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SEO, Black Hat, Google, and Ethics…

Alec Sharratt

by Alec Sharratt on 17th February 2012

EthicsI have personally witnessed debates at conferences and among SEO’s at various gatherings on the topic of ethics and either SEO or Black Hat tactics; as well as seeing posts about it on numerous websites…

So I have dug deep into my pockets and pulled forth my 2 cents and personal views, in the vein hope that this will end the debate!

The Debate

The debate usually centres on whether Black Hat is ethical; and it seems a significant amount of people have an opinion on this. I have even seen a Christian SEO company website that asked if Black Hat SEO is in fact a sin! So I suppose and propose that the debate starts with where you get your morals from, as much as how you define morality.

The Origins of Morality

As an atheist I don’t draw my morals from any religious doctrine, yet I would still consider myself to be a moral person. A wider view of the origins of morals would have to consider the impact that evolution has had on humanity. Ape societies or early tribal societies would have formed as a result of the emergence of social interactions; we see this in primitive forms throughout the animal world. For example; chimpanzees and meerkats to name just a couple of species exhibit the fundamental principles of morality through “cooperation”.  Within these groups we can observe how by working together as a collective or group enables the realization of far greater results than when individuals work on their own.

It is from this that morality starts to emerge; what behaviour is acceptable within the group is the intrinsic core of all morals. In monkey society we see that those individuals who help out the most are often promoted up the hierarchy. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense because societies that promote these traits will prosper more so than those who do not and beneficial traits are hence naturally selected.

To illustrate this evolutionary selection of morality, the best example I can think of is this: If the kill rate within a society were higher than the birth rate, the society would soon become extinct. So for the most part, we find that killing to be considered immoral… But not completely! Often war, capital punishment, self defence, etc are all exceptions to this rule, in all likelihood this is because we have a certain amount of moral leeway; so long as the rate that people are killed is lower than the rate at which they are born we are in positive moral equity, so to speak!

What is Morality?

Unless you take your morals from a holy book you are faced with a few diametrically opposing philosophical paradigms; such as moral relativism or moral objectivism or your own personally derived countenance for specific behaviour. Personally I dislike the idea that morality is flexible and depends on what others around you have been doing for the past few hundred years. But without something to define it, arguing for moral objectivism is quite hard.

In a perfect world I would propose that everyone should have the right and freedom to do whatever they want so long as they do not infringe upon other peoples’ rights and freedom to do the same.

So what does this have to do with SEO, Black Hat and Google? I hear you cry!

Well… Before I move onto whether SEO and Black Hat are ethical endeavours, let’s take a quick look at what Google deem to be moral behaviour. For example Google does not like Bittorrents:

How to Bittorrent

But Google does not discriminate against theft with the same algorithmic certainty as file sharing:

how to stealSo clearly we can see that Google have programmed responses to certain search queries. File sharing, which is not actually illegal, is not suggested to the searcher despite the blatant and clear intent of the search term. Theft on the other hand, which is illegal and frowned upon in every culture, country and religion, is worth suggesting to the searcher.

This is not a moral issue and the reasoning behind both responses from Google has nothing to do with morality. No. It is to do with money, more specifically with profit. This is also true for the guidelines that Google have created for optimising your website. These guidelines and the behaviour of the company in general is directly connected to delivering profit to shareholders. Thus I believe it to be both equally fair and appropriate to state that Google is amoral; neither moral or immoral.

Is SEO moral?

Now that I have demonstrated both how and why Google behave the way that they do I will go further by using my ratiocinative powers: Adhering to Google’s guidelines may be beneficial, profitable and practically useful to your online marketing strategy, but this does not make it either moral or immoral… But is optimising a website to appear higher in the SERPs immoral because you may be negatively affecting someone else’s position within the SERPs who may actually be more relevant to the searcher?

Logically this question can flipped around to ask “whether a searcher has a moral right to the most relevant results possible?” – In a perfect world the answer would be yes, but sadly in the real world the answer would have to be no. For the most part we live in a capitalist society, and capitalism is intrinsically and fundamentally immoral… To offer an example if you sold lamps and someone came into your store to buy a lamp, and you know that the shop down the road has cheaper better lamps would you suggest that they buy from your competitor? No. Why? Because that would inevitably lead to your business failing. This is a simple but effective example of how businesses act in a way that could be described as immoral on a fundamental level.

