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A Formal Proposition of Search Ethics

Many of you may not have known this, but the first time I ever became publicly introduced to Moz and the SEO world in large number had nothing to do with introducing a new tactic or proving my merits as an SEO, but rather my particular position on the growing debate about ethics and Search Engine Optimization. Rand Fishkin picked up on my piece entitled “Consensual SEO: Debunking the myth of Ethical SEO” in a post called Russ Jones of Virante on Search Engines & Consent. While it is still a good read, we humans tend to do this silly thing called “grow” and in time I have come to what I believe to be a more thoughtful and complete understanding of the Guidelines, ethical search marketing, and the reasons for the continued tensions between blackhat, whitehat, and Google.

Disclaimer

Let me make something clear. I am a hypocrite. I am not proud of it, but I am also not ashamed to admit it. As an adult, there are times where I make decisions against my better judgement out of pure self interest. This does not mean that I believe they are right, merely that in weakness I chose to suppress what I rationally believe to be ethical. In the following blog post, I intend to present what I rationally believe to be ethical – or at least ethically justifiable – which will not necessarily coincide with all the things I have done as an SEO or as a person in my life. I also feel that I should warn you – this isn’t going to be an easy read. I want it to be precise because, for my own personal interests, I feel compelled to get down in print exactly what I think as accurately and precisely as possible.

Categorical and Consequential Ethics

Let me start with a famous set of questions to help describe the difference between these two common forms of ethical thought.

  1. You are a doctor in an ER. 5 patients come rushing in after a terrible car accident. 1 is in critical condition and will most certainly die if you do not work on that patient all day. However, in doing so, the other 4 will all die because they each need 1/4 a day’s attention. You can either devote your time to the 4 allowing the 1 to die, or vice versa.
  2. You are a doctor in an ER. 4 patients come rushing in after a terrible car accident. 1 needs a kidney transplant, 1 needs a lung transplant, 1 needs a liver transplant, and another needs a heart transplant. There is no time to wait for either to become available. But, on the other side of the room is a patient who came in with a broken toe who happens to match perfectly to the 4 victims. Do you kill him and take his organs to save 4? Or do you let the 4 die?

The overwhelming majority of people will choose to save the 4 in scenario 1 and choose to let the 4 die in scenario 2.

The first is an example of how we use “Consequential” ethics to decide how to behave. Saving 3 is worth killing 1. You may have heard this before stated as “the ends justify the means”. Sometimes, as humans, we feel that “Consequential” ethics is appropriate.

The second is an example of how we use “Categorical” ethics to decide how to behave. It is wrong to murder. You feel that taking one innocent man’s life is murder, even if it saves 4 others, and murder is categorically wrong.

This dichotomy is at the center of ethical considerations regarding Search Engine Optimization, Google, White Hats and Black Hats. When we feel like we are talking past one another, or Google is being unfair, it is often because one is choosing a categorical approach and the other a consequential approach. Let’s break this down further.

What is the Moral Goal of Search Engines

If we are to have an honest discussion, we must decide what the moral goal of a search engine is. First, let’s divorce ourselves from Google, Yahoo, Bing or any other search engine and imagine a perfect, non-profit, unbiased search engine. What would we want out of that search engine? I believe a fair statement of that moral goal would be for the search engine to…

Order results based on which result most accurately meets the searcher’s intent.

I am not going to take the time to defend that position here, but we can in the search results. Whether or not you believe that is Google’s goal will be addressed later.

How Would a Consequentialist Behave to Serve this Goal?

Search Engine Optimizers often fall into this camp more often than Google. The consequentialist position would be as such:

Any action is ethical insofar as it encourages results which are best ordered to accurately answer the searcher’s intent and it does not violate some greater moral position.

Let’s unpack that a bit. For argument’s sake, let’s assume you have the objectively best response for a particular query (ie: your are JC Penney and someone searches for JC Penney in Google) but you do not currently rank #1 for that term.

First, most of us believe that there are greater morals out there than just whether the search results are correct. Only a psychopath would believe that murdering their competitor who is ranking above them with a poorer site is ethically justified. We hold the right to life well above the goal of correct search results. Many SEOs, myself included, might also conclude in a consequential manner that comment or forum spam is ethically unjustified because the cumulative negative ethical consequences of vandalizing others websites is a more negative outcome than the positive outcome of correcting the search results for a particular keyword – even in the aforementioned example of JC Penney.

Being a consequentialist does not mean that all means are justified by any particular ends – you must take into account all ends which includes collateral damages.

How Would a Categoricalist Behave to Serve this Goal?

