Search engine optimization (SEO) ethics are often discussed, but rarely defined in any meaningful ways. Website owners often hear about the so-called “white hat” and “black hat” SEO professionals. A few webmasters are even aware of some undefined “grey hat” SEO techniques, and their practitioners as well.
There are no hard and fast rules for what these regularly used terms mean, if anything, in the world of high search engine rankings. It’s time to consider whether the categories retain any real meaning, or if ethics even has any role in the practice of SEO.
From the very beginning, we must understand that the issues involved are very complicated, and highly subjective. What is good “ethical” SEO to one person might be stooping to the deepest depths of evil to another. Defining “good,” “bad” and “best” practices is at best aiming at an undefined moving target. At worst, it is an impossibility due to the lack of complete knowledge of the search engines and their respective algorithms.
Any discussion of search engine ethics requires a definition of the various “hats” so everyone knows what the writer considers ethical, grey area, and entirely unethical in SEO practice. Definitions, no matter how loosely described, provide a framework for further discussion and debate. Some SEO practitioners don’t believe there are any ethical distinctions at all.
Any analysis of SEO ethics must include the goals of the various website owners. One consideration is the willingness to assume the risk of search engine penalty or even outright website banning. Another is the relative competitiveness of the keywords and keyword phrases being contested. A third and important consideration is whether or not the website owner would rather compete without bending, let alone breaking, any ethical rules or guidelines at all.
The goal of any search engine optimization effort for any website owner, regardless of ethics, is to achieve high rankings. That coveted number one spot on the first page of all major search engines is an alluring bauble. Like any treasure, everyone with varying degrees of desire wants to have it in their grasp.
Whether for increased traffic, sales and revenue, or purely for ego gratification, webmasters employ widely varying methods to reach those lofty heights. Some of those techniques might be frowned upon by others. As a result, an examination of ethics and whether or not they are important in search engine optimization is very important.
Search engine optimization practitioners are divided into roughly three camps. There are the “white hats,” their polar opposite “black hats,” and the more loosely defined “grey hats” who use a mixture of ideas, some of which fall under the umbrella of both main camps.
What is referred to as white hat SEO really means using generally accepted optimization techniques and scrupulously avoiding even a hint of practices that are listed as problems in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. For the white hat SEO professional, and I am proud to confess to being one of them, any hint of a lack of ethics is to be avoided at all costs.
White hat SEO involves standard best practices, which include adding more theme relevant content pages, updating regularly, adding incoming links that properly use keywords in the link anchor text, and keeping the title tags up to date. Along with those standard procedures are the addition of a blogging component, working toward hub site and authority site status, and placing a strong emphasis on writing sound on page copy, with well placed keywords.
Black hat SEO usually means employing ranking techniques that are clearly outside of Google’s stated Webmaster Guidelines, and even outside of the published guidelines for the other major search engines. Methods used to achieve higher search rankings include cloaking, hidden text, link farms, and intensively cross linked sites.
Grey hat SEO falls somewhere in the middle. While that simple label doesn’t fully explain grey hat SEO, the concept is much more difficult to define. The techniques employed by a grey hat SEO are occasionally white hat, and just as often less oriented toward best practices. The use of some linking tools and content generating software have often been placed in this category.
Regardless of how the various SEO hats are defined, there will always be disagreements as to where the boundaries are drawn, and if there are even borders at all. The definitions are not intended to be firm and final. Instead, they are merely used so that we understand the general terms for purposes of a discussion of SEO ethics.
Are ethics and ethical discussions even of value in the discussion of SEO–or in any other profession or business for that matter? Some would say the obvious and unarguable answer is yes. Other people are not so sure, while some SEO practitioners would say that ethics are not all that important, provided the client receives strong search engine rankings. As we can see, there are no definite answers.
Since an SEO professional has in effect two clients, there is really more than one set of ethics involved. First, there is the ethics in relationship to the website owner client. Second, and also very much a part of the ethical question, are the search engines themselves. Since the needs and requirements of the two clients are often diametrically opposed to one another, an SEO often experiences a dilemma.
The SEO practitioner has a responsibility to the website owner to attempt to achieve the highest possible search engine rankings. He must also consider the search engine webmaster guidelines. Where the search engine optimization professional draws the boundaries between website and search engines, and how those boundaries are explained to the website owner, is very important.
The SEO professional must also hold a serious discussion with the website owner concerning his client’s real goals, and what level of penalty and banning risk that person is willing to assume. Not very professional SEOs will go as far as the webmaster wants to travel into grey and black hat territory. Different experts have different interpretations of where the boundaries between the search engine guidelines end and where the needs of the website owner begin.
Personally, I do not use any search engine optimization techniques that could be classified as black or even grey hat. My ethics allow for only purely white hat SEO methods. Not all SEO professionals, or even potential paying clients, agree with that ethical stance. In fact, many SEOs disagree completely with my position on ethics.
Every website owner has different goals for the site and for its future. Some webmasters are in the business for the long term, with the intention of building search engine rankings that will have staying power. The desire to build a reputable site, using only best practices optimization techniques is one such long term plan.
Other webmasters want to remain in the search placements for the longer term, but are far less concerned about the techniques used to achieve those rankings. Thinking that most sites slide through the various spam filters anyway, there is little concern about penalties or outright bans from the search engines. In fact, many webmasters are blissfully unaware that some optimization techniques are not acceptable to the search engine guidelines.
