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Is it time for a Code of Ethics for SEOs?

Ethical Issues of Search Engine Optimization

Most Internet users are well aware of the virtues of search engines. Many of us depend on them to direct us to links to useful information that affect nearly all facets of our day-to-day lives—information about work, travel, recreation, entertainment, finances, politics, news, sports, music, education, and so forth.

There are many ethical issues related to Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Online search engines are our gateways to an immense wealth of information stored on the Internet. These search engines have an enormous influence on our ability to look for and retrieve information online. However, these search engines also function as a gatekeeper. Most people do not visit a web site that does not appear toward the top of search engine results. In fact, only 10% of online users look beyond the third page of search results. As a result, web sites vie to improve their site placement on the search engine results page (SERP) in order to reach out to their prospective customers or viewers.

This gives rise to a unique business industry where consultants assist web site administrators and their organizations on how to improve the search result ranking. To accomplish this objective, consultants employ a set of techniques often referred to as search engine optimization (SEO). Most SEO techniques fall into one of the following broad categories: keyword selection, indexing web sites on search engine databases, on-page manipulation, and directing online traffic toward web sites (off-page manipulation).

The use of search engines has generated a cluster of ethical concerns including: (1) search-engine bias and the problem of opacity/non-transparency, (2) personal privacy and informed consent, (3) monitoring and surveillance, and (4) censorship and democracy. Given the complexity of the topic, I’ll only address social and professional responsibility issues.

Thus far, issues from the perspectives of business ethics and professional responsibility for search engine companies have not been directly addressed SEO concerns. A question that one might reasonably ask is whether these companies have any special moral obligations because of their “privileged place” in our society? A thought leader in the field is Lawrence Hinman, who lists four reasons why search engine companies should shoulder significant social responsibility.

  1. Search engines play an absolutely “crucial role in the access to information” and that without them, the Web would “simply be inaccessible to us” and thus “almost useless.”
  2. “Access to information is crucial for responsible citizenship,” and to make informed decisions in a democracy.
  3. Search engines have become “central to education” as students now search on Google and other major search engines more frequently than they visit libraries.
  4. Major search engines are owned by private corporations—i.e., by “businesses that are quite properly seeking to make a profit.”

It’s clear given these relationships that conflicts can easily arise between corporate profits (on the part of search engine companies) and the interests of the general public good. For example, while many search engine companies were initially content to simply produce search results, some now are becoming increasingly involved in the nuts and bolts of diverse markets, expanding their offerings to include everything from online music to local coupons to mobile phones. This creates a bias-related concern affecting this trend by noting that when Google recently entered the online travel business, it began placing its new flight-search service atop general search results—i.e., above those of other major players in the online travel business such as Orbitz and Expedia.

There are good reasons to be concerned about conflicts of interest involving search engine companies and their role as gatekeepers. Commercial control that major search engine companies now have over the distribution of digital information could ultimately lead to restrictions on the flow of knowledge.

Hinman believes that the control of knowledge that these companies have is “in a very fundamental sense, a public trust, yet it remains firmly entrenched in private hands and behind a veil of corporate secrecy.” Much of this secrecy is closely tied to the proprietary search algorithms that major search engines use, which also raises the question of whether aspects of these algorithms should be more transparent to the general public.

However, some argue that search engine companies should not be required to disclose information about their proprietary search algorithms (even though they should be required to make their policies known to users and to follow those policies, because of the important role they have as “contributors to the public use of reason”).

The Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) has proposed a code of ethics for SEOs. There are basically two ways that SEMPO’s code of ethics could work. Either SEOs voluntarily opt-in and sign a legally binding contract saying they won’t do anything shady, or they’re forced to. The third option is that there is no obligation to participate at all, which renders the whole system pointless.

Some may latch on to mandating the code rather than it being a suggestion or “best practices.” I doubt requiring it will work. There is no legal authority to do so. How would SEMPO even mandate that SEOs agree to sign the code of ethics?

The optional route is just as problematic. Just take a look at Google AdWords certification – sure, a Google logo on a website makes some clients feel more comfortable, but it’s hardly a guarantee that the certified professional actually knows what they’re doing.

Whether people agree to the code of ethics voluntarily or as part of a mandated industry standard, SEOs are still going to keep doing what they’re doing. All the creation of the code will accomplish is a lot more work for everyone with little to no payoff.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 10, 2015. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: