SEO and Ethics

The SEO offer

Recently, somebody from a smaller tech website emailed me about including a link on one of my pages to an article they had written. I read the article, and happened to agree that it would be useful in the context I would place it. However, I was a bit put off by the obvious marketing nature of the email. You can read for yourself:

Hey Steven,

I know you’d be extremely busy so I’ll cut right to it.

You linked to one of my favorite resources, {resource}.

I created a super detailed guide on a similar topic {…} You can check it out here - {link}.

I think it would be a useful mention on your post given {relevant information}. It’s a tricky topic and I wanted to clear up the confusion in people’s mind.

I know it takes some effort to go and make a change like this but I can maybe make it worth your time by:

  • Sharing your article on social media (we have over 26k followers) or
  • Mentioning your site in my article

I look forward to hearing from you.

Cheers,

K

Featured in - NPR, Lifehack and more

My first response

I am relatively inexperienced when it comes to SEO and marketing. The former is something that I’ve been meaning to look into for a while now, while the latter is something that I have a strong distaste for. Marketing, and especially internet marketing, is full of questionable ethics and a lot of manipulation that I simply disagree with on a philosophical level.

For this reason, I wrote a response more or less explaining why I didn’t like the implicit undertones regarding “buying” site links. Here is what I said:

Hello K,

Fair enough. Your article is on point.

I’m afraid I don’t do this sort of veiled SEO boosting though. If you had put things any other way than what amounts to “include this link and we’ll share your article,” I would do it. But now I won’t, because that goes against how I want the internet to work. If you think my article is useful, you should link to it. If I think your article is useful, I’ll link to it. (And I may very well do it sometime – I had not come across your site before). But I don’t do this whole under-the-table dealing, regardless of how big someone’s network is.

Don’t take it personally. If a multibillion dollar corporation asked me to share their content and then they’d send millions of followers to my site, I still wouldn’t do it.


I would share your article without hesitation if you had emailed me something like this:

/—————————————

Hey Steven,

I wrote an article that touches on something similar to what you talked about on your page the relevant page. If you think it would be useful to your readers, maybe you could include a link a link to it, since it would help the traffic on our site.

Cheers,

K

—————————————/

Lacking in this is the idea of reciprocity. I’m sure you will get less people willing to share your article if you don’t mention something about sharing their site in return. However, at least this way people won’t share your article even if it is rubbish. (For the record, your article is not rubbish).

You are free to disagree with my point of view, but this is why I won’t be taking you up on your offer. (So in case you were wondering why, this is why).

Best regards,

Steven

Now, things could have been dropped here. I realize in hindsight that this is perhaps a bit harsh, but I don’t disagree even now with the underlying sentiment. There is a lot of sketchy stuff that goes on for boosting website visibility, and I don’t think this is a good thing. I am always open to suggestions to make my content better, but I don’t like situations in which I feel like my vote of confidence is being bought. Even in situations such as this where the website content I’d be linking to is just fine, I feel dirty sharing the link if it means I get something in return. If I like something I’ll share it, and if I don’t I won’t. Offering to signal boost in return right up front just struck me as being a bit brazen about buying SEO.

The other guy’s explanation of his position

Fortunately, the person who emailed me was quick in responding and so we got to have an interesting conversation. I have emailed quite a few companies and website owners, and have been universally disappointed with the level of dedication most people demonstrate. To be fair, I’m a fairly opinionated person and ask lots of difficult questions. If I were a worker at a company and got an email from someone like myself, I’m sure I would wince and not particularly want to deal with it. But at the same time, how you treat customers, potential customers, or even just site readers shows the level of dedication people have in reality, as opposed to marketing platitudes; words are wind. All this to say, I was impressed that they got back to me fast and were willing to have a conversation like this.

Here is what my correspondent said the second go round:

Fair response from you. From your response, I can understand your personality.

However, let me explain why I did this. It is hard to stand out of the crowd these days. We create great content and it is heartbreaking to find crappy content sites getting a lot of traffic while we don’t.

For the past 5 years, we’ve grown organically with no link building or SEO. It is through word of mouth we grew, we got linked to (in sites like NPR, Daily dot etc.). But like I said, creating great content just doesn’t cut it.

At the end of the day, this is what pays our bills and we need to pay decent money for our staffs. So, we had to get in the game of SEO. But we still (imho) do it fairly. We reach out to sites that we think are relevant to us. We tell them to see their content and link to us if they think our content is worthy (like you just did). We don’t manipulate or pay people to link to us, because I still think (just like you), a link is a vote of appreciation. I.e., you link to us if you think we are relevant and useful. Given we are not paying I think this is fair.

In terms of offering a mention of social share, it is just a means of showing a reciprocation. I know you have other things to do. The fact that you are reading our email, responding to and adding a mention on your article, deserves something (imho again). Since we are reaching out to targeted, useful site like yours, there’s no harm in mentioning or sharing it on our profile which would, at the end of the day, be a vote that we provide for your quality content.

I hope I’ve explained our position. I know you are a fair person and it deserves a fair response. Now, I am definitely not going to press you to add a link - no. If you feel that our content is valuable, feel free to do that or please ignore this. No hard feelings :)

My explanation of my position

After getting this reply I felt kinda bad, since my initial response had been a tad accusatory. I decided to explain myself a bit more:

Hi K,

Thanks for explaining more. I apologize if I came off as a little prickly – I have dealt with enough internet marketing baloney that it really grates on me. I try to make it a matter of principle to not be a part of the problem. It is hard to discern between people trying to grow fairly and organically, and the other sort.