Still other website owners have no concern at all about the long term implications of their website. To those webmasters, any technique that raises their rankings is fine with them. If the black hat methods get the site penalized or banned, then a new domain name is acquired and the process starts all over again. In many cases, the abandonment of the banned site is even part of the planning involved.
Many SEOs believe their first responsibility is to their webmaster client. What the client wants is what gets done, in the way of optimization techniques. This theory is based on “what the customer wants, the customer gets.” In such cases, however, it’s also important for the SEO to provide complete information, as to the potential consequences of using methods counter the published search engine guidelines.
Failing to inform the client of the potential negatives of a grey or black hat practice is not acting in anyone’s best interests. In fact, a lack of full disclosure of possible filters, penalties, and outright banning as a result of proscribed actions is not acting in the interest of the client. Many website owners are completely new to optimization, and some are entirely unaware that SEO even exists as a profession. To not fully inform newcomers to SEO of every side of the issue does not give the client complete information on which to base a reasoned decision as to the potential risks involved.
How the search engines are viewed by the SEO is another important factor. Some SEOs consider the search engines to be their friends, while others view them as the mortal enemy. Still other optimization specialists consider the search engines to be either a necessary evil or just another tool in an overall Internet marketing program. It’s fairly easy to understand the reasons for each of these points of view.
For those people who see the search engines as friends, the SERPs are usually thought of as delivering what amounts to free customers. For minimal financial outlay, compared to most other Internet marketing efforts, a white hat optimized site can send paying customers directly from the free organic search results. These SEOs believe the search engines are, in fact, providing a free to the public service. For that reason, search engines are considered friends, to be helped by providing them with the best possible sites optimized within the search engine terms of service.
Other SEOs take a harder line on the search engines. Instead of thinking of them as good guys, they consider search engines almost as an enemy. They insist that search engines, instead of providing what are thought to be relevant search results, reward heavily spam and black hat sites with high rankings. Highly relevant sites, in direct terms of the search phrase, are pushed deep into the organic results. These SEOs argue that the search engine terms of service are merely a guideline that are not uniformly or fairly applied.
As a result of inadequate and spam filled SERPs, these SEOs believe the search engines are not fulfilling their stated goals and terms of service. Because of that failure on the part of the search algorithms to provide relevant spam free results, black hat SEOs believe there is no legal or moral obligation on the part of the SEO or the website owner to follow them either. In their opinion, if the search results reward bad sites, and by extension punish sites that follow the terms of service, the webmaster guidelines can be safely and honestly ignored.
Finally, in a third SEO practitioner opinion, the search engines are businesses like any other, and as such shouldn’t be thought of as entirely benevolent. The search algorithm is neither good nor bad, but is merely a computer program. The algorithm owes the website nothing, except to attempt to place the pages correctly in terms of search relevance.
Like any other business, these SEOs argue, use of their business and products requires the user to follow the business’s rules. In this case, the webmaster guidelines and terms of service are the business rules. In the same way that a restaurant can refuse service to patrons not wearing shirts or shoes, the search engines can deny listing at any time for violation of their rules of use.
In the same way that an unruly customer or shoplifter can be removed from the premises, or charged with a crime, the search engines can penalize websites. Because of this, it is important for the website owner to follow the rules as prescribed by the search engine as a business. If for no other reason than as insurance against penalties or banning, following the webmaster guidelines will keep a site from any problems with the search engine.
While it can be argued that the search engines don’t always police their search results very well, they do provide for a feedback option from webmasters. Reporting a spam laden site will often result in its removal. Unfortunately, those removals are often slow, and occasionally don’t happen, leaving the spam site high in the SERPs for weeks or even months.
There is little doubt that all of the major search engines have room for improvement in the area of spam site detection, penalties, and removal from the SERPs. That problem on their part doesn’t automatically translate to meaning a webmaster or SEO can violate the stated terms of service with impunity, however. Noticing an unpunished spam site doesn’t mean it can be duplicated freely, but simply that the search engine has not found and penalized it yet.
Search engine ethics is a complicated and difficult to resolve issue.
Along with concerns for the desires of the customer to achieve high search engine rankings, and search engine optimization professionals to provide them, there are issues of ethics in relation to the search engine themselves. It’s not as simple as saying the website owner is the only concern. Other legitimate websites are part of the equation as well.
My opinion is the search engine is a business, like any other. As such, it has its terms of service, and also has the right to refuse service if violations occur. Because of that right on the part of the search engines, it’s important for website owners and search engine optimization professionals to follow those guidelines.
While it’s a bit idealistic to believe that all websites will follow the published guidelines, keeping one’s own house in order will prevent any penalties or bans landing at one’s own doorstep. Taking care to use only generally agreed upon best practices, in effect using only “white hat” techniques, will win out in the end.
While white hat methods might appear slower at first, they provide long term staying power that can survive any shifts in the search engine algorithms. White hat techniques also let a person rest easy, knowing the site is safe from penalties and banning, while providing useful information and products to the site visitors.
Instead of worrying about other sites, take care of your own site, and you will do well in the search engines. You can then safely ignore any shade of hats.