Debating the ethics of SEO

Ad guru Bob Knorpp asked recently “Why do tech people hate SEO?” As you probably know, SEO stands for “search engine optimization,” a controversial approach to elevate a web site in Google search results by either stuffing it with content that Google may pick up on or creating inbound links from other web sites to make the content on the site appear more relevant. It’s all a bit of gamesmanship to put your brand somewhere it may (or may not) belong.

(UPDATE: SEO expert Michael Gray suggests that the description above is flagrantly inaccurate. For the record, SEO involves changing web site content, HTML coding, and relations to other web sites to allow content to be found more easily by search engines. Poor examples, or so-called Black Hat SEO, can include “keyword stuffing” or filling pages with tons of keywords to try to trick search engines, a naughty no-no, but if you read Michael’s comments in full below you’ll see there’s more than one way to skin an SEO cat.)

Bob wrote,

“Internet purists pride themselves on the idea that the Web is a world-wide leveling of the playing field. It is a place where anyone can rise to the top based purely on the quality of their thinking and expression. In-bound links and being part of the conversation online are benefits that are earned over time…

“SEO, however, ‘cheats’ that cycle. Thoughts and ideas that have no relevance or that may not offer the best solution can be transported to the top of the search results over-night. And frankly, that drives the tech community crazy.”

We responded,

“We have met the SEO enemy and it is us … because humans have a tendency to pollute every ecosystem, including advertising systems. We did it with phones (telemarketing, now almost dead), email (spam, now wildly annoying and ineffective), radio (Clear Channel once ran 12 minutes of spots per hour and killed ratings, then later retrenched to 9+ minutes with a ‘Less is More’ campaign to try to woo advertisers and listeners back), and now social media (think of bloggers shilling $500 Kmart gift cards to try to build link Ponzi schemes, throwing the beautiful names their mommies gave them out the ethics window).

“I write this not to say that any form of media is ‘bad’ — but rather, just as farmers who rush to herd their sheep into a common grass area to feed their own flocks might destroy the grassy commons, every individual’s incentive to be heard can destroy the greater ecosystem. What marketers usually fail to see, in their individual lack of self-control, is we *all* need a healthy environment for advertising to succeed.”

What do you think? Is it fair to try to manipulate the link structure of the web to make your own material rise to the top? Or is there a point where exploiting a networked system goes too far?

Photo: Hobo

13 thoughts on “Debating the ethics of SEO

  1. Francine, I think you get right to the heart of the issue. Going for numbers rather than quality connections misleads both yourself and your audience. This is no different than people who follow and are followed on Twitter purely to crow about their “numbers.” What are they actually achieving with these numbers? I would say, “Nothing.”

    And yet, there is still something intriguing, useful and powerful about a well-run SEO campaign. The chance to insert your idea or product into the larger conversation is a bit intoxicating and in many way it’s important.

    The thing that is almost never talked about by SEO-detractors is that the Internet is not nearly as egalitarian as its founders intended. Even when you move away from the obvious influence of big media companies, certain individual bloggers/content-producers are simply more well-regarded than the general populace. Breaking into this collective consciousness is not an easy task either. You can have the best ideas going, but if you aren’t employing a certain degree of Internet savvy, your content will remain largely unrecognized.

    It’s simply not reasonable to say that the system shouldn’t be manipulated. In many ways manipulating the system is the only way to maintain the free flow of alternate opinions. Because let’s face facts: the playing field is not level when all a heavyweight media powerhouse like MSNBC or Viacom, or star like Ashton Kutcher has to do is rely on the power of their fame and/or reputation to get noticed on the net.

    One last point I want to make is that whenever this conversation comes up, the SEO crowd immediately starts pointing fingers at the disreputable practices that are giving the industry a bad name. While to a certain extent this is true, I think it’s a bit disingenuous to say this is the entirety of the problem.

    SEO has a big PR dilemma and it can’t be solved by pointing the finger at so-called “criminal” elements within their community. This is pure insanity and I can guarantee there’s not a PR professional worth his/her salt who would take this approach.

