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Is All SEO Unethical?

Is WH SEO a myth?



9:32 pm on Aug 14, 2014 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator incredibill is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member Top Contributors Of The Month

Got involved in a discussion re: the ethics of BH vs WH SEO making the difference and it occurred to me that it's all nonsense.

Is Any SEO Ethical?

My point was that all SEO except the purest WH, is unethical as it deliberately causes harm to other sites.

For any SEO to work, the main goal is to knock someone out of their position in the search engine. In other words, the goal is to cause harm to some other site, by definition any SEO of that nature is negative SEO as it intends to unnaturally unseat another site.

What is the pure WH?

Build a site and do nothing but original on-site SEO, don't copy SEO from another site, maybe glean keywords from Google and auto-suggest but not a competitor.

Doing a little promotion is cool, even Google claims that's OK, still WH.

If you build it from scratch and let the masses decided if it should rank, then you're a truly ethical WH SEO.

What crosses the WH line?

However, any other form of link building or SEO specifically designed to knock others off their rankings is deliberately intending to harm other sites.

Natural Ranking

If search engines worked the way they were intended to work, as a pure vote of popularity, it would be like Billboard for music. The top 10 sites would be the actual popular top 10 and they would move up and down as people's interest waxed and waned.

Sadly, that isn't the case, and every site on the planet fights to knock the competition out of the search engine regardless of popularity.

Sure, everyone wants to make money but DO NOT try to convince yourself that beating someone out of their natural ranking position by link building and using the SEO of the competition to get their keywords isn't doing them any harm.


Therefore, my premise is that both BH and WH is unethical when it's purpose is to deliberately harm someone else's livelihood.

Sure, turning it around to say you're only trying to improve your livelihood makes it sound all sanitized but deep down, you know you knocked people off the top 10 and they'll soon be letting employees go, maybe closing shop.

Is your site more deserving than theirs?

What actually gives you the right to force your site in and their site out?

If it was all natural voting with real links the way it originally was, back in the beginning, then there would be nothing unethical about it whatsoever because the people voted and popularity is what we all strive to achieve.

The problem starts when it's unnatural popularity, which is what SEO creates.

This is just a philosophical discussion, not accusing anyone of anything, not telling anyone how to do your business. I do all these SEO things myself, just trying to make a point about the ethics of SEO and the fact that people try to delude themselves that their so-called WH methods are more ethical than BH methods when the end result is some site(s) being harmed.

Think about it.

What site(s) did you harm?

Just some food for thought.


2:49 am on Aug 18, 2014 (gmt 0)

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All Seo is unethical......

Not true there is onsite seo that works in tandem with accessibility.

This should be titled all link building is unethical and that I would agree with, but it was Search Engines that created the market.

Perhaps we should also examine advertising on company names and trademarks is that ethical ?

People in glass houses.........

If we are talking ethical just how ethical are search engines with user data ?

And why do search engines continually employ spy staff ?

Putin recently said the internet was a CIA project, I think the only thing he got wrong was the agency, definately NSA.

[edited by: seoskunk at 3:16 am (utc) on Aug 18, 2014]


3:15 am on Aug 18, 2014 (gmt 0)

I don't think link building is unethical. We are assuming all the users know how to navigate through the internet. MANY do not have a clue and go from one site to the next just following links. I bet once a week I get somebody that calls that has no clue what site they are on. These people are just wondering throw the net. Those links are like street signs that lead people in directions they want to go. Many times people do not even know about products unless somebody builds a link. Links can be helpful for the users if things are in related areas. At times you may not see the connection but it may exist.


3:23 am on Aug 18, 2014 (gmt 0)

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In the end, it doesn't really matter if it's ethical or not. If Google decides to enter your niche/market in some way, most likely you're looking at layoffs and a lot of changes in your business model.

Yahoo! decided to link to its' own properties at the top of search results many years ago, we shouldn't be surprised that it's happened again with another search company.

Are black hats still succeeding in ranking high? Yes, in many cases. And so is Google, in ranking their own properties high <-- the best of the black hats. They know exactly how things work. Is that ethical SEO that they're doing?

[edited by: micklearn at 3:30 am (utc) on Aug 18, 2014]


3:24 am on Aug 18, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Links existed before search engines but they weren't bought or promoted. Manipulation of links has caused the problem. However I don't think Search Engines are that bothered, they simply run a filter and couldn't care less if it catches small business just as long as key advertisers are happy.

