“Judge not, lest you be judged”
In Loony Tunes cartoons, a hilarious Bugs Bunny always crosses the line that hapless Sam draws on the ground. He also manages to escape Sam’s shotgun (fur and all) by the end of the episode. In the wild, wild world of search engine optimization, crossing the line could cause search engines to ban you, and customers and web sites to sue you. This leads to loss of money, loss of time and worst of all, loss of credibility in an industry where credibility could very well be your most important asset.
But really, what line?
What black hat SEO experts do is never illegal until they do it. Spamming became illegal after the fact. So did page jacking. And link farming through unrelated sites. It seems the black hats came first, the rules came after. And the same continues through today, the regulators coming a clumsy step behind the manipulators.
The Internet seems to have been with us forever, but the first time I acquired an email address was in the late nineties. Internet connections were quite expensive, and search engine optimization did not exist formally. Then the dot com boom (and bust) occurred, and web sites discovered the need to optimize for search engines, and SEO experts became the new gunslingers in one of the wildest, most unregulated media ever. More domain names are registered in the US than companies. The ratio of websites that fail is faster, and websites do not have to pay taxes to anybody (if the businesses are located in no-tax areas). Policing on the net is done by…who? Users, auction companies, email providers, website owners, search engines, the government. Simply put, if you have enough clout, you create your own policing and security features.
The lines are many, and indeterminate in their distance apart. Philosophy had to be brought in to resolve it. The ethics of the website designers and SEO experts was used by search engines to determine who got banned and who did not. The line was created, and everybody drew breath. Finally there was black and white!
The search engines took it upon themselves to determine what constituted unethical search engine optimization techniques. If SEO was done according to their rules, all was well. If not, the web site (sub domains and all) was banned. It was their SERPs that were being manipulated, so it was clearly in their best interests to police the web sites that were listed on their search engines.
But this has led to the creation of the “search engine compliant SEO expert,” who uses the inherent flaws in the search engine ranking algorithm to position themselves in pole position on the SERPs.
One technique this practitioner uses is to put links back to their site from postings on dozens, sometimes hundreds, of blogs. Most of the time their post and the blog are unrelated to the content of their site, but they link from their site back to these postings anyway. If a website link farms, it could get banned. But if it links like this to blogs, providing no relevant content whatever, the blog crawler and the web crawler do not catch on, and rank the web site based on the page ranking of the blogs to which it is linked.
A technique that started as an anti-war prank has become the mainstay of big time bloggers.
Key words and copyrights
We are talking about identifying ethical SEO techniques, and where to draw the line to avoid getting sued, or to have a great chance of beating the case if it does get to court. A delicate line exists in the case of key words and copyrights. With reported cases of web sites issuing cease and desist orders to other web sites, and sometimes even companies claiming that their copyrights are being infringed on, what can an SEO expert do to ensure s/he does not fall victim to inadvertently using unethical practices?
Why should anybody watch the key words s/he uses, after all? The web sites allow you to bid on almost anything when optimizing for certain key words. If I optimize a site for “PlayStation” and “dual shock pads,” have I infringed on a copyright owned by IBM and Sony Electronics?
The ethics in picking key words is very involved. Even if I am allowed to bid on key words freely, what about my direct competitor’s key words, or copyrighted material? Is optimizing my site for his own key words in order to divert his/her traffic villainous? If cyber squatting is a wrong (having closely related domain names with another site for purposes of deceiving the user), is “key word squatting” ethical, whether search engines ignore it or not?
The danger in carelessly picking key words is quite real. The search engines do not concern themselves with your ethical struggles in this arena, since they make their money per click, and nobody is suing them yet (apart from book publishers).
Reports on forums indicate that companies like Traffic Power routinely issue cease and desist orders to web site owners, telling them to stop using content and words which they claim are copyrighted to their sites. However, the precedents that have been set in the legal field favor the current run of events; sites routinely optimize for copyrighted material. Although they do get sued, they hardly ever get banned. A web site can even bid for advertising based on the names of individuals. So you can optimize for “Guy Kawasaki” and even if he sues you, you will in all probability get away with it, as long as you have a long list of expert witnesses and a lawyer that knows the industry.
A lot of choices you will face in the arena of search engine optimization ethics are really quite personal, and if not questioned you will delve deeper and deeper into gray areas, until you get to the stage where anything goes as long as you do not get penalized by the search engines.
The case of waiting for the search engines and other large regulators to tell SEOs what to do and what not to do will lead to large numbers of “innocent” SEO experts losing their credibility, and their clients getting punished. But then, according to search engines, there is no such thing as the “innocent” SEO expert.
Check out http://www.safemachines.com/seo.html. This is a site that offers to gather evidence of use of unethical practices against SEO for website owners if their sites are banned. If SEO techniques used do not work, one of the issues he claims to address is the area of key word selection. I reside and build websites in a country where litigation is limited at best, and settlements are liable to be paltry. When GoDaddy stopped hosting web sites by Nigerian resellers, we all just moved hosts; nobody sued GoDaddy. This is unlike the United States, where litigation insurance is a part of operating costs.
This kind of hired gun, that claims to be an expert on search engines, will become more common as web sites seek to sue over their pages getting banned for whatever reason, or as web sites start believing that an SEO expert guarantees a good ranking in the SERPs.
As the Internet graduates from the current state of flux, to a more regulated and alas, more ordered frame, SEO experts will have to protect themselves from this kind of threat. You cannot guarantee that a technique that is acceptable today will not get you banned tomorrow. So how do you avoid crossing the lines drawn by the search engines, or other regulators, when they can be moved around at will?
A lot of contracts in my country (not all fortunately) are done by handshake. We have no Mafia, and legal recourses are apt to take forever. Fortunately, when one or two witnesses are around, a handshake agreement holds up in court, and a subpoena is enough to warrant an out of court settlement, since neither party really wants to go through the grueling process.
Paper contracts drawn up by a lawyer are good ways of protecting yourself, with the insertion of clauses that state you are not liable above a certain amount if something goes wrong, or an indemnity clause. Even if you just offer SEO as a sideline, you are more likely to be sued over SEO than over your web site design. So having a separate contract for SEO work is a good idea.
Sometimes web site owners and their marketers do things just to get traffic. They that some of what they do is wrong, but figure that as long as they do not get caught, there is no harm done. The dangers are as stated; the industry is changing so quickly that even Moore’s law looks slow in comparison.
The best standard an SEO expert can live by, in this wild, wild world of SEO, is to live by whatever makes him/her blameless before his/her internal value system, and to leave the labels to the search engines and the hypocrites.