The SEO Code of Ethics
There really is no official code of conduct for SEOs, because there is really no industry standard on what good SEO is. But does that mean someone cannot reasonably expect certain standards from an SEO consultant or company? Absolutely not. In fact, there are definitely some things you should hold your SEO to, and if they fail in these areas, you have every right to get rid of them.
So what are the ethics an SEO should adhere to? Originally, I thought this might be an easy article to write, but boy I was wrong. There are so many different points out there that have been talked about, that I really had to narrow concepts down, whittle out ones that were no-brainers, then added them back in just in case, and finally I’ve compiled a list of many of the things a professional SEO should and shouldn’t do. My list has come from conversations with clients about nightmare SEOs, ideas from our SEO Chat forums, from other SEOs and SEO sites, from other people who deal with web sites, like hosting companies, and from my own company’s standards. If you think about it, that’s a lot of research!
I wanted to group these things into categories, but that seemed difficult at first. But I was able to manage to put them into some areas by certain criteria and related ideas. I apologize if they overlap, but they will, and even though I’ve tried not to list them in order of importance, though it may seem that way, I assure this is not the case.
In the area of General Ethics, the SEO shall not:
- Engage in any behaviors that will intentionally harm a client or a competitor. This includes performing black-hat techniques that may get that client’s site banned from the search engines, or purposefully interfering with a competitor’s site as to try and get their site dropped from the search engine in order to get their client’s website into a better position.
- Intentionally engage in activities in direct violation of a search engine’s guidelines. Again, these types of behaviors can impose penalties by search engines, or banning from the search engine indexes altogether.
- Purposefully engage in behavior that breaches a client’s confidentiality or privacy. An SEO many times has access to your sensitive materials on your website, including documents, logins, passwords, product information and other items. It is not acceptable for an SEO to make this information public, nor is it acceptable for the SEO to discuss your account with other SEOs that are not particularly working on your account. It is in your best interest to include a clause in your contract with the SEO that specifically protects your confidentiality and privacy.
- Deliberately violate any laws, including but not limited to trademark or copyright laws. SEO’s that use copyrighted names, like Google or PayPal or Sony or even misspellings of trademarked names, in order to inflate a site’s ranking is considered illegal, and punishable by law. It won’t be the SEO in trouble, but rather you and your site will take the fall. Make sure there is a clause in your contract that addresses this issue.
- Falsely claim another’s work to be their own. SEOs sometimes do this in order to make their portfolio look impressive, especially when they know a client probably can’t or won’t follow up on their portfolio examples. It is a good idea to ask the SEO for specific references, and outline the exact work that was done for the client, and ask for permission to contact that client to corroborate the SEO’s claims.
- Intentionally mislead, harm, or offend a consumer. This includes bait and switch tactics intent on bringing traffic to the site, or making a visitor believe the site is something it is not. An example of this is to use terms like “Disney” or “Teddy Bear” in order to get a visitor to come to their website, when in actuality it is an illegal wares site or a porn site.
- Disparage other SEO consultant, SEO companies, or former and current clients in public, even if you know they have engaged in unethical techniques, or treated the SEO badly. It is never professional for an SEO to bad-mouth another SEO or SEO company to you or anyone else. It’s just bad business practices, and should make you wonder if the SEO will talk about you in the same way.
- Fail to stay current on search engine updates, changes, news, training or education. It is in your best interest that your SEO know what’s going on today in the search engine world, due to the fluid nature of search engine changes which occur very frequently.
In the area of Customer Service, the SEO shall not:
- Misrepresent their abilities, education, success rates, certifications, performance, or affiliations (e.g. affiliations with Search Engines). Many SEOs inflate their abilities as driven by the almighty dollar in order to get a client’s business. But if that SEO is unable to accomplish the task, that client will be not only out their rankings, but their money as well. You should also recognize and understand that there is no industry standard for SEO, and therefore no valid certification in this industry. This does not mean that those with certifications are scammers, but it does mean that you should still hold these SEOs to high standards, and not rely upon the certification to prove they are ethical or proficient specialists.
- Set unreasonable expectations for success, including providing iron-clad guarantees that cannot possibly be reached or maintained, timetables that cannot be met, etc. As much as anyone would like to believe, there is no one that can guarantee you number one results in a search engine results pages. If they do, save your money, and then run the other way really fast!
- Make promises that cannot be kept. Well, we are all probably guilty of this one, and while no one can always keep a promise, in the area of SEO, you will have to know what promises can be made, and which cannot. See the above point, please.
- Encourage a conflict of interest between two clients’ sites which pertain to the same keywords without notifying both parties of the conflict. This is a tough one, and many SEO experts debate this issue. While it is highly unlikely the SEO will be optimizing sites for exactly all the same keywords and phrases, companies certainly can have this problem, as sites in competitive industries such as travel and computer software are all competing for the same keywords. It’s not ethical of your SEO to cross optimize sites that will be competing directly against each other. Some SEOs believe this is okay, as long as both clients are informed. This is a gray area, really, but ultimately it is up to you as the client to decide if this is an acceptable practice.
