In the fast-paced and continually evolving world that is SEO, practitioners often don’t pause for a moment of reflection on the implications of their actions and don’t often see, or perhaps they do, the ethical dilemmas of their business practices.
The problem that I’d specifically like to shed some light on is a how SEO companies handle what would largely be identified and termed as a ‘conflict of interest’. A conflict of interest can be defined as when an individual or a group/organisation has multiple interests where there could be possible impartiality, exploitation, and unfair business practices.
This is also commonly termed as a ‘competition of interest’, which adds even more relevance to this ethics discussion as we are basically discussing a situation when a service provider has competing interests and/or loyalties to their clients that are engaged in the same competition.
Website owners seek the services of an SEO company for the simple goal of improving their page rank. Everyone wants to be on Page one of Google’s SERP (Search Engine Results Page) and the more competitive your industry is, the more difficult that spot is to attain and sustain. Site owners retain an SEO company because it’s understood that they are in fact operating in a competitive field and turn to these 3rd party representatives/partners/specialists/miracle-workers/ in order to give their website a competitive edge. The aim is to get the top search engine results above others that are competing for the same search phrases.
Let’s take a look at one of South Africa’s most SEO competitive industries: tourism. According to the South African Department of Tourism almost 10 million international visitors visit South Africa each year making tourism one of the nations largest economic sectors. Therefore this also one of the most competitive industries in terms of SEO, with keywords boasting upwards of 300 000 monthly global searches and many of the phrases being indicated as more competitive than average, so it is no wonder that tourism clients are running to SEO companies as fast as they can.
Here is the problem:
Running with our tourism client example, how can an SEO company responsibly say to two or more tourism clients that they will work to get them ranking the best for the same search phrases?
As a thought experiment, if we take this problem out of the SEO arena and put it in say, professional rugby, we can see the same problem in a different light. Let’s assume that there is a rugby coach that is regarded as one of the best at improving the try scoring of any team he works with. And to make it interesting, let’s say that the Western Cape’s Stormers hire this coach to do just that and then two weeks later Pretoria’s Blue Bulls get the same idea and unbeknownst to them hire the same exact coach.
Not only do these teams play the same sport, they also play against each other often. Was it ethical for this coach to accept the same position for both teams?
Let’s break it down:
This is, first and foremost, a business ethics issue. It’s a conflict of interest for SEO companies to do this, and especially not to disclose it to their clients that may be affected. Secondly, it’s slightly illogical for SEO companies to, in essence, be competing against themselves when their time can be spent advancing their’s client’s rankings.
Lastly, it’s just plain irrational for SEO companies to believe that this unsound methodology will achieve their true priority: client satisfaction. Therefore, situations like this present a major conflict of interest in our field.
Ways to avoid this:
The most obvious way to avoid ever having to cross this bridge is for the client to be given an exclusivity option. Clients should use this as a bargaining chip in the negotiation process, and SEO providers should consider factoring this into their pricing.
Another way to get around the issue is if there is a regional difference for an SEO company’s clients. If for example an SEO company has two real estate companies as clients, it’s completely acceptable if they are looking to rank in different regions. There’s no competition between clients when they are targeting phrases as different as “South African property for sale” and “Newport Beach property for sale”. Also, they are targeting different search engine regions; Google.co.za and Google.com.
Ultimately honesty is still the best policy and SEO providers should be upfront with their clients when a conflict of interest appears. It’s better for the service provider to call attention to a situation proactively than wait for an enraged client to storm through their doors asking why their competition is ranking better than they are.
More on the issues of transparency, if an SEO company refuses to disclose their client list, or at least clients in your industry, you should consider this a red flag on the ethics of this service provider. They may also try to parlay an explanation of how exclusivity agreements hinder strategic development and tout some idea of a learning curve and margin of error that’s actually beneficial to your strategy. By believing that the more information on comparing ranked results, visitations and conversions. Realistically, they are prioritising profits over quality – which is never a good sign.
In conclusion, the SEO industry is often regarded as one of the more shady areas of online marketing. The best way to improve that image is to change from within, however, in the meantime be sure to hold your SEO provider’s business ethics to a fair and balanced standard and then you can expect the best search results, no contest.