The Curious SEO: Internet Ethics, Self-Policing and Transparency-Who’s the Judge?

By Catherine Potts | Jul 21, 2008
More Articles by Catherine

An interesting topic came up today within Search Mojo regarding the idea of online transparency and self-policing. Obviously, ethics comes in to play in self-policing. Whose ethics? That’s the question. Who are you to say what is and is not ethical in how I approach and execute things online?

Let me get it out of the way and say that child porn is not ethical. Anything that victimizes another person and is against the law is bad. If it’s not appropriate offline, it’s not appropriate online. There. Done.


I’m not talking about financial transparency of a company. It doesn’t apply for this posting.

What is it? The definition of transparent from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is:

2 a: free from pretense or deceit : frank b: easily detected or seen through : obvious c: readily understood d: characterized by visibility or accessibility of information especially concerning business practices

Well what is deceitful? If I own a website and hire someone to blog for me based on information I give them, is that deceitful? How about how they market that blog? To use an example by Janet Miller, what about speech writers? Politicians constantly pass off speeches as their own when we all know they didn’t sit down at a desk and pound out the words themselves. However, the ideas are theirs. So what’s so wrong with that?

I’ve heard a lot lately that marketing yourself or your blog is unethical.Why? That’s what I don’t get. What is so unethical about it? Perhaps it’s just an empty topic to keep people on their heels. Who knows. How is online marketing any different and any more unethical than regular marketing?

If you want a level playing field, I’m here to tell ya you’re not going to get it. That’s not how our society works. If you don’t have the time or talent behind your campaign, chances are you’re going to fail when put up against those who do. Perhaps this is why some employ the black hat methods and the SEO/SEM community on the whole denounces black hat methods. That’s pretty good isn’t it?

What sparked this conversation

… was a comment made by a well known internet marketing guy. He says that use of ghost writers for blogs (and paying for the service) is not transparent. As if the subject matter doesn’t belong to your company and as if you didn’t pay for the content to be written. The hired author is getting paid for his or her efforts. It’s not as if it’s plagiarism. If you hire a company to do something for you (because you don’t have the internal resources) and you pay them good money to do it, what’s wrong with that? He doesn’t like this and in this case he’s all about the transparency.

Yet he said that while a client employs him to promote their blog, he never tells them what he’s doing to promote THEIR blog (not his) because it’s “proprietary.” That’s not transparent. Don’t you think your paying customer should know (to a certain extent) what you’re doing in the name of their company?

Additionally, he also said that blog self-promotion is unethical. Again, what? Why? How on Earth do people find out about your product if you’re not out promoting it? I Sphinn myself all the time. If I don’t do it… who will? One has to be pretty well known to have a stranger Sphinn their stories these days. So self promotion is key until people realize how awesome I really am.

As an example: How will anyone know about my awesome bird houses if I just keep them in my house and never tell anyone about them? What if I write about my awesome bird houses on my blog and then post that blog into various (relevant) places online?

Who are you to tell me I’m not being transparent enough in my practices when you’re own client doesn’t know what you’re doing because you say it’s “propietary,” and they have to just trust that you’re promoting them as promised? Now, some tactics are proprietary but being vague and saying that all your practices are proprietary isn’t transparent.

Transparent is as transparent does.

Forrest, Forrest Gump


We know that you can’t trust everything you read. That goes for online as well as hard copy. If you think you can trust all hard copy books and your opinion is that they’re based in fact, all you have to do is head to the Anne Coulter and Rush Limbaugh section of the book store. Yeah, that’s right. I went political.

The SEO industry does a fairly good job of keeping each other honest and if people don’t agree, they’ll let you know.

When the pride detects a weak gazelle, they do pounce. Trust me, it’s happened to me.

Wikipedia is a good example how self-policing does not necessarily work. Educational institutions don’t even accept Wikipedia as a source anymore. Why? Because it’s too open to editing and while there are those who moderate, they can’t really stay on top of everything to make sure the facts really are the facts.

Really, every time you go online, chances are you’re going to come across something someone is attempting to pass off as fact. In the event of an extreme example where self-policing doesn’t work and is the cause of harm, either law or common sense has to take over. Be your own best BS cop.

Your BS Meter

Fox News. Need I say more? Do they even try and find out what the truth is?

I’m not sure what standard the news agencies are holding themselves up to these days. I know for certain that Fox News doesn’t really have any except to say they will do what it takes to forward the GOP’s efforts.

To forward their agendas, people will try to get you to believe what they write and it’s up to you to be a good little fact checker.

For Some Reason, People believe bad information

…unless otherwise disputed. And sometimes not even then. Within the last several years my family was put through the ringer. My mother and two uncles inherited a piece of land in the city, worth a pretty large sum of money. The neighbors (yes they’re evil to beat all) decided (in their heads) that something bad was going to happen. They didn’t ask. They didn’t inquire. They didn’t even know us. They just didn’t say “hey, sorry for your loss… we’re wondering what’s going to happen here.”

We had no idea the wrath to be unleashed that would end up costing my family nearly $200k in legal bills. These “neighbors” (and I say this tongue firmly planted in cheek) decided that they were going to attempt to tromp on any property rights and attempt a secret and hostile historic designation for the entire ACRE of land. That’s a lotta beans inside a major city boundary.

Before we knew it, the “neighbors” had proceeded with a smear campaign that even Karl Rove would be proud to hold to his man boobs and suckle. It was very hard to combat. People did believe the things that were being said. We tried to get the word out but because fear was used as a tactic to influence, and the fact that we were in the locker room when the gun went off in this race, we had a hard time catching up to the lies.

There is a lot more to the story that, trust me, you don’t want to hear. Think: restraining orders. Think: when they didn’t get everything they wanted, they tried actually stealing part of the land via adverse possession. Think: “neighbors” out of control and wanting to control each and every aspect. Think of the worst and add some. That’s what we went through.

The point of my story is, they literally created a gang. A gang of pale and so obviously bored, middle-aged and stringy-haired women that had our property rights in their sights because they thought something was going to happen based on what someone else told them.

So how do we combat bad information? With more (and better) information. Then do our best to get the maximum exposure. It’s how business works.

As we’ve seen in recent years, if “they” yell loud enough, people will hear it and take the information they’re being fed as fact. So it’s up to us, as an industry, to be good little SEO/SEM’rs. We need to hold eachother accountable. That’s not a bad thing, is it?

Applying ethics in a situational manner isn’t a bad thing because situations change. Lying is never good but you can’t paint with a broad brush as far as transparency and self-policing is concerned. It is possible to go overboard.

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