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A Serious Talk About The Unified Search Marketing Code of Ethics

Serious Talks on 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 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 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

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

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 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 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.
Category News SEO

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A Serious Talk About The Unified Search Marketing Code of Ethics

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