Yesterday I discussed some of the issues that plague email marketing, in terms of what is "ethical" or "unethical", and how some tactics are perceived both inside the industry and outside of it.
Although the term "spam" is most often associated (negatively) with email marketing, it's just as prevalent in search engine optimization (SEO). In one form or another, people have been spamming the search engines for almost as long as SEO has been in existence! Common spam techniques past and present include: Spammed domain names (www.spam-spam-spamspam-spam.com); spammed meta tags ("spam keyword spam keyword spam spam keyword); spammed text ("we offer spam, spam, spam, spam and spam"); doorway pages (spam site 1, spam site 2, spam site 3... spam site 3,742...); hidden text (if this background was black, you wouldn't see all the hidden spamspamspamspamspam!); and link farms ("here's a list of 831 totally unrelated and worthless websites we've linked to!"). The one thing they all have in common is that all of them exist solely to try to fool the search engines into giving top ranking to a website that might otherwise go unnoticed.
However, although many of those techniques are annoying, are they necessarily unethical? Granted, search engines punish you for them these days, and most visitors aren't thrilled by them either, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're "wrong". There is nothing technically unethical about buying a spammed domain name, provided the site actually offers that product or service. Spammed meta tags became so common that most spiders don't even read tags anymore, and after all they don't affect the visual appearance of a website. Spammed text content probably does more harm than good, because with a large number of quality sites available, most web surfers aren't going to waste their time digging through poorly written, obviously spammed content to find what they want. Hidden text doesn't hurt the visitor because by definition, most will never even know it exists. Link farms? Worthless, in a way, but harmless basically. Three pages of links you don't care about doesn't really harm the rest of the site. One could even argue the same for doorway pages: Who cares if multiple versions of a website exist, as long as they really do offer the product or service?
The problems arose because some of these sites did NOT really offer the products or services, or did not offer good quality compared to others. However, they choked those worthier sites out of the top rankings by employing every trick in the book to grab 7 of the top 10 placements on any given search engine. Search engines did not appreciate being exploited, and web surfers howled. The spam techniques were considered unethical at that point, because they were actively working against the stated purpose of the search engines (to provide useful and relevant search results) and the stated desire of web surfers (again, useful and relevant search results).
Enter the infamous "re-indexing", where search engines not only shake up their search results, but frequently tweak their ranking algorithms as well, in their ongoing effort to keep one step ahead of (or behind?) the exploits. Spammed meta tags were one of the first to go, along with spammed text content and spammed domain names. Hidden text was next on the block. Link farms are currently receiving the same treatment. Far from being beneficial, these tactics will now, at best, do nothing to help your site, and at worst can get your website(s) blacklisted.
However, many techniques still exist that exploit various aspects of search engine technology, one of the best-known being cloaking. Whether or not it is unethical can be difficult to say, although from the point of view of the search engine, it breaks their rules, and hence MUST be considered unethical. For the user, as long as they get relevant and useful results, that's a harder call to make. SEO professionals, by definition, try to get the best possible rankings for their clients, and the more they get, the better. Therefore, it could be argued that there's nothing unethical about just doing their jobs.
In my opinion, stated repeatedly in this blog, the best policy is to stick as close to the search engine guidelines as possible, and to offer a quality website. Don't break the rules, and don't encourage others to do so. The guidelines are in place for very sound reasons in most cases, and they have a great deal to do with site relevance and usability. Obviously, the soundest approach is to make sure that your website is, in fact, relevant and user-friendly! Otherwise, all the rankings in the world will not help you sell your product or sign up clients for your service. Your site needs to be informative, easy to navigate, and provide a good way for the visitor to contact you.
In SEO terms, the most ethical way to approach it is to make sure that the site you are sending visitors to is actually worthy of the rankings that you are attempting to gain. If you have to resort to tricks and subterfuge for ranking, then the odds are that the site itself doesn't deserve them. Instead, consider adding some quality text content to the site, trying to get some relevant backlinks, and cleaning up the meta tags so that they have some actual relevance. There are plenty of ways to help a site gain rankings that can only benefit the visitor and the business owner, so there can be no ethics questions involved!