Ethical SEO
author: Chris Price
date: 2007-12-05

Ethical SEO Agencies

An ethical SEO agency has to make the right choices every day. Ethical search engine optimising infers the use of strategies that comply both with published search engine quality guidelines and with appropriate community standards of behaviour. Normally, most enterprises will wish to use ethical SEO to improve their website results, rather than utilise rapid result techniques that are less than honest, and in any case risky in the long term. There is a clear choice to be made between these two paths at every stage of the process of improving an enterprise's Internet presence; and therefore it is necessary to ensure that consultants only use recommended ethical strategies.

It is a little more difficult, technically, to comply with search engines' unpublished terms of service, which may in volume exceed the published ones; but this is achieved by trying to comply with the spirit of the guidelines. Large and complex websites may well present challenges here.

Definition of 'ethical'

How do you define the terms 'ethical SEO' or even the use of ethics in online business?

As used in SEO it has a simple meaning: using methods allowed by law, by convention and by the search engines. There is also an inference in the term and its common usage that ethical methods are those which are acceptable to the profession as a whole (cf medical ethics etc).

Of course, there are several things immediately apparent: the profession has no rules or regulations, so pretty much anything is fair game. But the general inference is that ethical methods are those acceptable to respectable practitioners.

To be strictly accurate, the use of any method at all in connection with search engines has no relation to ethics in any way. No methods or techniques could be described as 'ethical' or 'unethical' purely in regard to their acceptability by a search engine's operators, since ethics cannot apply here - it is a measure of community reponsibility. However, ethical SEO here is taken to mean methods and practices that accord with the SEs' terms of service.

In practice, the term means using honest ways of improving a site's quality and web visibility, and improving the value of the resource for visitors. If it does not accord with those general principles it is not ethical SEO.

Acceptable methods in SEO

You may choose to search optimise a website by a range of methods that vary at one end from absolutely ethical and acceptable, through a large grey area, to completely unethical and semi-legal at the other end. These methods, and their adherents, are popularly termed white-hat (WH) or black-hat (BH), with a 'grey-hat' area in the middle.

Therefore, a choice needs to be made in the conduct of an SEO project, and in an SEO agency's business. There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods, but in the end, it's best to choose one side of the fence and stick to it. Since our clients are all respectable businesses, and as we achieved a large measure of honest success even in the first years of our search optimising efforts, it wasn't difficult to choose  ethical SEO as our path. We found that the use of ethical methods is successful when you research and apply the full range of acceptable technical and marketing options.

It is incorrect to state that black-hat SEO requires less skill than white-hat; or that it will inevitably result in a site being banned. Such statements indicate a lack of knowledge of SEO, whether BH or WH; and that the persons making such statements have never had to compete against skilled practitioners of BH SEO. The fact is that they are sometimes highly skilled, and those who denigrate them simply have no experience. Skilled BH practitioners can not only compete very strongly in the toughest markets (and in markets where WH consultants would probably have difficulty competing), but also remain undetected. Such skills cannot be discounted or devalued: they are very real and effective.

In fact the skills needed by top WH and BH practitioners are different; each requires a different skillset. A top white-hat consultant does not need to be a developer (though he will need to call on staff resources in this area), but it is likely that there are few or even none in the successful BH world who are any less than competent coders - top BH practitioners are likely to be skilled developers. On the other hand a top ethical SEO consultant must have a wider than usual knowledge of Internet technology, marketing, usability and business - and preferably be a specialist in one of these areas - so the skills needed are different.

It is true that BH 'optimised' sites are frequently burned, that is to say discovered and deleted from the index by search engines. Such websites are normally operated by novice or unlucky BH practitioners, since the skilled ones often manage to stay below the radar for extended periods of time. They may not need to use the standard BH spam site creation policy of 'burn and churn' - that is, keep building new sites as each one is discovered and deleted. These people are both clever and successful, and it would be unwise to discount them in any way; enterprises using ethical SEO services need to stay on the ball to succeed against them.

