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:
- Blackhat Ethics: Whose Rules Are They Anyway?
- Hey Google NoFollow this!
- SEO, Colored Hats & The Pollyanna Pissing Match
- In Defense of Hats: White, Gray, Black and Blue
- The Evil Side of Google? Exploring Google's User Data Collection
- What Are Community Standards?
- New Google AdPlanner a privacy threat; advertising boon?
- Matt Cutts Warns Against Lying in a Reconsideration Request
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?
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, 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 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"