A Serious Talk About The Unified Search Marketing Code of Ethics

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A Serious Talk About The Unified Search Marketing Code of Ethics

Editor Note: This “pro” post is part of a two-part series about the proposed Search Marketing Code of Ethics, as presented by SEMPO at SearchCongress.org. To read the “anti” viewpoint from Kristine Schachinger and Alan Bleiweiss, click here. This post is not sponsored by any organization or party and was facilitated by the SEJ Editorial Team.

It’s time for the search marketing industry to have a serious discussion about ethics. Make no mistake, this discussion will be messy. There will be disagreements. There will be hurt feelings. But in the end, if we as a unified group of industry bodies can decide on a unified code of ethics that is not only enforceable for those who choose to participate by pledging to adhere to the code, but also provides value to those who follow it, we will see our industry gain more credibility across the formal business marketing ecosystem.

Challenges in Creating a Code of Ethics

In looking at the search marketing industry as a whole, it’s nearly impossible to define exactly what it is. From agencies to in-house search departments, content marketers, link builders, paid search marketers, tool producers, black-hat practitioners –  the list goes on and on. The term Search Engine Marketer refers to someone who may fit a diverse set of disciplines and job descriptions. In order to start the conversation, we’ve defined a search engine marketer as someone who self-identifies with the term. In other words, if you think you are search engine marketer, you are a search engine marketer. And it’s in your best interest to participate in this discussion.

We also realize that too many unfocused voices makes for nothing but noise. There MUST be some sort of structure that allows all who want to participate to feel that their voice is heard. This represents a challenge. We realize that many who need to be part of this conversation are currently not members of any local organization. They may live in places where there are no eligible regional organizations. In response to this, the organizers of the inaugural Search Congress are looking for several “virtual” organizations or boards that would allow for those who want to either run as a delegate or vote for a delegate that represents them will have the opportunity to do so.

Even with the best efforts to be inclusive, we realize not everyone who wants to participate in voting for delegates can. But the organizers of the Search Congress truly do want everyone’s voice to be heard, and we have set up a form on the searchcongress.org site to allow anyone to submit an idea for the code of ethics. Every relevant idea that is submitted will be presented to the delegates prior to the search congress. The delegates will know your idea, even if you can’t vote for a delegate for some reason.

What’s Being Proposed?

In October of 2014, the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization (SEMPO), sent out a press release calling for delegates to a “Search Congress” to draft a unified Code of Ethics. Delegates to the Search Congress will be elected from the many regional organizations that operate throughout North America – some of which are affiliated with SEMPO, but others who are not. The idea is that this group of delegates will represent the industry in framing the inaugural code of ethics, but these delegates may also decide that there is currently no need for a unified code of ethics.

One important thing to understand in our point of view on this topic: SEMPO cannot and will not create a code of ethics by itself. SEMPO’s mission is

“to provide a foundation for industry growth through building stronger relationships, fostering awareness, providing education, promoting the industry, generating research, and creating a better understanding of search and its role in marketing.”

Notice that there is no mention in this mission statement about creating a code of ethics, promoting best practices or enforcing standards. SEMPO simply isn’t set up to create and enforce a code of ethics. But SEMPO does have the infrastructure and bandwidth to start the conversation. And that’s all the organization is trying to do – create a structured environment where a realistic Code of Ethics can be drafted. You can read more about the process, as well as keep informed of progress and participating groups at www.searchcongress.org.

Why Do We Need a Code of Ethics?

The idea of a Code of Ethics is not new. Since SEMPO’s inception in 2002, there has been talk about creating a Search Marketing Code of Ethics. In fact, one of the most common criticisms of SEMPO is that no code of ethics or best practices document has been created. In the past, the Board has struggled with the topic of setting industry standards, but the SEMPO leadership realized there would be a lack of full support for such standards, especially from those self-identified Search Engine Marketers who practice tactics that are against the rules, such as “black hat SEO.” A Code of Ethics is a wise step back from the potential future body of standards, and it will and it will provide something for the marketers that measure value in partner adherence to such beliefs and operating principles. Not all marketers will know or care about the Code of Ethics, but for those that do it will provide additional trust.

Until now, a code of ethics was a want, not a need. As search engine marketing has matured, the budgets have continually increased. In fact, in the SEMPO State of Search survey in 2013, more than half of the respondents indicated that they expected to increase their digital marketing budgets in 2014. The respondents indicated that more than half of that money would be earmarked for search engine marketing activities. However, since that survey, the landscape has changed. Algorithm and paid search changes in both Google and Bing have decimated the return for many search marketing activities. Companies are skittish of hiring search engine marketers for fear of being penalized by Google for unscrupulous methods. This trend is hitting search engine marketers in the pocket book. In fact, the latest (fourth annual) SEMPO salary survey indicates that search engine marketing salaries are dropping. For the first time in a long time, we may see search engine marketing budgets decline.

