What is ethical SEO? What does it mean to be ethical? And in the absence of a regulatory framework on the subject, how do companies even know when they are being unethical?
There is no getting around the fact that ethics are subjective. That makes the lines somewhat blurred. And where lines exist, people will cross them in pursuit of commercial gain, which in SEO terms means appearing at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs).
But what kind of ethical principles should be adopted and applied by SEO companies? The question is not easy to answer, because SEO companies are obligated to work in the best interests of their clients, but few clients are likely to care if their SEO company bends the rules a little in order to achieve a top search rank. But clients will care if their site is de-listed from Google following a penalty.
Ethical SEO, therefore, could be defined as any practice that conforms to rules or norms established by the leading search engines. Although that excludes or devalues considerations of integrity and principle, which are prerequisites of most ethical frameworks, it does ensure that the market controls the activities of its members. But there is more to ethical SEO than towing the invisible line drawn by Google.Being Ethical.
Ethical SEO involves honesty and responsibility. SEO companies do not only answer to Google: they must provide a service that is of genuine benefit to their clients. At the same time, SEO companies should stay true to their own beliefs, principles and standards. That means they should never let their clients direct them in a way that subverts their own ethical framework.
Being ethical is perhaps more difficult than some SEO companies would like to believe. Competition in the sector has increased exponentially over the past ten years as website owners have grown more aware of the benefits of effective SEO. Unfortunately, increased competition means that many SEO companies resort to unethical tricks in attracting clients. Promises of an immediate top position in SERPs, unrivalled online success and millions of unique monthly visitors are always exaggerated, but not all clients know that. The first rule of ethical SEO is to be honest and open with clients at all times. Website owners should not be duped into believing they will become the next internet sensation with a low budget, non-strategic campaign. Expectations must be managed carefully. And they must be realistic.
But should unethical practices ever be employed to achieve short-term success? What if an SEO company gains a reputation for employing black-hat techniques? What if a client's website is de-listed from Google because the company followed an instruction to purchase links?Being Unethical.
Clearly then, the line between ethical and unethical SEO is not always easy to establish. Some practices tread the line, others cross it. Boundaries should be probed, not overstepped. The practice of buying links, for example, can be both ethical and unethical. Google often penalises sites that buy links, but rewards those that are linked to from authoritative sources. High-quality links from reputable sources rarely result in punishment. All Google really cares about is relevance, quality and originality.
In summary, ethical SEO is defined and driven by the market, meaning that Google acts as a moral compass for what is considered today as ethical and best practice when it comes to the art of SEO.
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