt that they are willing to take advantage of nearly any legal opportunity to gain an advantage over Yahoo or any of their other competitors?

Why do people in this industry choose to set their "moral compasses" by a company's guidelines? Google sets these guidelines because it makes it easier for them to produce search results superior to their competitors'; they don't want to have to expend resources on excluding sites that game their algo. I like Google, they have a fantastic product and they are one of those companies that I find easy to admire, but I certainly don't believe they created those guidelines in an attempt to create this utopian internet where everything is "fair"; they didn't and never claimed to.

Most of the world's economies are based on capitalism and free trade. Google has a cash cow and her name is AdSense/AdWords. Webmasters compete against each other with their cold hard cash to see who can be #1. Is it unethical to squash your competition by outbidding them? Even if it was an unemployed guy with two ex-wives, three kids, a mortgage, $5 to his name, and a mammoth drug habit? Nearly everyone in this industry would say, "No it's business."

If you are an SEO professional and you are optimizing sites, is it unethical to use "black hat" techniques on clients' sites? I certainly don't think so, as long as you make very clear to the client what risks are involved beforehand. Now if you don't tell them they will get banned if caught; I would certainly call that unethical. Ammon Johns, known as Black_Knight at his site, the Cre8asite forums at www.cre8asiteforums.com who, in a post, said "To my philosophy, the SEO who refuses to properly inform their clients of all available techniques and the costs risks and benefits is not ethical. Whether that is failure to tell them of risks, or failure to tell them of strengths. It is the clients role to make the choice, and a truly ethical SEO will enable the client to make a fully informed choice, not just one that meets what the search engines say is okay for all."

So is cloaking, creating doorway pages, search engine spamming, or other similar "black hat" techniques illegal? I know of no law that forbids this stuff as long as you aren't violating someone's copyrights by duplicating their text, stealing their bandwidth, etc. I would be the first to label such techniques "unethical", frustrating, illegal, deplorable, name your word.

The remaining unanswered question is, "Who decides what is 'unethical', who sets 'the standard'?" You and I as internet professionals do. Some people choose to draw the "unethical" line just beyond what they do to improve their own SERPs; anything past that is "unethical". In relation to this subject, I draw this line pretty close to what the American government calls "illegal". I would call almost anything done with a primary intent to damage another website/company "unethical"; and most anything done under those circumstances is also illegal.

Having said all that, to my knowledge, I'm not doing anything on any of my (or my clients') sites that any major SE would consider banning me for; I'm certainly aggressive with the "white hat" stuff. I have dabbled with some of the more risky techniques in the past, but I have put way too much work into my sites (the ones that are worth trying to achieve high rankings for, anyway) that I'm just not willing to risk getting them banned; the risk isn't worth it to me. So while I don't participate in any "black hat" (or what I prefer to call "risky") activities, I just don't like the idea of those who do being labeled "unethical".

This is certainly an issue where people who have an opinion are passionate about it, but I invite you to examine your own motives for calling aggressive search engine optimization techniques "unethical".

Damian owns a small website development business dedicated to providing affordable websites to small businesses. You can visit his website at www.divergentlines.com or contact him at dsmith@divergentlines.com

Damian Smith