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SEMPO Code of Ethics: Not So Black and White

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SEMPO Code of Ethics: Not So Black and White

Editor note: This “anti” post is part of a two-part series about the proposed Search Marketing Code of Ethics, as presented by SEMPO at To read the “pro” viewpoint from Tony Wright and Chris Boggs, click here. This post is not sponsored by any organization or party and was facilitated by the SEJ Editorial Team. Alan Bleiweiss also contributed to this post. His comments are noted throughout. 

As many of you may already  know, SEMPO has proposed that we, as search marketers, meet at a “Search Congress” to discuss the draft and submission of a “Code of Ethics”. Upon first hearing of this, most of us would admit, “Hey, this sounds like a great idea!” I am sure the people who created the concept thought this.

We all know there is an issue with unethical practitioners, ones who call themselves SEOs, but in reality are simple con men who found a business vertical that can bring them fast money with little effort. In the industry we call this practice “Snake Oil SEO” – in polite company anyway. So why not a “Code o f Ethics”? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Wouldn’t that help bring more legitimacy to our industry?

Unfortunately, sometimes what sounds good on paper does not work very well in the real world. As you begin to unravel the concept of what it would mean to have a “Code of Ethics”, it starts to lose its appeal. Why? Let’s break it down.

First, What is a “Code of Ethics”?

Inc. has a definition, which most should find agreeable:

“A code of ethics issued by a business is a particular kind of policy statement. A properly framed code is, in effect, a form of legislation within the company binding on its employees, with specific sanctions for violation of the code. If such sanctions are absent, the code is just a list of pieties. The most severe sanction is usually dismissal—unless a crime has been committed.”

So a code of ethics defines how people will behave and then sanctions those who act outside the confines of the proposed behaviors. Seems simple enough.

After all, doctors needs rules that tell them they have to treat all people without doing harm. Let’s say a doctor has to treat the man who broke up his marriage. Without a code of ethics to refer to, treating that man would be based on a personal morality, which in matters of life and death could become highly problematic. The same issues lie in real estate and law. These codes of ethics not only define behavior, but also can be the basis for legal action against anyone who does not adhere to the code of ethics. They are there to protect the consumer from practitioners of bad intent.

In these cases, the code of ethics primarily governs situations that are easy to delineate. Yes, you must treat that patient. Yes, you must represent that client. No, you cannot sell to a new bidder once under contract with the current one. Clearly defined edges are almost necessary for a proper COE. Ethics must have clearly defined edges where something becomes unethical.

How does this apply to Search Marketers?

No Black and White

There is a key difference between the search industry and the others listed. There are very few black and white edges that can be defined between SEO/M and client. With no clearly defined truisms, almost everything in the search marketing industry falls under shades of grey. Black and white becomes a matter of opinion, not fact.

The only common behaviors we could say are expected across all aspects of the search industry are related to transparency and knowledge. You tell the client what you are doing and then you make sure they know how those tactics could affect their site. Period.

But Black Hat!

I know some people are saying, but… Black hat! Whether or not a SEO/M uses black hat methods should never be part of a code of ethics discussion.


Black hat by itself is NOT unethical. You can do just as much damage to a site if you are a bad white hat SEO/M as a bad black hat. The term “black hat” just refers to a set of methods or tools. There is no law against it. It is simply Google who says, “this is not allowed”. If your client knows the risks inherent in a black hat strategy, there is no ethical issue. Of course, some of you will vehemently disagree, thus the point about the grey we operate under.

So what makes up a COE?

Code Of Ethics?

Here, in a definition from Cornell Law, we can see a code of ethics generally has four parts:

“Codes typically divide into (sic) distinct elements: 1) an introduction or preamble, 2) a statement of purposes and values, 3) specific rules of conduct which may be subdivided in various ways, and 4) implementation of the code, which will define administrative processes, reporting, and sanctions.

For obvious reasons, a code of ethics without sanctions and a rational process for its implementation will be viewed by employees as merely a gesture without ‘teeth.’”

So on the positive, when we review the proposed guidelines from SEMPO we can see it does fulfill most of the requirements for creating a COE.

  • Has a goal (or mission): “The Goal: To create the first enforceable and unified search marketer’s code of ethics.” (Important to note the word “enforceable.”)
  • Has a statement of purpose and values.
  • DOES NOT have “specific rules of conduct”: Ok, but this is what the Search Congress is for, so we will leave that in the will-be-done category for now.
  • Does not have and does not intend to be responsible for the “implementation of the code, which will define administrative processes, reporting, and sanctions.”

This in itself is a serious issue in the concept of creating a code of ethics. What would be the purpose of a COE if there were no method for reporting and sanctioning? If the tiger has no teeth, why would anyone fear it?

SEMPO says it will use the Search Congress to determine this regulatory body, but they will not be implementing it? So even if a body is determined, who then monitors the “Sanctioners”? Sanctioners (police) who are likely to be made up of fellow Search Marketers?  So, ok SEMPO meets the standard for a COE creation except the enforcement. What about that?