    PR problems like this are solved by educating people on the role and benefits of a service or brand or person being called into question. It takes finding common ground and pointing out how SEO is part of the very fabric of how the Internet has been built. It takes patient presentations of how SEO is intrinsic to the very entrepreneurial spirit that drives us all to seek fame and fortune. And it takes calm insistence that SEO shouldn’t be squashed, but should be universally adopted.

    And here’s the kicker: If everyone employed solid SEO strategies as a matter of course, system-gamers wouldn’t be able to dominate a search term. It would be virtually impossible and certainly unsustainable. Think on that.

  2. SEO—the Bat signal for creatives.

    @FM – I have the same PR as MM—without the hate or the begging. Score!

    @Ben @Bob – First, re: Bob’s initial quote, the lines blur a little though:

    “…In-bound links and being part of the conversation online are benefits that are earned over time…

    “SEO, however, ‘cheats’ that cycle. Thoughts…”

    The two aren’t always mutually exclusive and it’s not just SEO tactics that are used. Many well-intentioned people still want inbound links and game the system in subtle ways, from emailing people and asking for reciprocal links, to hawking their blog feeds across Social Media Land on a Saturday night, or by watching who’s linking to their blog via any number of metrics. (Google Analytics, Technorati, Google Blog Search, etc.)

    I’m coming at it from a different POV: As a creative having worked with SEO people and understanding more of what they need. Generally, all SEO cares about usually is having enough keyword-rich material on a given site or blog to draw well from searches.

    (As you know, blogs are inherently more keyword-rich because they update content more frequently so there, it’s a question of which topic you cover to fine tune your results.)

    Here’s where creatives freak out though: Because SEO people want all those keywords, (and I believe it’s typically something like 750 words or so that they like to have, may have changed, don’t shoot the art director here), but they want the important words up on the main page vs. being on secondary pages.)

    Creatives go wth? What do we do with this massive block of copy? So much for their Flashturbation because dynamic text or not, Flash is still not there as a solid way to drive search traffic to a site, yet, how many microsites do you see that still use it along with advanced scripting and other tricks focused on visuals, not text.

    Then they resort to, “Well, screw SEO, we’ll just do a banner ad campaign to drive people to the site, and indirectly bypass search.”

    If they do by chance think of SEO for the campaign? It’s minimal at best. They’ll buy a funky domain and run the url across the print/TV/radio/outdoor parts of the campaign and hope people remember enough of it so they can Google it.

    (Problem there is people usually search by name of brand or product first, not the recent campaign for it. If the two aren’t tied together properly with the right keyword buy, it’s a wasted effort.)

    My thing is still, SEO should work with creatives to say here’s what we need so that creatives can then say, okay, fine, just let us come up with a cool way to do it. Stretched out over multiple components online, it can be done.

    (Burger King’s campaign at one point with Brooke and the King and those hotel photos is an example. They populated and tagged images from different sources so that people would see them in searched results when they Googled “The King” or “Brook.”)

    The coolest stuff involving both SEO and creative has yet to be done. (I liked the stuff and the Google job search stuff, but that’s few and far between because SEO is still looked down upon. I don’t count efforts at incorporating search terms into a brand’s microsite as being “there” yet either.)

    The biggest perception I see however re: SEO is that traditional agencies and creatives don’t believe search has the same importance relative to a brand that SEO people believe it does. To them, it’s but one annoying little thing you do when someone just happens to google about a given product.

    Agencies are too busy creating what they think is the most important thing to a brand: A mood or vibe via traditional and digital media that connects the product with the consumer. Hopefully enough to get them interested enough to want to go and Google more info in the first place.

    On the flip side, SEO people instill so much importance in search because they believe consumers are making a huge migration from traditional media to the online space, and as such, search is how they will find out about things—not because of an agency’s funky TV commercials.