Let me give you an example:

Recently, I was reading a bunch of articles from a site that made content about working out without complicated gym equipment or memberships. I am pretty passionate about this stuff, and thought the author was doing a great job picking apart all the problems in the fitness industry. He even produced a bunch of free videos for structured workouts – the sort of workout planning you’d see from a qualified personal trainer who knew what he/she was doing.

I was gung-ho about all this until I clicked on one of the training programs his site was selling. I was in the process of pulling out my credit card when I saw the marketing on the program, and then my heart sank. Prominently displayed at the top of the page was something like “80% off – limited time only!!!” with a timer ticking down. This is total and utter bunk. There was no limited time sale: clearing the site cookies started the timer at exactly the same time as when I first visited the page. It was a lie.

Imagine all the components of internet marketing that you’ve heard about (or perhaps learned about in a webinar or whatever): calls to action, mailing lists, private “special” forums/communities you get to join after paying money, “secret techniques to {whatever}”, etc. This page had it all, complete with the “risk free for 60 days – money back guarantee” vector graphic that you’ve no doubt seen before.

I don’t want to throw this guy in particular under the bus. The internet is full of such sites – people trying to generate passive income by finding a niche and marketing some book or instruction series or whatever. Usually they say lots of stuff about helping out others and then lock it all behind exclusive mailing lists (that, in addition to content, contain numerous product plugs for themselves or associates) or things you have to buy. If they actually cared about making knowledge accessible to all (even people who wouldn’t be able to afford it due to tough life circumstances), they wouldn’t charge for things or require buy-in for it. You can find particularly egregious examples of this in people who support themselves solely off of their internet marketing while travelling the world and portraying themselves as enlightened gurus.

I wouldn’t even care if people were up front about wanting to make money to supplement their own income or entirely replace their job: it’s the whole “this site exists to help people achieve their goals/dreams/whatever” rhetoric combined with blatant monetization that really grinds my gears. I would have bought this guy’s program if he didn’t market it like this. But since he did, I put my credit card away and stopped giving his content thumbs up on Youtube, etc. I’m not going to stand for things like this – not because I couldn’t afford the program or thought it wouldn’t be legitimately helpful, but because sometime in the future someone who really couldn’t afford the program is going to buy it because they think that it’s the bestest deal ever… because of the deceptive/unethical marketing.


All this is a long way of giving you more perspective on my position too. A dialogue, if you will :)

I feel more comfortable linking to you guys now that you’ve explained more. My site isn’t monetized and I’ve taken pains to ensure that my operating costs are effectively zero: I run a static site hosted via Netlify. But if the site you are running is your full time job, then of course things are a bit different since you have to make a living. In other words, SEO becomes necessary.

Now, if you’re comfortable with it, I’ll even write a blog post about what we’ve talked about, containing bits/all of our email exchange. I like talking to people from websites/companies, but you would be surprised at how uncommunicative most are. Posting it for the world, unfiltered, could give you good PR, and I’d have no ethical qualms about it since I wouldn’t be doctoring anything.

If that sounds like a good idea, I’ll do that.

Best,

Steven

Final exchange, and closing thoughts

Here is what he sent back:

Thanks, Steven. You have nailed down a very critical point about living with integrity and avoiding unethical marketing. The problem is unethical marketing does work, so people tend to just go for it.

I definitely learned some important things from this email conversation so thanks!

In terms of publishing this conversation, please go ahead. But please don’t post this entire email thread in full. You could contextualize this conversation though. Just don’t want our site url being pasted with such aggressive marketing content (There, I said it!)

So here I am, posting our interesting conversation. I’m still not entirely sure if I’ll end up linking to the content that they initially emailed me about. My initial reservations stand: if they will only share my stuff after I add a link to their stuff, then that strikes me as a bit too transactionary for my tastes. But at the same time, I’m now more sympathetic to the issues faced by monetized sites trying to do the right thing. If they have to compete with people doing sketchy stuff all the time, well how exactly are they supposed to go about SEO?

In other words, while I don’t exactly like the conditionality of the content sharing, I can see how it works out in a symbiotic sort of way if both parties do in fact find each other’s content useful and valuable. The reciprocal sharing offered by them can just be a benefit offered to sites that take them up on their offer; as long as they don’t make the offer to sites that are actually bad, and owners of sites they send the offer to can always refuse (if they don’t think their content is useful), then no net harm actually comes of the situation.

I think where I’m getting hung up is that I am not monetized at all, and view this site as a place for me to share my thoughts and experiences freely and openly without any trace of business dealings. It costs me nothing to recommend sites I find useful, so the idea of only doing it if I get something in return is somewhat foreign: my default position would be to always share things I find useful without getting anything in return. This would make me a terrible businessman (you always want to gain something from every action you take in business), but that’s not the point of this site.

If I were another monetized site, however, and had my livelihood dependent upon my site’s visibility, then I can see how I wouldn’t want to just give away free publicity to other sites without getting anything in return. Doing this too often or too carelessly could lead to you recommending people that directly compete with you. Moreover, if the goal of the site is not only sharing knowledge, but also making a living while doing so, then one has to be pragmatic so as to stay afloat.

At any rate, the situation seems to be less cut-and-dry than I had first thought, so I’m glad to have had this conversation and have gotten a different perspective. Cheers, anonymous website correspondent!

 


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