The reason for the decline is anecdotally apparent to most of us in the space. Too many companies who have purchase search engine marketing services in the past don’t trust us. They’ve been burned in the past – or know someone who has been burned. And currently, there are no reliable services for consumers of search engine marketing services to know which companies adhere to ethical business practices – much less strategic and tactical best practices. There are services like the Better Business Bureau that include search engine marketing agencies under their umbrella – but the BBB doesn’t understand search marketing. And the BBB’s mission isn’t to create a code of ethics for our industry. That’s our industry’s job.

Several criticisms of the proposed Code of Ethics have  said that Google itself is the regulator of our industry. The thought is that Google provides all we need to know to act ethically as a search engine marketer.  We believe this is inaccurate. We believe that we, as search engine marketers, need to take a stand in regulating ourselves, regardless of what the search engines dictate. This is our industry – and regardless of what the search engines dictate, at the end of the day we should be able to decide what’s right for OUR industry.

There are worries that a Code of Ethics will fracture our tight-knit industry. The harsh reality is that those outside of our industry care very little about it. The results and business practices are important to the consumers of Search Engine Marketing. We believe that having a unified and enforceable Code of Ethics will not only make the industry stronger, but provide benefits to both practitioners and consumers.

Other detractors have stated that the existence of a Code of Ethics opens up other businesses to sue existing or past Search Engine Marketing vendors. We feel that this is a very unlikely event due to the structure of many contracts within the industry, which classify Search Engine Marketing as a service. Additionally, although we are not a lawyers, we would argue that in some cases not adhering to a stated Code of Ethics which (could) clearly require full disclosure of marketing tactics opens one up to a suit for Negligent Misrepresentation. Perhaps we will have some lawyers share their thoughts on this aspect, in the comments and/or submissions of ideas through searchcongress.org.

What the Code of Ethics Should NOT Be

The proposed Code of Ethics will most likely NOT be a tactical best practices guideline document, although that will be up to the Congress to decide. The Search Congress will make the final decision on what will (and won’t) be in the inaugural document, how the inaugural document will be amended and changed, how it will be enforced and how the Search Congress will be elected in the future. The Congress will also decide if there is a need for best practices guidelines. However, creating best practices in the ever-changing world of search is a tall order. Before best practices can be established, the industry needs to have a representative body and a Code of Ethics. The Code of Ethics is the first step toward creating a unified search engine marketing viewpoint.

What Can You Do?

In closing, we want to reiterate at this time all we are asking is that you participate. If you are the leader of a regional search engine marketing group, please volunteer to send a delegate to the Search Congress – which will likely take place later in 2015. If you want to participate as a delegate, talk to your regional group, or if you aren’t part of one, look for one to join. If you can’t join a group, send us your ideas on what should be included in the Code of Ethics – or if you don’t agree with the process or the idea of a Code of Ethics, let us know and tell us why. We truly want this to be a representative effort.

We also need volunteers to help us make the Search Congress a reality. We need people who have worked with other groups on self-regulation and codes of ethics. We need legal experts who can advise us on how a Code of Ethics might affect the industry. We need people to help us create content for the Searchcongress.org site. If you are interested in getting involved, please contact us here.

Thank you for your time and support in this effort to help us evolve our industry towards trusted full inclusion with the “big” marketing channels.


This Post was a Collaborative Effort By:

Tony Wright,
SEMPO Vice President of Communication
CEO/Founder, WrightIMC

Chris Boggs
SEMPO Global Board Member since 2006
Editor Note: This “pro” post is part of a two-part series about the proposed Search Marketing Code of Ethics, as presented by SEMPO at SearchCongress.org. To read the “anti” viewpoint from Kristine Schachinger and Alan Bleiweiss, click here. This post is not sponsored by any organization or party and was facilitated by the SEJ Editorial Team.
Tony Wright
As CEO of WrightIMC, I manage online media strategies, public relations, and other interactive marketing projects for our clients. I provide valuable input into creative,... Read Full Bio
Tony Wright
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  • Brian

    I would be curious how this would be enforced? Since you mentioned the BBB for an example. The BBB is a neutral 3rd party that has a procedure in place for mediation and arbitration of complaints. Many of the BBB’s around the nations have employees with Law degrees on staff. Many of their arbitrators have law degrees. How is a search congress going to provide a neutral trusted 3rd party that understand business law, dispute resolution? Your going to need lawyers, lawyers on retainer, Licensed arbitrators that understand SEO..

