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 (unless you’re Susan and great at everything), 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. [She’s joking. She doesn’t really do that to her kitten. Please don’t call animal services. –Susan] 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.

Lisa Barone is a writer, content marketer & VP of strategy at Overit Media. She's also a very active Twitterer, much to the dismay of the rest of the world.

See Lisa's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (11)
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11 Replies to “Insisting on Ethical Search Engine Optimization”

I’m new to web design – still a student, actually, and my very first paying client is insisting on shady SEO practices. My protests have been falling on deaf ears. The client is a sales guy who thinks that the fact he used to sell websites means he knows more about SEO than I do. So my question is: do I a)dump him, or b) make him sign a contract stating that we will adhere to Google’s webmaster guidelines in all future work?

What do you all think?

Thanks much,


LOL Lisa – Understandable! (Though I still can’t see how you’re annoying… I prefer to call it “being real”) ;)

Lara — As far as I know, we have a boilerplate-type contact that is customized per client, but that’s about all I know. Annoying bloggers aren’t encouraged to look at the contracts. :)

Speaking of contracts… I have a standard one I use and edit as needed, but am curious about what other SEO companies include in their contracts. Do you separate them out per project (design/development vs. marketing vs. ???) or do you just have one complete contract that CAN cover each of your services and use a checkbox formula for each client? (That sounds so weird when written out, but I know a couple agencies who do that…)
What kind of “clauses” are used? (Maybe this would make for a good post/poll here? LOL) How are agencies protecting themselves as well as their clients? I’m so curious I guess because most of us “do” the same kind of work, but I’ve heard of so many variables in contracts…

true that. I have some nightmare stories where I (not armed with a clear contract cause I was dumb) got into a big heated exchange mid way thru. The entire concept of what Iwas ding for the client hinged on one certain action, and when the time for that action came, the client was like “well I don’t want to do that anymore” and was unshakable. That was bad, not for money reasons, but because I want everyoe I work with to think I am a hero. It sucked, and was entirely my fault because I did not construct a proper contract.

@Adam — Typo? What typo? You’re crazy. ;)
No, no, Adam was right. I pasted the URL to Jill’s comment in there twice and broke it. Cause I’m a genius. It’s all better now. :)

i know :) it just had a typo in the href. all fixed now it appears

I believe the Jill Whelan link is pointing to a quote of hers in the LED Digest, rather than her site:
“…I guess I don’t understand the concept of a client “insisting” on anything, let alone the methods used for SEO. If the client hired you to do your job and then won’t let you do it, it’s pretty much your duty to wash your hands of them.
I understand that people don’t like to walk away from a paying client, but you’ll find that in the end it will cost you more if you don’t.
Good luck!
Jill Whalen”

Great post. Using part of it in tomorrow’s issue. (btw i think the Jill Whalen link is busted)

I have a client that knows only enough to be dangerous, suggesting everything from spamming a million users via email to scraping whole websites.
I am about at the end with him, because his attention span is about an hour long. If something doesn’t work in hour, he’s off on the next new thing.
And he tends to see me and all seo’s as blackhat seo’s by nature, as he lets me know with little under his breath comments.
I would send him the link, but then he would see my comment. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what I’ll do.

I agree 1000%.

I too have had to turn people away because they wanted all sorts of black hat spammy stuff done. However I’ve rarely had it be an “amicable divorce”. Typically it winds itself up into a “but ________ does it and look where they are (blah blah blah)” vs. “but they won’t be there for long (blah blah blah)” debate ending with some sort of nasty namecalling AT me, and a slammed phone in my ear.

It’s tough, especially sometimes for startup companies I think, to make that decision that the money is NOT as important as your reputation and future business. Sometimes new companies focus too heavily on the almighty dollar rather than building a successful, honest, reliable long-term business.

Great post, Lisa!


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