Ethics of Search: The White Lies, Gray Zones, and Black Hats of SEO

September 14, 2017



Two weeks ago, I wrote about Google’s warnings that it is planning to issue an “over-optimization penalty,” AKA the OOPS penalty. Similar to the Panda update, an algorithm change intended to punish spammy sites with “thin content,” the so-called OOPS penalty is supposed to prevent sites that are over-optimized from ranking. But where is the line between regular optimization and over-optimization? Nobody really knows. Google’s own answers have been vague at best – some of the techniques they’re now calling spammy, they advocated themselves in the past.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

When Google seems to be criminalizing SEO, it’s not surprising that the search community has ethics on the brain. Last week, Joe Hall wrote a post that declared “SEO outing is immoral.” “SEO outing” is the practice of telling the public or “the authorities” (i.e. the spam team at Google) about what you consider to be spammy, black-hat or unethical SEO practices, such as buying links. Joe contends that “If your paycheck doesn’t say ‘Google’ on it, it’s not your job to police the web.” Further, it’s not just not your job, it’s actually “immoral” to do so, because you could be putting people out of work when you don’t know the circumstances:

But the problem with SEO outing isn’t just a difference of opinion on strategy. The problem with SEO outing is that no one assumes the full consequences of their actions. Let’s take the BMR incident as an example. How much money did they lose as a result of being outed? Do their employees have families? How many of their clients are now seeing revenue lost? How many SEO agencies contracted with them? And how many of their clients are affected? How many innocent business owners that don’t know the risk involved with these networks are now suffering? How many people are now on unemployment?

The post got over 100 comments,  and the debate continued this week when Joost de Valk posted some thoughts from the other side of the argument. Joost thinks it’s the “companies [that] have grown by using their unethical methods, costing other people their jobs in other companies” that are crossing the line, not those who out them:

I recently outed GoDaddy over using spammy link building techniques and got a lot of flack for that from other people in the industry. Some seem to think that it's all of "us" (SEO's) against "them" (Google). I wholeheartedly disagree. GoDaddy was using its paying customers to strengthen their own SEO without consulting them, in fact, they were specifically hiding what they were doing in their editor.

I don't mind them "playing" Google's algorithms. I mind them abusing their customers websites without their consent. The only way of making that stop is to ask Google to remove the value that abuse has. In the same way I loathe WordPress plugin developers who add links to their users sites without consent.

As with Joe’s post, a lot of people chimed in to agree.

What do you think? Have you ever played good cop and reported a black hatter? Is reporting spam a moral imperative? Or is it just bad karma?

Personally, I don’t think reporting someone for spam is immoral – as Joost points out, those companies may be putting other innocent people at risk by deceiving them about what does or doesn’t violate Google’s guideliens – but nor would I (knowingly) out someone myself. Basically, I have better ways to spend my time, and greater injustices to address if I’m going to play superhero.

How’s GOOG Doing on the Old Ethics Front?

Speaking of ethics, Larry Page’s one-year anniversary as CEO of Google just passed, which prompted a couple of good articles reviewing how the company has changed under his leadership.

In Digital Trends, Geoff Duncan asks whether Google has gotten “more social” and “more evil” under Larry’s reign. Because he sees Facebook as a huge thread to advertising revenue, Duncan writes:

Page’s first move as CEO was to focus the company on social networking. To maintain its leadership in online advertising — and all the tasty, tasty revenue that comes with it — Google needs to know as much or more about Internet users as Facebook. Page packed up Google’s executive offices and moved them close to the group working on Google+ — no pressure there, right? He also laid down another dictum: A portion of all employee bonuses would be tied to the success of Google+. In other words, the success of Google’s social efforts was suddenly everyone’s job. To be sure, Google+ was in development long before Page took the CEO chair, but the platform only took center stage under Page’s leadership….

Defend Google’s online advertising business from Facebook means compiling detailed dossiers on Google users — and using that information to offer highly relevant and personalized services, as well as targeted advertising. For Google, that strategy has become more important as consumers have shifted to mobile technology. Users are willing to sift through plenty of results on a 24-inch monitor, but people trying to type with one thumb without spilling their coffee while waiting for a train don’t have that kind of patience. Being able to surface personally-tailored results on the first try in a tiny amount of screen space becomes critical to Google’s business.

Duncan implies that Google is sacrificing value in its core products (as well as resources formerly spent on innovation) and its users privacy in the mad dash to compete with Facebook and Apple. Ryan Singel at Wired goes a little farther, calling Google’s recent moves a “big double-cross.”

Back in the day, Singel writes, Google’s ads were triggered only by words in your current web search or email. The system didn’t track or remember you: “Google has said for years that it wouldn’t profile its users and built data silos to make it so.” Even without profiling, it was “the most profitable advertising system in the world.” But that policy has been degrading over time, and in March it pretty much dissolved completely when Google unified its various privacy policies into one:

Google, threatened by Facebook’s success in finally giving users an identity, has decided that it will combine all the data it can into a mega-profile. That means your searches, all the web history it knows about you, everything in your e-mail account, and all the data from Android phones and Google+ will be combined to build the mother of all online profiles.

Only a few things remain off-limits — Google Analytics, for one. Don’t expect that to last long.

Singel wonders if Google is worried that Facebook will build a search engine better that Google’s. He doesn’t think that’s a legitimate fear:

But my guess is that this isn’t true, and that a search engine optimized by Facebook-style social data wouldn’t topple Google. Instead, I think it’s all about ego — that Google is afraid of being eclipsed in public opinion by Facebook, rather than being truly concerned that Facebook could build a better search box. I think Google doesn’t want to be perceived as losing, even if the company is making billions and billions annually without needing to really profile its users at all. Either way, Google has made it clear it is afraid, and you should be wary of companies running scared. Scared companies make decisions that are often bad for their long-term prospects, and worse for their users.

Check out also the interesting discussion in the comments about Wired’s own comment policy.

More Web Marketing Highlights

In response to the over-optimization debate, Adam Audette at the RKG blog says “SEO should be invisible.” In other words, an optimized site should support your business model, not be your business model.

PPC Epiphany has a comprehensive post on targeting search partners, from analyzing types of search partner queries to identifying partners, writing the ads and optimizing your bids.

Matt van Wagner goes over some really easy ways to see drastic gains in PPC performance, not by finding “the perfect keyword” but by taking care of mundane details (like adding punctuation and capitalization based on how your ads actually display).

And slightly off-topic: Two interesting pieces on Instagram culture:

Instant Classic: The Rise of Nostalgia Branding – “Remember when movies were silent, mobile phones were giant and photos took two weeks to process? No? Well, that doesn’t mean you can’t long for their return.”

Instagram For Android: There Goes The Neighborhood – “So while there is often a tinge of irony or the hahahaha-colored patina of UGH in the proclamations of iPhone users disgusted by the idea of the Android barbarians at the gate, under the surface is a more general tension between a population that tends to be more affluent and often manifests that affluence as a form of taste — hello conspicuous consumption and the privileged aesthetic of vintage photos — and one of the masses, a population filled with some segments that, generally speaking, have less of a voice in culture already, particularly in technology, whose culture is still largely determined and dominated by a bunch of moneyed white dudes in Silicon Valley. The (even jokingly) exclusionary politics of current Instagram users feel slightly more insidious if you think of Instagram in the mode of its founders, who see it not as a little site for sharing photos, but ‘very much a communications tool" that makes them hope they can "change the world in some real way.’ … The thing about changing the world is that it kind of helps to have as much of world involved as you can.”

Have a good weekend folks.

Image via Rohape

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

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