Ethical SEO agency

We are strictly an ethical SEO agency, and white-hat; however, we respect the abilities of the BH practitioners since we have to compete against them, and they are not to be dismissed easily. Search optimising via the honest route is a tough game at the best of times, and it would be easy to complain, and curse the 'alternative' crowd. But all's fair in love, war, and SEO - so we don't complain. Only beginners think that black-hat website development is always unsuccessful, the experts make a good living at it.

There is a tendency now for BH methods to creep into mainstream SEO. Cunning tricks and ways of manipulating the the page code are commonly seen in corporate SEO now, where large corporate SEO agencies work for corporate enterprises. The quality of work is often abysmally low, with short cuts seen at every stage. It seems that there is no time, or no motivation, to take a quality route to success, and short cuts are used instead. In the past these tricks and ploys would have been labelled black hat; but since they are seen daily in corporate SEO it has become more common to term them grey hat, and in fact this sort of short cut is virtually accepted now in work for City firms.

An ethical SEO agency will avoid such trickery and always choose respectable and responsible ways to proceed at every stage. The two main areas of website results improvement - links and on-site optimising - both offer a multitude of options for honest or less-honest methodology. As an example, sites need a reasonable number of links in order to succeed. Such links, at least in the numbers required to place well in search results, cannot be acquired naturally by 90% of sites which in truth deserve them. It would take many years for links of sufficient number to be acquired organically.

Therefore, professional assistance is often required in order to expedite the process. Of all the possible solutions here, the hardest and most time-consuming are the honest and ethical methods; rapid result techniques including the use of scripted applications or paying for links must be absolutely avoided by the respectable enterprise. Unfortunately, there are many offering search results improvement services who will use such methods, unknown to the client. The result is almost certainly a nasty shock, when the search engines realise what has been done - as they are bound to do eventually. By that time, the culprits have been paid and are long gone.

Recently, there have been cases where BH devs have taken over the top search positions on one or more of the major search engines, for several terms, in order to entice thousands of visitors to their websites and infect their PCs with badware. This is in association with botnet rings and similar activities (where vast numbers of PCs are taken over, and act as slave machines for PPC click fraud, email spam and so on). Because these people 'owned' the search results for multiple terms with large percentages of page 1 results, they were referred to in the trade press as "SEO Gods".

This scenario persisted for a couple of weeks or so until the search engines' anti-spam departments removed the offending sites. We, however, tend to think that a deity of search would be someone who could do that and stay there - and do it ethically. That's a little bit more of a challenge.

Ethical SEO fees and charges

We do not consider that most sites require an ongoing SEO commitment. The average commercial website is correctly referred to as the 'brochure' type, in that it represents the enterprise online, but does not sell directly, though orders may well be created by the site. Such sites, assuming them to be of less than 1,000 pages, do not normally require professional attention more than once or twice a year. Therefore, we are not prepared to charge a retainer fee, for most websites.

Of course, large sites with frequently changing content, and large ecommerce sites, are a different matter; but they do not represent the majority.

New sites can have a restricted project applied in order to give a good foundation for future growth. However on most established sites, one block of work is unlikely to produce comprehensive results, although selected targets can be achieved.

For these two reasons, most of our work is done in stages, and our fees reflect this. The majority of sites will require at least two stages to achieve our required standards, and larger websites, or those in tougher markets, will need more. We consider it better value for the client, more effective, more efficient in the long term, and certainly more ethical to work in this way. In our opinion one hit can be effective but has limitations, and a monthly fee is not the best value for the client - so a staged process is best.

We do not try to maximise our income by charging monthly fees on an ongoing basis since for most sites, SEO is a finite affair - it should be project-based, with specific targets, and with finite timescales.

We believe that an ethical SEO company should not only provide ethical SEO services, but also organise and charge for their work ethically. Our staged payment system reflects this, as fees are always paralleled by results.

It is absolutely true to say that large and busy sites of any type will require some work every month. In many cases, this could be handled by the owner or staff, under instruction from the SEO consultant. A common time figure for this work might well be 8 hours, and these basic tasks - such as acquiring some links and checking page content for search compliance - could be carried out by in-house personnel. It all depends on content change frequency, revenues, and staff availability: given a busy site and enough income, then any work done will simply generate more income and is worth doing. Small, quiet sites don't require ongoing maintenance, but large and busy ones do; so there is a point on the graph between the two where it starts to pay.

