The Importance of Ethics in SEO and SEM

Digital Marketing Insights.  

SEO and SEM Ethics

While not apparent at first, ethics do exist in digital marketing. When opting to work with any firm, you should do your due diligence and investigate their knowledge and approach to remaining within these guidelines. Definitions of ethical practices are defined by search engines (such as Google and Mozilla), and social media platforms (including Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and Nextdoor). The majority of the content is identical in theme. Additionally, some global standards apply to digital marketing in general, which can be found via regional law searches. No matter where the information comes from, clear rules are outlined regarding ethics and digital marketing, specifically regarding SEO and SEM.

Through these specific rules and regulations, we can define what is considered acceptable or ‘white hat’ practices versus what is improper or ‘black hat.’ The term ‘black hat’ is derived from the ‘bad guys’ of Western films and should be avoided at all costs. If you do opt to ignore the regulations, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.

One such example comes from the startup Rap Genius, where unethical SEO practices led to their website being completely removed from Google.

The backstory is as follows:

How Rap Genius got blacklisted from Google – for a time.

Website Rap Genius engaged in a backlinking program where they reshared blogs from anyone who linked to content that could be found on their sites. The backlinks contained embedded links to songs, albums, or artists (Why The Rap Genius Story Is Really About Google, 2014). While this may seem like a white hat technique because the shared content was relevant to Rap Genius’ site, the original blogs being reshared were irrelevant to linked material. This unethical practice was discovered by Google’s crawlers (the internet robots that monitor and categorize content) when verifying the authority of the original linked content.

According to the post on Rap Genius’ website, two things in particular led to being blacklisted by Google. The first was their offer to promote any blog whose owner linked to an album on Rap Genius, regardless of its content, and the second was allowing guest posts that were unrelated to the music featured on the post (Genius Founders (Ft. Genius Engineering Team) – Rap Genius Is Back on Google, n.d.). The digital hammer – so to speak – was dropped when a tweet went out promoting their Rap Genius Blog Affiliate program. They even went so far as to say this tactic was

“a lazy and likely ineffective “strategy,” so over-the-top in its obviousness that it was practically begging for a response from Google .”

(Genius Founders (Ft. Genius Engineering Team) – Rap Genius Is Back on Google, n.d.)

Google flagged their content with the ethical violation of ‘unnatural links to your site’ and further explained that ‘a pattern of unnatural, artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links are pointing to your site’ (Genius Founders (Ft. Genius Engineering Team) – Rap Genius Is Back on Google, n.d.). Defined, the backlinks from the ‘affiliates’ violated the SEO ethics set forth by Google. Thankfully, Rap Genius realized the error of their ways and set forth to correct some 177,781 URLs by manually examining them to apply categorization and remove any unethical links (Genius Founders (Ft. Genius Engineering Team) – Rap Genius Is Back on Google, n.d.).

Though this example is extreme, it is not uncommon for businesses to fall victim to SEO and SEM violations. The best way to avoid any timely and expensive mistakes is to become familiar with regulations and what SEO or SEM strategies your agency plans to implement.  The following is a list of White Hat and Black Hat strategies you should know. While not a complete list, having an informed conversation with your digital marketing agency about how you wish your business to be perceived online is enough

The following list contains two items demonstrating ethical and unethical digital marketing. Though not a complete list, it provides insight into what you should be informed of and how to conduct independent research to become a more informed citizen.

Two common White Hat techniques to implement.

Your website’s content and keywords should be directly tied to your services or goods and not used to lure viewers (Ltd, 2013b). By implementing relevant keywords, you set yourself up to be a recognized authority on your selected keywords. This is also a great way to ensure the crawlers are working in your favor.

Give credit where credit is due by citing and not plagiarizing sources (Ltd, 2013b). While you may need to include content from users outside your company, be sure to provide proper credit and, if needed, request permission before using content. This article contains information from outside sources. These sources are linked below and cited within the article. By properly providing citations, you show respect for the original creator and demonstrate your ethics by adhering to the rules of the internet.

Two Black Hat techniques that are easily overlooked.

Do not hide text by using a font color identical to your background (so that the words do not appear for humans but are categorized by crawlers). This is unethical, as it is false advertising.

Keyword stuffing can happen unintentionally when creating content relevant to your site (Ltd, 2013b). However, you need to be mindful of how your content reads and ensure that you aren’t simply repeating keywords to trick the crawlers. If your content seems complicated for humans to read and the exact words are repeated repeatedly, you are keyword stuffing. This is unethical because it makes your content difficult to digest, which tricks users into visiting your site for information about the keywords you’ve used – only to be disappointed by the lack of actual content.

Ethics in business is a must for anyone wishing to succeed.

Now that you’ve got some information, you are ready to set out and determine what type of online presence you wish to have. With ethical practices, you can lead many successful SEO and SEM campaigns, while unethical practices might get you blacklisted. The choice is yours. However, remaining on the good side of the internet is far easier than trying to crawl out of the digital jailhouse for unethical violations.

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Genius Founders (Ft. Genius Engineering Team) – Rap Genius is Back on Google. (n.d.). Genius. Retrieved April 8, 2023, from

Ltd, O. O. (2013b, January 14). Ethical SEO vs. Unethical SEO. Optimus01 Online.

Why the Rap Genius Story Is Really About Google. (2014, January 3). NBC News.

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  • Post category:MKT 315 / SNHU
  • Post last modified:April 8, 2023
  • Reading time:10 mins read