Cash, SEO and Ethics

by Ruud Hein July 11th, 2008 

Ours is a geek industry where Ethics is a valid topic for conversation, forum threads, newspaper articles and blog posts.

As an example, here's a small selection of SEO blog posts from June that in one way or another deal with Ethics:

Many of these touch upon our day to day work while most are written from a more or less pragmatic angle.

Indirectly touching our industry there're larger issues too. What's privacy in these Google days and who's responsible for keeping it? Should Yahoo keep the law of the land if the land is China and the law gets a blogger jailed for no good reason? Should Cisco help develop and deploy technology that makes it easy to spy on citizens or filter information? What if that same technology is used close to home?

Outward Ethics

It's intriguing that most of these discussions are outward focused. They're about Google and "do no evil". About whether any company should enter the China market. About how far "they" should be allowed to go, what "they" should owe us, how "they" should be regulated.

Closer to home we're often mum.

Oh, we might say "I don't use black hat techniques". Saying otherwise might make it sound like "yes, I'm a thief". But the black/grey/white techniques debate is one that disposes us of having to make real choices; it's a colored hats game in which the world and our work in it is divided among very sharply defined lines of Good and Evil. Much unlike the real world, that is.

Ethics touches upon Moral and for Moral to be of value it has to come from either belief or a framework. To apply yours to your work, or to discover your belief or framework regarding it, you have to ask questions, wonder about the situation.

In doing so we make ourselves conscious of our values before there is a need to be conscious of them while the worst that can happen is that we become a little bit less judgmental about others… Google included.

I'd like us to explore 5 areas together, get to know the lay of the land, and start to recognize the markers that can lead the way.

Link Building

Link building, the land of innocence of yesteryear when we lived in a time when "nofollow" meant nothing. Where do you stand these days and what do you do?

Are you staying away from hacking blogs and inserting your own link spam pages? OK… What about cross site scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities then? How about if you could inject your money term on a PR9 .edu site that way and no-one would be the wiser? No-one would see the link as you would have to follow a very specifically crafted link elsewhere. The users of that .edu site certainly would never notice or be bothered with it! So… what say you?

How about a forum post here or there? Maybe a blog comment, one that is "relevant to the discussion" because, face it, we "never" spam? Is every link you placed one that adds value to the people frequenting that place?

And talking about placing links; how about paid reviews? You buy positive ones usually, right? Have we met anyone who bought that product or service with their hard earned money based on that review? Had you been talking with that person, would you really have gone out of your way to sell that person on it?

How about buying negative reviews then? Drag your competitors through the dirt. All is fair in love and war – so which known bad techniques do you or would you use on your competition? What if you weren't working for an SEO company but you are the whole company? What if getting this client to #1 is the only way for you to get to the next level?

Report Spam

Report spam! Report paid links! We think some do it or none do it – but what do you do?

Report no site at all, ever? Where's your threshold? Cloaking? Cloaked porn? Three Adsense units on an empty page? Or do you report any site?

Maybe you only report the competition of the client you're working on. How are your ethics there then? Report when you come across it while researching the field or go out and weed out and hunt down the competition? I mean, they had it coming to them, right? They're Google's own guidelines, no?


Let's keep making this harder.

What about representing two or more clients within the exact same field? Would you? If so, do you advise either client of the fact that you're representing potential competition? And how do handle fighting the honest fight to get each of them #1 for the exact same searches?

You might have no-go zones like gambling or porn or certain types of porn. These no-go zones are usually easy to define. But what about the less obvious stuff?

Would you represent the Moonies even when learning that "Moon vowed that the church's eventual dominance over the United States would be followed by the liquidation of American individualism and the establishment of Moon's theocratic rule"? If you decide not to work with this, the owner of the Washington Times, how about working for a tuna or other seafood company? Wouldn't you because the Moonies own that industry? How about other cults?

If you're religious, and a number of SEO's are, do you represent other religious organizations even if they're in conflict with your beliefs? Remember, it doesn't have to be another religion: within one and the same religion enough divides and separations exist.

If not religious, would you still represent one, promote one, help it to reach more people?

How about other values? Get a pro- or anti-abortion site #1? Help devise ways to reach teens with tobacco related content while staying within the law?

Exploits & Relevance

Our work in no way seems to be aimed, specifically aimed, at making information retrieval via web-based search engines any better. Are we making it better together or just gaming the system?

We tend to search for and then research weaknesses in the information retrieval and ranking system we've targeted. Once we've found such a weakness we exploit it yet we're bugged when spammers and scammers do the same to our browsers.