But back to the original question of whether you or anyone has a moral right to the most relevant search result… Well, would the same principle apply to anything else? For example do you have a moral right to the best deal in a supermarket? Supermarkets price their deals based on geographical locations, as such this may restrict the savings you could make and the quality of the deal that you get.

To summarise, when someone uses Google to find something; they are accepting that this is an imperfect, but free, service provided by a company whose sole purpose is to generate profits. Bad service is not immoral at worst it is unprofitable. In fact, if it was profitable to provide bad customer service, everyone would be doing it!

So, Is Black Hat SEO Moral?

So essentially Black Hat SEO is defined as SEO that breaks Google’s guidelines, which I have demonstrated exist only to protect their profits. And I have also established that SEO is in essence the promotion of a website in the SERPs regardless of its actual relevance to the search terms.

Now there are arguments that Black Hat is dishonest, misleading or otherwise inherently linked to behaviour commonly thought to be immoral. I would argue that Black Hat is primarily dishonest or misleading to Google, in such a way that could lead to them losing profits. I would also argue that dishonesty is not intrinsically immoral, I am sure most people have told a “white lie” once in their life.

The only difference between White and Black hat SEO is whether Google’s guidelines have been adhered to. I would therefore have to defend the position that both are intrinsically amoral activities that can only exist by being supported by an essentially immoral global economic system. The moral legitimacy of both activities are juxtaposed and fostered by the indifferent moral blanket laid upon us by capitalism.

Image Source

Ethics Green Road Sign via BigStock

Alec Sharratt

Alec Sharratt

Alec Sharratt will be writing about his passion; the technical aspects of search. Well experienced within the IT industry, Alec has bags of knowledge on everything technical from simple spreadsheets that will save you hours right up to news and tips to make search that little bit easier.


  • Michele Mazzali 17th February 2012

    First of all, let me say that’s an excellent post, very well built and argumented. It’s a pleasure for me, as I grown up with a profoundly humanistic background, to mix some philosophy with computer science.

    It’s my fault, I’ve always been superficially talking about ethics. I must admit I’m failing to find the right words (I have not English as a mother tongue, my bad), but I’ll try to explain what I have in mind.
    I think it’s all about goals. What is my clients’ goal? Increase the number of conversions? So, my efforts will be driven by the necessity to give my clients what they need.
    Let’s say I decide to go for a black hat tactic: I have to know what the risks are and I have to ask myself “if my business depends from this site, would I risk a penalty or a ban just to get better rankings?”.

    That’s why I always decide to go “white”: results will cost me time and sweat, but I’m sure I’m avoiding penalties, bans or other risks – the worst thing that would happen to me is not to get better rankings, not to destroy the reputation and the rankings my clients have reached without SEO efforts.

    Ethics can be declined into a subjective scale; quality is objective.
    That’s why I prefer to talk in terms of quality.

    I look forward to hear what you think about it.

    Reply to this comment

  • Nicholas Dutko 19th February 2012

    My company does SEO to rank higher on Google, Yahoo, and Bing. I see Black Hat SEO used often in my industry. Other competitors post links on our blogs, other sites rank high quickly, etc. they do tend to fall because Google is getting smarter. Yahoo/Bing lacks a bit right now, but they are growing and getting smarter too. Go ahead and try the Black Hat SEO, but you will get penalized eventually. I don’t know about you, but I would like to stay on Google and other search engines good side. If every company would do the right things, business would run more smoothly for everyone.

    Reply to this comment

  • Michael Rolfe 21st February 2012

    Great post Alec, I do appreciate a post that considers the wider world we live in! I also agree with Nicholas; white-hat promotion is simply easier for more to manage for clients – I dont need to worry about their sites falling out of favour with Google and if they ever did, I can find the reason why and fix it. Not a moral decision, it’s just a logical one when it comes to clients. Thanks again Al!

    Reply to this comment

  • Alec Sharratt

    Alec Sharratt 22nd February 2012

    Thanks for all your comments, they are very much appreciated. I think as far as clients are concerned honesty is the best policy, so long as they are aware of what you do and the potential risks if any, then at least their expectations will be set correctly. We get clients come to us frequently who have tried black hat and then got their website slapped with a penalty from Google. As M Rolfe said, if this happens we will analyse the link profile and website to fix the problem.

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