From Alan:

I’m all for cleaning up the industry. What I am not for, is pretending to think that a self-generated code of ethics is somehow going to get the job done. It’s not. By any stretch of the imagination.

I’ve seen plenty of examples over the past several years where various agencies have displayed their own codes of ethics, or various “pay for display trust seals”, and where, upon examination of work they’ve done, I’ve found that work to be the furthest thing from ethical imaginable.


SEMPO states that those voting at the Search Congress will determine the regulatory body. How would this process work in a practical sense? We have an industry full of greys that will now be policed and sanctioned by (unknown) under these (unknown) guidelines as determined by voting members of the Search Congress.

Safe to say, this premise infers that the ability to vote is a crucial part of the process.

Search Congress Delegation

So if voting is crucial to the fair implementation of the COE, who can vote, who cannot and how that affects all of us becomes a very important factor in the practical world.

Voting at Search Congress

SEMPO is very clear that NOT everyone can participate in the Search Congress as a voting delegate. In fact, you cannot vote if you are not present at the Congress, which undeniably gives a geographic advantage to those in the Texas area, which is where it is going to be held.

Let’s say you can get to Texas for this Congress. Are you allowed to vote on these new rules and who will soon enforce these rules?

Qualifying to Vote

So to vote, you must qualify according to these rules:

  1. Groups that self-identify as serving search engine marketers in some capacity
  2. Groups that are at least one year old
  3. Groups that have at least 10 dues-paying members
  4. Active SEMPO local groups that are more than one year old
  5. Groups that are in the United States (the COE will only apply to those in the U.S. initially. Groups with international members should not require those members to support the COE enforcement.)
  6. Groups that have preexisting bylaws
  7. Virtual groups may be eligible, but each must present evidence that they should be found eligible to send a voting delegate. Virtual groups that meet the above criteria will be eligible to send delegates. Virtual groups that do not already have bylaws or collect dues may do so before they are eligible.
  8. Groups that do not meet the final criteria may send representatives to the meeting, but they will not have voting delegates.
  9. Initially any debates over group eligibility will be decided by a previously designated SEMPO board member. In the delegate meeting, a committee will be created to oversee delegate eligibility.

Ok, so you have to be there and you have to meet these nine (9) standards including being part of a SEMPO approved organization.

9. Initially any debates over group eligibility will be decided by a previously designated SEMPO board member…

Hmm. The organization that is going to lead on the creation of the rules and how they will be sanctioned will also decide who gets to vote on these proposals? What if you are not sanctioned to vote? If you do not qualify you have no vote, period.

From Alan:

If it’s not approved by SEMPO, an organization, even if its legitimate, and has bona fide highly skilled, and highly respected industry members, will not even be allowed to have a vote.

Where it goes even further off the rails of validity is that except for one or perhaps a couple other “virtual” industry groups (such as WebmasterWorld) , again groups that have to be approved by SEMPO, nobody else will have ANY voting rights in the process.

If you’re an individual or an agency or an in-house SEO at a company (big or small), and you DON’T belong to one of their “approved” groups or organizations, you will have NO voting power. Sure, they’re saying such people will be allowed to speak at whatever “congress” meetings take place. But what good is that? How is that even a shadow of how the United States government works?

No Vote. So?

Why do you care? You can just ignore all of this, right?

Ignoring the Code of Ethics

As mentioned above, ignoring the COE may not be in your best interest. In many legal jurisdictions, a COE can be set as an industry standard by a court of law. This gives precedence for clients to sue, a power they didn’t have before the creation of the COE. Note that the COE can legally apply to you even if you had no say and/or did not sign them.

Why is this an issue? I don’t do anything unethical.

From Alan:

Just because you SAY you follow some sort of ethical code does not mean you WILL follow it. Unethical companies use that tactic to lull unsuspecting site owners into a vortex of unsustainable SEO that in the past couple years has more than proven to end up causing such sites great harm.

The other primary issue I have with this effort is where it’s being billed as something akin to how the U.S. Government supposedly works. Representative decision-making.

This claim is pure fantasy.

COE – The Legal Issue

Larry Kim addresses the legal issue very well in his response to the idea of a Code of Ethics.

“Imagine it – an SEO makes a promise they can’t keep, the disappointed client decides they’ve been taken for a ride, and subsequently sues.

Not only would this waste a lot of people’s time (and money), it sets a dangerous precedent. What would happen if a site were mistakenly penalized by Google in a future algorithm update, and the SEO in question weren’t actually to blame? Would there still be grounds for a lawsuit? And that’s before you even start to ask questions about potential damage to the SEO’s reputation and livelihood.”

NOTE: In other industries with wide and accepted code of ethics you can be legally bound to these terms, even if you have had no say or are not part of the organization. This is an accepted precedence.

So we cannot all vote. We might be legally bound despite having no vote. We have no clear edges in which to define a COE to being with and the people monitoring you will likely be your competitors and colleagues. Starting to see how it unravels?

But what about legislation, aren’t we all about the become government fodder for regulation and lawsuits?

Well um. No.

But The Government!