    • Chris Boggs

      Brian I (we) agree that the subject of legal and enforcement is certainly a big question mark right now. I also think that the Congress once formed would have collective ability to find such legal experts that are pertinent to the discussion, and hopefully would be willing to contribute their expertise.

      Personally I wonder if this would fall under the legal contract terms which clarify arbitration and state in many cases, should a company be a part of the code.

      • Kristine S

        Just the Code of Ethics would be grounds to sue those in our industry whether or not they subscribe to such ethics if the other industries such as Real Estate, Legal and Medical set precedent which they most likely do. Adding lawyers to that process would make it assured. It will give customers grounds to sue they currently do not have except those items such as fraud which are already covered under current laws. Just something that needs to be pointed out.

  • Chris Boggs

    Not sure why I cannot reply directly to Kristine’s comment but from actual personal experience I disagree. I am no more of a lawyer than Kristine is, but most of the (many) contracts I have been involved with with Fortune 100 companies and smaller include binding arbitration clauses which would be able to protect the company from such a lawsuit. Additionally, since SEO is classified as a “Service” I believe this makes it very difficult to sue someone whether or not there are known codes or standards, if the company doesn’t claim to adhere to the standards.

    I do admit -again without real legal knowledge – that there may be possible Negligent Misrepresentation claims if the service provider doesn’t clearly state the risks involved with certain tactics, but I think those would be a difficult to judge due to our industry’s moving landscape.

    But again, we are all sea lawyers until a true expert speaks up on this matter, and the suing theme could be characterized by some as FUD.

    • Kristine S

      Without legal knowledge is the key phrase there. This is nothing like a contract you sign with a company you work with and there is legal precedence for this becoming something we can legally be bound even if we never say we agree to it as it is legally binding in the Real Estate, Medical and Legal industries. Now I am not a lawyer either, but I do know that when something has a set precedent it is not FUD, it is called the basis of legal argument and to characterize it as FUD is actually the FUD.

      • Tony Wright

        Kristine, we have already had several lawyers, including one that has expertise in business ethics and a background in search marketing reach out to volunteer to help. I’m in the process of requesting some guest blogs around this subject that will appear on the searchcongress.org site. Also, I can tell you from expert witness work that I have done – when an SEO contract goes bad, the lawyers look for established best practices. Those currently come from places like this publication, MOZ, Search Engine Watch, Search Engine Land, etc. And the Lawyers don’t discriminate on how old the advice is or if it’s even correct anymore. Which would you rather have from a legal standpoint, a representative code of ethics, or a mish-mash of “best practices” culled from various sources that can be completely outdated or in some cases flat our wrong? And, as Chris said, without proper citation, the whole legal issue is nothing more than FUD. But I am confident the search congress will be able to understand the ramifications – and if the COE is deemed to be necessary, the legal ramification – if there in fact any – will be discussed at length.

      • Kristine S

        I cannot post below you Tony I do not know why, but the devaluing of all opinions that differ from you and Chris’s is another key concern here. There is no FUD on my part. This is not one case that cited the precedence and as you just stated in your own post it exists except not in bullet form. It is precedent than has existed across industries for some time. The fact that you do not know the legal issues involved at this stage of the game should be of great concern to anyone looking at this as a positive. Those should have been known before this was ever mentioned publicly.

        I would be interested in your posting however, once you get the legal council how SEMPO is not in violation of its anti-trust agreement because to a layman it seems as though you might be, but again in that area it would requite a lawyer to review.

        And would I rather a mish-mash? Of course, lack of clarity means no one item can be used against you, it’s authority would need to be established against the suit. Whereas your COE will provide the bullet and the gun for future lawsuits.

  • Arshish Bhathena

    I don’t think that a search marketing code of ethics can be enforced. There really is no way to make sure that any company or individual who is part of the greater organization will adhere to the code of ethics, for that reason this idea although a noble one cannot pass. The only way correct search marketing can be enforced is by the search engines and their algorithms. They are the gate keepers of this information.

  • Todd

    This war has been waged in Australia for the past 2 years, with many/some companies now outsourcing and really not managing that outsource properly, 2013 in particular got very messy with many disgruntled business, and many with penalised sites. To date nothing has eventuated, nothing can be agreed, no one really wants/ has the time to manage such a body to oversee and deal with complaints.
    Good luck with this.