There are so many ethical discussions that can arise when speaking of search engine optimization practices. It is interesting that something that at times can be rather technical can be discussed from an ethical standpoint, but thus it is nonetheless that the ethics of SEO has been spoken of from many different perspectives. I have identified a few of the different discussions that occur when speaking of the ethics of SEO.
Business ethics: The SEO consultant’s duty to the client
The first, and most widely discussed ethical discussion centers around the duty of an SEO consultant to their clients, and it focuses on responsibility of said SEO consultant to maintain ethical business practices. When so much about search engine optimization is veiled with mystery and I have even heard it referred to as “a game of Chinese Whispers”, it can be easy for SEO consultancy to become wrought with ethically loose individuals who make false claims or engage in practices that give only temporary results but hurt the site in the long run.
Generally, when one hires an SEO consultant, it would be hoped that they would follow search engine guidelines, but there are many approaches that be have temporary results that eventually may get your site banned from the search engines. There is also the fact that you may pay for search engine optimization, but when you stop paying your site will experience a great drop in the rankings. Take for example one of the evil uses of the unavailable_after tag.
The common responses to this are bound in the general epithets of ethical business, and the best summary I have found in response to this is the SEO Code of Ethics on BruceClay.com.
Is it ethical to engage in search engine optimization at all?
Search engines are built for the user – so is it right to “manipulate the results” to the advantage of the webmaster? This relates immediately back to the approach being used by an SEO – are they engaged in ethical SEO? Are they following search engine guidelines and building links in an organic fashion? So long as “white hat approaches” are being used, it seems to me that search engine optimization really seeks to enhance the user experience. By helping the user find the content that is appropriate for that which is being searched, the SEO is giving value back to the user.
But SEO only has value so long as the content has value. For search engine optimization to be valuable it must be engaged in optimizing content that has intrinsic worth to the person searching for it. Optimizing made for traffic ad pages is not ethical. Optimizing a page for a much searched term that has no relation to the content is not ethical.
Also, search engine optimization is free. Sure, paying an SEO consultant costs money. But on-site optimization and link building is free. So, it is available to all webmasters, and therefore is not a matter of a big company having unequal advantage or monopoly. Honestly, in my experiences, big companies are not making as much use of these as smaller companies. The internet, and search engine optimization in a sense makes it easy for smaller companies to shake up the monopoly which larger companies have on the market.
Search engine optimization and the TRUTH
Recently, I have seen the discussion arise regarding the New York Times employing search engine optimization techniques on old articles, some of which contain reputation-destroying and sometimes false information. This is not the first time that this discussion has arisen, this has often been an issue for companies with regards to bad press. Unfortunately, the user will find that which is relevant and if the content is part of public record, the user should be able to find it. And one always has the opportunity to wipe out bad press with good press. ;)