Let’s Make the SEO Industry Crystal Clear and Ethical in the Year Ahead!

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ClearWhenever an SEO firm brings up ethics or transparency, they can expect to hear a backlash of comments. “They’ve been brainwashed by Google.” “They’re just another sheep in the herd.” “They’re afraid of thinking outside the box.” And so on. But we’re not ignorant of Google’s business motives, we do things our own way, and love fresh, original ideas. Transparency and ethics have nothing to do with Google. They have everything to do with ROI, reputation, and survival as a business.

That’s why we’re sharing our plan to tackle SEO ethically in the year ahead. We hope you’ll enjoy our advice:

1. Your Client is a Part of Your Strategy

It sounds obvious enough, right? But it’s easy to get stuck in the mindset where “I’m the SEO, I’m the expert, and this client has no idea what they’re talking about.”

Obviously, our jobs would be pointless if clients knew everything there was to know about SEO and had the internal resources to make it happen. And sometimes we may even catch ourselves trying to guard our secrets so that clients don’t get too informed.

But we’re consultants. Let’s inform our clients and get them involved.

Nothing is going to attract links better than your client’s proprietary data. Nobody understands where the influencers are and where the customers are better than your client does. You will see far better results when your client is involved in the strategy. We guarantee it.

2. Ethics

It’s almost a dirty word in some circles, isn’t it?

Here’s why it matters:

  • Bad ethics will eventually result in bad reputation, no matter how good you think you are at covering your tracks
  • Customers strongly prefer to buy from brands that share their values, according to research published in the Journal of Marketing. This is crucial if you care about customer retention.
  • It has also long been known that the ethics of a business are deeply connected to employee morale. An employee who feels their employer doesn’t have good ethics doesn’t feel committed to them, and results suffer.

This isn’t a question of “black hats” being evil or any similar nonsense. It’s a question of whether you, your employees, your clients, and their customers share a similar set of values. This is a strategic question, as much as some people would like to think that strategy and ethics are bizzarly unrelated.

If these groups do not share a similar set of values, then these relationships cannot be expected to last for the long term, and that’s bad for business.

3. Transparency

This has really become a crucial part of a successful SEO strategy. Ideally, it’s something that you should be seeking from your clients as well. Here’s why:

  • Transparency gets attention. It is the source of new information that has a knack for getting linked to and shared across the web.
  • If you aren’t transparent with your client, they won’t understand the process and can’t offer value.
  • If your client isn’t transparent with you, you will struggle with branding them properly and they will be frustrated with the results.
  • If your client isn’t transparent with its customers, they will grow suspicious, and they will look bad if they backpeddle in the wake of a leak and a PR disaster.
  • If you aren’t transparent with the SEO community, you will fail to say anything new that the online community will find valuable, and thus will not attract attention.

4. Stay One Step Ahead

Success in the year ahead is going to require an understanding of where the search engines, technology, your client’s industry, and society at large are headed. For example:

  • Google’s technology is improving, making behaviors that go against their terms of service increasingly obsolete.
  • Mobile is already mainstream and makes up half the online audience, and will only continue to grow.
  • Social media is so mainstream that it has already peaked. It absolutely has to be a part of your strategy at this point.
  • Google is expanding its commercial presence with Google Shopping and other properties, and it has incentives to weed commercial results out of the organic SERPs.
  • Online consumer research has shifted away from Google and toward Amazon.
  • Apps like Siri and so forth are displacing some of the value of search.
  • Some are speculating that Google is moving in the direction of a digital assistant as much as a search engine.

These changes shouldn’t frighten people out of SEO, but they should inform our strategies and encourage diversification.

5. Build Solid Relationships

It’s not like you haven’t heard this before, but all too often online marketers neglect the value of relationships. I’ll try to avoid getting to redundant with this except to say:

  • Invest in high quality, influential relationships, not in a large number of relationships
  • Make your influential relationships public and take advantage of the implication that you are noteworthy
  • Stay involved in conversations even when you don’t have something you need.

6. Short Term Strategies Never Fulfill Long Term Visions

We’re not just talking about automated comment links and forum spam here. We’re talking about all short term strategies. Short term goals should always be a stepping stone toward long term success, never goals in and of themselves.

One example? Guest posting! It’s hot right now, but is your guest posting strategy justifiable as a long term marketing strategy? Does it send referrals and increase viral opportunities? Does it increase your audience size and your social media reach? If it only offers search engine benefit, are you at least investing the profits in a more sustainable strategy?

7. Just Say NO to CHEAP Clients

CHEAP stands for:

Combative – Fighting you at every turn because all long term strategies are too expensive.

Helpless – Nothing you do will work for them and they will only resent you for trying.

Expensive – Cheap clients are expensive because you will waste resources on them when you could be earning money for and from other clients.

Apathetic – They have no real faith in SEO and are apathetic to the strategy.

Pointless – You won’t earn results, experience, notoriety, or anything from the relationship.

SEO takes time and resources. If you’re going to do SEO for next to nothing, do it for a nonprofit organization, where the non-financial benefits are much higher.

8. Be a Partner, Not a Vendor

This goes hand in hand with “involve your client,” but it’s worth emphasizing this particular point. Vendors sell a product, like “5000 links.” Partners need to show results, so they invest in long term success. And, of course, partners have a much higher earning potential.

9. Be an Advisor

Your client will have the best chances for success if you advise them on strategy in areas that you don’t have direct control over. SEO is not separated from the core activities of a business. Non-SEO and even offline business activities can have an impact on rankings and other things that an SEO is directly responsible for, so offer your input when it makes sense.

10. Quality, Not Quantity

Cliche? Yes. True? Also yes.

Emphasize quality over quantity in nearly all of your efforts, whether it be content, links, or relationships. More than anything else, the key to making this happen is investment. You can’t afford to throw small resources at a big problem.