And when or if we find a weakness that makes no sense, something that makes something ranks for no good reason, do you report it? Would you report it?


Finally, does your client deserve to be #1 for that phrase?

"Deserved" reeks of merit and virtue. "Deserved" seems to imply excel. Does your client, does your site, excel at what it does?

Are you improving Life and the Quality of life in general – or not? Does that matter? Why?


None of these issues or questions is meant to be judgmental. If it sound like they do, remember who's judging. It certainly isn't me.

Some of these questions are easy to answer with a quick "no, never!" or "of course, why not?". Most aren't or shouldn't be. They touch upon belief, value, capitalism, consumerism, advertising. Again, if you read that with a judgmental tone, don't forget it's not me doing the judging.

Regardless, those questions are hard or harder to answer for ourselves. Capitalism might not be the universal standard of merit we once thought it was or maybe we mean consumerism. Much of the effects of SEO are as anonymous as the effects of advertising. To prevent unscrupulous work from that angle David Ogilvy worked towards individuals, persona; "the consumer is not an idiot. She is your wife"

See also: Ethics, Paid Reviews and Affiliate Programs

Images courtesy of: Qui©he, Jaume d'Urgell and Extra Ketchup

Ruud Hein

My paid passion at Search Engine People sees me applying my passions and knowledge to a wide array of problems, ones I usually experience as challenges. People who know me know I love coffee.

Ruud Hein

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26 Responses to “Cash, SEO and Ethics”

  1. Whew, that was…… like going to church! Not sure if I should feel guilty or praise the Lord? Those are some great questions for people to ask themselves and I'll bet that everyone's answers are different.

    Hey, is that really you as a little boy with what appears to be a Commodore 64 with a tape drive, or some other early relic of a computer?

  2. Ruud Hein says:

    Ha! Imagine church with trackback and pingback :)

    No, Miquel, that photo is from someone on Flickr. Had it been me it would have been with a Sinclaur/Timex, a Sony MSX, a Schneider or a dragable Osborne CP/M computer (remember WordStar?)

    Apart from that I would say the photo is spot-on; the radio stuff (some pirating and CB), "the cave", the glasses and of course my then already awesome sense of fashion….

    … but I digress… :)

  3. Metaspring says:

    Thanks for the reading list and the post. Made for very interesting reading. I am still not too clear of what blue hat is though. I think black, white and gray I kind of understand.

  4. That made for some heavy if enlightening reading. Thank you for discussing an issue that does not get the attention that it deserves.

    Many years ago, my doubts on issues of ethics were resolved by a wise old geezer, a non geek! He said, do not do anything that you would not like done to you. No big lectures nothing. Simple. Good way to sleep peacefully at night.

  5. Well written, this puts a different perspective on what we do. I always say to people that I only do white hat and yet there are times when I might cross this line in order to get better results.

    Its like in life A am suppose to obey the speed limit yet I do drive faster then I should on occasion yet I do not steal.

    The way people are in life is how they are in SEO, it takes different types of people to be happy with the way they do whatever they do.

  6. Utah SEO says:

    There are no ethics in marketing when marketing revolves around money.

  7. Wii Boy says:

    I'm not convinced any of my sites "deserve" rankings but when you find that the big boys creep up the SERPS because of who they are, it does make you wonder whether it pays to be ethical.

  8. Meethere says:

    nice post..
    we behave ethically with google but vice versa is not true..

    Link building has created lot of panic. :(

  9. David Temple says:

    Now that really cleared it up 😉 This appears to be a warning to stone throwers and I think it is well stated. So let's stop throwing stones people and start cleaning up our glass houses.

  10. paulette says:

    Ethics are guidelines to make people on the internet in harmony with world.

  11. This post ix great! I beliebe that offering something of value is the long term method to success, but also appreciate how much of marketing is about image and presentation…

    Wii Boy has a good point, that websites "deserving" ranking can definitely not be answered by Google's Algorithm. There's potential for social media, as long is it doesn't get gamed too much (which hasn't happened).

    I personally try to make all of my content creation of value to the conversation it's being placed in. (No Indian's doing "ethical blog commenting" for me… if I can help it.)

    I'm willing (at this point) to get people that can add value to conversations to do the work.

    On the topic of working for competitors… I tell clients that I would work for competitors on SEO.

    Reason being:

    1) There are 10 results on the first page anyways… someone has got to be on the other 9?

    2) I can get them cheaper and more relevant links, and rank faster, if I'm working in the same industry.

