Anyone who attended Brighton SEO earlier in the year (and didn’t succumb to the lure of the pub before the last session) would have sat and listened, with varying levels of interest, to the panel debate on ‘is there such a thing as ethical SEO’. While I sat and took in the tennis-like back and forth discussion of a topic never likely to be fully covered in 45 minutes, I began to ponder my own views on both ethics and where they sit with SEO.
Ethics for SEO agencies
Working for an SEO agency, you end up working for a multitude of different clients, in a whole myriad of sectors, using an array of different techniques. By the very nature of doing so, you effectively become an extension of your client’s own company. So, as an agency, are you actually able to set your own ethics or do you end up adhering to those of your clients?
One of the main aspects of being an agency is that you commit to working in the best possible interests of your clients within the written or implied framework they provide. Do you have the right or obligation to enforce a different set of ethics upon them? Or are you just required to make sure they are aware of all the facts, leaving the overall ethical decisions to them?
Take, for instance, a situation where a client approaches you and asks you to buy a number links on leading newspaper sites (ignoring for now any discussion of the effectiveness of this tactic). For a start, is this unethical? It is certainly seen by most as a pretty shady area, but how far does this differ from paying for advertising? Is it merely the fact that it does not adhere to Google’s guidelines that it is seen as bad?
Secondly, if you see this as an unethical tactic, should you then refuse or are you bound by the fact that you are being paid to carry out the wishes of another company? If that company is fully aware of the risks, and they are happy to accept them, are you really being unethical by buying the links?
Finally, if this is by far the best tactic to achieve the results that they desire, are you being unethical by refusing to use the best possible tactics available?
Some hard questions
This may seem like an odd question to most, but I’m sure the agency owners will have come across it on numerous occasions: what are your ethics worth? Upon being presented with a request from a client to engage in something ethically questionable, there are some pretty big questions to ask. The first is: what is your own ethical reputation worth? If you have built a company on the fact that you only engage in ethical practices, can you afford to be caught doing something unethical? And, if you were caught being unethical, would this reflect badly on the other clients that you work for? Finally, if you refuse to do it, are you going to lose the client to someone who will, and can you afford for that to happen?
Ethics are subjective
One of the main problems is that ethics are, by their very nature, subjective, and as a result it is impossible to have any ethical absolutes. Furthermore, what is seen as ethical evolves over time, meaning that what may be seen as ethical today may not necessarily be ethical tomorrow. It also becomes increasingly difficult when there are more factors than just tactics involved… would a completely ethical link building campaign, for a site seen by many as being unethical, be ethical and vice versa? I’m sure if you ask the guys at Bright Builders they would have some strong views (although that is more of a legal/illegal thing).
What can you do as an agency?
You’ll probably have noticed that I have posed a lot of questions without really answering any of them. There are a couple of reasons for this, partially because I wanted to leave scope for discussion, but mainly because every agency and SEO will have their own opinions.
So as an agency, what can you do? To start with, I think you have to sit down as a team and discuss what approaches you are happy with and which you aren’t. You will have to cover whether you have a ‘one size fits all’ ethical policy, or if it will be tailored to specific clients, and what you will do if any of your client ask you to step past the line.
Once this is done, you need to make sure you get it down in writing and make sure everyone is 100% clear about what it is and why it’s there, and then make it part of your staff induction. There’s no point in having a policy if even one person is going to ignore it.
Finally, you need to communicate that policy to both your existing and new clients so that you are both happy with where you stand.
There are a couple of points I consciously chose not really to discuss in the post, as they are slightly different applications.
The first is that, as an agency, you are both ethically and legally obliged to carry out the contracted work to the best of your ability. If you are knowingly employing tactics that you know won’t be effective or you are billing for hours you’re not working, then you can’t really claim to be ethical. At the same time, if you have tried all the options available and you know the results your client is looking for aren’t achievable, if you want to be considered ethical you need to be honest with them and let them know. This is something that as an agency we have done previously.
My final point goes back to some of the actual discussions at BrightonSEO, where a couple of people implied, and in some case actually came out and said, that SEO as an industry was unethical and likened it to the banking industry. While I’m sure there are SEOs and agencies out there who are obviously and unashamedly unethical and may rip people off, the industry as a whole doesn’t. Having worked previously in both the mobile phone retail market and insurance sales, I can say that the SEO industry holds itself to much higher standards and, unofficially at least, is proactive at self-regulation. Personally I am reassured by what I see on a daily basis and at conferences and networking events, as it is clear that the vast majority of the industry is ethical and most work hard to provide both the services and results that they sell.
*Image credit: That Dam Kat on Flickr.