What Ethical SEO Is and Why You Should Care
I was reading a book by Christopher Elliott titled Scammed, which is all about the extent to which companies will go to misinform and confuse consumers in order to separate them from their hard earned cash. What surprised me, however, was an entire chapter devoted to SEO practices.
SEO, for those that aren't sure, is a vast, mysterious and quickly-changing field, and it can be categorized in three ways as a rule of thumb:
- White hat SEO can be any kind of legitimate technique used to make your website more "search engine friendly" or competitive. This involves making sure, for example, that you are using the proper meta descriptions, tags and relevant keywords that are relevant to your business objectives.
- Black hat SEO includes less above-board techniques that some businesses use to essentially "fool" search engines into giving them a higher ranking than they perhaps deserve. As you might imagine, there is no limit to the type of trickery that this involves. Yet Google does have the upper hand in this battle, with some predicting that all SEO techniques will become irrelevant within 10 years as search engines become more sophisticated in determining the deeper meanings of online content.
- Much more ethically interesting at the moment, however, is the realm of "Grey Hat SEO." Like anything that is grey, a technique that falls within this category would be morally questionable, or ambiguous at best.
So here's the thing: according to Elliott's definition, paying or soliciting others to link back to your website is definitely "grey hat" -- or in Elliott's view, slightly morally wrong! Yet most competitive businesses can't justify not using a mix of both White and Grey Hat SEO techniques to gain a competitive advantage.
Some do it with the brute force of mega marketing budgets. There are even agencies who specialize in mass targeted campaigns to get people to link back to a client's website. It's not cheap, which means you can bet that the biggest and richest companies are exploiting those tactics to the hilt. "Earned" and "organic" link building strategy, on the other hand, is anything that a company does to get people to mention and link back to a brand of their own volition.
Overstock.com is one example of a company that did not fairly earn their backlinks according to Elliott. Instead, they offered a 10% discount to any .edu website that would offer to link back to the Overstock.com website. The strategy had a positive impact on Overstock.com's pagerank, since Google gives more weight to backlinks that come from government and educational institutions. According to Elliott, conceiving of such a strategy is tantamount to spinning a "web of lies," and at the very least it pollutes what could perhaps, in his view, be a superior online searching experience.
But does gaming a search engine this way merit front-and center-placement in a book titled "Scammed"? What is it exactly that makes an aggressive SEM marketing campaign unethical anyway? Is it when you involve money (or resources) to enhance the reach of your message? Is it when you push something with brute force (and hence artificially) that violates our sense of what is fair?
The answer to these questions will depend on what you expect from a search engine. To search purists, a search engine is nothing more than technology geared to mirror our social realities, whatever those might be. If this is your philosophy, then it could be problematic if companies are using search engines as a tool to manage public perception.
But here's the problem, in the "real" or, offline world, companies have already rigged your world in their favor anyway: they allocate huge budgets dedicated entirely to searing their brand logo into the depths of your consciousness via billboards that are higher or better placed than the one's their competitors buy.
If getting universities to link back to your website for a discount is a scam, then perhaps it is also probable that Elliott might question the following strategies:
- Paying for PR (after all, you pay a PR firm and they somehow get your name in the papers)
- Spending vast amounts of money on a Google PPC adwords campaign. After all, the more money you spend on Google, the better your search ranking will be (indirectly, of course).
- Influencer/mass mail outreach (emailing tens of thousands of influencers and publications with the single click of a button, sending them to them all to the same website regardless of their background)
- Creating iPhone giveaway competitions that incentivize participants to share with friends for better chances of winning
- "Tweet-to-unlock" beta invites
See, in the online world, if you pay, you play and get your 15 minutes of fame -- be it a generic or high quality moment. If you don't pay, you lose market share of voice to your competitors -- unless that is you sell the world's slickest tablet that is consistently one generation ahead of its time, in which case the company doesn't need to be discovered on a Google results page anyway.
It didn't always use to be this way. In an age when the internet was a less competitive space, anybody with some basic HTML skills could be indexed on equal footing with the largest companies.
But today, we live in a world where consumers need to see your brand name at least seven times before they will even know you exist, and companies are doing everything they can to create a signal in this attention deficit economy where many viewers don’t look beyond the first 3 search engine results.
The consequence is simply increased competition in the online domain. Did you like the Old Spice campaign on YouTube? Expect more of this, as every company from soap sellers to plumbing manufacturers will hope to become the subject of your adoration.
The more commercially viable the online world becomes, the more important it is that we not live in denial about what Google results pages actually are. They are not representations of the marketplace. They ARE the marketplace. And in a marketplace, you fight with tooth and nail to feed your family. Buyer beware.
Said Hamideh is a guest writer and Palestinian-American entrepreneur, keenly passionate about the future of academic learning within social media platforms. You can find him on Twitter at @saidhamideh.