Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting my four-part blog series on how to build an ethical SEO strategy. 
Whatever your brand, SEO is one of the most effective ways to reach your target audience and achieve your goals. When it’s done properly, as Deviate Agency founder Jonas Muthoni lays out, SEO will boost your credibility, push your website up the search rankings and bring in more organic traffic.  
 
Plus, it’s completely free and keeps you in line with your key competitors – who are almost certainly doing SEO too. 
 
But for an ethical brand, it can also leave you conflicted.... on several fronts.  
 
The SEO playbook is often accused of violating user privacy – much like a certain search engine megabrand that's practically synonymous with it. (*Google, I mean Google!) I'll be going in-depth on user privacy in detail in the third part of the series. 
 
But there are further questions too. Like... is your SEO strategy inclusive? How do you manage your digital carbon footprint? As an ethical brand, these are issues you need to get right to stay authentic.  
 
This blog series will try to answer some of the biggest questions, and hopefully give you a starting point for building a robust SEO strategy that doesn't compromise your brand's values. 
 
In this first instalment, I’ll be moving beyond the traditional conception of ethical SEO, to try and give you a multilayered view of what it means to consider ethics everywhere in your SEO policy. 
 

Part one: Beyond White Hat and Black Hat 

If you Google (or even Ecosia!) “SEO ethics” you’ll find several hundred hits describing SEO's White Hat/Black Hat dichotomy. But over recent years, there's been a growing awareness that SEO ethics need to dig a bit deeper. 

Traditional SEO Ethics: The One with the Hats 

According to received wisdom, ethical SEO, known as White Hat SEO means following strategies and techniques approved by your search engine of choice. (Which, honestly, is probably Google!). 
 
White Hat tactics include: - 
 
• producing a continuous flow of helpful content 
• using keywords carefully and appropriately 
• obtaining backlinks (i.e. other web pages linking back to your site) from relevant, credible sources  
• giving images meta descriptions (most search engines no longer use meta descriptions as a direct ranking signal, but they can still boost click-through rates
• generally making your site as user friendly and appealing to visitors as possible 
 
The other side of the coin is Black Hat SEO. This involves exploiting weaknesses in search engine algorithms to push content up in the rankings. If successful, Black Hat tactics can diminish user experience and undermine search rankings' integrity. They're also counterproductive. As Black Hat SEO directly violates their terms of service, search engines can respond by dropping offenders down in the rankings, or kicking them off entirely. (I mean – as an ethical brand, tactics like this clearly go against everything you stand for, anyways!) 
 
Black Hat tactics include: - 
 
• ‘keyword stuffing’ – overloading pages with irrelevant keywords to manipulate search results 
• ‘cloaking’ – displaying different content to search engine crawlers and human visitors to trick search engines into ranking pages higher 
• ‘link farming’ – creating networks of low-quality websites or pages to link to a target site 
‘doorway’/ ‘gateway’/ ‘bridge’ pages – low quality pages designed to rank for certain keywords and redirect users to another site 

Ethics Beyond the Algorithm 

In 2019, Jamie Indigo argued SEO could be used to manipulate search results and mislead people, without breaking a single rule. In one example, she explains how, during the US 2020 election season, political campaigns used White Hat SEO to manipulate search results in a way that seemed calculated to mislead voters. Examples like this, she argues, show ethics need to be determined by humans, not tech. Algorithms, she says, will always evolve to reflect the biases of their users. And as humans doing SEO, we need to redress the balance. 
 
As an ethical brand, it’s simply not enough to divide the internet into Black Hat and White Hat SEO. You’ve got to address the wider implications of your choices. 
 
Here’s a few factors to consider: - 

Sustainability 

(OK, hold my drink…!) 
 
I'm going to wait until the final blogpost in the series to really bore you on the finer points of this. But, for now, let’s talk for a second about SEO’s digital carbon footprint. Website Carbon estimates a single web page produces 0.5 grams of CO2 per view. It’s easy to see how this can mount up over time, and how this could leave a climate action NGO, say, feeling mildly conflicted.  
 
To succeed in your mission, you want people – lots of people – to view your pages. But when more views = more carbon, is sustainable SEO even a thing? 
 