Search Engines now exist to serve corporate interests.


6:07 am on Aug 18, 2014 (gmt 0)

When did the topic switch to link building and search engine ethics?


6:35 am on Aug 18, 2014 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Interesting discussion...

There's no authoritative decision maker in what's right and wrong other than the laws of the land and the arbitrary ranking rules set by Google... and maybe the wish of the user.

Good point. Which makes hard to involve ethics. But it depends on the context, if you ask the question "is it good for the web?" then it's a different discussion entirely.

If we go back to the early days of Google, back then pagerank (almost all by itself) was a strong enough signal to create search results so good that absolutely no one could compete with them.

But of course they told everyone about pagerank pretty much right from the start so people started gaming it in droves. At the time I wished they had kept it quiet. People would have still figured it out but it would have taken a lot longer to become mainstream.

The point being that before people started SEOing their pagerank (and other signals) the web was much much easier to search, which goes against the argument that SEO is really just about giving search engines good data so they can do their job better.

The original reason for developing links was to reach users who'd have reason to be interested in your kind of widgets.

Very true, but that kind of link building tends to create clear ranking signals. Link building with the sole intent of increasing search engine visibility is a junk signal. Same goes for pretty much all SEO imo. I like to think it's the search engine's job to understand websites, not the other way around. Much like it's a social media site's job to understand the value and relevance of content in a particular context. We've already seen Facebook's newsfeed algo changing as a result of gaming. The ultimate result is that it's not quite as good as it used to be.

Putin recently said the internet was a CIA project

Oh, well if Putin said it...

Sorry, couldn't resist.


9:35 am on Aug 18, 2014 (gmt 0)

I'm saying manipulating the search results to get the position instead of letting the natural course of selection take place, like on Billboard, is unethical.

Isn't this precisely what Google is doing by enhancing the search positions of their own verticals, those of their partners and others which they have a financial interest in?

The days of unbiased search results are long gone and with that ethics has also departed. I don't see SEO as being any more unethical than what Google has done by decimating the livelihoods of many small business owners.


11:31 am on Aug 18, 2014 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member fathom is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member Top Contributors Of The Month

Looking at this as advertising... is it unethical to advertise on a billboard, or a taxi, to puts ads on TV, radio or newspaper?

How unethical is it to be on page one of the newspaper?

It would be unethical for the billboard companies, cab companies, TV or radio stations or newspaper agencies to charge two or more advertisers for the same spot but ethics doesn't apply to advertisers that don't use you.


11:41 am on Aug 18, 2014 (gmt 0)

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It's a "dog eat dog world" and I'm wearing Milk Bone flavored underwear. I'm not too concerned who I bump out of my niche, especially since I've been there since Google was a pup.

I understand the point of the discussion, but SEO (IMHO) is not unethical. That's like saying competition is unethical. Welcome to our capitalist dog world.


12:24 pm on Aug 18, 2014 (gmt 0)

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I think the problem is with the word manipulation. I am not sure that this the right word. Google for one has encouraged the optimization of websites, because it helps their search engine.

My opinion is that SEO as a whole is not unethical, but like almost anything can be done unethically.


12:33 pm on Aug 18, 2014 (gmt 0)

I think the true problem is a result of AdSense. When site owners start promoting a site in a way that doesn't benefit the users but does generate traffic that boosts the AdSense revenue I feel that is somewhat unethical. This is usually achieved through links. I can see why Google would crack down on that. However at times I don't think Google can see the relationship and that is where the problem arises.

IE if I have a site that builds say baseball bats it may have links to other baseball related sites but lets say they also have links to trucking sites as well. Google in their Almighty presence might say PENALTY - unnatural linking. However they are wrong. The baseball bat company may produce miniature bats that truckers use as tire thumpers. The company knows that and so they have these links because it is a small niche that generates income. Google in their infinite knowledge just doesn't know there is an alternate use for the products. I have seen this several times. Perfectly ethical to try to connect with potential customers. Should I have to build a separate site for those customers - no.


4:26 pm on Aug 18, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Google has 2 sets of rules:

a) The published Webmaster Guidelines

b) What they actually reward and punish

When these two diverge, there's a huge incentive to follow the b path.