    Both sides are guilty of losing the forest though because it ALL matters to a brand: Print. TV. Outdoor. Guerilla. Social media. SEO. Radio. There’s not one element that will make or break you, and it’s likely that a brand will utilize some or all of those things throughout its life where consumers are involved.

    (I mentioned radio only because people think it’s dead, but I saw on Nielsen recently where the number one advertiser is Geico. Ironic how satellite is in trouble but terrestrial lives on.)

    Another way to look at it is that SEO is just part of the larger behavior that will dominate for a long time: Search itself.

    That doesn’t just mean Google and keywords, but that’s the clips you look for when you’re on YouTube, or songs on, or images on Flickr.

    Maybe we should redefine what SEO means to just be Search Optimization. Shit, wait, we lose the extra letter there. No good for search engines.

  3. It’s interesting to apply “ethical” standards to something that is basically gaming an algorithm to achieve desired results. The algorithm itself, how Google responds to these various maneuvers for example, is an algortihm that is calibrated to achieve their results. (Saw someone on Twitter last night ask “everyone” to Google Search @michellemalkin so she could get #1 Google page rank. I laughed rather than got indignant.)
    I promote myself, my site, my writing because I want to be read. Stats measure whether or not that is happening. Stats, and doing things to improve them like being mutually “linky,” allow me to prove to sponsors that they should support my goals because they align with theirs. As an accountant, the first thing I did when I started a blog was to install a tool to see if I was making progress over time and with whom. But those that pull stunts to add followers or raise their Google page ranks are fooling themselves in additional to fooling their audience. They want to be ranked, regarded, raised above others, not read,. As Andy Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” And anyone can adopt the techniques to be popular and therefore attract ads, sponsors, adulation and awestruck responses from acolytes. if they really want. But it’s those that are truly read and remembered who will endure.

  4. @Bob Thanks for the feedback on my comment. I knew nothing about SEO when I started my blog, on Blogger. I learned by example, experimented, checked the stats at each phase, and figured it out as I went along. I’m not dissing the SEO experts. I am sure I could do much better than having the dozen or so keywords (the ones that are important to me and my readers) that put me on Google page one or in #1, 2 or 3 spot. I get email and offers all the time offering help. Thank you very much, but no. Gaming the system means I would have to write about different things or write differently. I am conscious of the words I use, the way I use them. I link to those that add content to my discussion. But my first objective is to provide meaning to readers. Next comes being consistent so they can find me and can connect the dots.

    “…manipulating the system is the only way to maintain the free flow of alternate opinions.”

    I heartily disagree. Writing is the way to guarantee free flow of alternate opinions. About specific themes with little or no coverage elsewhere. Over and over. Consistently. Every day. Using language readers can understand and that ties ideas, yours and others, together. It works. My naive experiment proves it.

  5. A fascinating discussion and one point that I would add on the ‘ethics’ of SEO, is what about if it’s done defensively?

    We all know that someone without a large digital footprint can have their search engine reputations (and so their actual reputations) trashed fairly easily simply via a post or two.

    In fact, you can of course have your reputation wrecked even if you do have a good digital footprint and the person at the other end knows what they are doing!

    In this case – for example, in the one where photographer and blogger Thomas Hawk went for a director of an SF Museum online ( – surely it is not only ‘ethical’ to try and game the rankings back, it’s the only course of action available to you.

  6. Not to do too much self-promotion — okay, call it an “inbound link” if you like — but I’ve expanded upon my thinking on the whole subject of why good SEO practice should be a matter of course on the net. You can click here to find it.

    The basic premise I have is that everyone already does SEO. It’s just that some people do it intentionally well, some are innately good at it and some not so much. For instance, I’ve heard lots of talk about keywords here, but it is universally accepted among most SEO experts that keywords are not traffic drivers. If anything, keywords are what the engines may be using to bury your site as irrelevant or as a “gamer.” Improper use of them can actually lead to less traffic.