My first suggestion is to create fewer pages filled with high quality content. As a handy bonus, pages with higher word counts also rank higher for SEO. Increasing site speed is another quick SEO win, which also lowers your website's carbon footprint. And if it's available to you, green hosting will make a huge difference. 
 
Keep following this series for a deeper dive into sustainable SEO in a few weeks time! 
 

Inclusive SEO 

Are you taking steps to ensure your website's accessible to everyone? 
 
As an ethical brand, I’m positive you care a lot about promoting equality, diversity and inclusion in everything you do. But did you know this also ties into SEO?  
 
For instance, is everyone in your website imagery, white and male? Is there an authentic way you could create greater diversity… for instance by swapping in certain stock images? 
 
Are your case studies or blogposts inadvertently targeted to a certain age or social demographic? Do your contact forms include He, She and They options?  
 
Have you done everything you can to make things easier for website visitors with disabilities? Clear headings and alt text (another pillar of good SEO) will make things easier for visually impaired site visitors. Subtitles on videos will support visitors with hearing difficulties. 
 
Once again, you want to make everyone feel welcome because it's the right thing to do. But, as an ethical brand, this is also a central pillar to showing everyone you mean what you say, and your values run through every decision you make.  
 
As with so many things, ethical SEO invariably just means all-round better SEO, and frankly – better business. After all, do you really want to alienate potential customers by failing to cater for their needs? 

Be a voice people can trust 

If you’re writing a blogpost or an article on your website, you’re probably hoping readers will trust your advice and maybe act on it. Whatever your brand, and whatever your subject of expertise – this is a huge responsibility which should be factored into SEO ethics. 
 
E-E-A-T stands for experience, expertise, authority and trustworthiness, and it's something Google is increasingly valuing in SEO. From your perspective, as an ethical brand pursuing ethical SEO, this means you should take extra lengths to ensure everything is truthful and reasonable. As a bare minimum, you need to research thoroughly, always fact-check and never exaggerate (except for occasional entertainment purposes!). 
 
You also need to give readers some sense of how far they can rely on your opinion. Including author bios and links back to credible sources allows people can check you've done your homework and will also – you guessed it – boost your SEO. It reassures both Google and your site visitors you are a trustworthy source. It also encourages people to scrutinise what they read – a crucial skill in our post-truth era. For instance – I’m no doctor. Would you like to know that before you take medical advice from me? 
 
And Finally, a Note on Backlinks... 
 
Backlinking is the absolute best way to pull your web content up in search rankings. It shows people trust you so much, they think referencing your work strengthens their own credibility. It's the other side of E-E-A-T detailed above. Some day – of course! – you and your brand will be so respected that backlinks shoot up everywhere like dandelions. Until that day comes, there's a good way, a bad way and a soft, morally ambivalent middle ground to generating backlinks yourself. 
 
The Black Hat way – aka the wrong way – is to link farm (see above) or to actually pay an agency to get your links added into random sites.  
 
The White Hat approach involves building relationships, collaborating and building mutual backlinks with other brands. But there's a right way and a wrong way to do this too. 
 
As a purpose-led brand, collaborations with like-minded organisations are an excellent idea. Together, your impact will grow to the power of 10. It helps you build a community and creates a framework consumers trying to pick the genuinely ethical products and services from the green (or ethic) washed. But you also need to exercise extreme caution. 
 
Every time you enter this kind of collaboration, you're endorsing another brand and encouraging people who believe in you to act on that endorsement. As I discussed in the previous section, this is a huge responsibility you need to take seriously. This means, once again, White Hat just isn't enough.  
 
You need to do your own due diligence and think carefully before you jump in feet first. A brand may look good on paper, but when you scratch the surface, do your values truly align? Do they have any potential skeletons, like poor supply chain ethics? Are there any signs they're not being fully transparent?  
 
And once you commit to a collaboration, you need to be completely transparent too. For instance, if you're recommending each other's services, any there any financial incentives involved on other side? You need to spell all this out to your stakeholders. If you're acting ethically, you have nothing to hide, after all. 
 
This is yet another example of how ethics are intertwined with every level of your SEO policy. 

Looking For an Ethical SEO Strategy That Packs a Punch?  

I always want to hear from ethical brands like yours, and I have a wealth of SEO ideas to discuss with you. Get in touch today to book your free consultation call! 
And keep an eye out for next week's installment – Google Versus Ecosia. 
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