The Ethical Aspects of Black Hat SEO

Yesterday, as guest lecturer, I spoke to a class full of college seniors on the road to careers as business owners and corporate executives. It was my usual “Introduction to Search Engine Optimization” spiel, starting with a crude explanation of what a search engine does and ending with a brief discussion of that weird conundrum about the color of your hat. While I was speaking, I chanced upon two thoughts that—though not directly related—seemed interesting enough to be worth further exploration.

One: an Ethical Conundrum

The question of Black Hat SEO vs White Hat SEO is not a question of ethics. Not really.  Google and the other search engines are businesses. They make money by indexing a lot of other people’s information. Using a proprietary device that they actually do own (the search algorithm), they make all this information available to others who may or may not find it useful. They never ask anyone whether or not they would like to be in that index. They then attempt to enforce a set of “rules” that are designed to make their algorithm work better. They claim that everyone in the index—whether they are there voluntarily or not—are subject to these rules and must abide by them.

That’s all well and good, because if you are in the index—and the index likes you—it can be quite profitable.  But here’s the thing. By not following the “rules,” you can get the index to like you faster and more than if you do follow them.

Because it is not a crime to attempt to exploit an algorithm’s weaknesses, can it even be considered wrong to do so? Isn’t it cheating? And isn’t cheating ethically wrong?

Well, it might be ethically wrong to cheat—if you’re playing a game that you joined deliberately, with full knowledge and acceptance of the rules.

You’re walking down the sidewalk on an errand of your own purpose. You notice that there are pigeons wandering all around you. Then you notice that some few of the pigeons are carrying hundred dollar bills in their beaks. It occurs to you that you could chase them and maybe catch a buck or two. Then it occurs to you that you could buy a bag of popcorn and attract a lot of pigeons, who in order to eat it, would have to drop whatever they were carrying at your feet. Cool! So you buy popcorn and it works great and you soon have a small but growing pile of hundred dollar bills.

Until some guy comes out of nowhere and tells you: “This is my game and you’re cheating. The rules are you have to make the pigeons want to give you their dollar bills, but you can’t feed them. Or touch them. Or scare them. Or promise them anything.”

Then he gives you a list of fairly vague things you can do, and goes back in the building. So, is it unethical to keep feeding the pigeons? Is it unethical to keep the money you’ve already gained?

My thinking is that it’s obviously not unethical to game a search engine’s system and gain whatever you can from it. It is not even wrong to practice black hat SEO. But here’s the catch: Since the search engine has control over who is in its index and how well they perform there, they do have some significant power. The guy with the pigeons can stand next you and wave his arms and make them all fly away to another street where his game will continue without you.

So for me, the answer is Black Hat SEO is not wrong, but it is risky. I don’t do it because I don’t like the potential consequences. But if I ever think up a way to game Google’s algo without getting caught…..

Tomorrow, thought number Two: a Metaphor.

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