5:51 pm on Aug 18, 2014 (gmt 0)

Being manipulative is generally not sustainable.

If a page title and description is promising things it can't deliver, visitors will notice. And it will slowly but surely reflect on the page rank.

One situation manipulation may work sustain ably is when the competition offers the same value. This is where we really need to differentiate ourselves from the competition and shine instead of racing for the best manipulator award.


6:23 pm on Aug 18, 2014 (gmt 0)

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This is where we really need to differentiate ourselves from the competition and shine instead of racing for the best manipulator award.

All of those things, of course, matter, in terms of converting the visit to a sale, retaining customers, etc.

But, do these things really matter in terms of ranking? Do you find a high correlation between ranking spot and quality of site/service/product?

SERP manipulation isn't always synonymous with low quality. Many site owners that have a quality site/product/service resort to manipulation because their perception is that they have to.

I won't claim it's in every niche, but there are many, many, niches where every single site in the top 10 have backlink profiles that include obvious unnatural links.

In general, you don't get the behavior you ask for. You get the behavior that is consistently rewarded. No different than parenting :)


3:52 am on Aug 19, 2014 (gmt 0)

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I seem to see SEO very differently than most here. I'd define (at least white hat) SEO as an effort to insure that a site is easily understood by search engine spiders and that what is displayed for your site in the SERPs reflects your aims and the nature of your pages.

On a practical level this means things like: Is the site easily crawlable? Does it use tricks that only make sense to a human? Do you build the page in a logical, structured manner (properly using <h#> tags, alt tags, meta data, microtags, breadcrumbs, etc.) to communicate the core concepts of the page and the structure of your site? Does the title tag properly sum up the content of the page in a way that that concept is communicated in the SERP? Is there one primary concept per page or do you muddle many concepts on a single page and hope googlebot will rank you for all the concepts? Do you confuse the search engines with things like sortable data or do you guide their crawl so they only see one page per concept? Do you notify the search engines of updates? And so onů

In other words SEO recognizes that there is an intermediary between you and your audience (named googlebot) and makes sure that nothing gets lost in that translation.

I see nothing unethical in what I just described. To me, that is the entirety of SEO. The other tactics you guys describe are SEM, link building, etc. - not SEO.

If you think a developer will just naturally do all of those sorts of things without an SEO watching over their shoulder - you're sadly mistaken. SEO really is a separate activity - it's not something you just tack on at the end.


4:25 am on Aug 19, 2014 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

A good developer does those things, and there are lots of them out there.

But it doesn't matter because, as a result of SEO (white hat included), search engines no longer give much weight to things like meta and H tags. They've come up with new ways to understand websites.


2:21 pm on Aug 19, 2014 (gmt 0)

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I love SEO ethics debate questions. What is not ethical, in my opinion, is any attempt to remove the right of web site owners to put up the web site they want and compete for traffic and customers as they so choose.

In the real world, two gas stations or even four, are placed at an intersection. Each of them wants the same customers. They change their gas prices as the most visible way of competing. When they each sell for the same price, they work on other ways to draw in customers, from gas pumps with TV's to great cheese steaks. Sometimes one of them will hire a dude in a costume to stand out front dancing around to get attention. Would you call that manipulation? Ethical? I call it friendly competition by using creative ways of promotion.

20 years ago, the work of getting pages into search engines was called "promotion". To promote a website meant getting it indexed. Optimization was a gentle term that came later but was a badly needed method due to the enormous volume of pages competing for the same audience. Black Hat fought the secret mafia of search marketing because behind every search engine were people taking money for rank, meaning corporations would always win. BH got a bad rep because the methodology pissed off the people getting rich first.

We refer to SEO as "manipulation". That is how hundreds of thousands do SEO. There are other techniques that fall into the human experience side, such as making websites that work for all people rather than bots. To me, this is experience optimization and an under-valued method of online marketing.

[edited by: lawman at 10:00 pm (utc) on Aug 19, 2014]
[edit reason] No Google Bashing Please [/edit]


9:58 pm on Aug 19, 2014 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator lawman is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member Top Contributors Of The Month

This is an Ethical SEO thread, not a Google bashing thread.


3:46 pm on Aug 20, 2014 (gmt 0)

rish3, sorry for the late response.

