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Search engine optimisation (SEO) and the online marketing sector as a whole may not present the most ethically challenging jobs in the world but it does offer a few moral predicaments.

We may not need to wrestle with thorny moral debates on the nature of personhood or seek to justify wars, but we are still challenged regularly by everyday small moral queries, which I suppose is true of any role.
 
Here are a few of the routine debates an SEO executive may encounter. Let me know if you think I have missed any and we can furrow our respective brows and thrash it out in the comments page.

So, brace yourselves for my pontificating, principles and potentially pomposity!
 
Black hat versus white hat SEO
 
These opposing optimisation positions are sometimes called ethical and unethical SEO. Black hat tactics attempt to manipulate the search engine results pages using methods which those engines disapprove of.
 
Essentially, this debate is about what some consider to be unfair manipulation of the rankings to push a client to the top.
 
On the one hand…
 
Online marketing is amoral, it is about putting the brand in front of people, nothing more. As a paid-for service, the SEO firm is just performing the will of their client
 
Anyway, all SEO is about affecting the rankings, ethical or unethical just refers to Google's preferences. It would be unethical to take a client's money and not do the best job possible for them.

But I think…
 
I am going to be a bit Kantian about this (extra points for those who know which German philosopher I am babbling about without reference to a Monty Python song). I think SEO companies should do as they would be done by.
 
Unless you are happy wading through pages of useless sales-pitch content in your quest for the elusive useful, then don't fill the searchable web with it!
 
Pay-per-click ethical puzzles
 
Newspapers have been criticised for bad taste after bidding on searches for "Madeleine McCann", Google has been accused of aiding selective abortion by allowing gender testing kits to advertise, companies in Britain can now decide to bid on other firms' trademarks – there is a lot of potential for debate in the world of pay-per-click.
 
On the one hand…
 
The moral responsibility lies with the search engine in question and the laws of the land.
 
If it is legal to place an advert then there is no reason for the marketing agency to worry about whether or not it is ethical to place that advert there.
 
But I think…

 
I think that every potentially ethically tricky case needs to be considered on its own merits, blanket rules do not work.
 
While placing an advert may comply with the search engine's guidance and the laws of your country, you have a responsibility to your client not to expose them to reputation-damaging accusations of bad taste.
 
Controversial clients
 
I think this is an issue every SEO company should resolve as soon as possible, ideally before the situation actually presents itself.
This is not a two-sided debate; it is a question of gradient and self-decided positions.
 
Where do your limits lie? Would it be right or wrong to market a controversial organisation? Would you provide services to a religious group? Would you provide services to a religious group expounding principles you disagreed with? What about a political group? What about a more extreme political group?
 
But I think
 
It is up to every SEO agency to determine what organisations it is willing to work for. I know what position SEOptimise holds and it is one our staff can be happy with and one which should ensure the firm never has to combat negative press for working with contentious clients.
 
However, I do believe the most important thing is to be consistent. Decide what your rules are and stick to them; this protects you from revealing your own opinions and also from cries of 'unfair' from rejected potential clients.
 
"I am sorry, our policy is not to represent political pressure groups" is a considerably better explanation to a disgruntled would-be customer than: "I am sorry, we don't want to work with you."
 
You may not care what a rejected customer thinks but you should – it is all about looking as professional as possible.

Kevin Gibbons is Director of Search at SEOptimise.

Kevin Gibbons

Published 25 March, 2009 by Kevin Gibbons

Kevin Gibbons is UK Managing Director at digital marketing agency BlueGlass. He is also known as an SEO speaker and can be found on Twitter and Google+.

102 more posts from this author

Comments (2)

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Web promotion

Interesting read, I am definately going to check this out! Thanks!

over 7 years ago

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I-COM SEO

Surely this all boils down to the final point in your discourse. SEO companies must make a decision on who they'll work with and in what way. Everyone has a moral compass and should use it to decide what they're prepared to do.

It will ultimately be self fulfilling, clients will be attracted to SEO firms that do things in the way that they're comfortable. A spammy porn site would not come to I-COM because it's evident from our site that that's not the sort of thing we do.

over 7 years ago

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