Meta4Creations SEO services and Website Design
Contact Meta4creations.comWebsite Design and SEO servicesWebsite Design Portfolio

Quote of the Day

Standards: Foundations of Ethical Search Engine Optimization

What does it mean to follow ethical SEO practices?

by Todd Malicoat
May 09, 2003

From the inception of the Internet, there were virtually no laws governing behavior and conduct. The standards of the Internet could be equated to the Wild West at the turn of the century in many ways, as they both could be considered predominately self-governing entities. The "shoot-em-up" antics of webmasters have been the bane of search engines (the Internet's answer to Wyatt Earp, if you will). In the last 10 years, society has worked toward making the Internet a more civilized place, but the governing standards are still being intensely debated. This is especially true in the field of website design and search engine optimization. The motives for unethical behavior on the Internet are high, being the tremendous growth and sheer volume of people using the Internet to shop, get information and communicate with others. Establishing common standards for ethical search engine optimization will be important to keeping information relevant and useful to users, while still being equitable to those who create the content.

Since the beginning of search engines in the times when the World Wide Web (web) was just a collection of scientific research papers, it could be said that there were search engine optimizers (SEO). In fact, the first optimizers were also the first to create a search engine.

At this stage in the game, people were creating pages of links to their favorite documents. In April 1994, two Stanford University Ph.D. candidates, David Filo and Jerry Yang, created some pages that became rather popular. They called the collection of pages Yahoo! Their official explanation for the name choice was that they considered themselves to be a pair of yahoos.

As the number of links grew and their pages began to receive thousands of hits a day, the team created ways to better organize the data. In order to aid in data retrieval, Yahoo! became a searchable directory. The search feature was a simple database search engine. Because Yahoo! entries were entered and categorized manually, Yahoo! was not really classified as a search engine. Instead, it was generally considered to be a searchable directory. Yahoo! has since automated some aspects of the gathering and classification process, blurring the distinction between engine and directory. (Wiley,

David Filo and Jerry Yang were trying to get their favorite information seen by others by gaining it more exposure. Good structure and some tricky coding accomplished the task of making their information more available. They were not questioned about ethics at the time because no one was really sure exactly what they were doing, and the stakes were not very high.

Search engine optimization is a specialized trade that requires both technical skills and business marketing knowledge. It is only with the combination of these two skills that one can properly learn and implement SEO techniques to obtain high search engine listings. Good structure from a marketing and website development standpoint is not generally questioned; it is mostly the tricky coding aspect of SEO that often gets examined in regards to ethical behavior.

The yahoos who were among the first to implement SEO techniques were probably unaware of the growth this field would eventually see, or even that they were contributing to its humble beginnings. Yahoo! is now in some ways in direct competition with SEO personnel. Non-ethical SEOs are natural enemies of the search engines. The goal of search engines is to provide the most relevant information to users. Search engine optimizers have been seen in a negative light over the past five years or so since there are many in the industry that employ "unethical" techniques in their tricky coding. This has been a hot topic since the standards of ethics regarding search engines have never been fully disclosed by the search engines. The only definition of unethical behavior coming from the search engines has been insisting that web sites do not "spam" them. Yes, spam is not only in e-mailboxes, but also in Yahoo! searches. Spammers are trying to "enlarge" Google’s index as well. This definition is extremely vague, and gives search engines the opportunity to penalize sites for any reason under the catch-all category of "spam."

A good example of search engine spam would be a website in the mid 1990s that had typed words like "Pamela Anderson" in the same color text as their background thousands of times in hopes of receiving visits from some of the millions of people that were searching for that phrase. A site that sells music compact discs would have no reason to have that phrase on their page except to deceive users into visiting their site. While this is a crude and very ineffective example, it gives the layman some idea of similar techniques that are being used today. That method is one example of the technique called "keyword stuffing," which is used in other various forms for the sake of receiving higher search engine ranking positions (SERPs) and ultimately more website traffic. Many of the techniques have become much more sophisticated, but they are in essence still diluting the level of relevance that search results provide to users. While this does fall under the catch-all of "spam," the techniques and factors which are deemed as "ethical" could be defined in much further depth.

Google has emerged in the search engine industry as the primary provider of non-paid search engine results, holding approximately 80 percent market share when including partners and affiliates. Google has recently released a document giving search engine optimizers some basis to level the playing field. The document also gives webmasters and business owners some idea of what to expect from SEO companies. The Google document suggests "things to look out for" when looking for search engine optimization firms, namely firms that:

own shadow domains
put links to their other clients on doorway pages
offer to sell keywords in the address bar
don't distinguish between actual search results and ads that appear in search results
guarantee ranking, but only on obscure, long keyword phrases you would get anyway
operates with multiple aliases or falsified WHOIS info
gets traffic from "fake" search engines, spyware, or scumware
has had domains removed from Google's index or is not itself listed in Google
While this document has surely proven useful to website owners, it still leaves search engine optimizers somewhat in the dark as to what is, and what is not, ethical. There are also some Google guidelines regarding things to not do on your website, including:

  • Avoid hidden text or hidden links.
  • Don't employ cloaking or sneaky redirects.
  • Don't send automated queries to Google.
  • Don't load pages with irrelevant words.
  • Don't create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicated content.
  • Avoid "doorway" pages created just for search engines or other "cookie cutter" approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content.


The above documents prove useful in keeping sites from being penalized by the search engines, but still do not provide much insight into what the ethics of search engine optimization truly include. There are conflicting points of view on what should be acceptable with some people claiming that search engines are not able to keep up with the technology of sites that are not text heavy. Some experts claim sites with mainly multimedia content are seen to be at a disadvantage and should be allowed to employ different techniques such as "doorway" pages and "cloaking." Christina Buu-Hoen of says, "Equating ethical SEO practices with those that are search-engine-compliant isn't simply a misunderstanding, it's dangerous." (Buu-Hoan, Non-compliance with search engine standards does not necessarily mean a site is inherently unethical.

The search engine optimization industry still has a lot of room for discussion in regards to ethical behavior. Currently, the best way to remain an ethical SEO is to be search engine compliant, but the search engines must be willing to compromise and work with the content creators as well. Multimedia website creators are currently at a disadvantage and must create two versions of their site to be effective in the search engines. For now, the only law in search engine optimization ethics will remain, "Thou shall not spam." Search engines are realizing that search engine optimizers are here to stay, and are starting to work with them to develop acceptable ethical standards. Cooperation between SEOs and search engines will be essential to creating ethical standards for web site creation and search engine optimization, and improving overall Internet user experience.


Wiley, John. "Yahoo! and a Yippity tai-yai-yay!"
Retrieved from John Wiley and Sons Website

Buu-Hoan, Christina. "The Danger of Defining "Ethical" SEO in Terms of Search Engine Compliance"
Retrieved from

"Google Information for Webmasters"
Retrieved from