Quality and ethical SEO

There are many ways to organise ethical SEO services. Our belief is that the first and last consideration must be Quality, and with a capital letter. The main principle on which a site should base its success must be quality: valuable content, presented well, using high-quality web applications.

If you take any other viewpoint then there is a risk that your efforts will not be successful in the long term. We are only interested in long term, persistent benefits; and the Quality route is the best way to achieve that aim.

What can or cannot be used in ethical SEO
There are a number of core methods that may be used legitimately. These include improving hosting and server settings -- improving website code -- improving site content by providing unique resources -- getting more people to link to your site -- creating more web visibility -- improving on-site factors such as usability and accessibility -- and improving marketing. These are all things that can and should be done.

What cannot be done is to do these in a way that involves cheating or manipulating the search results, and providing less than useful resources. For example using others' website content and buying links are 'grey-hat' activities that border on black-hat. But cloaking of content is definitely black-hat - this means to produce different content for visitors and search engine spiders.

What is a legitimate way to create links
There is only one known way to legitimately create links and that is to have people physically create them individually or ask others to link back. Any money changing hands obviously means the link cannot be genuine and therefore it is a manipulation of the search results and unethical. There is an exception to this for paid directories, because it is obvious that a fee has been paid and that editors have reviewed the site for quality. Search engines can rank, uprate or derate such links as they see fit.

Other website owners can be asked to link back; and your staff or contractors can place links manually in other places where site owners have made facilities available for link placement, such as on various types of trade and social websites. These are all perfectly acceptable methods. Buying text links or hidden links on sites that do not make it clear that such links are commercial is not permitted by search engines' ToS.

Search staff have made it clear that a link is a link as far as they are concerned. This means:
1. Any link anywhere is considered during the site rating process, there are no links that are ignored.
2. If a link looks like a genuine link and not an advert, it will be processed as a genuine link.
3. If a link is disguised to look like a genuine link but is in fact commercial, then a penalty may result.

Of course, links have different weights. If you get a link from a very important site it will be worth more than 1,000 times as much as a link from a site of low importance. But if you paid for it, and are discovered, then perhaps it would have been better if you never had that link in the first place.

Nofollow links
These are links that have been designated as paid adverts or unreliable sources by the site owner linking to them. In theory they pass no PageRank or even anchor text value. In practice we have found that their value varies from zero or even a negative (bulk cloned social bookmarks) to around a 10% value (the average nofollow link on a page of reasonable quality), through to very useful indeed (a nofollow link on one of the major social sites). Nofollow links do count, though you need a lot more of them or to have them very well placed. But bulk nofollow links are a clear sign of low-level spamming and therefore not a quality signal; probably the reverse.

The search engine wars

As the Internet gets more crowded and develops finally into the undisputed centre of world business, success with search engines becomes more and more critical. It takes a very wide range of experience, knowledge and skills to succeed ethically here; but to succeed with rapid results, shortcuts and devious techniques needs a slightly narrower focus, mainly in coding, and of course with a mindset and willingness to take that path. There are plenty of volunteers willing to go that route.

The search results - and therefore the search engines- are increasingly under attack, in terms of the volume of SE spam, the number of unethically-achieved positions, and the increasing level of skill of those attacking them. The SE wars are hotting up to the extent that they now affect every single website on the Net in some way; and no website can be managed properly without consideration of the issues.

For example, dynamic site codebases that were completely acceptable in the past can no longer be used successfully; and numerous website management techniques that seem completely innocuous, and which used to be perfectly acceptable, can no longer be used. In order to compete successfully (at least ethically, at any rate), it has to be recognised that the Net is in a constant state of flux and what used to work often no longer does. The challenge is to find new ways to compete that are ethical and effective; and it takes a lot of skill to compete with the top bad guys.

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An ethical SEO agency needs ongoing research programs in the technical and marketing fields in order to succeed, and a willingness to constantly change and improve. Competition is becoming fierce, and there is intense pressure on search optimisers to use less than honest techniques. Many do, and our job is to try to stay ahead of those who are prepared to cut corners.

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