    3) If they want me to work for them, chances are that in the future I will be managing keywords for a site that isn't direct competition, but has the same keywords…

    Anyone else willing to give some more "personal experiences" with the above question? I'd love to hear other people's insight

  12. Marty says:

    "buying negative reviews:" Somehow I had not heard that one yet… Thanks for the great post.

  13. Ruud Hein says:

    @Nicole "…do not do anything that you would not like done to you. No big lectures nothing. Simple." I like that one :) Yet simple things can oft be the most hard to put into practice. None the less: solid guiding principle.

    @Marketing Man Yup, "takes every kind of people, to make what's life's about". Thinking about some of the questions I raised, many of them aimed at myself, I know I got to know a bit more about what kind of people I am.
    Love the way your site is done with the cat photos. Beautiful photos!

    @Jordan If there is an absence of ethics in commercial life should we opt to impose them on ourselves none the less? Apply our private life's ethics to our commercial one? Historically the absence of ethics in commercial life has often been answered or addressed with trade organizations, unions. Should we?

    @Wii Yup… but I think that is the hard part of ethics, of a moral framework; sticking to your guns when it doesn't seem to benefit you.

    @David (Temple) It wasn't written as a warning — but I think it can certainly serve that purpose too.

    @David I like your "yes, but…" balancing. Very practical and very honest. I like how you say that "at this point" you do certain things a certain way. That's the other side, the other ethics, to face, I guess; the one where we are responsible for those that rely on us, including our clients whom we owe our best.

    @Marty You're welcome :)

  14. Quite a comprehensive post, with some very pertinent issues being raised. On the issue of clients one has to say that some things are easier to vindicate doing than others. It all depends what your client does on the web. As a matter of principle we won't look at any adult websites, for example, whilst other people have other norms. Sometimes money can't be allowed to have the final say.

  15. Todd says:

    You missed a few I might have mentioned, but the point was very well made. Everybody has different ethical boundaries. This has been understood since the concept was first talked about. Sticking to your own guidelines is an important part of what makes you: you. Judging others by your own is an unfortunate side effect of the more ethically 'strict'. And in Business: no matter how you justify a 'boundary' it will only bind you from competing with those who are willing to cross it.

  16. Ruud Hein says:

    @Todd Good point re. "it will only bind you from competing with those who are willing to cross it" Constant balancing act in other words or you risk living on a sliding scale, right?

  17. Wii Boy says:

    An old boss of mine used to say "If there's a fee in it, then it's ethical".

    I prefer the quote:

    If you don't have integrity, you have nothing. You can't buy it. You can have all the money in the world, but if you are not a moral and ethical person, you really have nothing.

  18. Yura says:

    Well said, Ruud.

    Lately, I've been tempted to try those grey methods, where paying essentially gets you medium quality links, but have always chosen to do it the hard way.

    Some may justify their actions by using the right tool for the right job, though.

  19. Eva White says:

    While what you say makes a lot of sense, its impossible to be squeaky clean in business today. Willingly or not all of us have done at least one of the so called unethical things on your list. Maybe if your conscience doesn't prick you its ethical enough for you.

  20. Joseph says:

    This is a very useful and though provoking post. We all tend to have very unique and diverse values and ethical principles depending on what part of the world and family we were brought up in.

    But there are also those universal ethical values that we hold as humans or as businesses.

    Reading through this post and the comments left, it all boils down to critically analyzing ourselves and defining who we really are as individuals or as a company!

  21. Petitehye says:

    Thanks for the list… I am so interested about SEO to generate traffic for my blog and your list is very useful.

  22. The line between ethics and business is very thin. It will boil down to circumstance.

  23. Joey Martini says:

    This is what I think:

    Blackhat SEO guys who spams blog with just there links and silly comment are the ones who cross the line. This also includes Gallery link spamming, and the sad thing is that people with galleries give up on deleting spam..

    The problem is google is not doing anything to attacking these blackhats, I know many sites that are ranking with just link spamming. Very Sad.

    Anyway great post, it reminds us who

  24. Great post! I always found the Ethics side of SEO interesting and I am going to go browse the other Ethics posts from back in June.

  25. Very interesting. You got me thinking for a while on the different aspects of "ethics" in our industry. Well for technical issue where optimization is involved, i personally feel it is ok as long as one never "overdo" it. For business wise, it is a business ethnic that we practised : We never perform SEO for business which is somehow closely related to that of our clients. What about yours?

  26. VMOptions says:

    Ethics varies more widely then the techniques we use to achieve results. Regardless, this post is a reminder that we are all part of the bigger picture and can influence the direction of our industry.