11. Remember Panda and Penguin

Okay, to be fair, who could forget? But we need to stay on our toes and realize that these were not and will not be the last algorithm updates. Google is constantly upgrading itself in an effort to improve search quality and, let’s not forget, to line its own pockets. When your entire business model rests on the actions of a virtual monopoly in your industry, that’s a precarious position. Investments in SEO should also be justifiable as marketing efforts.

12. Let’s Face it, Rankings Aren’t Everything

The skills that we as SEOs have learned give us marketing opportunities that go far beyond where we happen to show up in the search results. We’ve learned relationship building skills, conversions, social networking, customer targeting, inbound marketing, content marketing/production, rich snippets, web design, and so much more. Let’s take advantage of those skills and put them to use where they are most useful.

13. SEO and Social Media are 2 Sides of the Same Coin

Both SEO and social media marketing are fundamentally about the same thing: grabbing attention online and encouraging people to spread the word on your behalf. Social media is also a huge part of building relationships useful for link building.

14. Speak the Language of ROI

We SEOs love reporting, but many of us don’t speak the same language as the rest of the business community. When we aren’t careful, we measure “ROI” in terms of domain authority, number of links, search traffic, and so on. We need to start speaking in terms of dollars and hours. It’s harder, but it wins the best clients.

15. Transform Link Building Into Brand Building

Some will argue that, once you do this, it’s not SEO anymore. We disagree. Brand building with a focus on search is an entirely different animal. We’re talking about not just building a brand identity, but leveraging that identity to position yourself where people will find you through the tool they use most. The intersection between search and branding is a powerful place to be.


We are entering an age when SEO can’t be considered separate from online marketing in general. Instead, SEO has become an online branding effort with an emphasis on search, requiring many of the general marketing skills that other online marketers take advantage of.

Unlike, say, PPC, we don’t have the option of specializing on a small and specific set of skills. Link building, social media, keyword research, branding, conversions, content production, relationship building, viral marketing, and rich snippets: it’s all a part of SEO. This is the year to let our clients know that we are comprehensive internet marketing experts with the skills to bring them long term success and opportunities!

If you share our take on this or appreciated the advice, we’d love it if you passed it along. If you have any questions or something to add, please let me know in the comments.

Image Credit: Shutterstock / NataliSuns

Pratik Dholakiya

Pratik Dholakiya

Co-Founder & VP of Marketing at E2M
Pratik Dholakiya is the Co-Founder and VP of Marketing of E2M, a digital marketing agency and MoveoApps.com, a mobile apps development company. Pratik has been featured on sites like Forbes, Moz, SEW, SEJ, KISSmetrics, Entrepreneur and FastCompany to name a few. Hit him up on Twitter @DholakiyaPratik for a quick chat.
Pratik Dholakiya
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  • https://allseostar.com/ AllSEOStar

    We really excited to know all the points that you decribed. Most important thing for all business is the number 14. Speak the language of ROI and we are still learning on how to achieve ROI improvement month by month. Thanks for your interesting post!

    All the best…

  • http://www.rankwatch.com Sahil

    Good one Pratik. Especially post panda and penguin algorithm updates by Google, businesses have been rightly forced to concentrate on building a brand that adds value to its users. The day when some traffic & revenue obsessed businesses/marketers stop the spammy way of marketing and start adding value to their users, SEO will be a lot ethical and crystal clear.

    • http://www.pratikdholakiya.com Pratik Dholakiya

      That’s correct Sahil, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • http://bluemilemedia.com Amir @ Blue Mile Media

    Great post Pratik! I think the SEO industry has a bad rep among the business community but your posts are all great. I think it’s all about being solid relationships and truly helping that business out. Focus on long term relationships rather than a quick buck.


    • http://www.pratikdholakiya.com Pratik Dholakiya

      Thanks Amir, I think now people will start understanding that SEO is a long term investment instead of short term tricks.

  • http://www.klinkle.com Tim Klinkle

    My favorite on the list is “Transparency.” For so many people the idea of SEO has been murky, and the selling of murky things leads to plenty of snake oil stuff.

    Business people trust transparency. They also appreciate hard work. SEO is hard work. There is a way to price in both performance and hard labor with a profit.

    • http://www.seovisions.com/ Todd Mumford

      Well said Tim, our industry needs more people that think the way you do.

  • http://www.seovisions.com/ Todd Mumford

    Hi Pratik, thanks for the share.

    A number of your points resonate with us very strongly. Namely, points 1, 7 and 10.

    Client contribution is key. The client is the person who is potentially the expert in their niche. It’s difficult to honestly and transparently speak in the voice of the client and develop content that reflects their level of knowledge and expertise in the industry. Not impossible, but difficult.

    And you couldn’t have been more accurate when you spoke about Quality being the most important piece.

    Anything online in 2013 done according to the famous Pareto Principle (80/20) generally gains little traction because consumers are fast becoming very scrutinizing in the quality level of content they endorse / engage with. There is an exponential sea of content churning the airwaves, and only 97/100 content that targets the audience well is going to make a splash sooner or later.

  • https://www.facebook.com/adnanakhtar99 ADNAN AKHTAR

    I liked all the points but specially the Rule 7: Say no to cheap clients

    Seo has become more crafty and artistic and so we as SEOs need free flights to go ahead and deliver better and long lasting results…

    I recently refused clients who were asking “How many PR X links for How Much?”

    Great Post

  • http://www.salesvu.com Julie Fitzwater

    Pratik, even your awesome points, it is also a bitter truth that Seo industry is facing much problem these days. Websites are being penalized if google thinks that someone is trying to promote them. Gone are the days of Link building.
    Is not seo on the verge of its end?