50 Shades of SEO greySEO agencies are up there with estate agents.

Let’s be honest, there are elements (to be found in the gutter) of our wonderful industry that tarnish the name of SEO and create real problems for the image of search engine optimisation.

I founded Browser Media 8 years ago and have strived, every day, to make sure that we adhere to a strict practice of ethical SEO. Call it PR-led SEO or call it inbound marketing, our focus has always been on helping to improve our clients’ online exposure through being brilliant and thereby attract links naturally as opposed to resorting to automated spam.

I was therefore alarmed to be contacted earlier this week by Dan Champion from The Accidental Smallholder challenging our ethical stance.

He has a keen eye on moderation and had investigated a new forum member registration and tracked it back to us. That said registrant was indeed us and we had indeed responded to two forum posts with links to a client site.

I have subsequently had a great conversation with Dan about the ethics of using forums to promote a brand and I think it is a really interesting area that is definitely not whiter than white, but I would equally argue that is not black hat (subject to following some basic ‘rules’). A shade of grey, perhaps, but where do you think it sits on the spectrum?

My defence to Dan was that both forum comments DID provide a solution to the problem being asked about. For me, contextuality / relevancy is the ultimate barometer for whether it is justified to enter a dialogue. In this instance, a user was asking for help and we pointed in the direction of a solution to their problem.

We didn’t just add a link and run – we commented on the merits of particular types of solutions and pointed them in the direction of further information. For me, this is very difficult from mass forum / blog spam where you take no time to actually read and digest the nature of the conversation.

Dan exercised his absolute right to remove the comments and has explained the following objections to me:

  • The forum posts were 6mths old
  • We deceived the site owner by agreeing to a registration form that states that you must not advertise / post in a commercial capacity
  • We deceived the forum users by pretending to be a regular punter

I think that these are all valid comments and I can absolutely see Dan’s issues. From a site owner’s perspective, they are irrefutable.

The agency perspective is arguably more complex. Under pressure to help build clients’ online presence, some possible retorts to his comments are:

  • Does it matter that the threads were old (and I don’t think that 6mths is that old) if you are still helping to answer a question? What is the longevity of a question?
  • That is a very fair point – it is no excuse, but I would love to know how many people really read the small print. Relying on such an agreement is bound to end in disaster. For me, the forums that require you to contribute to a number of threads before being able to add links is a better way to get a new member to demonstrate value (although this is not without its pitfalls)
  • Would a user care who is behind a comment if it is actually helpful? Are we really all so innocent that we believe that there is no commercial motivation to a lot of what we read online? For me, it comes back to relevancy. Nobody wants to be sold Viagra if they have a rat in their kitchen but they have asked for help and is it not appropriate for a brand to suggest a product / solution? Nobody is forced to follow the link and certainly not forced to buy anything. I would like to respect the user’s ability to judge for themselves.

I am really grateful to Dan for being so open and honest and hope that sharing the conversation will open up the debate to a wider audience as it is an important one. To some extent, we are setting ourselves up for ridicule with this blog post but I am a big believer of transparency still maintain that we didn’t do anything wrong – yes, it was driven by the desire to help our client but I personally do not believe that it falls within the parameters of what I would call spam.

Dan clearly knows his onions, and summarised his thoughts with a superb synopsis:

So it’s not really ethical SEO, it’s just SEO in 2013 now Google is actively penalising links out of context

That is an enlightened comment! There is no doubt that SEO has evolved and we have always supported Google’s efforts to stamp out spam. It does sometimes feel as though every single tactic to build links is being taken away, but links will always be key to the search algorithms so there will always be pressure on agencies to help build links.

Yes, content is king, but content needs to be consumed to be king and links  will always be a good indicator of the calibre of that content (but think quality of links rather than pure quantity). The best link building will be natural, based on other people pointing to your amazing content, but how can the search engines really know what is ‘natural’ and what is engineered? A tough one.

What do you think? Is it inevitable that forums and blogs are going to be the target of link building activities? Should you expect to have to deal with it if you are running a forum or blog? Should forum owners appreciate the fact that people are engaging at all on their site (an empty forum is a dead one)?

I would love to gauge the consensus on this one, so please vote in this poll and feel free to leave your comments below.

 

Go on – don’t be scared!