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What is Ethical SEO – And why you need it

Deceptive digital marketing practices are not cool anymore, although many businesses still use them. In our opinion, ethical SEO practices give you a better chance of attracting the right clients, investors, and partners to your business. 

How do you know if your digital marketing strategies are ethical or not? We’ve created this guide to help you plan online marketing that is authentic, honest, and sustainable. 

What is ethical SEO?

Ethical SEO (also known as white hat SEO) is when your company’s digital marketing is honest, responsible, and done without intent to deceive or trick. It usually includes creating high-quality content that keeps the user in mind, not just the technical SEO requirements. 

When you look at the technical requirements to rank higher in search engines, you may wonder how meeting these clearly outlined requirements could be considered unethical. The unethical part comes from how you meet those technical standards. Generally, SEO “quick wins” and shortcuts (unethical practices) aren’t as effective as long-term valuable content and marketing strategies (ethical practices). 

White hat vs black hat SEO

The opposite of white hat (ethical) SEO is black hat (deceptive) SEO. Where white hat focuses on quality and honesty, black hat is dishonest. Black hat tactics and strategies can work for your business for a short time but will likely earn you audience distrust once they realize they’ve been tricked.

Here are some quick examples of white vs black hat SEO tactics:

White Hat SEOBlack Hat SEO
Seeking organic backlinks to your sitePaying a website for backlinks
Attracting social media followers by creating quality contentPaying for social media followers that aren’t your ideal customers
Authentically including SEO keywords in your copy as naturally as possibleSpamming SEO keywords inauthentically in your copy just to appease search engines (search engines are getting wise to this now)
Commenting on 3rd party website blogs when you have something honest, on-brand to sayCommenting without substance on 3rd party website blogs, just for the free backlink to your site. 

You might be asking why an organization would invest in these unethical SEO practices. While there may be many reasons, the most likely is they perceive them to produce cheap and quick results. They’re looking for a quick win without considering the long-term effects this can have on their SEO or brand recognition. 

Ethical SEO best practices

Are you looking to add ethical SEO to your business marketing? Here are our favourite top 10 white hat (Ethical SEO) practices:

1. Seek organic backlinks

Search engines favour websites that have links to it from other websites. The higher authority the 3rd party websites are (aka trusted by search engines like Google), the more SEO juice they’ll give your rankings. However, paying for the privilege to have a backlink on someone’s site is considered cheating. Look for websites to do a mutually beneficial link exchange with or whose values and ethics align with yours. 

Here are some more tips for effective link-building strategies

2. Organically attract Social Media followers

Another search engine ranking factor is your followers and engagement on your social media channels. You’ve likely received DMs saying they’ll get you # of followers for a fee. This is not an ethical SEO or marketing practice because these are rarely followers likely to be genuinely engaged. A better strategy is to publish regular and high-quality content on your social media and attract genuinely engaged followers organically. 

Read our 12 rules for Ethical Social Media Marketing.

3. Create relevant keyword-optimized content

Your choice of SEO keywords for each page of your site matters. Technically you could optimize a webpage for any keywords you want and have a chance to rank well for that phrase. Technically you can optimize a page about Vancouver tourism to rank for the words “how to lose weight fast,” but that’s unethical SEO because the keyword has nothing to do with Vancouver tourism. Instead, be purposeful in the SEO phrases you choose for each page so they’re relevant and worked in naturally to the content. 

4. Comment on third-party blogs

When you comment on a blog post on a third-party website, you usually have the option to include your name and a website URL, which will display as a hyperlink alongside your published comment. This is an excellent opportunity to promote your business and has some benefits for SEO if done ethically. Don’t comment on websites that don’t relate to your business. Similarly, always ensure you have something meaningful and of substance to say; otherwise, it looks unprofessional and is considered a black hat SEO tactic.

5. Use AI-generated content sparingly

It’s been in the news a lot recently: the use of AI copywriters in marketing. You can technically write entire blog posts and website content from an AI copywriter like ChatGDP, but that’s not ethical marketing. For one, the content is not guaranteed to be 100% original, and you lose personalization of the content. Instead, feel free to use AI copy generators for brainstorming support and to help write content outlines or key points for you. You’ll get better SEO support from writing original non-AI-generated content.  

