What Distinguishes Ethical From Unethical SEO? (Guest Post)

The following post is written by Brad Shorr. Brad is Director of Content Strategy at Straight North, an Internet marketing company in Chicago that offers SEO, PPC and web design services. With more than 25 years of sales and marketing experience, Brad has been featured in leading online publications including Forbes, Entrepreneur and Smashing Magazine.

SEO has had a bad reputation in many circles, almost from the beginning of its existence. When some people hear “SEO,” they think:

  • Search engine manipulation
  • Over promise/under deliver
  • Technical tricks rather than quality content
  • High cost/low ROI

From being in the SEO industry since 2006, I’ve learned that there is good SEO and bad SEO, ethical SEO and unethical SEO. There’s a difference:

  • SEO is VERY complex, involving myriad tasks that must be orchestrated carefully to help achieve high organic search visibility. Some SEOs have the best of intentions and yet lack the technical expertise to execute successful campaigns. So there are good SEOs and bad SEOs.
  • SEO, like all businesses, attracts its share of scammers. These people are in the minority, but they have given the SEO industry a bad name. Many companies have shared horror stories about being swindled on an SEO campaign, and these stories have deterred people from investing in SEO, even though an ethical campaign would do them a lot of good.

The difficulty for most business owners is this: They lack the expertise to distinguish ethical from unethical SEOs. Any SEO specialist, ethical or unethical, can throw around industry jargon and dive deeply into the mechanics of SEO and sound like a real expert. In this article, I’ll try to help you understand how you can spot an unethical SEO practitioner.

Do they speak in jargon?

SEO, as I just alluded to, is chock-full of jargon and technical nuances. Some good SEOs talk in jargon, but most if not all of the unethical SEOs do it. Good SEOs who speak in confusing language, who talk over your head, simply have a communication deficiency. Unethical SEOs who do the same are using smoke and mirrors, to make you believe they are so smart they are sure to succeed. Ethical SEOs want you to understand what they are doing and why; if you ask for clarification and get more confusion, chances are good you are dealing with an unethical player.

Do they guarantee results?

SEO is an imprecise and imperfect form of Internet marketing. It is impossible to guarantee that a client’s given webpage will rank in a given position for a given keyword. It is even harder to predict how much traffic a given ranking will generate, and harder yet to predict how many conversions a given amount of traffic will produce. Companies that guarantee rankings, traffic, conversions or any other SEO KPI are making promises they know they cannot keep. Ethical SEOs will tell you what they think will happen — and probably tell you it will take many months to get there.

Do they make extravagant claims?

Ethical SEOs tend to be quite conservative in projecting how successful a campaign will be. Conservative projections are reasonable: First, a lot of SEO tactical tasks remain to be executed; second, campaign data leads to testing, which leads to changes that improve campaign performance in unpredictable ways; third, competitors may make strategic or tactical SEO changes that greatly alter projections. Unethical SEOs, in contrast, make extravagant claims freely and regularly, such as tripling or quadrupling traffic, or getting to Google No. 1 within 30 days. Beware!

Do they sell package deals?

We have found most purveyors of pre-packaged SEO deals to be less than ethical. The problem with packaged deals that include a set number of the same deliverables for every client is that they do not work. SEO is not the type of service where one size fits all; all the SEO tasks that happen off the website and on the website, all of the keyword selection, all of the content creation, must be customized around the specific needs of each client — to say nothing of the magnitude of activity needed to achieve results. Package deals are popular because they are easy to understand and easy to say yes to — SEOs more interested in collecting fees than helping clients love those two features.

Do they have confusing or vague reports?

Ethical SEOs are transparent — they do the necessary work, show clients what they did, and provide plenty of data and details about what they did in monthly reports. This is a widespread best practice in the industry. Unethical SEOs, in contrast, will try to hide the fact they are not doing the work by presenting reports that are either so full of data as to be unreadable, or so simplistic that they convey no understanding of what progress is being made. With this in mind, it is essential for clients to see sample reports from SEOs during the vetting process. If you don’t like what you see, or don’t understand what you see, show them the door.

As I wrote at the outset, good SEO and bad SEO are not the same as ethical and unethical SEO. This being the case, vet prospective SEOs on all of these issues rather than just one or two. When you take the totality of their performance against these standards, you should be able to tell — with a high degree of accuracy — which SEO will be an honest business partner.