Feature Article (Pub: July 07) Ethical Search Engine Optimisation by Paul Rudman

As I was scanning through the top keyword searches relating to 'search engine optimisation' the other day, I noticed that one consistently searched-for term is 'ethical search engine optimisation', so I figured that since it seems such a popular topic I'd write an article about what ethical SEO is. Since I've already covered some basic black hat techniques, it suppose it makes sense to put the case forward for the good guys too.

I believe referring to any optimisation work as "ethical" - and the factors that make up ethical work - is always going to depend on your standpoint. If you run a website and could sell 10,000 more of your products if you had high rankings in Google, you'd have a far more flexible idea of what was "ethical" than if you were a search engine index quality advisor (I believe this is what the guys that guard the integrity of the search indexes are called).

There is, however, a reasonably safe middle-ground which for arguments sake we will call ethical optimisation, and that I'll take about in this article.

So what isn't ethical?

It is far easier to refer to what isn't ethical than what is, so if we were to consider that if you are an SEO virgin with a clean slate, then doing the following will soon get the search engine "black clouds" to gather:

Show search engines something different to what you show regular site visitors
Also known as cloaking, this is the technique of redirection based on whether the visitor is a search engine or not, so if you show them something different, then you're officially no longer ethical, beware!
Hiding content
Similar to the point above? Very possibly, but if you reverse the logic and hide things from users that you show to search engines, then you're still definitely breaking the moral boundaries of what is ethical
Hide links
Yes, we're still on the subject of hiding things, as some people will hide links in a bid to pass along or achieve higher link popularity without declaring the association to the search engines (or the users)

What about the grey areas?

Here are the ones that if you are a search engine quality advisor you don't really like:

Link building
By attempting to manipulating the relevancy of link popularity by actively seeking inbound links to your website then in theory you're annoying these guys
Building content just for search engines
Similar to the above, 'search engine fodder' involves the creation of pages specifically to focus on words and phrases with keyword rich text to achieve high rankings. This becomes an even greyer area depending on how these pages are built, how well presented the content is, and how well embedded they are into your website in terms of being linked in to (i.e. are you discreetly linking to these pages or shouting about them in your navigation?)

What is left that is ethical?

Here is the crux of it, the main focus of the modern day search engine optimiser, the parts of the work that are definitely ethical, fully moral, and generally exploding with goodness:

Keyword research and mapping
If it's good enough to be a tool to help you establish what PPC phrases you should focus on (e.g. and end up spending more money on paid search campaigns), then keyword research tools can be used to establish whether your website content is focusing on the words and phrases that people search on to find your product or service. Correct focus is not a crime, it's a necessity - not just for search engine users but for regular site browsers as well - because if you're selling 'second hand cars in London' but you're not saying it, then how would anyone know what you sell?
Technical recommendations
Quite often websites are built without search engines in mind, so the site and page build can be created in such a way that visiting spiders cannot crawl content, leaving areas of your site out of their index, which neither they - nor you - want. By examining site structures we can provide advice on modifications to avoid this happening, after all, it's perfectly ethical to want to get more content indexed, that was the whole reason behind the creation of Google sitemaps
Strategic recommendations
Good SEO is about embracing new web technologies so that clients websites appear in more places, on more people's browsers, and ultimately generate more traffic. By researching what the target audience are doing, and the clients products and services, we can then provide recommendations on how search areas such as audio search, video search, social sites, RSS, and blogs can be developed so that our clients sites have greater exposure

Good ethical SEO is content-based

That's it in a nutshell: conducting ethical search engine optimisation work is based on ensuring the focus of the website copy is 100% on the right words and phrases people are using as search terms. If you're selling something that nobody is looking for then it's obvious that SEO is not your answer - a new business plan is! This is combined with the technical aspects which ensure best practice is observed, which is very closely linked with accessibility principles. So the focus is on making sure the coders code correctly and the content writers write correctly.

Will 100% ethical optimisation get you top rankings in Google?

Let's be honest, if you stick to any factor that is judged to be completely ethical from every single perspective then no you won't - not unless you get lucky, or you've got the most amazing service or message and you get to the top through sheer brilliance and originality of thought of deed.

At the end of the day, the role of the SEO is always going to be to try and manipulate search markets - whether this be tweaking PPC ads to increase conversions, or conducting a link building campaign to increase link popularity. This will always annoy someone, so I'd say the best SEO campaign is 80% ethical to everyone, and 20% debatable to some. What a good ethical campaign does not contain, however, are any techniques that are on a definite search engine no-no list, and that's something we all should be able to agree on.

Paul Rudman is the director and head of optimisation at CommerceTuned, he's been involved in developing search strategies and search engine optimisation for 7 years.

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