Read our perspective on how to use ChatGDP AI ethically in your digital marketing.  

6. Hire a sustainably minded website hosting company

A fast website is an essential part of a successful online SEO strategy. However, the internet is a massive polluter of the environment, as the energy required to keep data center servers cool uses 40% of all data center energy.

However, some companies, like GreenGeeks web hosting, are taking steps to minimize their impact. GreenGeeks has partnered with One Tree Planted to plant trees across the world and purchase carbon offset credits equal to 3x of their annual energy use.

7. Use heading styles

Search engine ranking algorithms are based on technical compliance, ease of reading, and navigation for your user. To appease both, be generous when using headings. You should include a new header in online writing every 1-2 paragraphs. This helps search engines skim the headings to understand the page content, and your readers scan the page to find what they’re looking for. 

Ethical SEO also means not keyword stuffing (inauthentically using keywords) in your headings and using headings that honestly describe the content in that section. 

8. Use relevant, tagged images 

Images are also an important part of SEO optimization. Ethical SEO says that your image choices should accurately represent the content of the page, ideally be your own photography. You can use free or paid stock photography, but to ensure you’re being ethical, you should check the usage copyright of any images you use. Never use a stock image with the image site watermark on it. A watermarked image (unless it’s your own logo or brand) shows people that you’re using the image without permission or paying for it.  

Here are some tips for finding great (and legal) images for your website online. 

9. Ask permission for cookies and remarketing

Privacy laws are particular about what information you can collect about your website visitors and how you must keep their private information secure and confidential. Ensure you have a clear cookie policy on your website and make it easy and clear for them to opt out of analytics gathering or remarketing. 

10. Optimize website performance

Your website’s back-end (non-visitor-facing parts of your website in the code) accounts for about 50% of SEO ranking factors. Ensuring your site is designed for speed and reliability is a top factor. You’re doing your visitors a disservice if they have to wait for pages to load because your images are too large or the site has too many plugins affecting the loading speed. Many white hat SEO best practices relating to website performance are in ADA compliance guidelines and other website accessibility standards. 

Here are a few more resources to learn more about optimizing your website for search engines and your readers:

Unethical SEO practices

In short, unethical SEO practices would be the opposite of our top 10 list above. Here is a quick list of these and a few other unethical and black-hat SEO practices you should avoid. 

  • Backlinks: Paying for backlinks. Requesting backlinks on websites not related to your business.
  • Social Media: Paying for social media followers. Using clickbait (deceptive) content.
  • Keywords: Using unrelated keywords for SEO. Using keywords too often and non-organically in your content.
  • Blogging: Commenting on third-party blogs not related to your niche, expertise, or audience.
  • AI-generated content: Using unedited AI content generators to write your content.
  • Headings: Writing headings not related to the content or that are keyword stuffed.
  • Images: Using illegal images with stock image watermarks on them.
  • Privacy: Collecting user information and remarketing to visitors without permission.
  • Website Accessibility: Designing and writing your website without accessibility and speed in mind. 
  • Deceptive redirects: Redirecting users to new pages unrelated to the content they expected.
  • Malicious behaviour: Using phishing, viruses, trojans, and malware on your website.

Questions to ask your SEO agency or partner

If you’re ready to dedicate to an ethical SEO strategy using white hat digital marketing strategies, hire a digital marketing or SEO agency to help. Not all digital marketing agencies are equal, and some may try to pressure you into black hat SEO strategies. Ask questions upfront to determine their SEO ethics. 

You could ask: 

  • How do you get backlinks? (look for ones that do it organically)
  • How can you help me optimize my website for SEO? (make sure they follow accessibility guidelines)
  • Share a few case studies or examples of SEO you’ve done for businesses like mine. (look at their overall strategy and ethics)
  • How do you incorporate social media into a client’s SEO strategy? (Check past clients’ feeds to look for any deceptive practices)

Out-Smarts Marketing focuses only on sustainable and ethical SEO marketing for your business. We’ll help you choose the right combination of SEO practices and tactics to earn your customers’ trust and respect. 

Ask us about Ethical SEO packages from Out-Smarts today and book a discovery call today.