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Six Principles of Ethical SEO

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a doctor. Not a real doctor mind you, but an alternative doctor – I wanted to heal with botanicals and homeopathy, with nutrition and philosophy. I was all about naturopathic medicine (to the great bewilderment of my parents). Once I came to my senses, realizing that 12 years of education wasn’t going to make me any smarter (and would probably put my family in debt forever), I abandoned the idea. Internet marketing is in my blood; it was always going to be my destiny. It just took me awhile to accept that (plus, studying during the day and working for clients at night sucked!).

Fast forward to the present, and I heal websites (sort of) instead of people. All is well, but I can’t help reflect on earlier times when I was studying pre-med – or as the allopaths call it, pre-quack – and bring some of that philosophy into the art of SEO.

Our Own Personal & Professional Standard

Traditional allopathic medicine has the Hippocratic Oath, and there are principles of naturopathic medicine. But where are the principles of ethical SEO? No oath, no guidelines, just a free-for-all with lots of money at stake. Which is fine, it’s all about revenues and ROI at the end of the day. Yet I can’t help wanting to aim a little higher for our clients – to get them results ethically according to a personal and professional standard.

bust of Hippocrates, the father of medicine

This ethical code is our own, and applies only to our client relationships. We have no problem experimenting freely with techniques for our own research purposes (obviously never in order to intentionally mislead others or harm the web ecosystem). But when it comes to our clients, we maintain full transparency about our techniques and never put them at undue risk.

So here’s our public pledge, and a continuation of the topic of ethics as it applies to marketing on the web.

The Six Principles

First Do No Harm

We speak only for ourselves. We don’t presume that our principles and ethics should apply to other search marketers.

The first and most important principle is to keep your clients online visibility secure. Don’t jeopardize them by engaging in fringe or aggressive techniques, unless you have their full understanding and consent. Your client is your charge, and their web presence often has huge import for their business; treat their sites with care and respect.

The Power of Community

On the web ecosystem, a single rule overshadows all others: if it’s not useful, no one cares. Your strategy must encompass this fact. Contributing value to the web environment at large is the first step towards a successful internet marketing campaign. Community rules on the web, and while there may be some stupidity to the masses, the masses are usually the loudest; and they can sink you (or float you).

Identify and Fix the Cause of Problems

We’re often engaged after a site has already been designed and developed – without any SEO in mind – and asked to get it ranked. This isn’t the way it works. Sure, we can polish up a few things, we can repair this or that, we can even create a new arm or leg on a site and build from there – but it will never replace what’s wrong with the core of the site. Ethical SEO demands taking an honest assessment of a website and giving the client the cold, hard truth. It’s often not what they want to hear, but if it’s the right advice, then offering it keeps their best aims in mind. Identify the cause of problems, identify the market opportunities, and build strategically from there.

Internet Marketing is Holistic

SEO is not everything. Social media is not everything. Email marketing is not everything. There are myriad aspects to internet marketing that we must employ, from well-structured paid search campaigns to solid link building to content strategies. When they all work in tandem, the result is a powerful, far-reaching campaign that puts more money in your client’s pockets.

The SEO as Teacher

Traditionally, the physician’s role was not just to heal but also to teach; to build wisdom into his practice; to spread the learning he possessed to those who needed it most. Why should it be different with SEO? If your client is paying you to increase their presence online, your role should include educating the client on what works and why. By empowering them, you gain to benefit too: more knowledge often means a client who is more open to new initiatives.

Build Scalability

We consider it our duty to not only get our clients great results, but to build in scalable solutions that allow them to continue reaping the rewards (so long as effort is continually applied). And there’s a second ramification as well: when we build a scalable model, our clients aren’t dependent on our services. They can grow and prosper with or without us. The major side benefit of this approach is that clients rarely want to break the relationship.

Concluding Thoughts

While we’d never put a client under undue risk, we often educate them about potential risk factors pertaining to specific strategies. Some SEO techniques carry little to no risk, others carry considerable risk. It’s all about balancing business goals with marketing goals, and keeping an ethical guideline in mind.