- Make themselves unavailable for customer support when necessary. An SEO should be available to their clients. You shouldn’t have to pay for support if your SEO cannot provide it during the period of time you’ve contracted them for. This doesn’t mean they have to give you their home phone number. But they should return your voice mails, reply to your emails, explain their methods, and answer your questions!
- Treat one client better than another based on payment, work involved, or any other reason. All clients should be regarded equally, without giving preferential treatment to one over another. This is especially important when there is a conflict of interest in competing sites. It shouldn’t matter if your account is a small one compared to the other site.
- Intentionally provide confidential client information to the public. A client’s confidentiality is very important, and while the SEO may have access to client passwords or logins, this is not license for them to share what they’ve learned about you.
- Fail to protect sensitive client material that could have easily been kept private with a Robots Exclusion Standard file. It is easy to keep search engines out of sensitive files and information, and it’s a responsibility that the SEO should carry, either to do it themselves at no charge or for cost, or they should instruct you how to do it.
- Charge a client for information that the SEO cannot provide or does not know, such as when Search Engine updates will occur. No SEO can tell you exactly when an update will occur, or what will be covered in an update. Services that “protect” you during updates are scams.
- Employ false or misleading advertising regarding a client’s products or services for the purpose of inflating search engine ranking or traffic. While this is deplorable in any industry, in SEO, this is a good indication that either the product or its marketing needs improvement in order to present it as it is, or that the SEO cannot perform the required marketing techniques for the product without employing trickery.
- Intentionally keep from a client from understanding the risks involved with SEO. SEO is not an exact science, and it is impossible to guarantee number one rankings. There is always a risk that SEO efforts will not be as effective as a client wishes, especially in a saturated market or with very general keywords. You should be made aware of all the risks regarding the SEO efforts implemented regarding your site.
- Fail to comply with a contract with a client, or be truthful about methodology involved. It’s always a good idea to have a contract to protect yourself, outlining both what the SEO has promised to do, as well as giving you specifics on how they plan to do it. This way, you can make sure that your expectations are met and make sure the SEO doesn’t have something tricky planned for your site.
- Place hidden links within a client’s website to send traffic to the SEO’s own website. Hidden links are a bad idea anyways, but you especially don’t want to suddenly find your existing web traffic to be leaking elsewhere.
In the area of Search Engine Guidelines, the SEO shall not:
- SPAM THE SEARCH ENGINES.
- Resubmit a site to thousands of search engines repeatedly. Not only is this not necessary, it is also considered spam. It also may delay natural search engine crawling of your website
- Attempt to manipulate indexing or enhance domain saturation by employing machine generated web pages from specialized “optimization” software applications. Optimization software, while in and of itself is not the issue, should not be used to manipulate the search engines. This includes continually “pinging” the search engines to make them aware of your site’s web presence, automatically created doorway or AdSense pages, garbled text in a paragraph to include keywords, and programs that embed over-optimized or repetitious keyword elements, including keyword stuffing.
- Falsely represent the contents of a client’s website. This includes presenting one set of information to a visitor, and another to a search engine. This pertains to hidden text, CSS layers, cloaking, IP delivery techniques, redirects, and hidden scripts or links. **This does NOT include helping sites drop session IDs from URLs and using keyword-rich URL 301 redirects or scripts in order to give true URL context. (This actually came from the horses’ mouth during the latest SES conference the first week of December. The horses here are Yahoo, Google, and MSN.)
- Generate doorway pages with the sole purpose of propagation or interlinking content that is mirrored or duplicated from a separate domain. The new term for doorway pages is “specialized landing pages”. Beware that if these pages are stand-alone, or on another server with the intent of redirecting the visitor towards a different website, then these landing pages are nothing more than doorway pages, and this practice is strictly prohibited by search engines.
- Make excessive use of Search engine resources. This includes using remote services to query the search engines. Over use of search engine APIs or queries not only overload the search engine servers and slow down crawls, but search engines do attempt to locate the source of the problem, and ban the IP. If this happens on an IP that your website is on, then you could be banned from the search engine index for good.
- Use non-compliant HTML in an effort to enhance relevancy for targeted search phrases, including the use of multiple titles. This usually refers to using titles or descriptions that contain highly popular keywords or keyword phrases, but have nothing to do with the actual context of the page.
- Participate in link farms or pages featuring user added link systems, deceitful linking strategies, or other linking schemes, which include interlinking differing client websites. Directories are being closely scrutinized as link farms, especially if these directories have no resounding theme, and link directories on a website in order to house all link requests a website gets is not considered good practice, as evidenced by the latest Google Jagger update.
This List of Guidelines
This list covers a lot of ground, but it is by far is not all inclusive, nor can it be set in stone. Regardless, following this code of ethics will not only keep the SEO out of trouble with the search engines, it’ll keep SEOs in good graces with their clients and the community. And while I think it’s worthwhile to mention a few suggestions for the code of ethics, I probably won’t add them to the list, such as: “Don’t jump to conclusions during updates; wait for the dust to settle,” and “Keep all sharp objects out of reach when checking ranks after an update.” These are still good little bits of advice!
An SEO’s job is to increase a client’s rankings in search engines, but it must be done ethically, morally, and naturally. Any failure to do so is not only a bad investment on the part of a website owner, but it is truly just plain bad business as well.