Utah Valley University will host a conference this week on the ethics of white hat and black hat search engine optimization techniques. Executives from SEO.com along with several professors will present on this controversial topic. The conference will take place at the university on March 8 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. There is no cost to attend and brown bag lunches will be served.
Search engine optimization is the process of improving the visibility of a website in the search engine rankings. The ethical question businesses face is should they use accepted white hat SEO techniques for stronger, long-term search engine results or black hat techniques, which though unscrupulous may produce more immediate results. Internet marketing experts view black hat SEO as unethical.
Still, this is an area often discussed by organizations using SEO companies to help grow their presence online. Industry leaders weighed in on the ethical issues businesses face when choosing white hat or black hat SEO techniques.
“Businesses should make sure that they are ranking high in the search engines for the right reasons, not by taking shortcuts,” said SEO.com President Ash Buckles, a presenter at the conference. “SEO companies should have nothing to hide in the work they are doing. … Online marketing has seen rapid changes for more than 15 years. The standards of 1997 do not match the standards of 2012. Ideally, a search strategy is established and the work performed thereafter improves visibility without risking your brand through deceptive techniques.”
Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land and Marketing Land added, “Pick any industry, and there are generally accepted rules of behavior. Some people want to push outside those rules. Some may win by doing so. Some also get hit with penalties.”
“I think it’s far better to ask yourself if what you’re doing is something you’re proud of. If you’re link spamming a blog that’s a tribute to someone who died, is that really what you want to hold your head up about? My biggest disappointment really tends to be that people will justify poor behavior all around with arguments that other people are getting away with it,” Sullivan said.
SEO expert David Mihm described tactics some search marketing firms use that may be deceptive to consumers.
“Things that would fall into this category would be fake reviews of your business, fake reviews of your competitors, fake Facebook or Google+ or Twitter personas that are not obviously fake, creating fake locations for your business, hijacking competitors' business listings, dynamic price-switching tactics,” Mihm explained. “This should certainly be avoided morally and ethically and may even be illegal.”
One technique often debated is the purchasing of links to build search engine presence. Mihm doesn’t find any ethical issue with buying links, but recommended businesses stay away from this tactic so companies are not penalized by the search engines.
Utah Valley University assistant professor Arlen Card questioned whether Google should be the ethical arbiters on the Internet.
“Maybe the ethical issue is not about breaking Google's rules, but instead about Google skewing and steering the Web in unnatural ways for their own ends – profit,” said Card, a presenter at the conference.