Is Aggressive Search Engine Optimization Immoral?
Here’s a basic fact of life that we all pretend we don’t know: cheating pays. Maybe only temporarily and maybe with certain risks, but often the quickest way to get ahead is to bend the rules to your advantage; to do things that you’d prefer everyone else didn’t do.
I’ve often expressed my frustration with SEO (Search Engine Optimization) companies that use questionable tactics, even suggesting that you avoid hiring web developers who emphasize SEO. SEO is a legitimate business pursuit, but recently I’ve come across some search engine tactics that seem flat out unethical. Companies that use them are, perhaps unknowingly, doing a disservice to the marketplace and threatening the value of what was once a great tool: the search engine.
These may seem like strong statements, so let me define what I mean. To me, it is unethical to do something that benefits yourself at the expense of others and, in this case, your industry. Compete, and do the best you can, but when you start destroying the marketplace for others, we have a serious problem.
For example, imagine you were an ethical telemarketer in the 90s. I’m sure you were very concerned what some of your more unscrupulous competitors in the industry were doing. It must have been horrifying to watch them abuse the system to the point where the government had to step in and effectively ban commercial telemarketing with the National Do Not Call Registry.
Search engine marketing is in a similar situation today. Unfortunately, the Internet is not as easy to regulate as telecommunications was. So the effect of all these SEO companies competing to win top places in Google is that we all lose. Every time an SEO company puts up a fake page of largely meaningless content or creates a keyword-targeted “micro-site,” search results become that much less useful for all of us - consumers and marketers alike. Instead of returning highly relevant content, we get a bunch of spam pages that were never intended to be useful to human beings, only to tickle the fancy of Google’s algorithm.
The idea for this article came to me when I learned about a local company that had begun purchasing domain names relevant to their industry and then creating fake, misleading landing pages that were only tied to their brand by a tiny disclaimer.
Here’s how this scam would work for a company like ours. First, I would purchase the domain southbendadvertising.com and several dozen similar domains. Then, rather than simply forwarding these domains to Villing.com or using them for legitimate purposes, I instead create an ambiguous, interchangeable design that I can use for all of them. Next, I load up the content of each of these spam sites with keywords based on the domain to make sure it is nice and tasty for Google spiders. Oh, and maybe I throw in some links to Villing.com to improve our rankings and provide a small disclaimer or two, so I can sleep at night.
Voila! I now have a dozen spam sites that are competing in the search engines with highly targeted keywords. If I did a particularly good job, I’ve now drastically increased the chances that one or more of these sites will show up for a wide variety of search terms. I’ve also drastically decreased the usefulness of the search results of all of those keywords for everyone else. Imagine this being done on a large scale. Pretty soon, there’s going to be more spam results than real results. Maybe there already is. In the past few years, I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in irrelevant, nonsense pages in the top results of Google, due to this kind of activity. This trend has to stop.
I can already hear the excuses: “If I don’t do it, my competitors will.” “It’s up to Google to show relevant results, I’m just using their system.” “Just doing it for my one little company won’t make that much difference.” Those are the classic excuses we all use when we want to justify something inherently immoral. “It works” does not justify bad behavior. “Someone else can fix things” doesn’t mean you should carelessly break them. You aren’t responsible for other people’s ethics, only your own. If they succeed by being unethical, so be it.
I’m extremely passionate about this because I love the Internet. It’s a great tool, and I believe many companies are inadvertently (or purposely) doing things that subvert its usefulness.
It’s because we love the Internet that our policy at Villing has always been to write clean code, create engaging, useful content, organize and design our sites so visitors are quickly able to find what they need and work with the search engines to make sure they’re able to effectively index and catalog the content. If you’d like us to try to trick or spam the search engines into showing your company above more relevant results...sorry, that’s not how we do business.
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