We have positioned ourselves as ethical digital marketers and we stand behind that assertion, but a chasm is opening up in this industry and I don’t think it’s healthy. Marketers are outing “black hats” while many “inbound marketers” are being criticized for hypocrisy and false assertions that what they do does not work.
The real problem with this debate is that there are no stated goals other than the desire to position ourselves as “safe” marketers or as “real” SEOs. The phrases “black hat” and “white hat” are being defined only by whoever is using them, and legitimate criticisms from either side are being fully ignored due to cognitive biases.
We’re probably guilty of some of this ourselves, so we’re not preaching from the pulpit here. I just think it’s time to start defining what we mean and why we care so much about this debate, to stop inventing straw men, and to build something constructive out of this.
So, with that in mind, here are 3 questions I think we should all ask before we jump back into this debate.
1. What are “black hat” and “white hat” tactics anyway?
Ask an SEO, get a wrong answer.
“Inbound marketers” will mostly point to tactics that Google has explicitly stated are against the rules, like:
- Buying and selling links, including exchanging goods and services for links or sending “free” products in exchange for links
- Trading links “excessively”
- Linking to spammers and unrelated sites to manipulate PageRank
- Building pages just to link from them
- Building links with automated programs
Meanwhile, supposed “black hats” will point out that the term comes from the hacking world. You’re not really a “black hat” unless you are breaking the law or hacking computer systems, many of them will argue.
But, as we’ve pointed out several times, and Michael Martinez has joined us, Google has stated that any links intended to manipulate rankings can be considered part of a link scheme.
If we accept the premise that SEO tactics are “gray hat” if they lie in murky, unclearly defined territory according to Google’s guidelines, then virtually all SEO is gray hat. We’re all trying to “manipulate” rankings. It’s only by attributing a sinister connotation to the word “manipulate” that we can justify calling ourselves “white hats” and them “black hats.”
And, of course, Google can change its guidelines at any time.
As we’ve said before and will say again, we advocate attaching some non-SEO marketing value to every SEO tactic you use. The simple mantra “would I build this link if it were no-follow?” is a good one to live by. We also feel it’s a better decision to scale through smart hiring and project management software like WorkZone than through automation like Xrumer or whatever the kids are using these days.
But this doesn’t really come down to being “black hat” or “white hat.” It comes down to our goals and our risk tolerance. And that brings us to our next question.
2. What are your goals and your risk tolerance?
Why do you care about rankings, and how much risk are you willing to accept?
If you’re in SEO for yourself, the ethics can get murkier than most of us would like to admit. You’re only putting yourself at risk, and a few spun articles and purchased links probably aren’t going to hurt anybody but you beyond mere annoyance. This is, in fact, fairly tame compared to some aggressive marketing tactics that predate SEO.
If you’re working for clients, the situation is very different. Putting a client at risk without their consent is certainly unethical, bad for morale, bad for publicity, and ultimately bad for business.
Even clients who claim to be up for the risk will often quickly be reduced to tears when they find themselves getting penalized.
And this isn’t the world of insurance, where risks can be calculated with some degree of accuracy. We have to face facts and realize that we have no idea what the risks are when we violate, or tip-toe on, Google’s guidelines.
I’m of the opinion that deliberately violating Google’s guidelines can only make sense if all you care about are short term results. Most spammers fully realize this, and leverage automated, risky tactics for short term profit. That’s an ethically gray decision that we’re not interested in making, because long term success is the only kind of success that matters to us.
But what about the rest of us? When we use guest posts to boost PageRank or use outreach to build links, we are arguably engaging in “link schemes.” That’s also a risk we need to be fully aware of, which is why it is so important to diversify and chase referral traffic and branding impressions just as much as SEO value.
And all of this talk about ethics really makes me wonder about one big question that often goes unaddressed, and really gets to the heart of why this debate has been bothering me lately.
3. Why do ethics only matter when it comes to Google?
Ask almost anybody and you won’t find that their hearts go out to Google and its shareholders, and all the pain and suffering that they must go through because of “black hat” SEOs.
Whenever people debate “black hat” vs “white hat” the subject of ethics always seems to come up, but rarely does this discussion move beyond the rules Google has defined. This is probably why “black hats” often claim “inbound marketers” are brainwashed herd animals.
What about collecting arguably private user data for remarketing advertisements? What about using Facebook’s user data to market to consumers using what they often argue is private data? What about maximizing your conversion rate by making false promises?
I’m not arguing for or against any of these tactics; I’m simply pointing out that these subjects rarely seem to come up during these debates. As far as the user is concerned, a remarketing ad is just as bad, if not worse than, a purchased link. False promises are still worse, and yet practically ubiquitous as far as consumers are concerned.
Ethics go deeper than the rules Google has laid out for us. In fact, ethics are a crucial part of holistic marketing. Shared values are one of the strongest motivators for purchasing intent, and internal morale is driven in large part by ethics. If we can move beyond name calling, we can address how ethics really impact SEO, instead of focusing on the undeniable fact that violating Google guidelines comes with inherent risks.
What do you think about ethics in SEO outside this traditionally defined scope?
Pratik Dholakiya is the Co-Founder & VP of Marketing of E2M Solutions & OnlyDesign. The primary focus of E2M Solutions is on content marketing and leveraging its potential to generate revenue for clients. OnlyDesign helps companies build a better web & mobile presence. You can contact him on twitter @DholakiyaPratik or by emailing at email@example.com