By staying grounded in a strong ethic, and acting with the client’s best interest in mind, we tend to foster long-lasting relationships. It’s not always easy, and I’ll be honest, we don’t always adhere to these principles completely. We’re not morally perfect. No one is. But we keep these principles in mind while we empower our clients, take charge of their online visibilities, and market their sites. Without ethics, we’d be lost. They are what grounds us and keeps us focused on promoting relevance and value on the web.

What are your thoughts? Please post in the comments – great contributions will be given followed links here in the main post. :)

Update: thanks to Michael of chiropractic blog for the comment. Thanks also to Bob Gladstein of Raise My Rank for the great point.

  • Adam Audette
    Adam Audette is the Chief Knowledge Officer of RKG.
  • Comments
    26 Responses to “Six Principles of Ethical SEO”
    1. Michael D says:

      I like how you used your holistic philosophy towards an SEO approach of getting the sick (websites) well and keeping the well (websites) from getting sick.

    2. Adam Audette says:

      @Michael aka chiropractic I like your analogy there :) you’re getting a link.

    3. I agree with just about everything you’ve written here, but I think the question of risk requires further discussion. This is going to vary from person to person, but there must be some point beyond which the marketer refuses to go for the sake of the client’s site, regardless of how well we educate the client. What you call “undue risk” may be par for the course for some, whereas for others, any level of risk would be deemed unethical.

    4. Adam Audette says:

      Great point Bob. The issue of risk is a hairy one. “Undue risk” doesn’t mean much because it’s dependent on some sort of personal moral barometer. Like you say, that can vary widely. It would be interesting to have a discussion of SEO risk – maybe a table with certain techniques weighed risky to safe along a grid would be fun.

      The problem with all this risk talk (from what I’ve found) is that when money starts coming into the equation. Risk, what risk? Did you say we can make a lot of money? I consulted with a large company that had a pretty aggressive cloaking implementation. I told them it was very risky, and asked why they did it. They obviously didn’t need to, they were already successful. They said it made them over $4mil in the first 6 months.

      When it comes right down to it, any discussion of ethics, risk assessment, morals, etc has to be balanced with business goals. But more often than not I’ve found businesses willing to risk more if there’s a potential for more cash, regardless of their ethical standards. Cash flies in, and ethics fly out.

    5. great post. truth is that while having a site in the top rankings for high traffic keywords can make someone lots of money (generating leads or adsense), the engines (along with social sites, etc) will always be manipulated and gamed by someone trying to figure out how to get to the top.

      the long-term ethical strategy will be the one that sticks.

    6. Shadab Malik says:

      As you mentioned “It’s all about balancing business goals with marketing goals, and keeping an ethical guideline in mind.”

      Only its not that simple. You talk about 3 things here:
      1. Business Goals – decided by Client
      2. Marketing Goals – decided by us.
      3. Sticking to Ethical Guidelines – Our limitations

      The client, however, least care of the latter two. With only Business Goals topping the list of client, and the unconcern for the 2nd and 3rd point, makes it all the more difficult. As a result, Black Hat SEO is born. Client awareness is no doubt essential to follow ethics provided the client is ready for such an education.

      Great post however (made me subscribe the RSS). Even I liked your holistic philosophy :)

    7. How does doing what Google wants make you ‘ethical’??

      Doesn’t that just make you stupid if you pass on making more money for the sake of Google making more money?

      I think there are already way too many rules/guidelines/laws etc in the world already and imposing rules on ones self just shows that they love being a slave to a master.

      I for one will choose freedom.

    8. Adam Audette says:

      Thanks for the comments everyone.

      @Jeffrey it’s not about what Google wants. I think you missed the point. It’s also not about “rules/guidelines/laws” in the world externally… it’s about an internal ethical standard. I was doing search marketing before Google even existed. Do you think I now only make decisions based on their Webmaster Guidelines? Nope. I’m aware of them, but I don’t need them. The ultimate standard (and any assessment of risk) comes from my own experiences, balanced with the client’s goals.

