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June 13, 2007

Insisting on Ethical Search Engine Optimization

A great thread over at LED Digest asks: What do you do when your client insists mid project that you start performing black hat search engine optimization techniques so they can topple their competition?

What do you do? You remind them of the contract they signed. The one that made it abundantly clear the kind of work you do and the techniques that you would use to accomplish the agreed upon goals. You print them a fresh copy of the contract and draw pretty pictures around the paragraph that clearly specified that you are an SEO, not a spammer.

Managing client relationships is an important part of any search engine optimization campaign. It’s one of the reasons why we started requiring clients to attend our SEOToolSet training class. We felt, and still feel, that an educated client is a better client. An educated client is less likely to create a collection of keywords in the footer of their home page and call it “content”. An educated client is more likely to work with their SEO to make sure the site is optimized correctly.

Clients are great, we all need them and we’ve all been one, but at the end of the day you were hired because of your expertise in a certain field and for your ability to offer a unique service. Stepping away from that knowledge and becoming your client’s new pushover best friend won’t benefit anyone. Sometimes clients and kids need tough love. The only way my kitten Jack is going to learn to stay out of the fridge is if the next time he jumps in there I lock him in for 20 minutes. He may come out cold but eventually he’ll learn that Mommy is right when she says kitties shouldn’t play in the refrigerator. [ed note: She’s joking. She doesn’t really do that to her kitten. Please don’t call animal services.] Um, yeah. Jack is totally not locked in the fridge right now. Nope. Please don’t go check.

Site owners shouldn’t play in the land of spam.

Your best defense against these change-of-plans situations is a clearly-written contract, followed by solid search engine optimization training. But regardless of how many times you try and educate the client, and despite what the contract says and what you’ve both agreed upon, you’re going to come across an overeager client who thinks he or she can run their search engine optimization campaign better then you can. And it’s not even their fault, not really anyway. They’ll be doing a Google search one day, find a competitor who appears to be ranking on nothing more than black hat techniques, and their eyes will get all big as they scurry to create pretty spam-filled Web pages. Or better yet, they’ll ask you to do it for them.

But that doesn’t mean you should do it.

Jill Whalen argued that she didn’t understand the concept of a client being able to “insist” on anything, and I have to agree with her. That client hired you because of your expertise.

If that client is now pressuring you to head into avenues that as an SEO you know are not in their best interest and you can’t convince them otherwise, it’s time for you and the client to part ways. No one likes saying goodbye to friends but sometimes it’s the only solution. What else are you doing to do? Risk your reputation?

We ran into a similar situation not too long ago. A client we were working with decided in the middle of a project that that their optimization heart was black, not white, Eventually, everyone decided it was better to breakup than force a marriage that wasn’t right. We wish them well in their pursuit of increased rankings and higher ROI, but we won’t use methods and techniques that we know are not in their best interest. Like Google, we also try to do no evil.

Even if we signed a new contract with a client that stated they asked us to do all these ridiculous things to their site, we’re not willing to jeopardize our reputation for them. What happens when that site is caught spamming (which it will be) and word gets out that Bruce Clay was in charge of the search engine optimization campaign (which it will)? Then we suffer the same penalty they do. We like our clients, but we don’t like them enough to risk our future clients, existing relationships with other SEOs, and our sanity just because they had a change of heart.

Spam techniques just aren’t worth it. For you, for our clients or for us.

Author:  Lisa Barone is a Sr. Writer at Bruce Clay Inc. She only advocates the use of dirty tricks in regards to editors.