This argument is commonly used by those hoping to create this code of ethics, yet it holds the least weight. If you search for SEO on .gov sites you will see that they define SEO as a tool. They give seminars on it and write papers on the need for it. The US government has Usability sites and to help government agencies understand how to compete, and the Small Business Association (SBA) even has guidelines on how to perform SEO.

SEMPO Code of Ethics

In addition to not being on any regulatory radar, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics has no code for the SEO/M as a job or industry. The only place it shows up is in a Utah report last year showing it as a new emerging occupation.

“As defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which determines whether an occupation should be added to government publications, an emerging occupation is one that has been recognized in small numbers that have continued to grow.“

While there are times “search engine marketing” comes up in legal terms, it is by specific case or vertical (lawyers are regulated in how they use social media, for instance).

An extensive search using terms such as FCC, FTC, .Gov (with SEO/M terms) showed no articles about the topic (except ones in our own industry by other search marketers) and zero proposed legislation.


There is no evidence of the government looking into the industry itself and seeking to regulate it. If there are cases, they have not gained any notice or prominence and it is a case-by-case issue governed under existing law.

In addition, most agencies have a code of ethics. In fact when searching for SEO and “code of ethics,” Google has over 700,000 listings. Of course these are not all be related. However, a visual review of the top ten pages shows we are an industry that cares about their ethics and making sure our clients know what services they are buying.

So what do we gain by creating and enforcing a COE?

Benefits of the Code of Ethics?

While the COE is a great, maybe even welcome idea in theory, there is very little that shows it will be beneficial in practice. Sure, it might feel good to say we have an industry wide COE, but what does it actually do?

Snake Oil Salesmen

The primary goal of the COE is aimed at the unethical snake oil salesmen who sell services to those who do not do their due diligence or simply do not understand what they are purchasing. How will a COE change this? Since the unethical practitioners are already bound to anti-fraud and other laws of doing business in the US, there is very little we can expect a COE would do in terms of curbing this behavior. If the threat of jail does not stop them, why would an agency they do not recognize matter at all? The answer is: it won’t.

So if it cannot achieve the one purpose it is created for, then why would search marketers want this COE? Why would we want to become our own policemen? And what happens when an industry as small and close as ours sets out to make some the police and the others the policed?


The unintended consequences of this well-intentioned, but misplaced, COE is that it will set one search engine marketers against another search engine marketer. It will force those who do not wish to be part of the COE to become a part and it will ostracize those who have no access to the process of rule creation and sanctions. In the end, it will stop nothing and have the rest of us arguing over what “it” means.

Legal Issue

Now arguing over what “it” means is just one of the many reasons outlined above that supports why SEMPO should not be forming a COE or spearheading the Search Congress. However, I will agree that those are all a matter of opinion and I, of course, would like you to agree with mine. However, this may not just be about issues of opinion but issues of law. Now I am not a lawyer, so I cannot assert that SEMPO is in violation here. However, it would be worth having someone check into this.

SEMPO’s own Anti-Trust Policy states that “matters relating to actual or potential individual suppliers that might have the effect of excluding them from any market or of influencing the business conduct of firms toward such suppliers or customers are forbidden.”

Isn’t the very act of leading an organization that will decide a code of ethics setting up the terms “of influencing the business conduct of firms toward such suppliers or customers?”

If this goes forward, we will need a legal answer to this question. I would imagine SEMPO would want one as well.

From Alan:

I am equally concerned about the legal ramifications. What right does SEMPO or some pseudo-democratic group have to create what could well end up being determined through courts of law, to be an enforceable document that ALL industry members would be held accountable for legally? This is well established precedent in several other industries, and anyone who fails to acknowledge that potential outcome is either intentionally ignoring that or woefully incapable of coordinating such a monumentally impactful document, and thus does not deserve to see this through to fruition.

So what can we do?

SEMPO was created for outreach and education. The biggest issue we face as an industry is not how to regulate the elusive snake oil salesman, but how to educate the clients that buy services. The client needs to be educated on why services cost what they cost. They need to understand that the perceived gain and benefit comes at way too high a price, despite the surface appearance of cheap. Cheap is never the answer. Clients need to understand they are paying for a knowledge base, not hours on a time sheet and they need to understand just how dangerous it can be to purchase on price alone.

Without a better understanding of what we do and why our services cost money we will all be arguing over what “it” means while the snake oil salesmen rake in the proverbial and very real dollar. SEMPO needs to educate consumers; not police service providers. It’s not their job. They even said so themselves:

“SEMPO is not a standards body or a policing organization. Membership in or involvement with SEMPO is not a guarantee of a particular firm’s capabilities, nor does it signify industry approval or disapproval of their practices.”


Editor note: This “anti” post is part of a two-part series about the proposed Search Marketing Code of Ethics, as presented by SEMPO at To read the “pro” viewpoint from Tony Wright and Chris Boggs, click here. This post is not sponsored by any organization or party and was facilitated by the SEJ Editorial Team. 


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Kristine Schachinger

Kristine Schachinger has more than two decades experience in the creation, development, implementation and maintenance of websites in all areas ... [Read full bio]

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