    9. SEO Pune says:

      That was a thought raking one….thank you for sharing your ideas.

    10. Jon Clark says:

      The best sentence in the entire post for me. I work for an agency where many of our AEs are more order takers than strategists. Our jobs are consistently 50% more difficult as a result as we are never allowed to provide input pre-website launch. Well, I should say very, very rarely. Great insight overall. You give simple reasoning to some areas that can seem very complex at times.

    11. paisley says:

      The SEO as Teacher

      If i had 100,000 dollars for every client that wanted me to “teach them SEO”, i’d be a multi-millionaire.

      1. you tell them you are changing the title tag to adjust for SEO.. so they decide to make changes whenever they want… sometimes eliminating crucial KW sets, etc…

      2. several former clients think SEO is easy.. and it is… IF you know what lines NOT to cross.. after doing this since 1995.. there is no way i can explain all in my head that i know about SEO.. AND whatever i say this week may change with the next google algorithm shift.

      3. how many time have you seen, “meta tags don’t work anymore, link trading is the way to go…” on some SEO blog, forum, etc… well.. i’ve had that crap repeated to me many times by clients who think those statements are absolute..
      a. they aren’t and b. they are both wrong..

      4. the best thing for clients to do is COOPERATE with the hired professional… yes the doctor tells you a little prevention advice here and there.. but something like operating or prescribing drugs is best left to qualified professionals.. and the doctor is not going to be able to ever tell you how to self-diagnose and self-medicate for every occurance.. unlike the SEO.. whose textbooks for the client are the website metrics.. the client should follow the (QUALIFIED) SEO’s advice…

      (now what defines qualified? i’m not even opening that can of worms..)

      the power of community.. at first i thought this was.. “share the secrets” then after i read it.. you did share THE secret…

      “provide unique qualified and targeted content” – that is the biggest SEO secret of all….

      otherwise, very good article.. =)

    12. Robert says:

      While I revel in chaos and have little regard for ethics there surely is some merit to your points.

      Firstly as the rules are ever changing, what seems like good solid practice today may be considered evil (darkhat) tomorrow. I liken this to early day surgery… without hygiene. Things have changed.

      I’m a firm believer that a solid, well built website will rarely (if ever) have problems with ranking. If you would offer a client a shoddy website then your business plan needs some attention – you won’t have returning business. If you offer rankings that will only last a very short period the same would apply.

      I guess at the end of the day good ethics will translate into good business and vice versa.

    13. Adam, I very much agree. Ethical practices work better and feel better (I discuss this in my award-winning sixth book, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First).

      BTW, my dad is a retired chiropractor and I’m very much a believer in non-allopathic healing. Allopathic has its place but that place is only one part of the mix.

    14. Joey Martini says:

      I used to do work for clients in the past, before I started my blog network. Well what can I say is that the whole not putting them at risk sometimes backfires too. No always you understand SEO fully, not always you know what exactly happened to rank your site. So every since then I quit doing work for my clients and now I work for myself. Yes the money is not as good, but it will improve in time.

    15. smconline says:

      Bob makes a good point regarding risk being subjective. Some clients expect “instant gratification” and the fact ethical SEO takes time to nurture and prosper. I want my clients to know from the onset that my intentions are in the best interest of their end users and their site’s long-term business goals.

    16. Ecommerce Web Development says:

      I very much agree. Ethical practices work better and feel better (I discuss this in my award-winning sixth book, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First).

    17. Excellent article Adam – well done. When tackling a site which is already having some success, a lot of people go like a bull at a gate and screw up existing results, thus principle #1 is VERY important in those circumstances. Sites which have no visibility are of course a lot easier to tackle – the ONLY way is up :)

      Look forward to reading more of your articles. Cheers.

    18. Adam Audette says:

      @Rob, thanks much, appreciate you stopping by and the great feedback.

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