Ethical SEO: Profitable or a Waste of Time?

I was brain-farting around the internet the other day looking for blog post ideas that would generate debate. Scarily enough I ended up on one of my posts from a year ago over at SEOmoz and thought that I would resuscitate the idea, but in a slightly different way. Apparently my synapses have a problem linking the concepts of ‘been-there’ and ‘done-that’

In a nutshell, the original YOUmoz post entitled ‘Ethics, Profits and SEO’ was based on my (personal) opinion that while unethical business practice online may indeed generate wads of cash in the short term, it is unlikely to provide a sustainable source of income in the long run. Concerns about the security of online financial information remain an issue; three out of four internet users dislike providing their credit card information online (PEW Internet and American Life Project, Feb ’08).

This concern is exacerbated by online shysters, with poor or non-existent privacy policies and SSL certificates, who really care less about the consumer and most about the profits. Unfortunately their behavior directly impacts other online ecommerce sites as many fledgling internet users are quite literally ‘once burned, twice shy’. If a client has a reputation for shady online business dealings, and if the allegations or rumors are either untrue or well in the past, I highly recommend Andy Beal’s recently released book on online reputation management.

However, I’d like to look a little more at the profitability – or not – of ethical SEO in this post.

Ethical SEO – is it profitable?

Short answer is yes, absolutely.

If you have already read these supporting SEMI blog posts forgive me – we don’t want to waste your time, but they may be of interest to newer readers as they explain why we feel that ethical SEO is indeed both legitimate and profitable when conducted professionally.

In summary, if your web site is usable, if your conversion path is clear, if your navigation is logical and easy to follow, if you have something unique to offer, and if you care about both customer service and your online reputation, then applying best practice SEO is going to be profitable for you.

Unethical SEO – Is IT profitable?

If you are – or if you have – a hot (misled, but hot) web dev who can effectively cloak your pages, keyword stuff and hide text on your pages, and raise your profile in the SERPs to rank within the top 5 positions, it is likely to be very profitable for you. But only until the engines catch on and ban your site.

Unethical SEO and it’s manipulation of the SERPs is a big problem for the engines and for the rest of the legitimate web community. The engines don’t like it, and they will find it.

Reinstating your site after it has been severely penalized or banned can be very time consuming and may possibly require full site redevelopment as well as necesitate numerous re-inclusion requests of the engines. The problem is that once your site is seen to be spammy or algorithmically abusive, the chances are that your code is far more likely to be scrutinized by the very clever folks at the respective search engines. No one is excused – this BMW site ban example is an oldie but a goodie. The site was reinstated once the problem had been fixed and checked. It’s very important to realize that while the engines crawl and index pages, they ban sites.

Somewhat off-topic, I wanted to see what results were returned for the search ‘spam site’ – my Google datacenter served up this gem at position 8 of 33,600,000 results:


Yes. It’s true. There are many spam lovers out there innocently oblivious to the daily war being bravely waged by so few against… well… spam. I admit I would be slightly more dubious if the (very legitimate) use of the word ‘Mahalo’ in the first paragraph of this page linked to … you know

Web 2.0 and SEO Ethics
 …I really like the definition of Web 2.0 on this page.

Google (for one) now offers people the opportunity to report spam sites and deceptive practices.

In the world of Web 2.0, if someone finds a site that they perceive to be spammy, they are likely to report it. It is highly likely that they will inform the social communities and networks in which they participate about it as well. The people most likely to do both on legitimate grounds are those involved in the web design, development and SEO communities. These are also the people who often have massive networks across numerous social portals.

Negative user generated content can spell the quick demise of a site, and the enormous amount of adverse publicity generated may be impossible to manage especially when a site is deceptive and/or spammy. The length of time an unethical site might profitably last is being shortened daily.

At the other end of the spectrum, if a site has informative, unique and usable pages, the chances of it being StumbleUpon-ed, Sphunn or added to other social networks increases. Positive reviews and other forms of UGC are not only great for a company’s online reputation, they also generate qualified traffic.

The reviews companies receive on social networks are of inestimable importance to their online target market:

  • 72% people planning to purchase something on line look for personalized recommendations by other purchasers, and
  • 93% of respondents to a Nielsen/WebVisible report indicated that the reviews they receive on social networks are of enormous importance to their online target market

Please visit Bazaarvoice for other great industry stats on Consumer Demand for Ratings and Reviews (right under ‘The Power of Word of Mouth’) it’s a superb read. This is a small sample of the research data they include in this article:

  • 64% of consumers reported wanting to see user ratings and reviews, based on a study of 5,000 online shoppers. (Forrester, 2008)
  • 58.7% of shoppers said they used product reviews to make decisions. Reviews rated higher than clearance sale pages (56.4%) and featured sale pages (51.3%). (, November 2007)
  • Among the 46% of respondents who had posted or planned to post reviews about their online shopping experience, 88% said those reviews either were, or would be positive. (Nielson, 2007)
  • Seven in 10 (69%) consumers who read reviews share them with friends, family or colleagues, thus amplifying their impact. (Deloitte & Touche)

Bazaarvoice continues this awesome article with the flip side offering research on ‘Retailer Demand for Ratings and Reviews’. This is a small sample of that data:

  • The State of Retailing Online study, conducted by Forrester Research, found only 26% of the 137 top retailers surveyed offered customer ratings and reviews, but 96% of them ranked customer ratings and reviews as an effective or very effective tactic at driving conversion. (Forrester)
  • 11% of retailers reported a 20% or more overall increase in conversions as a result of adding reviews to their sites, 21% reported an 11% to 20% increase and 5% reported a 1% to 10% increase. (eTailing Group, 2008)
  • After their order, PETCO asked customers, “What online tool most influenced your purchase decision?” The #1 answer was product ratings and reviews, with site search coming in a distant second. (PETCO)

Some readers might be wondering about my inclusion of Web 2.0 in this mini ‘Profitability of Ethical SEO’ discourse. The reasons for mentioning it here are multifold:

  • A spammy site is likely to be reported
  • An attractive, usable, informative, logical, clean, fast (etc) page or site is likely to be promoted in the social realm
  • A page or site that no-one can find will cost more advertising dollars than necessary to promote
  • A page or site that the spiders can easily crawl, and to which they can absolutely apply specific topical relevance might negate the financial issues associated with the previous point

In Conclusion:

Ethical SEO is profitable, provided it is appropriately and professionally conceived and managed throughout the web dev process, and provided it is effectively integrated into the marketing mix.

  • Build and maintain a usable site that is of interest to your target market and of value to them.
  • Optimize it for the engines by ensuring you have everything covered from the spider’s perspective.
  • Harness Web 2.0 by starting a blog, encouraging reviews, empowering your evangelists, and managing your detractors.

Cindy Krum will be one of the highly experienced Web 2.0 specialists we have speaking on this topic at the SEM Canada conference in Calgary in September. Join us there!!!

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