Consensual SEO. Debunking the Ethical SEO Myth

The Consensual Framework
I choose a consent-based framework for determining ethical behavior in the SEO world because (1) it does not intimate what the participant wants (some users want product sites, some users want informational sites, some webmasters want unrelated reciprocal links, some webmasters do not, etc.), and (2) it limits the responsibilities of participants to what they can ultimately control.

Consensuality is the basis of social contracts, democracy, and any functioning, fluxuating community of competitors. Consensuality requires accurate, unbiased information. There are some caveats to this, though. We must limit consensuality and consenting authority (a veto) to the direct property of the participant. A searcher has direct authority over their search experience. A website owner has consent authority over what occurs directly on his/her website. It is unrealistic to ask webmasters to take ownership of the search engines results. If a website owner improves on-site optimization for his â€Å”Timber Logging Industry” site, it is not his/her responsibility if he now ranks number 1 for â€Å”Key Logging Software” terms. This is an uncontrolled externality.

These are the three tenets of a Consensual SEO model

(1) Consenting and consent-granting participants are acknowledged and respected
(2) Consent required to act upon a participant’s property
(3) As long as the above two are met, externalities are ignored

Stakeholders vs. Participants.

One of the most important changes this model makes to those previously presented is that it does not necessarily respect all stakeholders. On the contrary, the consensual model is relational and requires that each member wishing to have consent, must grant consent. The general setup for stakeholders includes three members…

(1) Search Engines
(2) Website Owners & SEOs
(3) Searchers

The participants, however, are different.

(1) Website Owners & SEOs
(2) Searchers

I will not be surprised if this causes some bit of controversy, but Search Engines violate the very first rule (granting consent) and thus cannot be included in this model. Search engines have long chosen to believe that, by default, all sites are to be included in its results. This opt-out method is simply not consistent with the consensual model. If Google will not take the time to read the TOS of various sites or, at least, use an opt-in method for its cache and index, it is automatically excluded from this model.

Simply put: You are not responsible for what Google takes from you. Period. You may want to respect it if you wish to protect your site rankings, but you are not ethically, morally, legally or otherwise obligated to it within a consensual model of ethics.

This is a breath of fresh air for most search engine optimizers who find it hard to beleive that they are called unethical for placing a reciprocal link or using CSS to place text at the bottom of the page which occurs at the top of the code. Do not get too hasty with your comment spam tools, though.

Participant Property.

Website Owner:
Consensual authority over all site property including, but not limited to, email addresses associated with the domain, guestbooks, blogs, forums, etc.

Consensual authority over their search decision (to exit the search page or continue looking through results).

I will start with the latter as, admittedly, it is a fairly nebulous concept.

Consent requires the ability to make rational, informed decision. While some of us may joke about whether or not searchers are rational beings, we must assume so. Thus, for searchers to have consensual authority over their search experience, they must be presented with accurate information about a site in the search engine. Unfortunately, the only information a searcher is given about a site is the title, snippet, and ranking. Thus, this rules out several types of SEO as being unethical…

(1) Cloaking
Sorry folks, but you need to show the search engine the same page you show the user (or at least the same content). The snippet needs to be, as best to your ability, an accurate representation of the content on the page.

(2) Doorway Pages
Once again, this method shows the user a different snippet and title than the page they actually end up at. This is deliberately deceiving the searcher

(3) Intentionally Non-Relevant Results

(4) Deceptive domains
(domain naming that appears to match, such as purchasing the .org,.net,.tld of another branded site.

One question that this does raise, though, is using a link-building campaign to inflate search engine position. If my site ranks higher than another because I solicited links, am I being unethical towards the searcher? I believe in this case, once again, the answer is no. It is absurd to believe that a search engine without intentional link building would be substantially more reliable. On the contrary, if we relied on means other than link building to advertise our sites (such as banner ads, television, radio, etc.), all we would do is auction off the search results at a higher price. While this is, admittedly, a better-or-two-evils (and a very unsatisfying argument of ethics), it is the best I can do. On a Ends-Justified basis, link building is consensual. On a means-justified basis, it is not.

Website Owner:

As a website owner, you have consent authority over all that is your website. This means, however, that you must respect that consent authority among other websites. This rules out several types of SEO techniques.

(1) Comment Spam
(2) Guestbook Spam
(3) Referrer Spam
(4) Wiki Spam
(5) Forum Spam
(6) Link Exchange Request Email Spam
(7) Full Content Scraping

All of these methods forgo the consent of the website owner and thus, do not stand the test of consensual SEO.

There are some very surprising practices that do pass these guidelines. Content generation through methods other than content scraping is generally acceptable, provided you do not cloak the results (remember, in this case the Search Engines are acting as other websites and you must respect their TOS in this case). Keyword generation for massive site generation techniques are also generally acceptable. Neither of these methods actually violate the consent of individual searchers. The title, snippet, and cache in Google or any search engine are identical to what they will find on the page. On they can even see the preview of the page before visiting.

I would love to hear any discussion on this. I believe wholeheartedly that the consensual method of SEO is much better suited for understanding the right and wrong of Search Engine Optimization.

Let us keep in mind that this is Search Engine Optimization. This is not â€Å”doing things for your site visitors that might have benefits in the search engines.”

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1 Comment

  1. Helen
    Jan 27, 2010

    Great post about Google. Keep up the good work.


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