It is probably challenging for search engines to accurately measure quality; partially because quality is subjective. However there is an inclination to reward perceived quality. This is in line with helping visitors find what they are searching for.

I am not claiming that only low quality site owners resort to manipulation. Sure, no one wants to be left out but the lower the quality of a site the more manipulation it needs to sustain its ranking.

How many sites benefit long term from link building (churn and burn sites are the exception). Link building is a manipulative tactic to get more visitors to a site. What keeps the visitors coming back is the value the site offers. If the site is not delivering on its promise it is a waste of visitor's time and search engines will notice.


4:13 pm on Aug 20, 2014 (gmt 0)

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The entity is the search engine.

Let's ask the question about the ethics of putting a company at the top of search just because it has the deepest pockets and not because the product is necessarily the better for the customer. Is that ethical?

Let's ask whether it is ethical that most large companies that are technologically savvy are currently mining citizens personal information and generating a marketers wet-dream of information and profiling, the likes of which have never been seen in the history of mankind.

Let's ask whether or not it is ethical that a huge proportion of commentators sit on the fence and actually do nothing to highlight the impact of the changes and what they mean for the users - that frankly don't even know how to change their browser start page, let alone their privacy settings.

Let's ask the question why at a moment of immense opportunity for mankind what happened was that big business became complicit in all of this (honest they did).

There is no black hat and white hat, there is what people do with the gun in their hand. Whether a company negative SEOs a competitor the only loser is going to be the competitor, the winner will be search. When an algo is updated the winner is search. When there is a page update, the winner is search.

Nowadays when you interview staff about what they want to do in web-marketing the scariest thing is the complete void of understanding they have about analytics, and the complete lack of being able to start from a position that does begin with "I love social media" "I want to optimize for Google and I've done my keywords". If you look at the research what we should be worried about is how opinion can be divided into the "for" and "against" that this white hat and black hat debate so cleverly divides. It is a very extreme position because it does not allow room for debate in the shades. There is not debate on this level.

So frankly this whole debate is a great way to generate lots of noise. But really the question you need to ask yourself is what are you doing to make sure that the next generation of people grow up taking technology with a pinch of salt rather than blind lust.

To where we are today: The ethical SEO will outline the risks and rewards of any strategy that is undertaken. They will make the client sign documents to waive any potential damages that might be incurred if they decide to take a specific path. That's all there is to it. Many don't and wont because they probably are not aware of a) what's involved b) sufficiently self-aware to realize this is a step they need to be taking.

The fake SEOs will charge you 50 or 60K to basically read you "SEO for dummies"

That's my take on ethics which is very black hat.



10:52 pm on Aug 20, 2014 (gmt 0)

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I am not claiming that only low quality site owners resort to manipulation. Sure, no one wants to be left out but the lower the quality of a site the more manipulation it needs to sustain its ranking.

I agree with that. I think we're mostly on the same page, perhaps differing on some edge issues.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are niches where every site in the top 10, all quality sites, have significant numbers of paid links. A new quality site would likely have a hard time breaking into the top 10 if they chose to take the high road ethically.


1:04 pm on Aug 22, 2014 (gmt 0)

A new quality site would likely have a hard time breaking into the top 10 if they chose to take the high road ethically.

I agree that link building/exposure is essential for a new quality site but there are many existing sites that can do much better than the competition by simply improving their sites instead of resorting to manipulation.


2:00 pm on Aug 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member planet13 is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 5+ Year Member Top Contributors Of The Month

By your standards, ALL BUSINESS is unethical (and it probably is).

Lowering your production costs, so that you can sell a product cheaper than your competitors, will harm your competitors' sales.

In fact, any time that you do ANYTHING to promote your business in a way that would increase your sales (at the expense of your competitors' sales) would be unethical.

It wouldn't be limited to your direct competitors. If a consumer spends more money on whatever it is you sell, he will have less money to spend on other goods he / she might need. So if he buys a tennis racket from you, he has less money to spend on scuba diving equipment from some other business entirely unrelated to you.

The reason we see this differently with Google and other search engines is the way that the information is presented to us as ranked entities where the relationships are clearly laid out and the effect is easier to observe. When website A moves up, website B moves down. Easy to see the relation.

But it is the same with all businesses. One person's gain is another person's loss.
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