Google’s interpretation of the guidelines more often falls into this camp, but also some extreme whitehats fall in this camp as well.

Here I will lean on one of my favorite philosophers, Immanuel Kant. Kant was the creator of an amazing concept called the “Categorical Imperative”. The “Categorical Imperative” is as such.

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law

It is similar in nature to the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” with which most of us are familiar, but it is stated in a way that solves some of the problems with the “golden rule”.

At first glance, this becomes very difficult to tease out how the SEO should behave…

  • Should I build a link? No, not unless I want my competitors to build a link.
  • Should I cloak? No, not unless you think your competitors should cloak.
  • Should I scrape content? No, not unless you think your competitors should scrape content.
  • Should I optimize content? No, not unless you think your competitors should optimize content.

If you notice the last one, the absurdity of this line of thought is drawn out. This is not to say that categorical ethics simply do not apply to SEO, but thinking about it on a tactic by tactic basis is absurd. Notice the language of Kant’s Imperative vs. the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule sounds absurd because we would never want our competitors to do what we do, we want them specifically not to. Kant’s Imperative, though, looks for maxims, not actions. In this, we can derive a maxim that is appropriate to direct our behavior as SEOs. It took me a while to come to this, but I think it holds quite well.

One should optimize his/her site only to the degree with which it accurately reflects the objective position it ought to hold.

We can go on and on about how we could determine what that “objective position it ought to hold is”, it is not my intent here to answer that question. Rather, it is to give us a framework within which SEO activities can occur that are neither unethical nor immoral, are categorically sound, we can not be concerned about our competitors if they follow them assuming we believe our site to be objectively better, etc.

It also gives us the unique opportunity to make our site objectively better so as to thereby grant us further permission to optimize. As a site becomes objectively better for users, it is allowed more leeway for optimization.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? How many times have you railed against Google for allowing “brands” to get away with certain tactics. As long as their optimization doesn’t reflect in disproportionate results – violating the original search moral – the categorical maxim holds. This, for example, explains why a site can have grossly disproportionate amounts of brand anchor text because they are grossly disproportionately the correct answer for the query represented in that anchor text.

Now, be careful. This does not say that all techniques are fair game because this is NOT the ONLY maxim, merely it is the only maxim specific to that single original search moral. Another maxim might preclude us from deceiving users (ie: don’t cloak) or vandalizing a site (ie: comment spam). There are other maxims, but specific to the Google Quality Guidelines, the categorical imperative gives us this maxim about how we ought to address the question of optimization.

Collision

And this is where we see the collisions. We do not live in an ideal world. Google’s search results do not almost ever Order results based on which most result most accurately meets the searcher’s intent. Then, as webmasters, we decide to try and fix that. Sometimes out of bias towards ourselves, but sometimes rightfully when our content is objectively better. This is very common for new sites and new products which are objectively better than the old model but have no links or exposure as of yet.

Moreover, the Guidelines often specifically preclude tactics that might be necessary in at least the short run that would be demanded by both a categorical and consequential look at ethics. For example, I believe it is not only rationally justifiable, but arguably dutiful, for sites to use whatever means necessary to correct this search result Cure Cancer with Vitamin B17. Lives are at stake because the objectively best result ranks number 12 and the top 10 is comprised of snake oil.

So, what do we do – categorical or consequential. What I find is best, though, is to find the techniques and tactics that meet both ethical guidelines. Let’s refer back to the original metaphor I gave about the 4 patients requiring transplants. What if instead of killing the 1 healthy man to save the 4, you let 1 of the patients die and harvest his/her organs to save the remaining 3? In that we find a solution that meets both the categoricalist and consequentialist’s ethical guidelines.

In this position is where the whitehat can find refuge.

Reality

Unfortunately, reality is far more complicated than this exercise. Google might not simply be interested in that original moral search position. Google has shareholders to keep happy. In reality, we can’t objectively know that our site is a better answer to a user’s query in many cases. In reality, we can’t impact just 1 query at a time without potentially causing another query to become unhinged in regard to that original moral search position (for example, getting 1 backlink to a page so that you rightfully rank for your brand might cause you to wrongfully rank for a secondary term).

Conclusion

As SEOs, I think the first clear and concise position that we can all safely take is that we can be certain that demanding our clients’ sites become objectively better than their competitions’ is ethically sound. Beginning with that, we can then start to make decisions about, given our new objectively better position, what tactics are available to us that meet both a categorical and consequential ethical model, simultaneously. Any deviation from either of these grants Google the excuse to act.

These are the steps necessary to act and behave ethically in search. They might not be profitable, but they are ethical.

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