    The true and only reliable traffic generator is the in-bound link. So cultivating such external references is the only way to get noticed. And to be honest, while it may be more time-consuming to participate in the conversation and raise your profile, it really achieves the same ends as a link farm. It’s just one takes ideas and the other takes brute force and money.

    So in short, why hate on companies that cross-reference and index links between their many sites? They simply have figured out how to use the tools. And if they have the opportunity, presence and investment on the net to do such a thing, then they obviously deserve some notice anyway. Saying they don’t is like saying Wal-Mart should hide their logos because they are too big of a retailer. (And yes, I know people essentially say this too, but it really is an inane, anti-capitalistic statement.)

    Where the real trouble lies is that when people misunderstand the system and shun the proper use of it, they become victims to it. And I stand my the statement that it takes a certain amount of “gaming” in order to remain part of the conversation. Frankly, us having this conversation here on Ben’s post is SEO. We are participating in the conversation, our names are attached to our posts and I even threw in an in-bound link. Most likely your blogger profile also contains a link to your site, which is cross-referencing as we speak. And you are raising the relevance of your own content with every external conversation you have.

    I don’t mean to be insulting, but saying that it doesn’t take manipulating the system in order to keep the free-flow of ideas running on the web is part of the “utopian” thinking that is at the root of the problem. Case in poin: John Dvorak (Cranky Geeks, PC Mag columnist, etc.) always dismisses SEO out of hand as soon as the subject comes up. But his popularity on the net is largely due to his constant promotion of his in-bounds in every column, post and guest appearance. He is the perfect example of an SEO power-user, and yet he despises the very tool that drives his own traffic. Is this healthy? Is it wise?

    In my post I go some more into the PR thing, but this is a PR problem, not a problem with the tool itself. And the sooner SEO proponents realize this, address it and stop just blaming each other for “bad practices” the better.

  7. to say that SEO is “to elevate a web site in Google search results by either stuffing it with content that Google may pick up on or creating inbound links from other web sites to make the content on the site appear more relevant” is like saying rocket science is a bunch of guys in lab coats lighting things on fire.

    SEO is about making your pages and your website as whole easier to crawl and understand for search engines. Are their people who look for loopholes in search engines and try exploit them, sure. Are there accountants who look for tax loopholes and try to exploit them, sure. So why does everyone want the accountant who finds the loopholes, but thinks the SEO who does the same thing is the slime of the earth?

    Despite what they told you in preschool life is hardly ever fair, there is always someone smarter, better looking, more articulate, or financially well off. We all spend out lives trying to even out the disadvantages. If you think that search engines results are an exception then you are living in the land of unicorns and rainbows.

    Good SEO’s understand ranking for terms that you are relevant for and convert in sales or whatever your metric is, is a good thing. SEO’s who help drive off topic and irrelevant traffic pollute the web. So it’s up to companies to do their due diligence and find the former and not of the latter.

  8. Michael, thanks. I agree with your comment,

    “Good SEO’s understand ranking for terms that you are relevant for and convert in sales or whatever your metric is, is a good thing. SEO’s who help drive off topic and irrelevant traffic pollute the web.”

    Which was the intent of my original post. There is a spectrum of SEO, from making good content that is relevant optimal to be picked up by people searching for it … to link schemes that pollute. My beef is with the link schemes, which are emerging in every greater numbers (see payperpost in social media, gift cards for writing about topics that are totally irrelevant, link to me and you win a prize types of things). The chatter gets in the way of authenticity, and polluted communications do neither advertisers nor consumers much good.

  9. First off, GOOGLE is the source of all spamming. They decided that the media of exchange that would be most important to their users would be links. Business is the search for economic profit. Google found a great method to get economic profit. First by providing a service and then allowing others to cheat this system and rise to #1 if they paid enough money – paid search. My company does SEO Services and I just posted a link for it. Does it have economic value. It does – there is market created by google for such links. This one will sell on the open market for about $0.50 per month. I expect this will be deleted and I will not post again for my company but the just realize – it is Google not the SEO Companies that are the source of SPAM.

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