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Six Principles of Ethical SEO

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a doctor. Not a real doctor mind you, but an alternative doctor - I wanted to heal with botanicals and homeopathy, with nutrition and philosophy. I was all about naturopathic medicine (to the great bewilderment of my parents). Once I came to my senses, realizing that 12 years of education wasn't going to make me any smarter (and would probably put my family in debt forever), I abandoned the idea. Internet marketing is in my blood; it was always going to be my destiny. It just took me awhile to accept that (plus, studying during the day and working for clients at night sucked!). Fast forward to the present, and I heal websites (sort of) instead of people. All is well, but I can't help reflect on earlier times when I was studying pre-med - or as the allopaths call it, pre-quack - and bring some of that philosophy into the art of SEO.

Our Own Personal & Professional Standard

Traditional allopathic medicine has the Hippocratic Oath, and there are principles of naturopathic medicine. But where are the principles of ethical SEO? No oath, no guidelines, just a free-for-all with lots of money at stake. Which is fine, it's all about revenues and ROI at the end of the day. Yet I can't help wanting to aim a little higher for our clients - to get them results ethically according to a personal and professional standard.
bust of Hippocrates, the father of medicine
This ethical code is our own, and applies only to our client relationships. We have no problem experimenting freely with techniques for our own research purposes (obviously never in order to intentionally mislead others or harm the web ecosystem). But when it comes to our clients, we maintain full transparency about our techniques and never put them at undue risk. So here's our public pledge, and a continuation of the topic of ethics as it applies to marketing on the web.

The Six Principles

First Do No Harm
We speak only for ourselves. We don't presume that our principles and ethics should apply to other search marketers.
The first and most important principle is to keep your clients online visibility secure. Don't jeopardize them by engaging in fringe or aggressive techniques, unless you have their full understanding and consent. Your client is your charge, and their web presence often has huge import for their business; treat their sites with care and respect. The Power of Community On the web ecosystem, a single rule overshadows all others: if it's not useful, no one cares. Your strategy must encompass this fact. Contributing value to the web environment at large is the first step towards a successful internet marketing campaign. Community rules on the web, and while there may be some stupidity to the masses, the masses are usually the loudest; and they can sink you (or float you). Identify and Fix the Cause of Problems We're often engaged after a site has already been designed and developed - without any SEO in mind - and asked to get it ranked. This isn't the way it works. Sure, we can polish up a few things, we can repair this or that, we can even create a new arm or leg on a site and build from there - but it will never replace what's wrong with the core of the site. Ethical SEO demands taking an honest assessment of a website and giving the client the cold, hard truth. It's often not what they want to hear, but if it's the right advice, then offering it keeps their best aims in mind. Identify the cause of problems, identify the market opportunities, and build strategically from there. Internet Marketing is Holistic SEO is not everything. Social media is not everything. Email marketing is not everything. There are myriad aspects to internet marketing that we must employ, from well-structured paid search campaigns to solid link building to content strategies. When they all work in tandem, the result is a powerful, far-reaching campaign that puts more money in your client's pockets. The SEO as Teacher Traditionally, the physician's role was not just to heal but also to teach; to build wisdom into his practice; to spread the learning he possessed to those who needed it most. Why should it be different with SEO? If your client is paying you to increase their presence online, your role should include educating the client on what works and why. By empowering them, you gain to benefit too: more knowledge often means a client who is more open to new initiatives. Build Scalability We consider it our duty to not only get our clients great results, but to build in scalable solutions that allow them to continue reaping the rewards (so long as effort is continually applied). And there's a second ramification as well: when we build a scalable model, our clients aren't dependent on our services. They can grow and prosper with or without us. The major side benefit of this approach is that clients rarely want to break the relationship.

Concluding Thoughts

While we'd never put a client under undue risk, we often educate them about potential risk factors pertaining to specific strategies. Some SEO techniques carry little to no risk, others carry considerable risk. It's all about balancing business goals with marketing goals, and keeping an ethical guideline in mind. By staying grounded in a strong ethic, and acting with the client's best interest in mind, we tend to foster long-lasting relationships. It's not always easy, and I'll be honest, we don't always adhere to these principles completely. We're not morally perfect. No one is. But we keep these principles in mind while we empower our clients, take charge of their online visibilities, and market their sites. Without ethics, we'd be lost. They are what grounds us and keeps us focused on promoting relevance and value on the web. What are your thoughts? Please post in the comments - great contributions will be given followed links here in the main post. :) Update: thanks to Michael of chiropractic blog for the comment. Thanks also to Bob Gladstein of Raise My Rank for the great point.
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