Redefining Ethical SEO: Beyond ‘White Hat’ Tactics

When marketers consider ethical SEO, they usually think about how they’re adhering to (or going against) Google guidelines. Typically, the focus is on what Google deems to be right and wrong, and how you’ll be penalised if you take part in forbidden activities. Google is seen as the ultimate authority – the only compass for which we, as marketers and business owners, can ethically judge our SEO efforts.

However, increasingly, there are many other ways in which we can assess how ethical our SEO campaigns are. For us at The SEO Works, the definition of ethical SEO is much broader than this. It encompasses the impact our SEO work has – not just on our clients’ websites, but in the world more broadly.

How are we considering sustainability, accessibility, equality and diversity and E-E-A-T in our campaigns? How are we ensuring that what we do has a positive impact for all people online?

In this blog post, you’ll learn how ethical SEO has been defined in the past. Then, we’ll explore considerations for an ethical SEO campaign. By the end, you’ll have a much broader definition of ethical SEO – one that thinks beyond algorithms and Google guidelines.

How Has Ethical SEO Been Defined in the Past?

When we Google ‘what is ethical SEO?’, this is what appears as the Featured Snippet: “Ethical SEO can be defined as search engine marketing using only techniques and strategies that search engines consider to be acceptable.”

Ethical SEO definition Google screenshot

The focus here is on what “search engines consider to be acceptable”. From this, we can infer that SEO is considered ethical depending on whether Google guidelines are followed or broken.

In the SEO industry, we often refer to this as ‘white hat’ and ‘black hat’ tactics. ‘White hat’ tactics conform to Google guidelines, whereas ‘black hat tactics’ actively go against them.

Examples of ‘black hat’ tactics include:

  • Link schemes
  • Plagiarising content 
  • Keyword stuffing
  • Cloaking

These are unethical tactics that can directly impact business results. For some, you may receive a manual action from Google, which can significantly harm your rankings, or remove you from search results altogether.

This is how ethical SEO is traditionally defined. However, increasingly, more people are broadening their idea of what ethical SEO means.

Jamie Indigo, writing in Search Engine Journal, advocates for a more human-centric definition. She debunks the myth of the unbiased algorithm, and explains the many ways in which people manipulate search results for their own gains.

She gives the example of elections, where political parties will optimise content for search that’s designed to sway voters’ decisions. Here on The SEO Works blog, we’ve previously explored how Joe Exotic – AKA ‘The Tiger King’ – used black hat SEO practices to take business from his rival, Carole Baskin.

Examples like these, Indigo argues, prove that ethics in SEO shouldn’t just be limited to whether we abide by Google guidelines. Rather, we should consider our work against many different human-centred moral frameworks and philosophies. 

Indigo doesn’t actually provide a definition of ethical SEO. Instead, she asks us to question: “When do human values override technological guidelines?”

For the rest of this blog post, we’re going to expand on this further. You’ll discover different factors to consider when thinking about ethics and SEO. As a result, you’ll be able to go beyond thinking of ‘white hat’ and ‘black hat’ tactics, and consider the wider impact of your work on different groups of people and the environment. 

Ethical SEO Considerations

Sustainability

Websites contribute to carbon emissions through data storage, transfer and processing power. According to Website Carbon, a web page produces 0.5 grams of CO2 per page view. If you have a website with 10,000 page views per month, that’s 60 kg per year!

One of the main aims of SEO is to increase page views, so how do you do this with minimal impact on the environment? 

By creating high-quality, comprehensive content, users have to visit fewer pages to find answers to all their questions. Similarly, increasing site speed means users are less likely to reload the page. You could also consider green hosting to reduce your carbon emissions. 
To learn more, read our comprehensive guide to reducing your SEO carbon footprint.

Accessibility

22% of the UK population have a disability. How are you ensuring all these people can access and use your website?

The business benefits of making your website accessible are well documented, but accessibility is important regardless of financial gain. It means that everyone, regardless of disability, can freely enjoy the web. 

When optimising your website, consider whether it’s compatible with screen readers. For example, do you have clear headings and alt text for images? Likewise, do you have subtitles on videos for those with auditory impairments?
For more information, take a look at our guide to accessibility and SEO. It walks through how to audit your website for accessibility, so everyone can enjoy your content.

Equality and Diversity

When writing SEO content, businesses should consider how they’re being inclusive of a diverse range of people. 

For example, do you default to writing about heterosexual couples when writing about Valentine’s Day? Are all the people in your website imagery white? How are you catering for gender-diverse people, for example including more options than ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ on sign up forms?

It’s important that different types of people are reflected in your content, helping to create a more inclusive search experience for minority groups. 

E-E-A-T

It’s easy to forget that people make real-world decisions based on the content we write. They could spend thousands of pounds on a new car, or even try a remedy for a medical ailment based on our recommendation. 

This is especially important for YMYL (‘Your Money or Your Life’) websites. By this, we mean websites which could impact someone’s financial, physical or mental health. For example, medical articles or resources about internet safety. 

However, this should be a consideration for every website. Google is increasingly prioritising E-E-A-T, which stands for experience, expertise, authority and trustworthiness. In short, websites need to demonstrate how they’re providing information that’s fact-checked and truthful. 
Some quick ways to do this are by including author bios on your blog posts and citing your sources. You can learn more about this in our E-E-A-T resource.



What is Ethical SEO? A New Definition

Ethical SEO can be defined as search engine optimisation practices that adhere to Google guidelines and also take into consideration the wider impact of SEO activities – on the environment and all users who use Google search, irrespective of race, gender, disability, sexuality and other protected characteristics. 

Final Thoughts

SEO isn’t just about results. It’s important to consider the wider impact of our work, even if it isn’t always tied to business goals. 

Having said that, some of the considerations above can positively impact your SEO efforts. Although accessibility and E-E-A-T aren’t direct ranking factors, websites that perform well in these areas often experience greater visibility. 

Google are continuously updating their algorithms to improve search results, whether that works in practice or not. But we can do our bit as SEOs and business owners to make Google a better place to search, for everyone. 

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